The “Nixon Tapes,” an Author, and the American Historical Review
Normally, an editor does not expect to learn about the submission of an article to his journal from the front page of the nation’s leading newspaper. Normally, an editor would reasonably expect that a journalist reporting for this paper would ask for the editor’s comments on the nature of the submission. Normally, he would not expect the contents of his letter of rejection to the author of the submission to be broadcast both by the newspaper in question and the major web outlet of news for historians. Normally, he certainly would not expect that outlet to reproduce a digital facsimile of that letter, including his signature. And normally—or ideally—accusations of scholarly misconduct are adjudicated in scholarly venues.
But at least as far as I’m concerned, nothing about this controversy over the editing of the Nixon tapes has been normal. Indeed, it has been characterized by journalistic impetuousness, personal vindictiveness, petty-mindedness, unwarranted inferences, and a dearth of decorum. And while there are undoubtedly some significant historical issues at stake, these have been over-shadowed by one particular author’s apparent efforts at self-promotion.
I first learned about the submission of Peter Klingman’s article to the American Historical Review from Patricia Cohen’s piece in the New York Times, 31 January, which appeared on the front page of the paper’s first section. The submission had been received by us eleven days earlier, on 19 January, but it had not yet reached my desk. An email from Peter Klingman had been forwarded to me on 23 January, but, as I had not yet seen his submission, it meant nothing to me. When, groggy-eyed, I opened the newspaper on that Sunday morning, I was startled to see the AHR mentioned prominently in the piece—startled, but then chagrined, and for two reasons. First, I found it strange that the reporter had not bothered to contact me to confirm that the piece had indeed been submitted; and second I thought that the newspaper account seemed to be implying that mere submission to the AHR conferred some worth or validity on Peter Klingman’s claims. The article said, “The conflict [over the tapes] has flared again because an article detailing the charges against Mr. [Stanley] Kutler has been submitted to the American Historical Review, the profession’s premier journal.”
Well, no; that’s not the reason why “the conflict has flared again.” It had nothing to do with the AHR. It had everything to do with Peter Klingman, or someone close to him, contacting the Times’s reporter and informing her of the nature of his submission and his case against Kutler, the editor of the Nixon tapes.
On Monday I wrote a letter to the editor of the Times in which I noted the fact that we receive nearly 300 submissions a year and that this fact in and of itself says nothing about the merits of the piece. The Times has not published my letter.
Subsequently, the modus operandi of Peter Klingman began to grow clearer. I looked at his email of 23 January, in which he asked whether the fact that Stanley Kutler was a co-plaintiff with the American Historical Association (and other groups) against Vice President Cheney over possession of his records would “present a conflict of interest for you, preventing publication of my article in the AHR.” On Monday, 2 February, another message from Peter Klingman landed in my in-box. This one was even more revealing. He referred to the Times piece from the day before and added, “I will also tell you that I did not send her [the reporter Patricia Cohen] a copy [of his submission].” This was strange indeed, as he, or a surrogate, could be the only source as it certainly did not come from the AHR. There was more. He noted that “Given the national attention from the Times story, I find it hard to understand a decision not to publish.” (Let’s remember that this “national attention” which he’s leveraging was engineered by him.) He further charged that “if I have not heard from you by Wednesday afternoon of this week, I will assume, because of a conflict of interest, you can not make a decision and I will withdraw at the time the article for your consideration.”
How many authors assume that submission of a manuscript to a journal is an invitation to bargaining under deadline?
Later that week, I received the report written by our Associate Editor on Peter Klingman’s submission, “Abuse of Power: A Review and Inquiry into Stanley Kutler’s Editing of the Nixon Tapes.” The Associate Editor’s advice was to reject the manuscript, pointing out that it was quite short, half the length of our normal articles, and that it “covers too particular a historical concern.”
Before I drafted my own cover letter, of course, I read Peter Klingman’s piece. Appended was a letter in which he noted its “shocking and controversial” contents, adding the claim that Stanley Kutler “egregiously violated the profession’s position on the integrity of the historical record by deliberately altering evidence.” Peter Klingman’s piece itself was true to this introduction: it is filled with ad hominem remarks and charges, and concludes with a ringing J’accuse-like denunciation, using the AHA’s Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct as a platform. While the piece includes long citations from the tapes and arguments about Kutler’s editing that may or may not be true, it is virtually littered with charges impugning his honesty, integrity and motives. I will refrain from quoting from the article, as it is copyrighted by Peter Klingman, but words like “forgery,” “fraud,” “distortion,” “fabricate,” “reprehensible,” “counterfeit,” “invent,” “alter,” “dishonest,” and the like crop up with disturbing regularity. Whatever this is—and whatever value and validity his case may have—it is not the stuff of scholarship. My letter to him was a simple letter of rejection.
