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.

Donald Trump Must Not Receive Presidential Pardon

Last week I received emails from two of my friends who both underscored the need for Donald Trump to face legal proceedings regarding a wide array of criminal behavior. Neither of them linked their notes to me in the context that I have been a decades-long believer that President Ford was correct when granting a pardon to Richard Nixon. It goes without saying that when it comes to crimes committed Nixon was a piker in comparison to Trump. That is the prime difference that needs to be understood as the nation weighs this issue.

I firmly believe Trump absolutely must face legal consequences for his actions as columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr listed them in his most recent column. The crimes range from “extortion, treason, tax fraud, bank fraud, obstruction of justice, campaign-finance violations, and sexual assault.”

My readers know my strongly held views about the correctness of Ford’s pardon in 1974. There have been many points of view registered about the action over the decades but I still view it to be one of the most sincere and brave decisions that any president has made in my lifetime.  I grew up in the final months of Watergate and was fascinated by the events taking place in Washington.

Watergate not only destroyed the Nixon presidency but also cut a wide swath through the American mindset of what our government was all about.  After Nixon resigned there was a battle cry from many that he should be tried for his criminal behavior. I have long thought that while on principle that idea made sense the reality of the situation demanded that the national bloodletting be stopped.  It was a political suicide, but yet Ford was determined to put the country before every other consideration. Ford understood there was a difference between what the nation wanted, and what it needed.  It was because Ford showed real leadership that our national nightmare did end. 

But is would be just the opposite should any presidential pardon be granted to Trump based on the enormity of his crimes. Nixon, after all, had enough honor to put the nation over his own selfish desires when push came to shove. While Nixon had dark demons that were allowed to roam with domestic partisan outcomes there was never a fear that he would put our nation at risk.

With Trump, there has been a continuous thread of criminal behavior that has undermined our Constitution and imperiled our standing in the world. Trump obstructed justice, attempted to bribe the leader of Ukraine, illegally separated children from their parents at the border…and that is just the warm-up to his full rap-sheet.

Upon leaving office Trump will find himself in legal fights and civil suits about his businesses, taxes, and sexual attacks. If his legal fights do not drain his resources the back taxes and financial shams he has erected will bring him to his knees. Trump’s crimes are of the gravity and enormity that there must be a legal reckoning. His were far more dangerous to democracy than Nixon pulling in campaign funds to pay for burglars at the Watergate or using the CIA to lull the FBI off of an investigation. That is not to say Nixon was not a criminal, too.

During the past weeks as Trump has tried every ploy he could concoct to undermine the election returns, it was noted by a pundit on television that the Oval Office was the only thing keeping Trump out of jail or the Charles Dickens version of the poorhouse. That image alone deserves the work of an editorial cartoonist. Meanwhile, historians will work over the fact of an impeached one-term president needing a pardon.

They, too, will argue the need for justice to win out over a pardon. It is our duty as citizens to make sure we act in accordance with what democracy demands.

And so it goes.

46 Years Ago Tonight…In Hancock And The White House…

…our family only had television for about one year by the time President Richard Nixon resigned from his office in a stunning address to the nation.

Home July 2000

As a twelve-year-old growing up in Hancock, Wisconsin this news seemed most interesting for the simple reason that nothing exciting ever seemed to occur in my hometown area.  Everything exciting happened ‘out there’ and that meant far way.  All of a sudden the energy of a national story was hitting home as people around me were talking about it and we seemed in that fashion to be a part of the story, too.  I liked that feeling and was starting to understand the adrenaline rush that came with breaking news stories.

Counting the bean-pickers that rumbled down our country road or predicting how much rain might be in the gauge dad had set up on the white fence separating Mom’s flowers from the leafy rhubarb patch were what constituted a normal type summer day in my childhood.  So it is not hard to fathom how exciting following the news over a president leaving office might be for a kid.

Even though I was not aware of the depth and complexity of Watergate, thanks to the daily paper that was delivered six days a week in our mail and from radio newscasts, I knew there was excitement brewing in the land.

My parents spent the early part of the evening of August 8th after our dinner—supper as my Mom always referred to it—doing some lawn work.  There were gray clouds that evening, though not the type that made for any rain.  That surely was greeted with a smile by Dad as he mowed in cooler temperatures.  Mom followed him around the trees and flower patches with trimming shears in hand tidying up the spots the mower was not able to perfect.    I know dad was being cognizant of the time and wanting things to be done in time for the national presidential address.

By the time Nixon looked directly into the camera the three of us were seated in the living room, with dad in his leather-like chair that tipped back ever so slightly while Mom and I sat on the sofa, with me perched closet to the TV, a spot I always seemed to gravitate towards.

How my parents felt about that night is not registered in my mind.   I suspect that is due to the fact they watched the address like most other Americans who knew larger legal and political forces were at work in the nation and all they could do was just watch it unfold.    In later years I knew my parents were part of that “Silent Majority” that Nixon was speaking to in his national races.  They worked hard, played by the rules, and at times could do nothing more than just watch as events swirled around them.  I have no memory of any emotional reaction—one way or the other—from the Republican home where I grew up that night, though I still recall where we were and what we did.

As was the case with other events that played out on the national stage in those years of my life it was the drama and excitement that drew me to the story.  I knew that the resignation was a major event, but am not sure I placed it in historical terms.  What I very much recall that night and then in the days that followed were the urgent tones in the announcer’s voices and the paced delivery of whatever was being reported.    Where others my age were the product of the TV age I had grown up with radio and experienced a whole other way of hearing the news.    I may have wished for more excitement in my youth but would not trade those AM broadcasts for any black-and-white image from a TV.

