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Watergate dominates 1973 tapes of Nixon White House

Douglas Caddy

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Watergate dominates 1973 tapes of Nixon White House
Posted: 12:00 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015
By Charles Ealy – Austin American-Statesman Staff

Central Texas historians Douglas Brinkley and Luke A. Nichter wrap up their monumental effort to transcribe and annotate the tapes made by President Richard Nixon in “The Nixon Tapes: 1973,” and it’s astonishing to see how much time the White House devoted in 1973 to the previous year’s Watergate break-in.
The new book takes up where their previous book, “The Nixon Tapes: 1971-72,” ended. Nixon installed the elaborate taping devices in the White House in 1971 because he thought the tapes “would help set his administration’s record straight and allow him to maintain the upper hand on history.”
The recordings, of course, turned out to be his downfall. “When listening to the Nixon tapes of 1973, it’s impossible not to hear growing paranoia in the president’s voice,” Brinkley and Nichter write. But they note that much is still unclear about 1973, mainly because a large number of the remaining Nixon tapes are currently restricted from public access.
Among the remaining mysteries, they note, are: “Who ordered the Watergate break-in? What were the burglars looking for? Why did so many have FBI or CIA backgrounds?”
Whatever the answers, much of the blame for Nixon’s downfall can be placed on his aides — former Attorney General John Mitchell, White House Chief of Staff H.R. “Bob” Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, assistant to the president for domestic affairs.
“One of the great tragedies revealed in this book is the refusal of Mitchell, Haldeman, and Ehrlichman to level honestly with Nixon following the break-in when the crisis was still manageable,” Brinkley and Nichter write. “The White House staff’s instinct was to keep details from Nixon in order to protect him, but they ended up fatally wounding his presidency. Nixon should have put his advisors in a White House conference room and told them to reveal the complete story of the Watergate break-in. Instead, as is made clear in this book, the first time Nixon did this was March 22, 1973, and by then everyone was turning on each other. By April, every major White House figure had a defense attorney, and many were cooperating with prosecutors.”
That was especially true for John Dean, the counsel to the president, who came to recognize two points by March 21 — that both he and the administration “were in the midst of a truly massive crisis” and that “the president had a shockingly poor grasp of the facts of Watergate.”
Dean decided that he had to tell Nixon what he knew and when he knew it. He also expressed his fears that E. Howard Hunt, who was a member of the Plumbers unit and among those arrested in January for the Watergate break-in, would implicate other people. That’s when Nixon “pressed the idea of payments in the form of hush money: up to $1 million. Within one day, Hunt had his first payment of $75,000. That constituted obstruction of justice and was the beginning of the end of the Nixon presidency.”
In the same meeting with Nixon, Dean tried to make Nixon understand how serious the situation had become. “I think there’s no doubt about the seriousness of the problem we’re — we’ve got,” he said. “We have a cancer — within — close to the presidency, that’s growing. It’s growing daily. It’s compounding. It grows geometrically now, because it compounds itself. That’ll be clear as I explain, you know, some of the details of why it is.”
But within weeks, Dean, knowing that he was in legal trouble, began cooperating with Watergate investigators, much to the White House’s dismay.
By April 30, Nixon was preparing to give a speech to the nation on Watergate, where he was to announce the departure of Haldeman and Ehrlichman, “although even in their last days on the White staff they weren’t certain how they’d leave or even if they would,” Brinkley and Nichter write.
Ehrlichman had been asking for a private meeting with Nixon, “probably to campaign one last time for his job,” the authors write. “It was all to no avail. Nixon also had to deal with the problem of John Dean, who appeared to be out of options in seeking immunity from prosecutors.”
Brinkley, an Austin resident and professor at Rice University in Houston, and Nichter, an associate professor of history at Texas A&M-Central Texas, have done a great service by transcribing and annotating the available records. But they acknowledge that much more information is still not available.
One intriguing note, mentioned more than 650 pages into the book, is this: “On May 14, 1973, John Dean turned over a secret cache of intelligence records to Judge John Sirica, effectively a shot across the Nixon White House bow. … Among the documents were the White House copy of the Huston Plan, a program of surveillance and illicit activities aimed at American citizens, and related correspondence. The CIA, NSA, and DIA worked intensely to make sure the records, which included details of government domestic intelligence, electronic eavesdropping, and even break-ins, were not linked to the Watergate wiretapping and break-in. In the end, they cut a deal with Sirica, and the records have remained in the custody of the District Court for the District of Columbia ever since.”
The Nixon Tapes: 1973
Douglas Brinkley and Luke A. Nichter, editors
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $35

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