A pretty convincing case can be made that what happened 40 years ago today was what marked the beginning of the end for Richard Nixon.
Three weeks earlier, Nixon's claim to have been uninvolved in — in fact, to have been unaware of — either the planning of the Watergate burglary or its coverup took a severe (but hardly lethal) blow when his former counsel, John Dean, spent a week testifying before the Senate Watergate Committee.
Nixon's defenders insisted that it was the word of only one man against the words of everyone else. Had it remained that way, Nixon might well have weathered the storm and limped through his second term. I'm sure there would have been lingering suspicions about Nixon's guilt or innocence — but no evidence to elevate those suspicions from whispered rumors to criminal accusations.
But what happened 40 years ago today changed things.
I'm speaking of Alexander Butterfield's revelation of the existence of a White House taping system that had been recording all of Nixon's meetings and phone conversations. Butterfield was a deputy assistant to Nixon, having gotten that position through an old college friend of his, Bob Haldeman, the president's chief of staff.
(I always thought that was historically significant, but the only mention I have seen of it — other than an opinion piece that, appropriately, ran in the Washington Post a month ago — has been in the form of rather brief entries in "Today in History" type columns.)
Butterfield's job in the White House never struck me as being particularly glamorous — but his duties did differ from those of his colleagues in at least one important regard. He was responsible for maintaining the taping system, and very few people knew about that.
But everyone knew about it on this day in 1973.
Butterfield was called in to testify in public after undergoing pre–testimony questioning from the committee's staff three days earlier.
In his testimony three weeks earlier, Dean had suggested that Nixon's behavior had led him to believe conversations might have been recorded, and the committee had been following up on that in routine pre–testimony questioning of witnesses. Butterfield later said that he had decided not to voluntarily disclose the existence of the system, but he would truthfully answer any direct question that was put to him.
It turned out that Butterfield was asked a direct question in that pre–testimony session — by the counsel for the minority, Donald Sanders — and he confirmed that such a system did exist. This put him at the head of the line for witnesses who would be called the following Monday — when the chief counsel for the minority, Fred Thompson, asked him the now–famous question, "Are you aware of the installation of any listening devices in the Oval Office of the president?"
Butterfield replied that, when he was working at the White House, he had been aware of the presence of listening devices and that they had been installed about three years earlier.
After describing the extent of the taping system and identifying who had knowledge of its existence, Butterfield was asked if either John Ehrlichman or John Dean would have known about it.
"It would be very unlikely," Butterfield replied. "My guess is they definitely did not know."
As I have written here before, my family was out of the country in the summer of 1973 so I do not have any firsthand knowledge of what the atmosphere was like on that Monday in July. But my guess is that, after watching extensive testimony from the former attorney general and the former counsel to the president, viewers couldn't have been enthusiastic when Butterfield, the former deputy assistant to the president, was called to testify.
He sounded like something of a nuts and bolts guy when he described his duties in the White House.
"I was in charge of administration," Butterfield told the committee, "that is to say that the staff secretary, who is the day–to–day administrator at the White House, reported directly to me. And, of course, I reported to Mr. Haldeman, as did everyone.
"I was responsible for the management and ultimate supervision for the Office of Presidential Papers and the Office of Special Files ... I was in charge of security at the White House insofar as liaison to the Secret Service and the Executive Protection Service is concerned and insofar as FBI background investigations for prospective presidential appointees is concerned."
Even after hearing a rundown on his duties, viewers had to wonder who this guy was and what he could possibly contribute to the discussion. They were about to find out.
It was a critical moment in the evolution of the Watergate scandal. Of that, there can be no doubt.
But it seems appropriate at this point to mention something.
I have heard some people complain that it is an urban myth that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post reporters responsible for the early coverage of the scandal, brought down the Nixon presidency. I'm willing to concede that point to a certain extent.
Woodward and Bernstein alone did not bring down the Nixon presidency. It was the accumulated weight of the various investigations, like the proverbial snowball rolling downhill, that brought Nixon down — along with his own hubris and paranoia.
Woodward and Bernstein kept the story alive when virtually no one else in the Fourth Estate was willing to take the chance. Nixon, after all, enjoyed approval ratings in the upper 50s, even lower 60s, in the summer of 1972, and he wielded enormous power. No one wanted to offend him. No one wanted to challenge him. The existence of the "enemies list" was not acknowledged publicly until after Dean testified, but many in the press had long suspected that there was such a thing — if not on paper, certainly in the minds of Nixon and his minions.
By this day in 1973, plenty of questions had been raised but practically no answers had been given. In the minds of most — and in spite of mountains of apparent evidence to the contrary — it was still seen as one man's word against another's.
But when Butterfield told the Senate Watergate Committee 40 years ago today that a taping system had been recording every Oval Office meeting and conversation that involved the president, everyone knew that there was a witness, a silent witness, that would verify whether Nixon or Dean was telling the truth.
In short, it was now possible, everyone knew, to get an answer to Sen. Howard Baker's memorable question: "What did the president know and when did he know it?"
This witness was not vulnerable to accusations of faulty memory, but it could be tampered with — as America would discover in a few months.