Saturday, October 11, 2014

"I will not be transcribed": The Nixon Tapes: 1971-1972 by Douglas Brinkley and Luke Nichter

In 1971, I was a shy eight-year-old who mostly lived in his head.  Secrets?  Sure, I guess I had them.  Forty-plus years later, I can't remember what they would have been, but I'm sure they were of global importance to me as a young boy cloistered in his bedroom in Kittanning, Pennsylvania: desire for the cute girl in the third row in my elementary school classroom, the many hours I stayed up past bedtime reading books by flashlight under the covers, the money I regularly stole off my father's nightstand, etc.  I kept my cards close to my chest and rarely uncracked my lips.  Being quiet and private was par for my course and I doubt many people realized I was turmoiled with secrets.  I was anxious, had a troublesome stutter and wasn't all that great with interpersonal relationships.

Not unlike our nation's President at the time.

Like me, Richard M. Nixon was a man tunneled with the worms of worry.  We all know how his anxiety eventually blossomed but, as Douglas Brinkley and Luke Nichter write in the introduction of their new book The Nixon Tapes: 1971-1972, "Even though questions about Watergate hung in the air, the scandal never emerged as a major issue during the 1972 campaign.  As Nixon hoped, the break-in remained a story of interest mainly inside the Washington Beltway—it would explode only in 1973."

In 1971, Nixon was still in his first term of office and full of ambitious hubris, determined to make his mark on foreign policy.  Over the course of nearly 800 pages, Brinkley and Nichter detail Oval Office life during that two-year period.  The authors have heroically transcribed more than 3,000 hours of recordings Nixon made between 1971 and 1973 with a secret voice-activated taping system hidden in the Oval Office, Cabinet Room, and other key locations in the White House, and at Camp David.  It's a huge book covering a significant and, for the most part, overlooked, period of our nation's history.  The Nixon Tapes first caught my eye during a recent visit to Country Bookshelf in Bozeman, Montana when the irresistible lemon-yellow dustjacket beamed from the shelf.  Though I don't generally gravitate toward political history, something about The Nixon Tapes drew me in.  The book primarily focuses on the year Nixon opened relations with China, negotiated the SALT I arms agreement with the Soviet Union, and won a landslide reelection victory.  While The Nixon Tapes fell outside my budget for that particular Country Bookshelf shopping spree (I already had three other books tucked under my arm), the book continued to tantalize me over the next week.  I finally broke down and bought the e-book version (saving myself some valuable shelf real estate and wrist fatigue), and I'm glad I did because one extra-bookular feature is a series of embedded audio clips which you can play while reading the conversation in the book, beginning with this exchange between Nixon and Alexander Butterfield, his Deputy Assistant, about sound-activated recording equipment which had just been installed in the Oval Office:
Butterfield: You’re wearing the locator right now and you’re in the office....It depends on voice activation—
Nixon: Right.
Butterfield: —so you don’t have to turn it on and off.
Nixon: Oh, this is good. Is there any chance to get two? You see, the purpose of this is to have the whole thing on the file—
Butterfield: Yes, sir.
Nixon: —for professional reasons.
That's right, Dick, keep it strictly "professional."

This morning, I started what will undoubtedly be a long journey into the depths of The Nixon Tapes and I thought I'd share snippets of the early pages to whet your appetite.

*     *     *

Nixon and Haldeman
On December 14, relaxing in the Oval Office, Nixon discussed his legacy, as it promised to develop at that point.  He tried out ideas with White House Chief of Staff H. R. “Bob” Haldeman:
HALDEMAN: There are a lot of good stories from the first term.
NIXON: A book should be written, called 1972.
NIXON: That would be a helluva good book. . . . You get in China, you get in Russia, you get in May 8 [his dramatic decision to bomb and mine Hanoi and Haiphong just before his summit in Moscow], and you get in the election. And it’s a helluva damn year. That’s what I would write as a book. 1972, period.
By and large, that is the subject of this book: the public policy that drove the most significant year of the thirty-seventh president’s first term.  The events of that “hell of a damn year” are presented just as they were recorded on Nixon’s taping system, uncensored and unfiltered.

*     *     *

On Nixon’s instructions, the Technical Services Division of the U.S. Secret Service planted mini microphones throughout the Oval Office in February 1971.  Five were concealed in the president’s desk, and two others were installed around the fireplace.  Telephone lines in the Oval Office and the Lincoln Sitting Room were also recorded.  Two more microphones were placed in the Cabinet Room.  A central mixer, housed in a decrepit locker room in the White House basement, was the switchboard that coordinated the recording machines, Sony TC-800B open-reel models.  Very few people knew about the taping system besides Nixon, Haldeman, Alexander Butterfield (who was responsible for its operation), and members of the Secret Service.

Soon after the system’s initiation, Nixon liked it enough that he expanded its reach.  The fact that everything he said was being saved appealed to his narcissistic sense of grandeur.  He believed himself a world leader of great geopolitical insight and military strategy, like Churchill.

