Blogs > Cliopatria > HOORAY FOR WATERGATE ...

Dec 27, 2003 1:43 am


I am finding myself more and more thankful for Watergate as the years pass.

Not because of any personal animus towards Richard Nixon--my only personal beef with the President at the time was that Watergate hearings used to interrupt my favorite cartoons in the afternoon. I am of course like many unhappy about its legacies: there is no question that late 20th Century American antipathy towards government and politics finds its deepest and most wounding origins in the career of Richard Nixon and the traumas he visited upon his office and his society. Even Nixon's curiously moderate record has to be stacked up against the kinds of political careers he helped set in motion, more than a few of which have come back to haunt us in the current Administration.

My gratitude has to do with the composite impact of the tape transcripts which continue to be made available: 240 more hours were made available to the public this month. That has obvious specific relevance to scholars working on the Nixon Administration, on the US government in the early 1970s, on the history of the Presidency, and so on. But I think it has a deeper relevance, one that has still gone largely unappreciated.

The tape transcripts, taken as a whole, show us an unintended, relatively unmediated view of the interior culture of political power, something that ordinarily historians know almost nothing about whether we're dealing with ancient or recent cases, Western or non-Western societies. Most of the people who have listened to the tapes released in recent years come away with rather ordinary, even banal, revelations about Nixon's character and worldview, more or less confirming things that we already guessed or knew anyway, that Nixon was an anti-Semite, or disliked Kissinger, or that he hated the Eastern Establishment.

What I think is more useful is to begin to think about Nixon not as the atypical, psychologically curious figure that he undoubtedly was, but also to see him and his conversations with aides and visitors as a revelation of what the typical business of political decision-making and information-gathering may look like in its general outlines. Yes, certainly, there is a Nixonian particularity to the more recent transcripts that have been released--it is hard to imagine Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton having quite the same loopily off-the-cuff, awkwardly polite locker room discussions with aides about Greek homosexuality and the character of political enemies and so on. But what I strongly suspect is quite typical about the transcripts is the decidely non-Olympian, non-omniscent perspective they display. The later, non-Watergate tapes tend to show that while Nixon and his aides knew more than the average citizen or the average pundit or the average Congressman about national and international affairs, and had far more ability to move events and institutions in a direction that he desired--that's what power is, in the end--his knowledge and influence were also finite, sometimes strikingly so. I have argued this before, but it seems to me that the total body of tapes offers a fairly striking rebuke to ideas about historical causality that require power to always do that which it ought to do, and to always have a transparent command of the social and cultural landscape it inhabits. The tapes reveal that there were numerous conspiracies within the Nixon White House--but they also tend to undercut a conspiratorial conception of history.

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Maarja - 12/29/2003

The Nixon tapes are a treasure trove of information, the likes of which will never be seen again. Mr. Burke is correct that they offer fascinating glimpses into "life at the top" of the U.S. government.

But therein also lies a problem. President Nixon never anticipated third-party review of his tapes. When he recorded them, Presidential records still were treated as personal property. Nixon believed he would control the contents of his tapes and files, selectively disclosing portions and shielding the rest from public view.

The passage of the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act (PRMPA) in December 1974 resulted in independent, nonpartisan federal archivists deciding what could be released to the public and what required restriction. Most Presidents would prefer a return to the old personal property concept. The mere existence of statutes does not guarantee smooth public access, there are many ways in which legislative intent can be subverted.

Operating in an unfriendly environment in Washington, DC, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has struggled to apply complex laws and regulations to Nixon's records. NARA’s mission – nonpartisan, objective release of the “essential evidence of governance” – has no natural allies in Washington. The Archives' biggest constituents – historians – have not served the agency very well.

Unfortunately, while historians have leapt on the information released by NARA, most have given little thought to the difficult environment in which the Archives must operate. Among historians, Stanley Kutler and Joan Hoff are notable exceptions to a group that mostly has remained silent on critical, complex issues of public access. (For Dr. Kutler's November 2003 op ed on the problems associated with transferring Nixon's records to California, see )

In November 2001, President George W. Bush signed Executive Order 13233, which directly affects implementation of the Presidential Records Act. (Although it reflects a rejection of the underlying concept of public control of Presidential materials, the order does not explicitly affect the PRMPA.). As Christopher Dreher noted in SALON in April 2002, the executive order "effectively takes control of the papers away from archivists and returns it to the incumbent and former presidents. It also allows for the family or designated representatives of a former president to restrict the release of his records and extends the same executive privilege to vice presidents to control their own records.”

Why did Bush issue his executive order? I would speculate that the seizure of Nixon's records in 1974, and the battles to release information from his tapes and files, must have horrified most politicians. Politicians shudder at the thought of something similar happening to them. After all, their success depends on campaigns, which use message discipline and spin doctors to present carefully crafted images to the public. Objective, nonpartisan archival disclosure of records, especially internal documents, obviously can undermine the carefully crafted images.

While Bush has sought to regain Presidential control over records disclosures, other politicians have taken pre-emptive action by creating fewer records than their predecessors. Michael Beschloss noted in Presidential Studies Quarterly in 2002 that a chilling effect has affected the richness of the historical record. "Increasingly worried about such political dangers as subpoenas from special prosecutors, newspaper leaks, and memoirs by disgruntled ex-officials published while their ex--bosses are still in office, presidents and their chief officials shy away from putting things on paper. Public figures no longer write the kind of thoughtful, discursive letters and revealing memos that we used to see. People in Washington are more public relations savvy than in earlier times and, thus, more adept at drafting memos and other records that conceal their motives and can fool the historian."

All of this suggests that there are many records-related crises in Washington right now. Although most National Archives employees are trained historians, as federal government employees, they are subject to message discipline. Yet few outside historians, who have more freedom of speech, are studying the issues or speaking out on them.