Nixon's Tapes--Neglected Now, But Still Immensely Vauable

Roundup: Talking About History

James Warren, in the Chicago Tribune (Aug. 8, 2004):

Exhausted by the self-absorption of Bill Clinton, I turned late one recent night to the exhilarating self-deception of Richard Nixon. A switch from Clinton's $12 million memoir to Nixon's mostly forgotten, secret audiotapes was timely. Baby Boomers may feel very moth-eaten when realizing that Monday marks the 30th anniversary of his resignation as president amid the nation's greatest political scandal, Watergate. While Clinton provides an interesting take on the hectic essence of life in the Oval Office, his is a personal memoir with all the failings of the genre. It's not journalism, it's not history; it's one man's quite self-serving take.

Nixon, however, presents us with the most detailed account of an American presidency--perhaps of any world leader--via an astounding 3,800 hours of the once-secret tapes. And he also presents us, posthumously, with some distinct cautionary notes when it comes to appraising the performance of public figures.

"There is absolutely nothing like the tapes," says Stanley Kutler, a University of Wisconsin historian.

Look at it this way: Wouldn't you crave to know exactly what was being said in the Oval Office before the invasion of Iraq? For sure, there are the claims of certain participants of what was said (and some are relayed via Bob Woodward's recent book, "Plan of Attack").

But are they truly to be trusted? With Nixon, you've got, for example, the exact conversation in which he decides to blockade and mine Haiphong harbor in North Vietnam ("Let it fly, let it fly," he tells National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger). But Nixon's self-inflicted ignominy is also a prime reason that subsequent presidents have not left us with a similar raft of recordings. Just too dangerous.

"They are a treasure trove of oral source material. Defying all the common assumptions about dealing with modern political history, they are a collection that outstrips anything I know in any period," said University of Missouri-St. Louis historian Charles Korr, who wishes he had had such rich fare to exploit when he researched books on 17th Century English foreign policy and the legacy of the Major League Baseball players union.

Precious few take the opportunity, but you can listen to hour after hour of a key 20th Century figure at his best, worst and most plainly indifferent: in all his undisguised brilliance, skullduggery, vanity, self-pity, bigotry, discussion of the shattering and clandestine opening of relations with the People's Republic of China, deceiving of colleagues, frustrations over the Vietnam War, sophisticated takes on domestic policy and dealings with family.

As revealing are the unavoidable portraits of hundreds of aides and world figures with whom he speaks on the phone or in one of several offices Nixon bugged, including the Oval Office, an office next door at the Old Executive Office Building and one at Camp David. With the exception of just two people--Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman and Haldeman aide Alexander Butterfield--none had a clue that they were being taped.

Thus, you can hear the apple-polishing of Kissinger but also Kissinger's shrewd takes on world affairs and individuals; United Nations Ambassador George H.W. Bush's loyal and cheerful recounting of the latest UN crisis; California Gov. Ronald Reagan lobbying Nixon to yank us out of the UN (one can almost see Nixon rolling his eyes; the at times Machiavellian maneuverings of chief domestic adviser John Ehrlichman; major players like West German Chancellor Willy Brandt delineating Cold War politics; Adm. Thomas Moorer, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, being lambasted for lack of progress in Vietnam; and even Ted Williams talking baseball and Sammy Davis Jr. talking about the fancy country club in Los Angeles that won't take his kind.

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