Samuel W. Rushay, Jr.: An Archivist's Reflections on His Work with the White House TapesRoundup: Talking About History
Earlier this year, on July 11, 2007, the privately run Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California, was turned over to the federal government and made part of the system of presidential libraries operated by the National Archives and Records Administration, with a staff of federal employees.
However, the review of the Nixon White House tapes—recordings made between 1971 and 1973 in the Oval Office and other locations—will continue at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland, until all the tapes have been reviewed.
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.
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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.
Note on Sources
Information about President Nixon's taping system appears in Richard Nixon, The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, Vol. 1 (New York: Warner Books, 1978); H. R. Haldeman, "The Nixon White House Tapes: The Decision to Record Presidential Conversations," Prologue: Quarterly of the National Archives 20 (Summer 1988); and John Powers, "The History of Presidential Audio Recordings and the Archival Issues Surrounding Their Use" (1996), a paper written as part of a Career Internal Development (CIDs) course at NARA. The author wishes to acknowledge Powers's invaluable assistance in the writing of this article.
The "smoking gun" tape is White House tape 741-2, June 23, 1972. On this tape, President Nixon ordered the Central Intelligence Agency to request that the Federal Bureau of Investigation call off its investigation of the Watergate break-in. President Nixon intended to mislead the FBI into believing that the Watergate break-in involved national security and the CIA, not politics.
Nixon and Patrick Gray's conversation about W. Mark Felt is on Watergate Special Prosecution Force (WSPF) tape 858-3, February 16, 1973, WSPF-created transcript, p. 13. The "White Rat" reference to Felt is on tape 442-001-069, June 4, 1973, House Impeachment Committee–created transcript, p. 17. Nixon and Haldeman's discussion of Felt is on tape 370-9, October 19, 1972. Transcripts of this conversation are in Stanley I. Kutler, ed., Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998), and the National Security Archive, "The Deep Throat File, Nixon and the FBI: The White House Tapes."
Examples of taped conversations come from tape 681-2, March 9, 1972 (Malacca Straits); tape 783-7, September 19, 1972 (King Timahoe); tape 578-9, September 24, 1971, and tape 602-9, October 26, 1971 (veteran); and tape 332-35, April 25, 1972 (nuclear weapons).
Butterfield's January 26, 1970, memorandum about King Timahoe may be found on the Nixon Library's web site.
Nixon tapes concerning the Hiss case come from Kutler, ed., Abuse of Power, pp. 92–93, 137–138, 260–261.
Available for research are about 7 million of 48 million pages of textual documents and 2,000 of 3,800 hours of White House tapes. Also available are 320,000 still photographs, 4,000 hours of videotape, and 4,469 hours of audio recordings.
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Maarja Krusten - 12/1/2007
I was able to go through the votes I received earlier than expected, enabling me to post results here already. On a listserv for archivists from the private and public sector, I asked them to vote on the Presidential Records Act. (This is not the act that covers Nixon’s records, rather the one that covers the records of Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush.) I told them to vote by considering the original legislative intent of the Presidential Records Act of 1978, not the effect of President Bush’s Executive Order 13233, the future of which is unclear. I presented three choices:
Option 1: The Presidential Records Act of 1978, as originally written, while difficult to implement, sets the right time periods in allowing researchers to file FOIA requests after 5 years and Presidents to set restrictions for 12 years, after which FOIA applies except for predecisional advice which may be considered for release. Existing procedures are appropriate. No changes are necessary. NARA has to do its utmost to make the existing access statutes (PRA, FOIA) work.
Option 2: Richer records were created in the past, when officials did not have to worry about them being opened soon. A President's records should remain government property but archivists should have a longer time to do the type of systematic processing once done in the donor-restricted libraries. The current FOIA process bogs down archivists. It also is too difficult and potentially adversarial, as it places NARA, former Presidents, and researchers in situations that may be very hard to resolve. Lengthen the period before researchers can request records but continue to allow NARA to do special access searches for inquiries by commissions, records required for hearings on nominations, and other such governmental investigations.
