HISTORY v RICHARD NIXON
"TITTER YE NOT"
What's the difference between Watergate and Zippergate?
At least this time, there's no doubt about the identity of "Deep Throat."
A honeymoon couple is in the Watergate Hotel in Washington. The bride is concerned. “What if the place is still bugged?” The groom says, “I’ll look for a bug.” He looks behind the drapes, behind the pictures and under the rug. “AHA!” Under the rug was a disc with four screws.
He gets a screwdriver, unscrews the screws, and throws the disc out the window. The next day, the hotel manager asks the newlyweds, “How was your room? How was the service? How was your stay at the Watergate Hotel?” The groom says, “Why are you asking me all of these questions?” The hotel manager says “Well, the room under you complained of the chandelier falling on them!”
It is the 33rd anniversary of the Watergate break-in.
That was a time when the president of the United States couldn’t be trusted to tell the American people the truth… thirty years ago… but it feels just like yesterday.
The Nixon White House tapes are audio recordings of the
communications of U.S. President Richard Nixon and various
Nixon administration officials and White House staff, ordered by
the President for his personal records.
The taping system was installed in selected rooms in the White
House in February 1971 and was voice activated. The records
come from line-taps placed on the telephones and small hidden
microphones in various locations around the rooms. The
recordings were produced on up to nine Sony TC-800B open-
reel tape recorders. The recorders were turned off on July 18,
1973, two days after they became public knowledge as a result
of the Watergate hearings.
Nixon was not the first president to record his White House
conversations; the practice began with President Franklin D.
Roosevelt and continued under Presidents Harry S. Truman,
Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson. It also continued under
Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton,
George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump.
What differentiated the Nixon system from the others, however, is the fact that the Nixon
system was automatically activated by voice as opposed to being manually activated by a
switch. The Watergate tapes are interspersed among the Nixon White House tapes. The
tapes gained fame during the Watergate scandal of 1973 and 1974 when the system was
made public during the televised testimony of White House aide Alexander Butterfield. Only a
few White House employees had ever been aware that this system existed. Special Counsel
Archibald Cox, a former United States Solicitor General under President John F. Kennedy,
asked District Court Judge John Sirica to subpoena eight relevant tapes to confirm the
testimony of White House Counsel John Dean.
On August 20, 2013, the Nixon Library and the National Archives and Records Administration
released the final 340 hours of the tapes that cover the period from April 9 through July 12,
On February 16, 1971, the taping system was installed in two rooms in the White House:
Oval Office and the Cabinet Room. Three months later, microphones were added to President Nixon's private office in the Old Executive Office Building, and the following year microphones were installed in the presidential lodge at Camp David. The system was installed and monitored by the Secret Service, and tapes were kept in a room in the White House basement. Significant phone lines were tapped as well, including those in the Oval Office and the Lincoln Sitting Room, which was Nixon's favorite room in the White House. Only a select few individuals knew of the existence of the taping system. The recordings were produced on as many as nine Sony TC-800B machines using very thin 0.5 mil tape at the extremely slow speed of 15/16 inches per second. The tapes contain over 3,000 hours of conversation. Hundreds of hours are of discussions on foreign policy, including planning for the 1972 Nixon visit to China and subsequent visit to the Soviet Union. Only 200 hours of the 3,500 contain references to Watergate and less than 5% of the recordings have been transcribed or published.
"I would have made a good Pope."
"I would not like to be a Russian leader. They never know when they're being taped."
—President Richard Nixon
The existence of the White House taping system was first confirmed by
Senate Committee staff member Donald Sanders , on July 13, 1973, in an
interview with White House aide Alexander Butterfield. Three days later, it was
made public during the televised testimony of Butterfield, when he was asked
about the possibility of a White House taping system by Senate Counsel Fred
On July 16, 1973, Alexander Butterfield told the committee in a televised
hearing that Nixon had ordered a taping system installed in the White House
to automatically record all conversations; it was possible to concretely verify
what the president said, and when he said it. Only a few White House
employees had ever been aware that this system existed. Special Counsel
Archibald Cox, a former United States Solicitor General under President John
F. Kennedy, asked District Court Judge John Sirica to subpoena nine relevant
tapes to confirm the testimony of White House Counsel John Dean.
President Nixon initially refused to release the tapes, for two reasons:
the Constitutional principle of executive privilege extends to the tapes and
citing the separation of powers and checks and balances within the
Constitution, and second, claiming they were vital to national security. On
October 19, 1973, he offered a compromise; Nixon proposed that U.S.
