Listening to Nixon: An Archivist’s Reflections on His Work with the White House Tapes
The tapes reveal White House incidents and conversations that are seldom reported.
By Dr. Samuel W. Rushay, Jr.
Harry S. Truman Library and Museum
There is a scene in the 1974 movie The Conversation in which surveillance specialist Harry Caul, played by Gene Hackman, discusses a current assignment with his assistant, Stan, played by the late John Cazale.
When Stan suggests that it would be interesting to know what the target of their surveillance, a young couple, is talking about, Caul replies he does not care what they are saying. He is interested only in providing a good quality recording for his client.
However, when he suspects that a crime may occur, Caul changes his mind and becomes very interested in what the couple is discussing.
As an archivist who reviewed Nixon White House tapes for 10 years, I can relate to that scene in The Conversation. I was part of the Nixon Presidential Materials Staff’s team of reviewers and editors from 1997 to mid-2007; the team is interested both in the content on the tapes and in providing good quality recordings and descriptions of those recordings for researchers.
The tapes reveal White House incidents and conversations that are seldom reported in the hundreds of books written about the 37th President. An example that comes to mind involves tapes about W. Mark Felt, the former deputy assistant director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the man who turned out to be Deep Throat, the Washington Post’s major secret source for its Watergate stories.
Until May 2005, when Felt publicly revealed his identity as Deep Throat, little attention was paid to conversations on the Nixon tapes that revealed President Nixon’s deep suspicions more than 30 years earlier that Felt was the source of Watergate leaks to various newspapers and magazines, including the Post and Time. Nixon even gave Felt’s boss, acting FBI director L. Patrick Gray, “a directive” to give Felt a lie-detector test. Nixon’s chief of staff, Alexander Haig, reinforced the notion that Felt leaked to the press by telling the President that the white-haired man was known as the “White Rat” at the FBI.
A reexamination of the Nixon tapes after Felt’s revelation of his Deep Throat identity makes it appear obvious that no one other than he could have been Deep Throat!
An Introduction to the Nixon White House Tapes
In February 1971 the Secret Service, at President Nixon’s instructions, installed a secret taping system in the White House. The system was sound-activated, which operated automatically, and was tied to the Secret Service’s presidential locator system. When President Nixon entered a recording area, the beeper he carried signaled the recorder to switch to a record/pause mode. The tape machines began recording whenever microphones picked up any sound.
The tapes were located on the White House telephones (including the telephone in the Lincoln Sitting Room), in the Oval Office, in the President’s hideaway office in the Old Executive Office Building (EOB), in the Cabinet Room, and in Aspen Lodge at the President’s retreat in Camp David, Maryland.
The tapes were turned off in July 1973 when presidential assistant Alexander Butterfield publicly revealed their existence before Congress. Nine hundred and fifty tapes, comprising 3,700 hours of listening time, were recorded during the period February 1971–July 1973, the most of any presidency. Of these 3,700 hours of tapes, more than 2,000 hours are publicly available.
President Nixon installed the taping system because he wanted his administration to be the “best chronicled” in history. He also wanted an accurate record of his meetings without the inhibiting effect of note-takers. His chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, wrote that Nixon wanted to be able to correct accidental and intentional misrepresentations of what had been said during his meetings. Nixon, who found the presence of note-takers intrusive, also wanted to ensure that accurate translations could later be made of meetings with foreign leaders, and he planned to use the tapes to write his memoirs.
Haldeman acknowledged that Nixon’s presidency “was ultimately brought down in large measure” by the tapes. In July 1974, after a year of struggle over control of the tapes, the Supreme Court declared that the need for evidence in the Watergate trials outweighed the President’s right to keep the tapes private.
As a result of this ruling, Nixon was compelled to release what became known as the “smoking gun” tape of June 23, 1972, which showed that he had engaged in an obstruction of justice relating to investigation of the Watergate burglary six days earlier. Nixon subsequently resigned on August 9, 1974.
