In an historical context, it's ironic that Barack Obama should claim executive privilege this week.
For two years, Richard Nixon got away with telling the American people that he was not involved in the Watergate coverup.
As time passed, fewer and fewer Americans believed what Nixon said, but his story (until he was forced to acknowledge otherwise) was that he hadn't known of the involvement of high–ranking White House officials until long after the break–in — and he stuck by that story.
Until the summer of 1973, when the existence of Nixon's White House recording system was revealed, it was Nixon's word against former White House counsel John Dean's. The knowledge that there were tapes of Oval Office conversations meant there was evidence that could prove which one was telling the truth.
Nixon resisted all attempts to force him to relinquish the tapes; he insisted they were protected by the principle known as executive privilege. But, in August 1974, the matter was before the Supreme Court, which ruled that Nixon had to turn over recordings of Oval Office conversations that Congress had been demanding and that Nixon had been trying to keep confidential.
The tapes included a conversation Nixon had with his chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, 40 years ago today — less than a week after the break–in — that clearly showed Nixon's complicity.
Earlier in 1974, Nixon agreed to release edited transcripts of certain conversations that had been subpoenaed — and those transcripts included conversations that occurred long before the one in which Nixon claimed to learn of the involvement of the higher–ups, but the earliest conversation in those transcripts had taken place in September 1972.
But as I wrote a few days ago, taped evidence of the first known conversation about Watergate in which Nixon participated was tampered with. No one will ever know what was really said on that occasion.
The tape of the June 23, 1972, conversation came to be known as "the smoking gun" because it proved that Nixon was an active participant in the coverup long before he acknowledged learning the details.
But it revealed more than that. It exposed aspects of Nixon's personality that had been hidden from public view.
In fact, the real smoking gun may have been destroyed in the mysterious "18½–minute gap" in a tape of a conversation between Nixon, Haldeman and John Ehrlichman three days earlier. Nixon's secretary, Rose Mary Woods, took the fall for that one, claiming to have erased it by mistake while working on the transcription, but it remains suspicious.
The meticulous notes that Haldeman always took at such meetings suggested that the conversation dealt primarily with Watergate, and electronics experts concluded that the gap was the result of at least four separate erasures — not one long one.
Consequently, the conversation that took place 40 years ago today may not have been the first time that Nixon and Haldeman spoke about the matter. But it's the first one of which evidence is known to exist.
Nixon's "initiating personal crime" came about "casually," wrote Theodore H. White in "Breach of Faith," when Nixon blithely "authorized use of the CIA to halt the FBI in its investigation of the Watergate break–in."
That was what always struck me as ironic about the Watergate scandal — a decision that had such profound repercussions on people's lives and careers, not to mention a nation's relationships with its leaders, was made in such an offhand fashion.
It's hard to tell just from the transcript of the conversation, but my best guess is that the Watergate–related exchange couldn't have taken more than five or 10 minutes, then it was on to something else.
Discussing what he called the "Democratic break–in thing," Haldeman told Nixon that "we're back in the problem area because the FBI is not under control, because [FBI director] Gray doesn't exactly know how to control it ... and their investigation is leading into some productive areas — because they've been able to trace the money ... through the bank source."
That was certainly a telling comment.
As anyone who ever read Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's account of the Watergate investigation knew, the money was what their source, known as Deep Throat, advised them to follow. The money would lead them to the heart of the conspiracy, he said, and it did.
Nixon and Haldeman conversed for an hour and half that day. They had been away from Washington at the time of the break–in and in the days immediately following, when the president's lieutenants tried to control something that was already beyond their control.
Yet the transcript of their June 23 conversation suggests, as I say, that they spent little time on Watergate. Nixon instructed Haldeman to "Play it tough. That's the way they play it, and that's the way we're going to play it."
And it was on to other business. When I read the transcript of that conversation, I could imagine them speaking as casually as they would have if they were talking about sports.
In retrospect, maybe it was treated more as one item on the agenda for a single day — of no more significance and no more memorable than selecting the menu for a state dinner.
"Therefore," wrote White, "the matter had become an administrative matter for the underground, which successfully contained the scandal until after the election."
That was, after all, the supreme objective — the re–election of the president. No real thought ever seemed to be given by the conspirators to what they would do after they won the election and Nixon was inaugurated for a second time.
Those involved seemed to believe — at least, at this point — that Watergate would go away and cause no more trouble for them.
And, for awhile, it didn't seem they needed to worry about it. When the nation prepared to go to the polls in 1972, surveys indicated that a majority of Americans knew little or nothing about Watergate. To anyone who was paying attention, it seemed that Nixon and his co–conspirators would get away with it.
But that would change.