Option 3: Except in matters involving Special Prosecutors, investigations by government commissions, etc., officials deserve maximum confidentiality in their records during their lifetimes. Living former Presidents (Bush, Clinton) should have maximum power, similar to that once held by LBJ, JFK, and other Presidents prior to Watergate, to restrict information in White House records during their lifetimes.
Results: Twice as many archivists voted for option 2 as for option 1. Only a single archivist voted for option 3 but actually offered a good , thoughtful reason for doing so. Another archivist wrote:
“(4) None of the above. Presidents' records should remain public property. NARA should be fully funded to allow archivists to do professional and appropriate processing, but within a legally mandated yet reasonable time frame. The best government is an open government that allows all researchers--including former Presidents, government agencies and commissions--free and unrestricted access to its records.”
Option 2 was the clear winner. Keep in mind that a different law, the PRMPA, covers access to the unreleased 1,000 hours of tapes and millions of documents with which Tim Naftali and his staff now are working. Nixon long ago won his fight to limit disclosures from his records while he was alive.
As to my fellow historians, if you read between the lines, they too have spoken. (I discount official statements from OAH and AHA on the PRA as seemingly well intended but too superficial and unsupported by analysis to be meaningful.) Over the last three years, I’ve only seen one historian offer on HNN’s comment boards the type of public support from which NARA might have benefited. (His comment is at
http://hnn.us/comments/53939.html ) There are a couple of well-known historians who are likely supporters of option 1 but don’t happen to be bloggers—or if they are, they’ve conveyed their views on the PRA to me privately rather than in blog posts. And that’s all I can offer as far as potential support for Option 1.
The debate on HNN over Allen Weinstein’s nomination as U.S. Archivist focused on his research notes, not on statutory controls or managerial challenges. The debate was almost entirely person-centric, not law- or function-centric. NARA and issues such as White House email, the Sandy Berger incident, or the ability of former Presidents to expedite or block disclosure (all in the news this past year) drew little mention and few comments on scholars’ blogs in 2007. I’ve yet to find a history blogger, of any age, who discusses recent events but sounds as if he or she actually hopes to study the archival records of recent Presidents. This suggests indirectly that many historians might accept long delays in disclosure. That fits with archivists voting mostly for Option 2.
A few years ago, a National Archives official (who since has moved on) asked me why historians seem passive and accepting of situations affecting the nation’s history that one might expect people trained in critical analysis to examine sharply. My guess? Many older historians matured during a time of civic activism but may accept deference as a factor in disclosure because they probably worked primarily in private manuscript collections controlled by individuals or families. They may have little experience with public archives where legislative intent or procedural transparency matter. I’ll have to leave it to boomer historians who have worked with government archives to explain why they chose not to act as advocates for NARA when it might have done some good. It’s unclear to me why younger history bloggers seem passive about issues such as diminished record keeping, deletion, the theft of records, or bullying. I’m guessing they are terribly busy and don’t believe they have the time to educate themselves enough to speak knowledgeably about NARA.
If bloggers are ceding the archival battleground to Presidents, that is useful for me, for NARA, and for others who work for the government to know, going forward. Perhaps it is based on simple human recognition of how scary disclosure is for former Presidents. Prior to Watergate, former Presidents were able to write their memoirs and otherwise shape interpretation of their legacies while they were alive – even controlling what scholars would learn. They were not confronted with painful disclosures from their records, especially not “the full truth” about “abuses of governmental power,” as the PRMPA required NARA to do to Nixon. The post-Watergate experiment in early disclosure was an interesting one, the outcome of which many stakeholders affected, directly and indirectly, through action and inaction. I’m still sorting out my own views about the future but one thing I do know: historian Sam Rushay and the people he worked with during the 1990s can be proud of how they put their history degrees to good use in public service in a challenging environment.