After his resignation, Nixon sought to retain control of his presidential materials, but Congress stepped in and passed the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act (PRMPA) in late 1974, which required that they be in the custody of the National Archives at a location in the Washington, D.C., area. Nixon challenged the act’s constitutionality, but it was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2004, Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed an amendment to the 1974 act, allowing NARA to accept the privately run Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California, into the federal presidential library system and for the Nixon materials to eventually be preserved there. NARA assumed legal control of the library on July 11, 2007; the tapes and other materials will be transferred there over the next few years. A copy of the tapes will remain for the public to use at the National Archives in College Park.
The Work of a Nixon Tapes Reviewer
The purpose of archival review is to make public conversations that legally can be made public, to restrict those portions that contain national security information or violate the privacy of a living person, and to return to the Nixon estate those conversations determined to be purely personal.
Reviewers describe the conversations in great detail so that users will be able to find and listen to conversations in which they are interested. Editors make the conversations as intelligible as possible without altering the nature of the sound (e.g., Nixon’s voice must still sound like Nixon).
Archivists must differentiate between presidential historical materials, private and personal materials, and Watergate-related materials.
Presidential historical materials relate to President Nixon’s official duties and powers, including congressional relations, foreign relations, federal agency and department policies, ceremonial affairs, and speechmaking and other public statements. Private and personal materials relate solely to Nixon’s family and certain of his non-governmental activities.
According to the PRMPA, NARA was required to return to the Nixon estate (Nixon died in 1994) conversations concerning purely personal matters. In fact, NARA is under a court order to cut those conversations out of the original tapes and return them to the Nixon estate. However, this summer, the Nixon estate agreed to give back to the Archives some personal conversations, especially those that relate to politics.
Watergate-related materials fall under 10 defined categories of abuses of governmental power. If the conversations relate to Watergate (or to the President’s official duties), NARA may release them to the public, provided they do not reveal national security information, constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy, or contain information involving any of six other restricted categories defined in the PRMPA regulations.
Reviewing the Nixon White House tapes was a tremendously interesting job and one that I never took for granted. I am grateful for the struggles of Nixon Staff archivists who preceded me and who labored through 20 years of litigation by Nixon and his representatives.
When I put on headphones, inserted a tape into my tape machine, and pressed “play,” I was instantly shuttled back in time to the years 1971–1973.
There is immediacy to the tapes; they give the listener a sense of experiencing history as it happens. One becomes a “fly on the wall,” eavesdropping in the White House as decisions are made and history unfolds. One hears as Nixon strategizes about foreign and domestic policies; obsesses about public and media relations; crafts a speech; plots acts of revenge against his enemies; reflects on the role of the presidency in American life; deals with Congress; performs ceremonial duties; discusses issues, politics, and scheduling; and otherwise proceeds through his workday.
Nixon could be petty, bigoted, profane, obtuse, and small-minded in one breath, and statesmanlike, pensive, diplomatic, far-sighted, and insightful in the next. It is a fascinating mix that sheds considerable light not only on the 37th President but also on the institution of the modern American presidency.
Tape review is hard work and takes a lot of time. For one thing, many of the Nixon tapes are hard to hear, especially those recorded in the President’s hideaway office in the Old Executive Office Building.
Review archivists review every second of tape. If a portion of conversation is hard to hear, they may review it a half-dozen times. They consult with each other about particularly troublesome spots. It can often take eight hours, an entire workday, to review one hour of tape.
Reviewers do not listen to the tapes in a vacuum. They research background in archival sources, such as the President’s Personal Files, the President’s Office Files, and the National Security Council Files. They use secondary sources such as Facts on File, the New York Times index, and Nixon’s and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s memoirs to help them understand what the President and others on the tapes are discussing.
They review each tape twice—one archivist conducts an initial review, and a second archivist reviews the same tape again to ensure accuracy, thoroughness, and quality. After completing this two-tier review, the tapes editing team receives the tape and removes any national security and privacy information as well as any material that the Nixon estate did not give back to the National Archives.
