Photo (doctored for clarity) via Wikimedia Commons.
In light of the ongoing everyone-is-reading-your-email revelations, it’s tempting to view the Nixon tapes, the last of which were released this week, as almost a charming throwback.
In February 1971, President Richard Milhouse Nixon had the Secret Service install listening devices in the White House. There were seven microphones in the Oval Office, and two in the Cabinet Room, and nine of which were hooked up to open-reel tape recorders in a basement closet. The Secret Service then installed microphones in the president’s office in the Executive Office Building, and tapped the telephones in the Oval Office, EOB and Lincoln Sitting Room. Then, just be sure, they tapped the phone and the president’s study at Camp David in April 1972.
Newly released audio from the Nixon tapes.
Only Nixon’s closest aides knew about the tape recorders, which captured about 3,700 hours of conversations until their existence was made public in July 1973, and the system was removed. The first tapes came to the public during the Watergate trial, and the rest trickled out through trials, specific inquiries, and now by way of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.
About a thousand hours of the tapes won’t be released for a number of reasons. Some recordings are personal information and were returned to the Nixon estate. The audio on some sections is too bad to be worth attempting to transcribe or release. Some are still being withheld–and this feels familiar–for national security reasons.
The latest release is the last of the chronological release of Nixon tapes, dating from April 1973 to July 12, right before they were discovered and dismantled. They comprise 340 hours of Nixon talking with Henry Kissinger, Bob Haldeman, Alexander Haig and other favorites from the Nixon White House, with cameos from then-Governor of California Ronald Reagan, then-ambassador to the UN George H.W. Bush, and even Soviet Secretary General Leonid “Eyebrows” Brezhnev.
Brezhnev and Nixon at the White House via Flickr.
These last tapes cover a fascinating few months of American history: The last American troops in Vietnam had just left in March and the United States was still trying to get back troops who were MIA and negotiate self-determination for South Vietnam. The Justice Department was trying to end an Oglala Sioux group’s occupation of Wounded Knee, South Dakota. The full extent of the Watergate scandal was emerging as the grand jury proceedings began April 5, 1973, beginning the end of the administration.
The fidelity of the recordings won’t knock Robin Thicke off the top of the charts, as the quality is pretty come and go. The tapes recorded at an extremely slow rate, which pushed the quality down. The discrete placement of microphones meant that clinking glasses or people being across the room, or hitting the table could ruin sections of the recordings.
There is, of course, the famous missing 18.5 minutes that was initially erased on accident by a transcriber back in the 70s. She initially thought only about four minutes were missing, which leaves enough time for conspiracy theories to run wild. I’ll only say I wish the tapes containing these Nixon campaign songs were the ones that got blanked.
But there’s enough good stuff for the Los Angeles Times to say the tapes, “reveal a president who is at times reflective, profane, self-pitying and intent on destroying political rivals such as Ted Kennedy.”
But Nixon’s later work is somewhat of a tonal shift from what we expect of the notorious red-hating Nixon. He speaks of working with China. He and Brezhnev talk about the importance of lowering the tension between the two post-war superpowers. During the weeklong Washington summit the two leaders have a convivial rapport. Brezhnev shows off his cigarette case that only opens on a timer and Nixon seems amused and says, “That’s a way to discipline yourself.”
From the 21st Century the content of the Nixon tapes—the casual sexism and racism and paranoia—are shocking, but the existence of the recordings seems almost banal. So much of communication is recorded just as it’s made, and when it surfaces via Wikileaks or wherever, people applaud the transparency of it all. The Nixon tapes were evidence in an investigation into Abuse of Governmental Power, and were part of the Watergate case that lead to the administration’s ouster.
But maybe this makes the Nixon tapes an even more fascinating relic, as they may contain the last truly candid recordings. They might contain the last time people spoke frankly in the White House. After Nixon's public destruction and his predecessor Jimmy Carter's blunder of saying America was having a "crisis of confidence", everyone realized what a liability displaying human frailty could be.
It already feels like we live in a world of Nixon’s creation—China is our most important trading partner, the most advantageous political position is playing the victim (no matter how powerful you actually are), and if you need someone to blame, “the media” is always there. And, of course, everyone recording everyone else is de rigor.
If the objections of Nixon's lawyers, and those who represent his estate since his death, is any indication, the release of the tapes is a final, ironic punishment for Nixon. The man whose downfall was brought about by spying is sentenced to having his own conversations forever belong to history.