How a Nixon Lawyer Fell Out of Love with Tricky Dick and Came to Tell the Real Story of Watergate

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David Greenberg, a contributing editor to The New Republic, is a professor of history at Rutgers University and the author of "Nixon’s Shadow: the History of an Image" (Norton), among other books.

"You know,” Richard Nixon told his chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, on April 9, 1973, “with regard to recording what goes on here in the room: I feel uneasy about that ... uneasy because of the fact it’s even done.” Sitting in the Oval Office, his words captured by the very machines he was describing, Nixon began a long meditation about his secret surveillance. He had installed the taping system in mid-1971—in the Oval Office, in his Executive Office Building hideaway, and in his Camp David study—to create records of his discussions for when he wrote his memoirs. But now, realizing how much time and effort it would take to review the reels, Nixon sighed, “I’m never going to want to read all that crap. I never will.” 

Minutes later, Nixon arrived at a solution. “I’d like you to stop it now,” he instructed Haldeman. “And second, I think we should destroy them, because I have so much material right now in my own files that I’ll never be able” to listen to the tapes. His choice of words was telling: destroy is strong language to use about material that’s simply superfluous or unwanted, but it is the word Nixon continued to use throughout his life when speaking or writing about the tapes, typically claiming that he wished he had “destroyed” them. The unease he felt was clearly about something other than the chore of wading through them.

This previously unpublished exchange with Haldeman is one of many signs in The Nixon Defense, the important new book by his former White House counsel John W. Dean, that Nixon recognized his own criminal culpability in Watergate and knew that the tapes bore the proof. But when Nixon proposed to destroy them Haldeman pushed back, noting that these reels contained historic material about the opening of relations with China. Haldeman and Nixon both worried that their national security adviser, Henry Kissinger—a compulsive note-taker—would, in writing his memoirs, inflate his own role in the China overture. They agreed that Nixon should merely modify his taping policy, recording only his discussions about foreign policy. He would also expunge the numerous disparaging remarks about Kissinger and Secretary of State William Rogers. And, Nixon added, “I don’t want to have in the record the discussions we’ve had in this room about Watergate.” 

As history has shown, Nixon had reason to worry. His exchanges about China and the Soviet Union turned out to be well worth preserving—and Douglas Brinkley and Luke A. Nichter have assembled The Nixon Tapes, a book of transcripts of many of these conversations. (Only a fraction of the 3,700 hours of Nixon tapes have been transcribed and published.) Far more consequential, however, were the recordings of the innumerable hours Nixon spent covering up the abuses of power that had been threatening to surface since the arrest of a team of White House burglars at the Democratic Party’s Watergate headquarters in June 1972. Despite Nixon’s understanding that Watergate could doom his presidency, and despite a second directive to Haldeman to scale back the taping two weeks later, the machines continued to roll, and the existing recordings (except for those notorious eighteen minutes) were never destroyed. By that point the scandal had engulfed both men, and Haldeman—along with Dean and the domestic policy adviser John Ehrlichman—left the White House days later. Amid the chaos, Nixon’s order to modify the taping policy fell by the wayside. Historians—and the American public—have been the beneficiaries.

True to the prediction that he made to Haldeman, Nixon also failed to spend much time reviewing the tapes, even as he soldiered on with his cover-up for fifteen more months. “This proved a fatal mistake,” Dean writes in The Nixon Defense—fatal, Dean contends, because neglecting the tapes led Nixon to erect an untenable account of his role in the cover-up. (This is the “Nixon Defense” of Dean’s peculiar title—a bogus defense that ultimately failed.) Dean is on shaky ground in implying that had Nixon fashioned a more meticulous case for himself, based on immersion in the tapes, he might somehow have escaped impeachment: his crimes were too great to be saved by spin. Yet Dean is entirely correct that the tapes hastened Nixon’s undoing. Once their precise contents became known, even stalwart defenders deserted him in droves...




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