Tape review also demands a trained ear and great concentration. The digital audiotapes are copies of original tapes, which are not good quality sound recordings; they are thin and were recorded at a slow speed.
Among the numerous noises on the tapes that obstruct sound and audibility of words are clattering drinking glasses, cups, and dishes; the shuffling of papers; coughing; sneezing; mumbling (especially by President Nixon); people speaking at the same time; the whirring of a helicopter on the White House grounds; the knocking of a knee or elbow against the Oval Office desk, which housed tiny microphones; tapping fingers; chirping birds; a ticking clock in the EOB office; and doors opening and closing.
Nixon also frequently changed topics midstream and made cryptic allusions, which add to the challenge of deciphering intelligible conversation.
It is very satisfying to figure out what is being said in a conversation. As they listen, archivists prepare tape subject logs, which are detailed subject outlines of every conversation on the tapes. The logs are intended to be a guide for researchers, but they also record the review archivist’s interpretation of a tape’s content.
NARA does not make transcripts of conversations on the Nixon tapes and considers transcripts to be an interpretation of the records, which are the tapes themselves. Transcripts are very time consuming to write, error-prone, and unreliable because people hear different things.
The limitation of transcripts is revealed in a conversation between President Nixon and H. R. Haldeman about Mark Felt, the number-two man at the FBI who turned out to be Deep Throat.
In this conversation, which took place four months after the Watergate break-in, Nixon and Haldeman suspected Felt of leaking information about Watergate to the press. They wanted to get him out of the FBI, but they had to do so carefully, because they feared he would go public with his knowledge about Watergate and its cover-up. Nixon suggested making Felt an ambassador, adding that one had to know how to finesse people to keep them happy. At least two scholars had transcribed the word “ambassador” as “bastard.”
A Few Interesting Nuggets on the Nixon Tapes
Some of the conversations on the Nixon tapes are mundane, while others are eye-opening, exciting, amusing, and thought-provoking.
Trade and the Vietnam War
There are conversations on the tapes that change the way one views historical events and the reasons behind them. One example involves an unstated reason why the United States fought the Vietnam War. On March 9, 1972, President Nixon told Henry Kissinger and Haldeman that the war in Vietnam was not about Vietnam. It had never been about Vietnam, about the right of people to be independent “and all that crap.”
The President said that the war in Vietnam was about the Malacca Straits, the main trade route in Southeast Asia and the link between the Indian Ocean and Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and the rest of the Pacific region. Kissinger agreed. Nixon wanted to protect that trade route from Communists who might seize countries in Southeast Asia (the “domino theory”) and control trade in the region.
The timing of this conversation is interesting because it came just weeks before an invasion of South Vietnam by North Vietnam. President Nixon’s statements following the U.S. military response to that invasion did not mention the Malacca Straits.
Sit, King, Sit!
The Nixon White House was a serious place, but the tapes occasionally contain a few funny moments.
On September 19, 1972, the President met with Marion Scully, an Irish citizen, for a photo opportunity on the White House patio, just outside the Oval Office. Scully had previously met the President and Mrs. Nixon when Marine One landed on the Scully family farm during a presidential trip to Ireland in 1970.
During the photo session, several people entered the Oval Office, including Henry Kissinger. Kissinger’s arrival prompted press secretary Ron Ziegler to tease him by asking him to back up so that the photographers wouldn’t get him in the picture. Appearing for the photo shoot was the President’s Irish setter, King Timahoe, who shared the same name as Scully’s hometown, Timahoe, in County Cork, Ireland. King was not in a cooperative mood, however, and after President Nixon failed to get the dog to sit, he asked his valet, Manolo Sanchez, to “make him sit.” (Presidential aide Alexander Butterfield had observed in a 1970 memorandum that his conversations with Sanchez on the subject of dog care were harder than the “miserable sessions I endured in Latin II as a high school sophomore.”)