Senator John C. Stennis , a Democrat of Mississippi, review and summarize
the tapes for accuracy and report his findings to the special prosecutor's office.
Special prosecutor Archibald Cox refused the compromise and on Saturday,
October 20, 1973, Nixon ordered the Attorney General, Elliot Richardson, to
dismiss Cox. Richardson refused and resigned instead, as did Deputy
Attorney General William Ruckelshaus. Solicitor General and acting head of
the Justice Department Robert Bork discharged Cox. Nixon appointed Leon
Jaworski special counsel on November 1, 1973.
According to President Nixon's secretary, Rose Mary Woods , on September
29, 1973 she was reviewing a tape of the June 20, 1972, recordings when she
said she had made "a terrible mistake" during transcription. While playing the
tape on a Uher 5000, she answered a phone call. Reaching for the Uher 5000
stop button, she said that she mistakenly hit the button next to it, the record
button. For the duration of the phone call, about 5 minutes, she kept her foot
on the device's pedal, causing a five-minute portion of the tape to be re-
recorded. When she listened to the tape, the gap had grown to 18½ minutes
and she later insisted that she was not responsible for the remaining 13
minutes of buzz.
The contents missing from the recording remain unknown to this day. It is
widely believed that the tapes recorded a conversation between Nixon and
Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman . Nixon said that he never heard the
conversation and did not know the topics of the missing tapes. Haldeman's
notes from the meeting show that among the topics of discussion were the
arrests at the Watergate Hotel. White House lawyers first heard the now
infamous 18½ minute gap on the evening of November 14, 1973, and Judge
Sirica, who had issued the subpoenas for the tapes, was not told until
November 21, after the President's attorneys had decided that there was "no
innocent explanation" they could offer.
BOW WOW WOW
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Woods was asked to replicate the position she took to cause that accident. Seated at a desk, she reached far back over her left shoulder for a telephone as her foot applied pressure to the pedal controlling the transcription machine. Her posture during the demonstration, dubbed
the " Rose Mary Stretch ", resulted in many political commentators questioning the validity of the explanation.
In a grand jury interview in 1975, Nixon noted that he initially believed that only four minutes of the tape was missing. When he later heard that 18 minutes was missing, he said, " I practically blew my stack."
Nixon's counsel, John Dean, has said that "These recordings also
largely answer the questions regarding what was known by the White House about the reasons for the break-in and bugging at the Democratic National Committee headquarters, as well as what was erased during the infamous 18½-minute gap during the June 20, 1972, conversation and why."
A variety of suggestions have been made as to who could have erased the tape. Years later, former White House Chief of Staff
Alexander Haig speculated that the erasures may conceivably have been caused by Nixon himself. According to Haig, the President was spectacularly inept at understanding and operating mechanical devices, and in the course of reviewing the tape in question, he may have caused the erasures by fumbling with the recorder's controls; whether inadvertently or intentionally, Haig could not say. In 1973, Haig had speculated aloud that the erasure was caused by an unidentified "sinister force". Others have suggested that Haig was involved in deliberately erasing the tapes with Nixon's involvement, or that the erasure was conducted by a White House lawyer.
Nixon himself launched the first investigation into how the tapes were erased. He claimed that it was an intensive investigation but came up empty. On November 21, 1973, Sirica appointed a panel of persons nominated jointly by the White House and the Special Prosecution Force. The panel was supplied with the Evidence Tape, the seven Sony 800B recorders from the Oval Office and Executive Office Building, and two Uher 5000 recorders . One Uher 5000 was marked "Secret Service". The other was accompanied by a foot pedal, respectively labeled Government Exhibit 60 and 60B. The panel determined that the buzz was of no consequence, and that the gap was due to erasure performed on the Exhibit 60 Uher. The panel also determined that the erasure/buzz recording consisted of at least five separate segments, possibly as many as nine, and that at least five segments required hand operation; that is, they could not have been performed using the foot pedal. The panel was subsequently asked by
the court to consider alternative explanations that had emerged during the hearings. The final report, dated May 31, 1974, found these other explanations did not contradict the original findings.
The National Archives now owns the tape, and has tried several
times to recover the missing minutes, most recently in 2003. None of
the Archives' attempts have been successful. The tapes are now
preserved in a climate-controlled vault in case a future technological
development allows for restoration of the missing audio. Corporate
security expert Phil Mellinger undertook a project to restore
Haldeman's handwritten notes describing the missing 18½ minutes,
though that effort also failed to produce any new information.