*     *     *

The taping system gave Nixon an accurate record of his meetings and phone calls without the need for someone to sit in and take notes, which had been the practice before taping.  It was simple.  Nixon wore a pagerlike device provided by the Secret Service, and when it was within range of one of the taping locations, recording started automatically.  There was no on or off switch.  On some days we have recordings of almost his entire day as he moved between locations for different meetings or events.  While not all are decipherable due to intermittently poor audio quality, the Nixon tapes represent a trove for historians unlike any record left by other presidents during the nation’s history.  To fully transcribe Nixon’s tapes would take perhaps 150,000 pages, a task that may never be completed.

*     *     *

It is a loss to history that Nixon did not start taping earlier.  We have no private recordings of Nixon calling the Apollo 11 astronauts during their lunar landing on July 20, 1969, nothing touching on the antiwar protests that caused the White House to be ringed with buses on November 15, 1969, in case protesters breached the fences, no taped telephone call to request his limo when Nixon spontaneously visited protestors at the Lincoln Memorial during the predawn hours of May 9, 1960, no recording of Nixon’s famous Oval Office meeting with Elvis Presley on December 21, 1970.

After the disclosure of the existence of Nixon’s tapes in 1973, they became the talk of the nation.  At first, the president flatly refused to hand them over on the grounds of executive privilege and national security.  Nixon always assumed that the tapes belonged to him.  He most likely never intended to open them up to public scrutiny.  The U.S. Supreme Court believed otherwise, ruling, 8–0, on July 24, 1974 that Nixon turn over subpoenaed tapes.  Beyond the question of the tapes, or Nixon, the decision was a significant check on presidential power.  No one would be above the law, not even the chief executive.  The decision was a fatal blow to the Nixon presidency and led to Nixon’s resignation only fifteen days later, on August 9.  The tapes had damaged Nixon badly.  They were a key source of evidence used against him in the Watergate affair, the “smoking gun” that shot lethal holes in his reputation.  Under a cloud of shame, he fled the White House for Casa Pacifica, his home in San Clemente, California.  There, he continued to fight for ownership of his tapes.  Nixon died on April 22, 1994, never having recovered his tapes or his reputation, despite the admonition in President Bill Clinton’s eulogy: “may the day of judging President Nixon on anything less than his entire life and career come to a close.”  In fact, Nixon’s death removed the final major obstacle to the public release of his tapes.

*     *     *

The National Archives and Records Administration has now released approximately three thousand hours of the tapes.  The remaining seven hundred hours are still classified either because of national security concerns or to protect the privacy of individuals, including Nixon, his heirs, or people still alive who were secretly recorded.  We have done our best in this volume to give a fair sampling of what was on Nixon’s mind during his first term.  We heard a lot of embarrassing, goofy, and comical moments on the tapes but included only a smattering.  More seriously, we could have made this a compendium of “gotchas,” as the tapes contain myriad bigoted slurs, put-downs, cursing, and off-color gossip, by Nixon and by others.  We have included some of those moments (for example, Nixon’s trashing of Indira Gandhi, Ted Kennedy, Henry Kissinger, Jews, military officers, and gays, among others).  But our aim as presidential historians was to be fair-minded.  We have not set up straw men just to knock them down.  And we have not edited this volume in the hope of making Nixon look either “good” or “bad.”  We have left that determination up to the reader.

*     *     *

Alexander Butterfield
As I get into The Nixon Tapes, I'm starting to have a good appreciation for the challenge which Brinkley and Nichter had to tackle.  When they say the recordings were of "intermittently poor audio quality," they weren't kidding.  Many key passages are marked with a frustrating "[unclear]."  Take, for instance, this transcript from February 16, 1971, 10:28 a.m. (the first day of recording) when Nixon makes his intentions very clear:
BUTTERFIELD: You don’t have any questions on this other business that you might want me to answer now? This, this voice, I explained to the president that the secretary can’t—
NIXON: No. Mum’s the whole word. I will not be transcribed.
NIXON: This is totally for, basically, to be put in the file. In my file. I don’t want it in your file or Bob’s or anybody else’s. My file.
NIXON: And my [unclear] today. The whole purpose, basically, is [unclear] so there may be a day when we have to have this for purposes of, maybe we want to put out something that’s positive, maybe we need something just to be sure that we can correct the record. But we’re going to [unclear] that’s all. And also, though, because I won’t have to have people in the room when I see people—
HALDEMAN: That’s right.
NIXON: —which is much better. I can have my personal conversations, which I want to have, and don’t have the people there, you know, which I’d much rather do anyway, unless I feel that I need them there to carry out something or as buffers. Then I’ll have them, of course. So I think it’ll work fine. It’s a good system.
HALDEMAN: Just don’t tell anybody you’ve got it and don’t try to hide anything [unclear]—
NIXON: [unclear]
HALDEMAN: Anytime that anything gets used from it, it’s on the basis of “your notes” or “the president’s notes”—
NIXON: That’s right.
HALDEMAN: —or “my notes” or—
NIXON: [unclear] For example, you’ve got nothing to use from this today. Just forget it. File it. Everything today will be filed.
NIXON: Fair enough?
BUTTERFIELD: I think it’s gonna be a very fine system.
Likewise, I think this is gonna be a very fine book.

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