After several spirited, exasperated, and laughter-evoking commands by Sanchez (“sit please, King, down, down, King, down, sit down!”) and Ziegler had failed, Kissinger offered to help by giving the commands in German, and the President suggested Sanchez speak to the dog in Spanish. King eventually followed orders, and the photo shoot resumed. “I knew we’d get it,” commented the President in triumph. “We got some historic footage,” remarked Ziegler. “Watch him run,” said the President as King made his exit.
A Poignant—and Reported—Moment
Like most Presidents, the majority of President Nixon’s contacts with the public were heavily choreographed, minutely planned photo opportunities that were used for public relations purposes.
On September 24, 1971, President Nixon met with Michael Naranjo, a Pueblo Indian and Vietnam War veteran who had been blinded by a grenade during the war. During this meeting, Mr. Naranjo, an artist, presented a gift to President Nixon, a bronze sculpture of a Pueblo Indian dancer.
President Nixon, in turn, presented Naranjo with cuff links engraved with the presidential seal. At this point, President Nixon knelt with Naranjo on the floor of the Oval Office and moved the blind man’s hand to help him feel the pattern of the presidential seal’s eagle, stars, and leaves woven into the rug.
Although this sensitive act appears to have been unplanned, Nixon made sure the public knew about it. White House staff assistant George Bell’s post-meeting memorandum noted the scene. The press pool also mentioned it, as did President Nixon himself during an October 26, 1971, meeting with Vietnam veterans.
The Hiss Case
After the Watergate break-in occurred in June 1972, President Nixon orchestrated a cover-up designed to block the investigation. As part of the cover-up, he led a public relations campaign designed to discredit his opponents and critics. Part of his strategy involved his repeated reference back to his own experience as a young congressman investigating Alger Hiss, a State Department employee accused of being a spy for the Soviet Union. In the spring of 1973, as the investigation of Watergate intensified with the creation of Senator Sam Ervin’s Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, Nixon urged his staff to read the Hiss chapter in his memoir, Six Crises. In numerous conversations recorded on the tapes, Nixon railed against what he perceived as the hypocrisy and “double standard” of the liberal media and intelligentsia and the Ervin Committee. He recalled that in 1948, Hiss’s defenders said that the courts—not Nixon’s investigating committee—should look into charges against Hiss. Nixon pointed out that President Truman had labeled the investigation a “red herring” and that Truman would not bring the Hiss case to the court. But when Truman’s Justice Department did, Nixon stopped his own investigation. But in the case of Watergate, liberals were saying the opposite—the courts were not enough—they wanted the “kangaroo court” of the Ervin Committee to investigate Watergate. In any event, Nixon can be heard on the tapes repeatedly warning against a cover-up. “It’s the cover-up that hurts.” “If you cover-up, you’re going to get caught.” Of course, covering up is precisely what Nixon did, and it cost him the presidency.
Difficulties in Using the Tapes
The Nixon tapes are perhaps the best known and relatively ignored archival collection at the National Archives. Few researchers use them. With the notable exceptions of books about the Supreme Court by John Dean, about the Vietnam War by Jeffrey Kimball, and about terrorism by Timothy Naftali (now director of the Nixon Library), and a few articles by scholars such as Ken Hughes and Craig Daigle, there is little scholarship that uses the Nixon tapes extensively.
Until recently, the tapes were not widely available. Before 2001, researchers could not even make copies of them. They had to come to the National Archives in College Park to hear them. That has now changed.
Researchers visiting the National Archives may copy tapes themselves for no charge; they need only bring their own blank tape or CD stock. Slowly, the tapes are becoming available online at a few web sites, most notably at that of the University of Virginia’s Miller Center for Public Affairs, which is putting all of the tapes and tapes logs on its web site . The Nixon Library’s web site is also working toward making more of the tapes available directly online. But researchers who cannot come to College Park must buy reproductions from vendors, and that can be expensive.
