Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Releasing Nixon's Transcripts

"In giving you these — blemishes and all — I am placing my trust in the basic fairness of the American people."

Richard Nixon
April 29, 1974

Richard Nixon tried all sorts of strategies to keep the Watergate investigators' hands off the tapes of his Watergate–related conversations after their existence was made public in the summer of 1973.

Between February 1971 and the revelation of the existence of the taping system in 1973, Nixon secretly recorded more than 3,700 hours of conversations dealing with a wide variety of subjects. Not all of the tapes were relevant to the investigation into the Watergate burglary, but, once it was revealed that phone conversations and meetings involving Nixon had been routinely recorded, it was inevitable that members of Congress would demand to hear them. It was simply a matter of pinpointing which conversations were relevant and asking for them.

At the time, I felt Nixon had been very nimble in his strategies to keep the investigators' hands off his tapes. Of course, I was a boy, and it probably wasn't too difficult to impress me. If I had used logic to assess the situation, I would have concluded that an innocent man would not have resisted as long or as adamantly as Nixon did. The tapes could only vindicate such an individual.

By late April of 1974, Nixon was running out of options. He had consistently maintained that it was his right to decide the evidence that would be produced against him, but neither special prosecutor Leon Jaworski nor House Judiciary Committee counsel John Doar was buying it so he tried a different gambit. He offered a compromise in a speech to the nation on April 29.

Nixon released edited transcripts of the conversations that had been subpoenaed. The transcripts were not always of the complete conversations, only the "relevant portions," and profane expressions from Nixon and others were replaced with the rapidly recognizable phrase "expletive deleted."

Americans had to take Nixon at his word that all the portions of the conversations that were relevant to the investigation were included. He would not provide the tapes for the committee members to hear for themselves, but he did pledge to invite House Judiciary Committee chairman Peter Rodino and the committee's ranking Republican member to come to the White House to listen to the tapes in their entirety "so that they can determine ... that the transcripts are accurate and that everything on the tapes relevant to my knowledge and my actions on Watergate is included."

If either man found a discrepancy or inappropriate omission, Nixon said he would "meet with them personally."

Midway through his speech, which sounded earnest and sincere, as if he were really trying to cooperate while maintaining the privilege of the executive, I felt Nixon's tone seemed to shift to one of defensiveness. That wasn't new for him.

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post reporters whose coverage of the scandal precipitated the congressional investigations and ultimately led to this night 40 years ago, wrote that "even Nixon's most severe critics thought the speech a very good one, at the least artfully constructed. The admissions he had made in the address ... seemed to make his broader claim of innocence more believable. The speech was less strident than usual, and less self–serving."

I can't really agree with that. Virtually every word that came from Nixon's mouth seemed to be self–serving.

(Executive privilege, by the way, wasn't a new thing. Over the years, it has come to be associated with national security and the need to keep conversations and documents on national security confidential. It has its American roots in the presidency of George Washington but was not invoked by another American president after Nixon until Bill Clinton two decades after Nixon resigned. Both of Clinton's successors — George W. Bush and Barack Obama — have invoked executive privilege.)

"Ever since the existence of the White House taping system was first made known last summer," Nixon said, "I have tried vigorously to guard the privacy of the tapes. I've been well aware that my effort to protect the confidentiality or presidential conversations has heightened the sense of mystery about Watergate — and, in fact, has caused increased suspicions of the president."

He then touched on the point I just made.

"Many people assume that the tapes must incriminate the president," Nixon continued, "or that, otherwise, he wouldn't insist on their privacy."

Nixon claimed a greater principle was at stake.

"Unless a president can protect the privacy of the advice he gets," Nixon asserted, "he cannot get the advice he needs."

Nixon said it was his "constitutional responsibility" to defend the principle, which had been maintained by every American president and upheld in court cases — but it had been defended with more vigor by the executive branch once America became a world power.

But Nixon said that three factors had convinced him that an "unprecedented exception" had to be made.
  1. "[T]he House of Representatives must be able to reach an informed judgment about the president's role in Watergate."
  2. "I believe such action is now necessary in order to restore the principle itself."
  3. "I believe all the American people, as well as their representatives in Congress, are entitled to have not only the facts but also the evidence that demonstrates those facts."

About three months later, the "smoking gun" of Nixon's involvement was made known — after the House Judiciary Committee had already drafted and approved articles of impeachment.

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