WASHINGTON — It’s a good thing Richard Nixon was such a klutz.
The president’s ineptness at all things mechanical is what prompted his aides to install a voice-activated recording system that didn’t require Nixon to push an on-off button, ensuring that every word he spoke in the Oval Office and other key locations was caught on tape.
With the secret taping system on autopilot — seven microphones planted in wall sconces and the president’s desk — Nixon largely forgot about it, and let loose with the raw, gossipy, conniving and too-clever words that ultimately toppled his presidency and forever changed the way Americans think about their presidents and their government.
The tapes — the last installment of them released Wednesday — are like the black box in an increasingly out-of-control airplane, recording right up to the crash.
In the tapes, Americans began to see their presidents as “less glorious, less heroic, less romantic — either more like us, or more like people we don’t like,” says presidential historian Julian Zelizer of Princeton University.
For more than three decades, the secrets of the tapes have trickled out, Nixon’s conspiratorial voice cutting through the clinking coffee cups, the sirens in the distance and the thumps when he plopped his feet on the desk, so much more vivid and revealing than any memo recounting selective details of a presidential meeting.
Perhaps the most famous snippet: the “smoking gun” conversation recorded six days after the Watergate break-in of June 17, 1972, in which Nixon instructs chief of staff H.R. Haldeman to tell the FBI, “Don’t go any further into this case, period.”
Without the tapes, the Watergate investigation could well have dried up. Instead, the tapes’ expletive-deleted revelations riveted the nation and brought down a president. And even as Watergate slips further in the rearview mirror, a legacy of distrust and cynicism endures, passed from one generation to the next in dinner-table conversation and digital clips on YouTube.
That’s not all bad, scholars argue. People watch more closely, demand more accountability.
“We should be skeptical about our governments,” says historian Ken Hughes of the University of Virginia’s Miller Center presidential recordings program. “We should demand that our government prove itself to us.”
The last 340 hours of more than 3,700 hours of Nixon tapes came from the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, Calif., covering April 9, 1973, to July 12, 1973 — the day before the secret taping system was revealed.
Little more than a year later, done in by the revelations on the tapes, Nixon resigned on Aug. 9, 1974. It took four decades, though, for the public to gain access to the last of the tapes.
“It’s over, and I won,” says historian Stanley Kutler, whose 1992 lawsuit helped lead to the tapes’ release. “All the tapes are out, and it’s there for every historian, every generation to judge. … Never until Nixon have we been so able to get into the mind of a president.”
The Nixon tapes’ final installment, still being scoured for revelations, already offers new details from inside the White House.
On April 30, 1973, Nixon takes calls from two future presidents — Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush — who offer private support after his first major national address about Watergate. Nixon complains about the reaction from TV pundits, telling Bush, “To hell with the commentators.”
The tapes cover far more than Watergate, of course, and Wednesday’s release includes audio of Nixon and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev chatting one-on-one in the Oval Office before their June 1973 summit, with only an interpreter present.
The conversation reveals remarkable camaraderie, as the two men chat about their families, Brezhnev talking about his grandson’s attempts to pass college entrance exams.
“These are Cold War archenemies who are talking like old friends,” says Luke Nichter of Texas A&M University-Central Texas in Killeen, who runs a website cataloging Nixon’s secret recordings. “This is very unusual.”