In April 1974, the House Judiciary Committee subpoenaed the tapes
of 42 White House conversations. At the end of that month, Nixon
released edited transcripts of the White House tapes, again citing
executive privilege and national security; the Judiciary Committee,
however, rejected Nixon’s edited transcripts, saying that they did not
comply with the subpoena.
Sirica, acting on a request from Jaworski, issued a subpoena for the
tapes of 64 presidential conversations to use as evidence in the
criminal cases against indicted former Nixon administration officials.
Nixon refused, and Jaworski appealed to the Supreme Court to force Nixon to turn
over the tapes. On July 24, the Supreme Court voted 8-0 (Justice William
Rehnquist reacused himself) in United States v. Nixon that Nixon must turn over the
In late July 1974, the White House released the subpoenaed tapes. One of those
tapes was the so-called "smoking gun" tape, from June 23, 1972, six days after the
Watergate break-in. In that tape, Nixon agrees that administration officials should
approach Richard Helms, Director of the CIA, and Vernon A. Walters, Deputy
Director, and ask them to request L. Patrick Gray , Acting Director of the FBI, to halt
the Bureau's investigation into the Watergate break-in on the grounds that it was a
national security matter. The special prosecutor felt that Nixon, in so agreeing, had
entered into a criminal conspiracy whose goal was the obstruction of justice.
Once the " smoking gun " tape was made public on August 5, Nixon's political support
practically vanished. The ten Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee who had
voted against impeachment in committee announced that they would now vote for
impeachment once the matter reached the House floor. He lacked substantial support
in the Senate as well; Barry Goldwater and Hugh Scott estimated no more than 15
Senators were willing to even consider acquittal. Facing certain impeachment in the House of Representatives and equally certain conviction in the Senate, Nixon announced his resignation on the evening of Thursday, August 8, to take effect noon the next day. After Nixon's resignation, the federal government took control of all of his presidential records, including the tapes, in the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act of 1974. From the time that the federal government seized his records until his death, Nixon was locked in frequent legal battles over control of the tapes; Nixon argued that the act was unconstitutional in that it violated the Constitutional principles of separation of powers and executive privilege, and infringed on his personal privacy rights and First Amendment right of association.
The legal squabbling would continue for 25 years, past Nixon's death. He initially lost several cases, but the courts ruled in 1998 that some 820 hours and 42 million pages of documents were his personal private property and had to be returned to his estate. On July 11, 2007, the National Archives were given official control of the previously privately operated Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace in Yorba Linda, California. The newly renamed facility, the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum , now houses the tapes and releases additional tapes to the public periodically, which are available online and in the public domain.
In an updated version of his song "Alice's Restaurant",
shortly after Nixon's death in 1994, musician Arlo Guthrie
recalls learning that Chip Carter had found a copy of the
original LP in the Nixon library, and later wondering whether
it was a coincidence that both the original "Alice's
Restaurant" track and the infamous gap in the Nixon tapes
were "exactly 18 minutes and 20 seconds long."
Joe Strummer references the Watergate Tapes in the lyrics
of the song "I'm So Bored With the U.S.A." by the Clash.
In the 2007 film National Treasure:
Book of Secrets,
protagonist Riley Poole mentions the missing segment of
the tapes in his conspiracy theory novel.
In the film Dick, Arlene records a love message to Nixon
and sings a song for 18½ minutes, which Nixon lateerases for fear of people thinking he was having an affair with a minor.
In the "Day of the Moon" episode from the television show Doctor Who, the Doctor tells Nixon he must record all conversations in his office in case he is under the influence of the Silence, aliens that could use post-hypnotic suggestion to make him do what they wanted. At the end of the episode the Doctor informs Nixon, who now believes the human race to be safe, that there are
still other aliens out there wanting to destroy Earth, indicating this is the reason the tapes began and continued, in fear of aliens influencing him.
In "The Obsolescent Cryogenic Meltdown", an episode of the ABC Family series The Middleman, a previous Middleman is at a high-stakes card game where the only items in the pot are priceless objects; he stakes an old-fashioned tape recorder, claiming that it holds "the missing eighteen minutes".
In the film X-Men:
Days of Future Past, Nixon is featured as a character and it is suggested that the contents of the tapes relate to the US government's involvement with anti-mutant activities.
You must pursue this investigation of Watergate even if it leads to the president. I'm innocent. You've got to believe I'm innocent. If you don't, take my job.
Richard M. Nixon