Maarja Krusten - 12/1/2007
A great article, I am glad the National Archives allowed Sam to publish it. As a former Nixon tapes archivist myself (1976-1990), I greatly appreciate the grace and courage Sam Rushay shows in the passage in which he writes above that:
“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.”
(You are most welcome, Sam.)
Sam beautifully conveys the challenges in working with the tapes, describing procedures that the Nixon Project’s first director, Jim Hastings (1979-1988), tapes supervisor Fred Graboske and I worked out at the National Archives in the late 1970s and early 1980s. (An example of the tape survey log we developed and that NARA still uses, as Sam notes, is available at
I haven’t written much about the details of tapes processing on HNN, preferring to let NARA decide how much it wants to share of its processes with the public. (Yes, as a federal employee, there are areas in which I defer to the government in what it chooses to disclose to you.) Fragmentary press coverage from the 1980s supports what Sam describes. Since we archivists didn’t know what was on the tapes going in, for the most part, we first described them in the survey logs, then reviewed them.
Robert L. Jackson noted in the Los Angeles Times on June 1, 1981 that “Hastings said the processing is taking more time than originally envisioned . . . Although logging is 85%, ‘we must go back again with the logs and listen to all the tapes and decide what portions must be deleted for privacy.’
Jackson added, “’It takes a special kind of person with enormous concentration,’ Hastings said, referring to problems which most listeners have with the imperfect taping system Nixon secretly installed in 1971.”
The Washington Post provided on September 6, 1984 a description of our work which echoes what Sam writes, taking into account changes in technology:
“The archivists are using sophisticated equipment to isolate and erase the background noise so future listeners will be able to understand conversations. All of the work is being done on ‘master duplicates,’ with the originals locked away in vaults.
The tape review also involves eliminating personal materials, which the archivists remove simply by snipping away sections of tape. The archivists discuss whether the contents are personal and then, with the approval of supervisor Frederick Graboske, make the cuts. The excised portions are being patched together and eventually will be sent to Nixon for his use.”
We used from the beginning a two person system, as Sam describes. While I worked at NARA, the number of staff archivists describing and reviewing the tapes was small. During the 1980s, tapes supervisor Graboske or I (as his representative with delegated authority) signed approval on behalf of the government for every archival decision to open or restrict a tape segment. In addition to describing, reviewing and signing approvals, I also worked on editing and sound enhancement.
All of this is to say, Sam provides a good and accurate account of processing procedures. Having listened during my career at NARA to some 2,000 of the 3,700 hours of tapes, I also found myself nodding when I saw Sam write:
“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.”
Ah, King Timahoe! Dick McNeill, a treasured former colleague who once was the Nixon Project’s audio visual technical expert, actually worked on the National Archives’ White House liaison staff while Nixon still was President. He told us some hilarious King Timahoe stories from his experiences in the White House.
On a more serious note, I’m not surprised that Sam Rushay notes that historians have made little use of such resources. (I’ve seen no passages in a book published about Nixon since 1974 capture Nixon as well as Sam did in his short article.) Nixon’s White House chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, noted in an article in the same National Archives’ magazine as this essay (Prologue) in 1988
“The historians’ digestion of the White House tapes will be long, slow and tedious, but the tapes are an incomparable source, and the historiography of the Nixon administration will eventually be much the richer as a result of Richard Nixon’s decision to tape-record his meetings and telephone conversations. Nixon was not thinking of historians when he made this decision, but they will be its ultimate beneficiary.” (H. R. Haldeman, “The Nixon White House Tapes,” Prologue, Summer 1988, 87.
Using information provided him by NARA, Haldeman wrote in 1988 that
“About sixty hours of Richard Nixon's White House tapes will be opened by the National Archives sometime in 1989. This is the first segment of the tapes to be opened, other than the twelve and a half hours of recordings that were entered into evidence in U.S. v. Connally and U.S. v. Mitchell, et al.--the so-called Milk Fund and Watergate trials. . . . These Watergate-related recordings are a tiny fraction of the whole body of the White House tapes--about seventy hours out of approximately four thousand hours. But the opening of the sixty-hour segment has an importance beyond Watergate. It is the first of what in the next several years will be a series of openings. The time has finally come, almost fifteen years after the end of the Nixon administration, when one may reasonably look forward to hearing at least the unclassified and otherwise unrestrictable portions of the White House tapes.