Later, that letter turned up in the Times and on the History News Network. (I am grateful to Editor Rick Shenkman for taking down the facsimile of my letter [with signature] as soon as I complained about it.) But this is not what’s really important. What’s important is that a historian (in this case Stanley Kutler) has been publicly vilified without a proper public hearing. Rather, respectable news outlets have been complicit in serving the interests and motives of someone who has a case to make, and is willing to make it at all cost. I do not know Stanley Kutler; I have never met him. For all I know, Peter Klingman may be correct in all of his charges against him: I do not have a dog in this fight. I do have, like most historians and scholars, I hope, a stake in seeing that important issues are mooted in a proper manner, with evidence properly aired, claims correctly compared, and arguments patiently elaborated. Peter Klingman’s submission to the AHR was not the right vehicle for this process. Let’s hope that a more suitable one can be found soon.
HNN Hot Topics: The Watergate Transcript Controversy
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James C. Williams - 2/11/2009
I am in complete support of Dr. Schneider's position. Klingman comes across as an arrogant self-absorbed individual. Certainly he lacks any tact. The merits of the issue at stake should be dealt with in a civil and careful manner, and grandstanding in the NY Times is hardly that.
Maarja Krusten - 2/10/2009
Any copyright issues aside, I hope Dr. Schneider does not post any extracts from Dr. Klingman's paper. I, for one, would rather read the entire piece myself than to have anyone pick and choose any extracts for the public to consider. I say this because the issue has turned into such a soap opera. As a result, matters of tone and style in presenting the case matter as much as content.
This particularly is the case since the issue itself involves transcripts of Nixon's tapes. Whether this issue now ends up being handled the way Republican bloggers in 2004 handled the Dan Rather/CBS story about George W. Bush Texas Air National Guard service is up to historians. Whoever they are, I hope historians handle the rest of the story better than they did the NYT piece. I was dismayed to see someone such as my former NARA supervisor Fred Graboske being dismissed in some forums as part of some group of "Nixon apologists." That was unseemly. He, of all people, knows the Nixon tapes and knows transcription. We produced our transcripts not for readers of a history book for under subpoena in court cases. Moreover, Graboske neither is a Nixon hater (as Nixon's attorney once tried to prove in an effort to delay disclosure of the tapes by NARA) nor a Nixon apologist. Such framing was not warranted in discussing what he said in the NYT article.
As I noted in a comment elsewhere on HNN yesterday, the good guy-bad buy framing used by some people who wrote about the NYT story reminded me of the way much of the debate over the Iraq war played out in the blogosphere during the Bush administration. It took on too much of a "You're either for us or against us" vibe for my taste. Let's see how observers handle new revelations in the story.
I've stated previously that I think errors in Dr. Kutler's book occurred through inadvertence. There are, of course, legitimate questions, as Dr. Schneider acknowledges may be the case. The merging of a small portion of a conversation recorded on a telephone taping station (WHT) into a morning office meeting (OVAL) in a March 16, 1973 transcript is a serious problem. How two portions of conversations taken from separate taping stations came to be presented in a seamless single March 16, 1973 conversation in a published book is very hard to explain. That I don't think there was bad intent does not mean it is not an issue for examination.
The issue with the transcription of Nixon's conversation about the break-in into the office of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist (Dr. Fielding) that John Taylor mentions also is a serious one.
Consider the difference between this passage:
"President Nixon: You've got to say that it's irrelevant in a criminal [unintelligible].
Colson: Clearly-- the civil case has to do with the invasion of privacy, for information. I'm not sure in the criminal case whether these assignments will be criminal or not. Of course, before a grand jury, those would be irrelevant. I wouldn't worry about it.
President Nixon: It's none of his [the prosecutor's] damn business.
Colson: He knows it has nothing to do with Watergate. [Pause] Magruder obviously would-- [12-second deletion for personal privacy]. They weren't stealing. Really, they trespassed."
and this one as originally published in Kutler's book:
"President Nixon: You've got to say that's irrelevant in a criminal case.
Colson: It clearly will be irrelevant in the civil case, because it had nothing to do with the invasion of privacy. I'm not sure in a criminal case whether it is a sign that will be relevant or not. Of course, before a grand jury there's no relevance...
They weren't stealing anything. Really, they trespassed. They had broken and entered with an intent not to steal, with an intent to obtain information."
Both Watergate and the Fielding case involved break-ins and it is important for the historian to know which case is under discussion at what point. Jeb Magruder, who inexplicably is left out of the passage in Dr. Kutler's book, was a player in Watergate but played no role in the Ellsberg/Fielding break in. Yet his name is a very important clue for the reader as to which break in is under discussion.
In the hardcover version, Kutler's introduction to the passage discusses the Ellsberg break-in. He writes that "Colson is full of praise for his friend [E. Howard Hunt], knowing that he had broken into Ellsber's psychiatrist's office. "They weren't stealing anything," Colson rationalized. 'They had broken and entered with an intent not to steal, [only] with an intent to obtain information.'"
This can leave the reader with the impression that Nixon, too, already knew about the Fielding break as of July 19, 1972. To his credit, Dr. Kutler reportedly amended that in the paperback version, adding a phrase to explain, "'They weren't stealing anything,' Colson rationalized the *Watergate* break-in.
William J. Stepp - 2/9/2009
I assume you are that the fair use provision of copyright would permit you to quote from the article.
Copyright is not a barrier to quoting someone else's words.
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