Richard Nixon said he wanted his administration to be "the best chronicled in history." But when Alexander Butterfield disclosed the existence of a voice-activated taping system to a Senate committee in July 1973, Nixon's White House and its recordings quickly became the most infamous in American history. The tapes dominated the final two years of Nixon's presidency, and almost single-handedly forced his resignation.
But only 60 hours were actually made public in the 1970s. Many thousands of hours remained secret and in Nixon's hands, and he fought fiercely to keep them that way right up to his death. Finally, thanks to a lawsuit brought by historian Stanley I. Kutler with the advocacy group Public Citizen, a landmark 1996 settlement with the Nixon estate and the National Archives is bringing over 3,000 hours of tapes to light. The initial release in November 1996 of over 200 hours of material comprised all those conversations concerning abuse of power -- every Watergate-related tape, as well as those concerning many other campaign misdeeds and some Pentagon Papers discussions. Finally, the full story of Nixon's downfall can be told.
From Ehrlichman's saying, "Dean's been admonished not to contrive a story that's liable not to succeed" to Nixon's asking, "Is the line pretty well set now on, when asked about Watergate, as to what everybody says and does, to stonewall?" Abuse of Power reveals a much more extensive cover-up than ever realized. From Colson's announcing, "Well, we did a little dirty trick this morning" to Nixon's ordering a McGovern watch "around the clock" to the planting of a spy in Ted Kennedy's Secret Service detail, Abuse of Power redefines the meaning of campaign tactics. And from a worried discussion of Dwayne Andreas's "bag man" to Nixon's stating that the burglars "have to be paid. That's all there is to that," to a quiet conversation with Rose Mary Woods to see if there remained $100,000 in his safe for "a campaign thing that we're talking about," here is a money trail that anyone can follow.
Packed with revelations on almost every page, the Abuse of Power tapes offer a spellbinding portrait of raw power and a Shakespearean depiction of a king and his court. Never have the personalities of Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Colson, Haig, Kissinger, Dean, and Mitchell been so vividly captured with the spoken word. And never has an American President offered such a revealing record of his darkest self.
Nixon: "I can't believe that they can tie [Watergate] to me. What's your feeling " H.R. Haldeman: "It'll be messy." Right. Twenty-five years after the existence of Nixon's secret White House tape recordings became known, Kutler sued for and won their release. The excerpts provided in this excellent production are a fine example of oral history at its most dramatic (see also Michael Beschloss's Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes, Audio Reviews LJ 2/1/98). Actor William Windom captures the vocal expressions listeners associate with Nixon. The voices of Haldeman, John Erlichman, Henry Kissinger, John Dean, Alexander Haig, and Rose Mary Woods are rendered realistically by an ensemble company. The effect is riveting and brings the listener into the Oval Office with Nixon and the White House staff as they try to distance themselves from the firestorm of allegation being leveled at them from outside. By the end, even Nixon is referring to himself in the third person to separate himself from the inevitability of the official investigation. All libraries will want at least one copy of this production, especially those with a focus on 20th-century political history. Barbara Valle, El Paso P.L., Tex. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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September 22, 1998
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Excerpt from Abuse Of Power by Stanley Kutler
The year of events following the Watergate break-in is at the heart of this story. Prophetically, at the outset, Nixon and Haldeman discussed their special secret the taping system on June 20, 1972. The President thought that it "complicates things all over." Haldeman replied: "They say it's extremely good. I haven't listened to the tapes." And Nixon quietly said: "They're kept for future purposes."
The arrest of E. Howard Hunt, a former CIA operative, following the Watergate break-in, filled Nixon with foreboding. On June 22, 1972, Haldeman told Nixon that Hunt, who had been involved in the Watergate break-in, "is in the process of disappearing." The next day, Nixon remarked that Hunt had "done a lot of things." Meanwhile, the first cover-up appears at the same time when Nixon learned of an attempt to pin it all on G. Gordon Liddy ("Is Liddy willing?" Nixon queried). A year later (April 10), Nixon worried that Hunt would expose "an earlier venture" meaning the Plumbers and their illegal activities. Typically, such insights alternated with the President's remarks about the "comic opera" and "stupid" overtones of the caper, as he called it. Haldeman warned him of the "various lines of interlinkage in the whole damn business" (June 26, 1972), obviously referring to past White House activities that had involved such men as Hunt. But from the outset, Nixon recognized the problem of, and the difficulty of maintaining, a cover-up. On June 29, 1972, he told Haldeman, "It's a time bomb"; the next day, he said: "You can't cover this thing up, Bob." The next month (July 19), he invoked memories of the Alger Hiss case (a favorite theme): "If you cover up, you're going to get caught." That day, too, Nixon and Ehrlichman discussed whether Magruder could take responsibility. The President was now involved in the specifics of testimony (July 19: "Can't he [Magruder] state it just a little different?"). He still hoped to keep Mitchell free from blame. Yet one by one, each such firewall would be breached in the coming year. By May 29, 1973, thoroughly exasperated, Nixon would claim that the cover-up, "the whole Goddamn thing, frankly, was done because it involved Mitchell."