The Nixon tapes, like any archival evidence, have their limitations. Nixon’s former chief of staff, Alexander Haig, made that point a few years ago to a colleague of mine, who introduced himself to Haig at a hockey game in Washington, D.C.
When Haig heard that my colleague worked with the Nixon tapes, he warned him not to believe everything he heard on the tapes. He probably was referring to Nixon’s tendency to think out loud, to discuss many different options he could take before deciding on one, and to make comments out of anger and frustration.
A vivid illustration of this tendency came in April 1972, during a discussion of military responses to North Vietnam’s spring offensive in South Vietnam, when he offhandedly suggested to Kissinger the possible use of nuclear weapons in Vietnam. Researchers using the tapes are advised not to take them at face value. It is important to keep them in context, to understand Nixon’s motivations in saying what he said—a tough task because Nixon often had several motives in mind at once—and to use them with other archival materials.
Researchers also should be aware that on rare occasions, mainly during Watergate, Nixon remembered he was being recorded, and he tried to manipulate the tapes by saying exculpatory things that put him in a good light.
But the Nixon tapes reveal the deliberative process behind presidential decisions in a way that textual materials do not. They show aspects of decision making that are very real and important but are seldom seen on paper—emotions, personal motivations, biases, prejudices, and verbal cues and subtleties such as tones of voice and inflection, behind decisions on matters great, small, and in-between.
President Nixon is quite frank and candid on the tapes, which he never believed would become public. In several tapes recorded in April and May 1972, one can hear Nixon’s thought process before his decision to blockade Haiphong Harbor in response to a North Vietnamese invasion of South Vietnam a few weeks earlier.
One also can hear the various political considerations that affected decisions such as imposing temporary wage and price controls, commuting the prison sentence of Jimmy Hoffa, releasing Lt. William Calley from the federal stockade, ordering mass arrests of anti–Vietnam War protesters, traveling to China and the Soviet Union, and selecting William Rehnquist for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.
The deliberative process is present, too, behind numerous decisions regarding Watergate, including the smoking gun tape and his (never carried out) order to burglarize the Brookings Institution to see what files it may have had regarding the Pentagon Papers. One also hears his painstaking attention to trivia, his many hours devoted to minuscule scheduling details concerning things such as guest lists and seating arrangements at dinners. One cannot appreciate or fully understand Nixon’s decisions and his administrative and personal style by relying only on textual records.
I suspect that there is a bias among many researchers toward textual materials, which seem more real and trustworthy than tapes. Frankly, textual documents are easier to use—you can see words on a piece of paper. Thoughts are neatly organized into sentences and presented logically.
The meaning of words on paper may be subject to different interpretations, but there is agreement about what the words are. This is not the case for conversations heard on the tapes. Words on a tape can be hard to hear, which means that the words themselves—in addition to their meanings—are subject to different interpretations. Part of the aversion to using the tapes as opposed to textual records is that it is easier to open a box and a file folder than it is to do the hard work of listening to tapes.
The tapes are hard to research, in part because of the difficulty that many historians (myself included) have in using anything mechanical. The process of researching the Nixon tapes—using the various finding aids to find the tape that you want, operating a tape player, pinpointing the conversation you want within that tape (most of which are on cassettes), locating a particular part of a conversation—can be time-consuming, intimidating, and cumbersome. This is unfortunate because there is so much great material on the Nixon tapes.
The complete archives of the Nixon presidency are more than the textual documents. The tapes are not just an invaluable resource that provides color—they are also an essential part of understanding what took place in the White House, in America, and in the world, during 1971–1973, a critical time in the nation’s history.
Scholars researching this period must take them into account in their research. And archivists are available to assist them and to continue to review and to make public as many conversations on the Nixon tapes as possible. It is a job that Harry Caul would have understood and appreciated.
Originally published by Prologue 39:3 (Fall 2007), the United States National Archives and Records Administration, to the public domain.