The comparisons made between current President Donald Trump and former president Richard Nixon prompted me to dig up an essay I wrote 20 years ago.
A piece about the Nixon Tapes, my paper also contains a casual reference to Nixon considering ways to remove FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover from his position. Well, history repeats itself, doesn’t it? Nearly 46 years later the president of the United States fired FBI Chief James Comey. More on the Nixon-Hoover thing follows below.
For now, let’s go back to a college essay I submitted in 1997: Cue tape!
My Kingdom for a Pause Button!
In 1974, the leader of the free world was proven a crook. In 1994, he was proven a thug as well.
In history’s greatest example of self-incrimination, U.S. President Richard Nixon personally detailed his involvement in a variety of illegal and immoral activities by recording thousands of hours of his own private White House conversations. An untimely subpoena of the worst of the recordings ruined his presidency and a 20-year battle against the release of the remaining material destroyed his image. Even after Nixon’s death in 1994, when his estate agreed to release the remaining conversations, the fight continued.
Today, the Nixon estate wants to laboriously cut Nixon’s private discussions out of the remaining tapes, an act that the U.S. government believes will irrevocably damage the aged recordings. Operating from 1971 to 1973, the sound-activated taping system recorded about 4,000 hours of material on 950 reels. Sixty hours were made available to the public in 1974, and a further 200 (so far) after 1994. With 820 hours of private or personal conversations scattered through the entire catalogue, the tapes may soon be chopped and spliced.
Let’s pause for a minute and examine the portions of tape that were released; can any future declassification improve the image of the shattered ex-president?
Set counter to 1974
On April 30, 1974, Nixon was a worried man.
The White House, under pressure to hand selected tapes dealing with obstruction of justice matters to the House Judiciary Committee, released edited transcriptions of the tapes in question. Within days a shocked American public had access to these transcripts, which placed their president in an unsavory light. Numerous “(unintelligible)s,” “(inaudible)s” and “(expletive deleted)s” dotted the transcriptions like holes in Swiss cheese, launching the public’s imagination of what words these terms replaced. Their surprise was justified. These first 60 hours were the worst of the worst – the material necessary to indict the president and his aides. The world so far eavesdropped on only 1.5 per cent of the catalogue of recordings. Specifically, Nixon’s attempt to order the CIA to halt the FBI’s investigation into the illegal activities of his underlings hastened his end when it surfaced on one of the subpoena’d tapes.
After his resignation in 1974, Nixon began his fight to keep the remaining recordings secret, which were recently put under protection by the Presidential Recordings and Materials Act of 1974.
Fast forward to 1994
Nixon passed away in 1994 with his fight still unresolved. In 1978, the Presidential Records Act stated that former presidents were able to restrict what could be made public. However, the Nixon estate agreed to release the Nixon tapes piecemeal beginning mid-1994. Again the focus was on the former president’s weaknesses. His ramblings were highlighted, giving a public hungry for presidential fallacies more examples of his shortcomings. Conversations discussing ways to force FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover out of office typifies the subjects of public interest contained in these recordings, which continued to damage Nixon’s blemished reputation.
Why would the president commit to tape statements that would mar his standing with the public? Nixon had installed the taping system following the examples of previous presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson (although Johnson had also installed a “stop” switch – a device that could have saved Nixon’s presidency). He wanted a reliable record to prevent distortion of facts and statements, and was thinking of releasing an edited chronicle of his presidential conduct at some later date. Unfortunately for the president and his aides, Nixon saw the recordings as a way to trap his aides, notably former Counsel to the President John Dean, into perjuring themselves as they began to testify against the president in 1973. On July 16, 1973, White House Aide Alexander Butterworth broke Nixon’s rule of secrecy concerning the recording system and informed the Senate Watergate Committee of the existence of the tapes. The reels became evidence, preventing them from being destroyed. Nixon suddenly lost his sole ownership over the miles of tattered tape recordings.
Today, the U.S. government is again seeking the preservation of the Nixon recordings. A federal court in Washington has recently declared that the government is required to protect the tapes, and that it is under no obligation to cut out the personal and private conversations, as demanded by Nixon’s estate. A hearing on the matter is scheduled for February 1998.
Whatever the outcome, Nixon’s personal comments will probably never be accessible to the public. Despite what may yet be released, the damage has already been done. Interest in the tapes highlights Nixon’s shady dealings; if a person wishes to scan the 200 hours of recently released tapes to find some altruistic presidential act, he may do so by visiting the National Archives. He may want to bring a pillow.
So, between my writing of this essay (as a youngster, let’s be honest) and 2013, all of the Nixon recordings have been released, nearly 4,000 hours of conversation. Also, Nixon didn’t have Hoover removed, although, according to the Nixon Tapes, he said, “my view is [Hoover] oughta resign while he’s on top, before he becomes an issue.” The implication here being Nixon’s concern over Hoover’s advancing age and arguable senility. Soon after, he counsels against any drastic action: “I think we’ve got to avoid the situation where he could leave with a blast.” He wanted to avoid the “blast” of repercussion that’s today affecting Trump presidency after the Comey firing.
And here’s an interesting side note. John Dean, the former Nixon counsel mentioned in the essay, today tweets regularly against Trump. History not only repeats, it’s cyclical.
Note: I did consider using my time machine to travel back to 1997 to remove my mistaken prediction that Nixon’s personal comments would not be accessible to the public, and to add some text predicting Trump’s 2016 election win and 2017 Comey firing. But waiting to be proven right and getting my mark upgraded two decades after the fact didn’t seem worth it to me.
Note note: More on John Dean in a later blog. I found him a very interesting Watergate figure – the one with certainly the best sound bite on any of the miles of Nixon Tapes (uttered when he suspected he was being taped…).
Note note note: One of the tape recorders used by the Nixon presidency is on display at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. Bring the kids!