Why Tapes Matter: 50 Years Ago Today–February 16, 1971–Nixon Taping System Began Operating

Many moments in history get recognized at Caffeinated Politics, so I would be negligent if there was not a post about the event which started today, February 16, 1971. As a result of President Richard Nixon starting to use a White House taping system 50 years ago there is a treasure trove of roughly 3,700 hours of his conversations as president. There are roughly 3,000 hours of those tapes available to be listened to, while the rest contain either national security information or family conversations and as such are off-limits.

These tapes matter, as do the other White House taped recordings from Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Gerald Ford. The tapes are a great insight into the workings of the Oval Office, the leader of the free world, the creation of policy, and the art of politics.

In the case of the Nixon tapes, and in relation to the Watergate fiasco, we still do not know who ordered the June 1972 Watergate break-in that led to Nixon’s resignation. But we do know without any doubt whatsoever, due to the recordings, that Nixon ordered the break-in at the Brookings Institution in 1971. While the Brookings break-in never happened what can be understood from the tapes is the culture of lawlessness that started at the very top of that White House.

My fascination with Nixon has been a lifetime undertaking and the tapes are, without doubt, a historical mine that can be explored for new nuggets and perspectives that create an evolving understanding of our past. But long before I knew Nixon had been taping his conversations I had become interested in the man.

At  the age of ten I sat in the backseat of our family car as we drove to a  nighttime hair appointment for my mother in Plainfield, Wisconsin. My father had the car radio on, its soft glow radiating from the front dashboard. It was election night 1972. Perhaps I was somehow primed for that night due to my rural upbringing, having grandparents for neighbors, by family choice not having  a television in our home, and my already loving books. Whatever had preceded that night perhaps made me more receptive to what I heard and sensed from the radio.

I still recall the authoritative voices of the news announcers and the crowd noise from election night gatherings. I recall Nixon’s name being said over and over. And I recall my father telling me that Nixon would be elected president.

Countless times over the decades of my life I have thought back to that night, and how Richard Nixon would come to mean a great deal to how my interests were formed. He lit a fire of interest within me to follow the news, read the paper (which I did each day  while lying on our family couch or on the dining room floor following school classes), better understand the rough and tumble of politics, and care more about foreign policy.

And then the White House tapes were reported to not only exist, but started to be released. First for the impeachment process and then in years–and even decades later–larger batches of recordings were made available to the public. First in locations where researchers could conduct their work, then with books where many recordings were transcribed, and finally on the internet for political and history junkies to have access.

For the past 30 years, I have been listening to various batches of recordings as they first appeared in the hour-long Saturday C-SPAN programs, then online at sites such as this one. Over the past year as the pandemic kept us home, I have taken to reading some more of the transcripts, starting with the first volume as edited by Douglas Brinkley and Luke Nitcher. One of the benefits of reading a transcript is due to the, at times, difficulty of making out the words that can be muffled or distorted due to placement of the microphones or the lack of using a louder voice when talking. Without a doubt, however, the actual recordings are more informative as the inflections and tone are essential to measuring the conversation at hand.

So I was really pleased to wake up this morning to find a friend sent me this article by none other than Nichter, who pens it perfectly as to why these historical tapes matter.

As a result of the tapes, our democracy is stronger. Public officials are held to account. The field of investigative journalism grew exponentially after Watergate. We have more information about how our government runs than ever before. The scandals of the Nixon administration were as much a long-awaited check on executive power – the “Imperial Presidency,” as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called it – as they were unique to the personalities within Nixon’s White House.

On this commemoration, which immediately follows Presidents Day, let’s remember our leaders. Fifty years after Nixon began making the most controversial subset of White House tapes and more than 80 years since FDR made the very first, these records — while part of popular lore — remain largely underutilized and misunderstood. From each one we can learn something. Rather than canceling them, we should embrace history for what it can teach us.

About 30 years ago I was involved with the primary election for Wisconsin State Superintendent of Public Instruction, while working in the office of State Representative Lary Swoboda, who was seeking the position. One of the things we both enjoyed was the life and times of Richard Nixon, and the intrigue of Watergate.  I still recall after some of the long days while campaigning in the primary that Swoboda would start talking about Watergate.  He could be exhausted, and almost as a way of unwinding and relaxing he would ponder again how the missing section of the tape happened, or how things would have changed had the tapes been destroyed.  The conversations were really quite lively. Those tapes and the discussions which follow about their contents have long been a part of my life.

I was truly delighted to have lunch and coffee at the famed Watergate–while looking out towards the Potomac during a long vacation in D.C. James still makes me smile over the most expensive coffee that I will likely ever enjoy. During lunch I told James that Lary would have much loved the experience as he was also an avid reader of books about Nixon and had many recollections about the events and mood of the nation during those tumultuous years.  So in some sense Lary did make it to the Watergate–at least in our memories.

A friend of mine has labeled me a Nixonologist, knowing over four decades I have read and studied the man. I recall at one point saying it is without doubt that very few people have actually listened to more than an hour of the Nixon tapes. But if more started that journey with listening, they too, would be more fascinated about not only Nixon, the process of governing, but also our history as a country.

Therefore, I absolutely agree with Luke Nichter. The tapes can teach us so much.