John Dean's Role at Issue in Feud Over Nixon Tapes

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HNN EditorThis news story concerns an article submitted to the American Historical Review by independent historian Peter Klingman that claims historian Stanley Kutler misrepresented Watergate transcripts in such a way as to exonerate John Dean. The article remains under wraps while it is being considered for publication. But in the meantime a 2002 article by Klingman that lays out his case against John Dean (and Kutler) can be read online at the website of Mountain States University's Nixon Era Center. See:"What Did The President Know and When Did He Know It? Redefining Richard Nixon's Guilt and John Dean's Role in the Watergate Cover-up."

In his published article Klingman accuses Kutler, the author of Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes, of"deliberately" withholding the transcript of the March 13, 1973 conversation between Nixon and Dean"to avoid providing a context, framework, and perspective that would contradict the original story Dean told the Senate Watergate Committee as well as his own views previously published in Wars on Watergate: The Last Crisis of Richard Nixon." (The March 13 tape reveals that Dean told Nixon at that time of Gordon Strachan's advance knowledge of Watergate. If Strachan knew, Nixon had to assume that Bob Haldeman knew (Strachan reported directly to Haldeman). If Haldeman knew then Dean and Nixon could not claim, as they later did on March 21st, that no one in the White House was involved in the Watergate break-in. Both therefore had to be involved in the cover-up, claims Klingman, each for his own purposes.)

In the NYT article Kutler says that he has acknowledged making errors in transcribing certain tapes but denies his mistakes grew out of any attempt to exonerate Dean, with whom he eventually became friends.

Historian KC Johnson comments over at HNN blog Cliopatria:"I’m inclined to agree with the one clearly neutral source the [New York Times] article cites: my former Miller Center colleague Ken Hughes, who probably knows more about the Nixon tapes than anyone around. Ken told the Times that the attacks on Kutler were 'misguided,' adding, 'I was very critical of errors in the transcripts and I thought he had left out some important conversations, but they are entirely honest and predictable mistakes that anyone who would try to make a transcript from extremely difficult tapes could make.' ”

Klingman is an independent scholar who worked as an archivist for Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin, the authors of the controversial book, Silent Coup: The Removal of a President , which claims Richard Nixon was a victim and not a prime mover in the Watergate affair. In 2001 Klingman transferred to the university an archive of the taped interviews Colodny had conducted. The archive forms the basis of the university's Nixon Era Center.

Excerpt from the NYT News Story

Scholarly feuds seldom end amicably, and nearly 35 years after President Richard M. Nixon resigned, a dispute involving his Watergate tapes would seem to be no exception.

A handful of historians and authors maintain that the most authoritative transcripts of those recordings include significant omissions and misrepresentations that could influence interpretations of the cover-up.

At the center of the quarrel is “Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes,” a 1997 collection of transcripts edited by Stanley I. Kutler, a pre-eminent historian of the Watergate era, that has become the standard reference. Mr. Kutler has been a hero to many people because of a lawsuit he brought with the nonprofit group Public Citizen that led to the release of 201 hours of recordings related to unethical or illegal activity in the Nixon White House.

But longtime critics of his transcripts say Mr. Kutler deliberately edited the tapes in ways that painted a more benign portrait of a central figure in the drama, the conspirator-turned-star-witness, John W. Dean III, the White House counsel who told Nixon that Watergate had become a “cancer” on his presidency....

Related Links

  • KC Johnson: Times on the Tapes

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    Maarja Krusten - 2/3/2009

    Rick, glad to see you picked up on Peter Klingman's 2002 piece, which I discovered also today just by doing a simple Google search.

    I understand why Dr. Johnson cites Kenneth Hughes. And having worked with the tapes during my 14 years of employment as a NARA employee, I certainly understand that the sound quality of some of them (especially the EOB tapes) presents challenges. Dr. Hughes's comment does not explain how parts of two different conversations, one in the morning, one in the afternoon, could have been merged. At least based on my experiences in working with transcripts, I can't imagine how that would occur. I believe the two conversations derive from separate taping stations, as well.

    Questions about the published transcripts go back to 1998, as it happens. Te Tampa Tribune published an article on July 10, 1998 which stated in part:

    "But an examination of the tapes and the transcripts in Kutler's book show the University of Wisconsin historian compressed taped conversations, took conversations that happened at night and put them at the beginning of those from the morning and cut out comments that may bolster other versions of the Watergate scandal that differ from those written by Kutler.

    This, some historians and archivists say, compromises the book and its legitimacy as a historical source."

    The article from 1998 notes that "A comparison of the tapes and the book's transcripts shows that Kutler merged two separate conversations between Nixon and White House counsel John Dean from March 16, 1973. In doing so, he left out passages in which Nixon and Dean outlined a public statement they hoped could be used to put the scandal to rest.

    'I never did that,' Kutler said when told two conversations had been combined. Built-in checks by a transcriber, himself and a research assistant would have caught such an error, he said.

    A comparison of the tape and the book shows that the merged conversation appears in reverse order beginning on page 231 in 'Abuse of Power.' The first part of the transcript, identified as a morning meeting between Nixon and Dean, actually comes from an evening telephone call not mentioned in the book."

    The author of the Tampa Tribune article wrote in 1998 that "Hoff and Kutler are rivals of sorts as presidential historians and each has been critical of the other's work."

    Maarja Krusten - 2/1/2009

    See two discussions of some of the other issues involving Dr. Kutler, former Supervisory Archivist Fred Graboske, and others at