Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Let's Go to the Tape, Johnny! (Watergate Part 7)

Nixon secretary Rose Mary Woods demonstrates how she might have erased 18-1/2 minutes of a key Watergate tape.

For previous installments of my irregular series tracing the history of the Watergate scandal, click here. This week, the revelation of the White House taping system.

On July 16, 1973, as we learned in our last thrilling episode, former White House deputy assistant Alexander Butterfield revealed the existence of a heretofore secret White House taping system to the Senate Watergate Committee, more formally known as the Senate Select Committee to Investigate Campaign Practices. Two days later, on July 18, 1973, Nixon ordered the tape recorders turned off.

Unlike previous Presidential taping systems, the Nixon system was automatically activated by voice. Previously, the President had to manually activate the taping system by flipping a switch. Of course, no sensible president would voluntarily tape himself talking about potentially criminal actions, but in the case of Nixon, the automated nature of the tapes suggested that if he had indeed made self-incriminating statements, they would be on the tapes.

The previous month, former White House counsel John Dean had famously testified before the Watergate Committee. Although Dean himself had managed a large portion of the cover-up, he had increasingly suspected that he was being groomed as the scapegoat for the entire affair. As a result, he began providing information to the Special Prosecutor, and subsequently appeared before the Senate committee, implicating numerous senior administration officials including Attorney General John Mitchell and Richard Nixon himself.

The obvious flaw in Dean’s testimony was that it was his word against the President of the United States. But if the tapes confirmed what Dean was saying, it would substantiate his testimony. Accordingly, Archibald Cox, the Watergate Special Prosecutor, subpoenaed eight tapes.

Nixon initially refused to release the tapes, on the Constitutional grounds of executive privilege and the separation of powers, then added another claim that the tapes were vital to national security. In October 1973, under increasing political pressure, Nixon offered a compromise in which he would allow Mississippi Democratic Senator John Stennis to review and summarize the tapes, and report his findings to the Special Prosecutor.

When Cox refused the compromise, as chronicled in our last installment, Nixon ordered what became known as the Saturday Night Massacre. The pressure didn’t go away, and a few weeks later on November 1, Nixon appointed a new special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski. A few days later, on November 17, Nixon famously announced, “I am not a crook.”

As 1974 began, bad news for the Nixon Administration began to mount, and in April of that year, Nixon decided to release typed transcripts of the relevant tapes, from which the infamous phrase “expletive deleted” originated.

(As an aside, a friend of mine, the daughter of columnist Jack Anderson, told me how Anderson’s newspaper column got the transcripts before the Senate did. It seems that Anderson had a White House janitor on his payroll, who fished the single-use carbon paper out of the trashcans and delivered it to Anderson. The daughter, Laurie, taped the carbons to a lampshade and typed up the contents for her father.)

Meanwhile, the court case made its way to the Supreme Court. On July 24, 1974, in the case United States v. Nixon, ruled unanimously (with justice William Rehnquist recused because he had formerly worked for Nixon’s Justice Department) that the tapes should be released. Six days later, on July 30, Nixon complied. The transcripts confirmed Dean’s testimony.

The damage was already done. The House Judiciary Committee had passed two articles of impeachment already, with the third passed on the same day the tapes were released. To avoid a trial in the Senate that he would surely lose, Nixon resigned the presidency on August 8, 1974.

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