Blogs > Cliopatria > Times on the Tapes

Feb 1, 2009 2:38 pm

Times on the Tapes

A historians’ dispute makes the front page of the Times website today. The issue: an article submitted to the American Historical Review by Peter Klingman, claiming that Stanley Kutler trimmed his Nixon tape transcriptions, Abuse of Power, in such a way to obscure John Dean’s role in the affair.

I haven’t read Klingman’s article; perhaps he cites questionable correspondence or remarks made by Kutler. But the Times article implies that Klingman’s claims about Kutler’s allegedly improper motives stem from disagreements over Kutler’s transcripts.

In this respect, I’m inclined to agree with the one clearly neutral source the 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.”

Digitized copies of the Nixon tapes area available at the Miller Center’s website; with the exception of the phone calls, they’re not at all easy to hear. I don’t know what sort of audio software Kutler used in the production of his book, but it clearly would have been something less sophisticated than what’s available now. It’s therefore not at all surprising to learn that transcription errors were made.

There are, to be short, lots of non-malevolent explanations for mistakes in Kutler’s transcripts—ranging from honest errors in attempting to transcribe the tapes without a good editorial process in place to (perhaps) his choosing to exclude transcripts of one or two conversations not for sound editorial reasons but because they were particularly difficult to hear, and thus transcribe.

If the thrust of the Times article—errors as part of a pro-Dean conspiracy—seems misguided, that doesn’t absolve Kutler of the professional obligation to have corrected errors when those were brought to his attention, perhaps through an errata section on a website. And some of the errors attributed to Kutler in the article—listing a Nixon-Dean meeting and a later telephone conversation of the same day as one, continuous meeting—were, at best, very sloppy mistakes.

In that respect, Joan Hoff’s comments in the article should be treated as a caution: “The book,” she said, “is used authoritatively as the official transcript of the event.” Historians using the tapes should always go back to the source—especially since the tapes now are all available, in digitized form, on the Miller Center website—rather than rely on published transcripts. Kutler’s book definitely shouldn’t be considered an “official transcript” in that respect.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Maarja Krusten - 2/3/2009

for an essay by Stanley Katz and, even more intetsting, comments from some of the principals.

posted by Smartphone on personal time

Maarja Krusten - 2/2/2009

Dr. Johnson,

As far as the contents of published tape transcripts are concerned, Dr. Klingman has a web posted article which covers much of the same ground as the NYT piece from yesterday. See

There also is an essay there by Dr. Joan Hoff in which she discusses issues related to transcription.

I do not see a date on the page at However, I checked the Wayback Machine of the Internet Archive and found the same article by Dr. Klingman picked up there for 2002:


Just thought I'd let you and your readers know of its existence, simply by way of FYI.


Maarja Krusten - 2/1/2009

Thanks, Dr. Johnson, I greatly appreciate your taking the time to reply. Dr. Hoff has focused on the transcription issue in the past. One never knows what scholars said, what of that reporters wrote, what editors took out. So I hesitate to judge. However, I, too, wish the NYT had dug a little deeper on the topic of "official transcripts."

See Joan Hoff, “Studying the Nixon Presidency,” Presidential Studies Quarterly, Winter 1996, 270:

“I originally believed that opening more tapes without official NARA transcripts would only compound an already endlessly litigious battle among scholars and Nixon lawyers over Watergate. But [Maarja] Krusten and Frederick J. Graboske, both archivists who worked on processing the tapes, convinced me that – however desirable to avoid multiple versions of the same tapes – this would involve too much time and money. Even with computers, it requires 100 archival hours to transcribe one hour of one tape to obtain 99 percent accurate transcripts. (Back in 1979 it took nearly 300 hours per hour of conversation.) The task of transcribing these tapes is tantamount to transcribing a document from an ancient language. Moreover, the thousands of pages of log material will provide cross references and antecedents to help researchers. . . . ”

I understand scholars' frustrations on this issue. Back in 1996, I tended to feel NARA's primary obligation was to get as much material released as soon as possible. I have been re-thinking some of that approach in recent years, as there are pros and cons for NARA in attempting "early disclosure." However, when I was called by Dr. Kutler to testify in his lawsuit, my testimony helped him, not the position taken by the George H. W. Bush Department of Justice, which represented NARA in court. (I essentially testified without any legal representation although a DOJ lawyer technically represented me as a federal employee. That's ok, while I don't recommend it, I did fine.)

Thanks again for your gracious response and for the intereting observations.



Robert KC Johnson - 2/1/2009

I would agree: the people at the National Archives have done great work with the declassification and release of the tapes--and there's no way, with the resources they have, that they could be expected to transcribe them.

I wish the NYT article had made this point clearer--especially since Hoff used the phrase "official transcript," an average reader might have been wondering why the Archives hadn't made an "official transcript."

Maarja Krusten - 2/1/2009

A small qualifier, if I may. Not all of the Nixon tapes have been released to date. Except for those portions dealing with so called "abuses of governmental power," no tapes have been released by my former employer to date for the period from January 1973 through June 1973. When you say that your former colleague, Ken Hughes, knows more about the tapes than anyone else, you are, of course, speaking of the portions of the tapes that have been declassified or disclosed to date. And I would assume you are focusing solely on academic historians in looking at someone to characterize that way. Perfectly understandable. However, Frederick J. Graboske, former NARA Nixon tapes archivist, former Chief Archivist, U.S. Marine Corps Historical Center, and current records consultant, spent 12 years listening to all 3,700 hours of the tapes. In fact, between 1981 and 1987, two people, he and I, had final sign-off authority in terms of deciding what could be released to the public from the tapes and what required restriction. If anyone knows more about the contents of the tapes than anyone else, it is, of course, Fred Graboske. That in no way diminishes the fine work your former colleague has done at the Miller Center and I hope you don't take it that way.

There is no official transcript of all the tapes, of course. As to why the National Archives decided not to transcribe them, please consider this quote from the former acting director of the NARA Nixon Project. Unfortunatley, there is no link (my apologies) so I'll have to post an extract. The article appeared in a local Washington area publication after a group of students from the University of Maryland (Baltimore Campus) visited the National Archives’ Nixon Project in Alexandria, Virginia:

“Archivists hope to open the remainder of the tapes to the public in a phased schedule, starting in 1989 with 80 hours of material the Watergate special prosecutors requested during their investigations. No researcher may ever be able to digest all the tapes. The Archivist’s Finding Aid, an index to people and subjects in the recordings, is itself 27,000 pages long. And there are no plans to transcribe the tapes, which according to project director James J. Hastings, would take 75 years. ‘Two years of eight-hour days would be required to listen to all of the tapes,’ Hastings warns researchers, ‘with no time for lunch allowed and no time permitted for turning the machine back to listen to particularly tricky bit of conversation over again.’”

Source: Article, Ed Cohen, “Richard Nixon: UMBC Students Explore the Papers Behind the Persona,” Maryland Today, 1988.

As you probably know from other sources, when my colleagues and I transcribed portions of the then secret Nixon tapes for a court case in the late 1970s, we found that it took 300 staff hours to produce one hour of transcript. Changes in technology enabled NARA later to lower that to 100 staff hours for each hour of conversation. Producing material under subpoena for a court case differs a little from transcribing material for historical research although the goal is both instances should be the highest degree of accuracy possible. As you know from our prior exchanges here on HNN a few years ago, some of the tapes are of poor quality, especially those recorded in Nixon's hideway office in what then was the Old Executive Office Building.

I know and like both Dr. Kutler and Dr. Hoff, try to avoid taking positions on issues related to Nixon scholarship, generally, and consequently have no comments on other issues raised in the NYT article.