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Watergate Tapes

John Simkin

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Members might be interested in the fact that Rose Mary Woods died on 22nd January. This is her obituary in today's Guardian.

One of the enduring images of the Watergate scandal in the 1970s is a photograph of Richard Nixon's long-serving private secretary, Rose Mary Woods, showing how she had accidentally erased 18 mins 30 seconds of one of the crucial clandestine recordings of the president's Oval Office conversations. Three decades later, ranks of audio scientists have been unable to retrieve the conversation that Nixon had with his chief of staff.

Now Ms Woods, who has died aged 87, has taken the secret to the grave. It is fair to say that, once she had re-enacted the incident, few believed that she could have inadvertently pressed the "record" button when a telephone call interrupted her transcription of the tape. Her office layout meant she would have needed the skills of a limbo dancer to achieve what she said had happened.

When the Senate committee investigating the break-in at the Democrats' Watergate office learned that secret recordings had been made of all conversations in the Oval Office, they were immediately subpoenaed. Amid the barrage of legal objections raised by the White House, it was not always clear which tapes were being demanded by the federal court.

One of the first recordings Ms Woods had begun transcribing for the court on November 26 1973 dealt with conversations the president had on June 20 1972 - three days after the burglars had been arrested and their connection with the White House established. That morning Nixon had talked to John Ehrlichman, his domestic adviser, from 10.25am to 11.20am and then to his chief of staff, HR Haldeman, from 11.26am to 12.45pm.

The subpoena for the tapes covered the period from 10.30am to noon, leaving the White House to argue that the Haldeman portion was not relevant. According to Ms Woods's account to Judge John Sirica, she was using a foot pedal to start and stop the tape while she was typing the transcription. When her phone rang she said she had pressed the "stop" button on the machine itself, but then kept her foot on the pedal. After a five-minute conversation she discovered to her horror that she had not only pressed the "record" button but also kept the tape running, deleting a whole section.

Coming from a bright and experienced secretary who had dealt with Dictaphone and other recordings for years, the story never made much sense. It was even less convincing when expert examination showed that there had been at least five, and possibly nine, separate and contiguous erasures of the tape, removing a total of 18 mins 30 secs. According to the Watergate prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, that could only have been done through manual operation of the transcription machine's controls.

Haldeman's own handwritten notes of the conversation, subsequently produced for the court, showed that it had dealt with the break-in and that it was this section which had been erased. Eventually, on August 5 1974 and under enormous legal and political pressure, the White House released the tape of another discussion the president had with Haldeman, on June 23 1972. This revealed the famous smoking gun, showing that the pair planned to use the CIA to cut off the FBI's investigation of the break-in, a conspiracy that brought Nixon's resignation and Haldeman's imprisonment.

It is not too fanciful to speculate that the germ of this plan had actually been mulled over three days earlier and that the record was hastily erased when the White House realised that this part of the tape was also covered by the subpoena.

After her initial confession, Ms Woods avoided any further discussion of her role, but left many with the impression that it had not been quite as it was originally portrayed. Naturally, everyone else involved at the time adamantly denied all responsibility.

Ms Woods, daughter of an Irish stowaway who arrived in the US at the turn of the 20th century, started work at a pottery company in her home town of Sebring, Ohio. She moved to Washington in the middle of the second world war to become a secretary in various bits of the burgeoning federal bureaucracy before joining the House committee on foreign aid. It was there that she caught the attention of a young representative from California. Nixon recruited her as his secretary in 1951 and she spent the rest of her career with him.

She was fiercely Republican in her political sympathies and implacably loyal to Nixon for 25 years, through good times and bad. Her pervasive influence at the White House was recognised in 1971 when she was named one of America's 75 most important women. Her continuing closeness to Nixon was shown in his final days in office when he deputed her to tell his wife and daughters that he had decided to resign.

After his departure from the White House, she maintained a sort of secret shrine to his memory in the Executive Office Building, until ordered to remove it. The fulsome tribute she earned from her erstwhile boss was that she had "that rare and unique characteristic that marks the difference between a good secretary and a great one - she is always at her best when the pressures are greatest".

She never married.

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It would have been nice if she had left memoires telling us what was on the tape. Sure, we can probably guess, but it would have been interesting to actually confirm what had been erased.

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