The National Archives' processing of the tapes in virtually complete, and the agency is nearly ready to go forward with a schedule of phased openings. The opening of the entire four thousand hours of the White House tapes is--at least in scholarship's geological sense of time--just around the corner."
Bruce Oudes echoed this, writing in 1989 that “The Archives also has advised Nixon that it plans the systematic release of the balance of his White House tapes starting in 1991, the twentieth anniversary of the installation of White House taping system. It is not unreasonable to believe that Nixon, if he wishes, could string out the legal processes surrounding his materials into the next century.” (Oudes, From: The President, xlix-l.)
He added, “The Archives . . . informed Mr. Nixon’s attorneys that the first portions of the tapes that were not subpoenaed [that is, non-Watergate] will be ready for public listening by January 1991. The log of these taped conversations in some 27,000 pages long.” (Ibid, 638)
Of course, the projected openings did not occur. In 1990, Stanley Kutler wrote in his book (The Wars of Watergate) that
“The Archives hold several thousand hours of presidential tape recordings of conversations . . . .The Nixon Archives’ staff carefully listened to the tapes for more than nine years, edited them to accommodate national-security and family considerations, and prepared a 27,000-page ‘finding aid’ indexing each conversation. But fifteen years after Congress provided that the material be available as soon as possible, those tapes remain closed, because of the former President’s objections as well as from an apparent reluctance on the part of the administrators at the National Archives to challenge him.” (623-624)
I’ve come to believe that the window for establishing a sustainable pattern for successful release of contentious materials during a President’s lifetime closed some time ago. Nixon’s records were the first to be covered by a law premised in public control (the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act, 1974). The records of Presidents starting with Reagan fall under the Presidential Records Act, 1978. Right now, researchers can start filing Freedom of Information requests to access a President’s historical materials a mere five years after a President leaves office.
It would not surprise me if sometime in the next few years, the government officially moved away from the concept of early release embodied in the PRMPA and the PRA. My guess is that we will see procedures changed at some point to push back the date at which researchers can start filing FOIA requests for information. If that occurs, material will be available as needed for governmental investigations and confirmation hearings. But as far as scholars are concerned, the government may move to something closer to the pre-Watergate age, with researchers having to wait longer than the laws now suggest before they gain access to deliberative records.
What happened to the Watergate era records laws would make an interesting case study. But I’ve come to believe that historians are not best suited to analyzing what the laws intended, what the government did, and how scholars reacted. Whoever does such a study will have to take into account and properly interpret executive actions within the National Archives and the Justice Department. This includes considering subordination; how managerial decisions about access were made prior to Watergate and were supposed to change in the 1980s; the public interest - confidentiality balancing test; how reporting chains and information flow work within the National Archives; internal and external stakeholder relations; protection of government employees (or the lack thereof), what enhances or diminishes the morale of federal employees working on such matters and the impact of that; and how matrixing between archivists and lawyers plays out.
I’ll post here on Monday the results of an informal poll I’m taking among archivists right now about whether the Presidential records access laws should be modified. In the meantime, thanks again to Sam Rushay for writing such a vivid, evocative article -- and to NARA for permitting him to say what he did.
Historian and former Nixon tapes archivist (1976-1990)
- Historian Allan Lichtman who’s predicted 30 years of presidential elections correctly is doubling down on a Trump win
- National Book Award semifinalist Heather Ann Thompson says the war on crime started with LBJ
- David McCullough's next book will focus on generations of Northwest pioneers
- British historian Sheila Lecoeur is on trial for defamation
- Jim Downs laments that Americans still aren’t being taught LGBT history