Thursday, November 21, 2013

Nixon's Turning Point

Forty years ago today, it became much more difficult for Richard Nixon's defenders to argue against the barrage of Watergate–related charges he faced.

In my opinion, it was the point of no return for Nixon.

Through most of 1973, the Watergate story progressively ensnared Nixon, but, in those days, the talk was not so much about which illegal acts he might have committed but rather how and whether his presidency would be affected. I don't recall anyone suggesting, even in jest, that Nixon might not serve his full term.

That changed on this day in 1973.

Until this day, it had been relatively easy for Nixon to maintain plausible deniability, even after the existence of his taping system was revealed in the Senate Watergate hearings. It had been largely his word against former White House counsel John Dean's.

Naturally, those who were investigating the case wanted to have access to the tapes. After all, they could verify who was telling the truth and who wasn't. But Nixon refused, insisting the tapes were protected under the principle of executive privilege and because subjects involving national security were discussed in the conversations — and his defenders supported him as long as they could.

One of Nixon's solutions to the standoff over the tapes was to offer transcripts of the conversations to investigators. He would explore that option in greater public detail in the spring of 1974, but the job of transcribing subpoenaed tapes for that purpose began in 1973 shortly after the recording system's existence had been revealed. Transcribing the tapes was a task to which White House secretaries were assigned, including Nixon's longtime personal secretary, Rose Mary Woods.

It was while transcribing one of the tapes in late September 1973 that Woods claimed to have accidentally erased a portion of it while answering a phone call. Her original estimate was that roughly five minutes of a June 20, 1972, conversation had been erased.

Woods later amended her statement, saying that she might have accidentally erased as much as six minutes of the tape, but she strongly denied being responsible for the rest of the erasure.

H.R. Haldeman's notes (consisting of two legal pads of paper) suggested that the conversation, which was between Nixon and Haldeman, was at least in part about Watergate.

Nixon's lawyers had been told of the erasure before they sat down on Nov. 14, 1973, to listen to the tape, and they expected to find an erasure. But it went on longer than five minutes — many minutes longer, not seconds. Eventually, it was determined that 18 minutes and 15 seconds of the conversation had been erased — and the gap appeared to be the result of not one but several erasures. This could be determined by changes in pitch.

The inescapable conclusion was that the gap was not accidental.

This had been suggested earlier in the month by "Deep Throat," Bob Woodward's secret source in the early days of the investigation. Deep Throat told Woodward there were "gaps" in some of the tapes, implying they were the result of deliberate erasures.

At the time, there was some doubt among Nixon's lawyers whether the conversation was even covered in the subpoena. But, by the time they reported their findings to Al Haig, the White House chief of staff, the lawyers had determined that the conversation was, in fact, included in the subpoena.

The lawyers discussed their options and finally decided that, if they didn't tell the judge what they knew and the special prosecutor found out about it some other way, they could be suspected of destroying evidence.

Thus it was that, on this day in 1973, Nixon's lawyers informed the judge in the Watergate trials, John Sirica, of their discovery, which, in turn, was made public.

Sirica appointed an advisory panel of experts (nominated by Nixon's lawyers and special Watergate prosecutor Leon Jaworski) to examine the tapes. An "index and analysis" of the existing tapes was given to him five days later. The clamor for the tapes grew louder, not softer.

Nixon's defense was starting to fall apart — irretrievably.

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