The following morning was one that left lasting impressions on me.

Dad was at work and Mom was undertaking the regular household type patterns of life that made our house a home.  August 9th was sunny and bright as I sat in the living room in front of the television with the sun streaming in through the windows on the south side of the house.  What happened has lingered with me over the decades.

First, and though I was not able to recognize it at the time, came the raw and unvarnished words and open emotions from a politician.  Rarely has anyone with power and a national moment spoke in the way President Nixon did as he stood behind a podium and bid White House staff and administrative aides farewell.  It was unscripted and though I had no reason to know why at the time his words hit me and have never left me since.

Some would say in later years they wondered how Nixon made it through his roughly fifteen minutes of saying goodbye.  It was wrenching to watch and never fails to move me when I view it these decades later.

In one of his awkwardly emotional moments for a man who never relied on such sentiment to carry him through the political battles he stated, “Nobody will ever write a book, probably, about my mother.  Well, I guess all of you would say this about your mother–my mother was a saint.”  I think his time behind the podium that morning was as close as we ever came to see the human side of the man.

The second reason the events struck me that morning and continue to hold my attention, concerned the way power was handed over under the rules that our nation agrees to be governed by, even in the worst of times.  This is not some small outcome when a constitutional crisis was finalized with the wave from a fallen leader as he gets on a helicopter and his vice-president takes over as the next leader of the free world.  A twelve-year-old out in the country where nothing ever happens could even see the wonder of it all.

Decades following that morning when Nixon made his emotional comments from the White House I wrote Walking Up The Ramp, a book about my life, and parents who raised a boy to be a determined man.  The quote I used to open my story was the same one that caught my attention back in the sunny living room of my childhood.  No one may have ever written a book about Dick Nixon’s Mom, but I would write one about mine.

There are many who can not find anything other than revulsion for Richard Nixon.  I just am not one of those.

As readers might know I have had a life-long interest in the life and times of Richard Nixon.   While I have long stated President Abraham Lincoln was our most important leader to occupy the White House I have long felt Nixon was our most intriguing.  Nixon’s life was a Shakespeare play acted out for the whole nation to watch.

No one can or should want to spin away from the Watergate affairs which covers everything from a bungled burglary to the plumbers, ITT, the firing of a special prosecutor and so much more.  Frankly, it is hard to imagine all that happened actually playing out day after day, week after week, month after month.  Yet it all happened and many of us have memories of those days, as anguishing as they were.

Over the years I have come to a more nuanced perspective about the man.  I do not allow for any wiggle room on his crimes or need to resign from the office.  But when it comes to his international involvement I leave the bitterness for the partisans while taking stock of the accomplishments in places around the globe.

At this time as we reflect on the resignation, we need to ask ourselves if our politics really did survive that event or was it instead a demarcation line where faith was lost in our political institutions that have never again been mended.   Between the Vietnam War and Watergate, the nation lost more of itself than most knew at the time.

And so it goes.


Presidential Powers Checked, Trump Loses Like Nixon At Supreme Court


In 2016 Mitt Romney said there may be “a bombshell” in Donald Trump’s tax forms, and that was why they had not been released.  For a top Republican to have made such a statement, during an intense and highly bombastic election, was nothing short of startling.

Romney suggested either the tax forms would show Trump is not nearly as wealthy as he claims or that he had paid such a paltry tax rate that it would show he is what all know him to be.

Or as I term it, a grifter.

The continuing saga of Trump’s taxes, and the weaving and dodging that his lawyers take to make sure no one ever sees them, took a dramatic turn at the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court in two 7-2 decisions, with Cheif Justice John Roberts writing both rulings, made the goal of prosecutors in New York easier with their efforts to see Trump’s financial records.  It was a loss of stunning proportions for Trump, but a major victory for the foundations of what our civic books taught us about law and justice in our nation.

In the other ruling, the court decided Congress could not, at least for now, see many of the same records. It said that case should be returned to a lower court to narrow the parameters of the information being sought for their investigations.  I wish the power for congressional oversight and our system of checks and balances had been allowed a firmer hand in today’s ruling.

The last time there was a court case of this magnitude, dealing with presidential power of the scope presented regarding these tax forms, was when President Richard Nixon wanted to further obstruct justice by denying access to the famed Watergate tape recordings.  Then, as we witnessed today, the court sided with restrictions on presidential power.  We all can claim a huge win because the decision said Trump had no absolute right to block the release of the papers.

The words from the ruling were precise and carry the gravitas the nation needs at this time when Trump has foisted illiberal democratic actions upon the republic.

In our judicial system, “the public has a right to every man’s evidence,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote.  “Since the earliest days of the Republic, ‘every man’ has included the president of the United States. Beginning with Jefferson and carrying on through Clinton, presidents have uniformly testified or produced documents in criminal proceedings when called upon by federal courts.”

He added: “(W)e cannot conclude that absolute immunity is necessary or appropriate under Article II or the Supremacy Clause.”

“No citizen, not even the president, is categorically above the common duty to produce evidence when called upon in a criminal proceeding.”

Trump may still raise objections to the scope and relevance of the subpoena for the papers. Litigation over those new objections will last many months or longer, but we have the grifter on the run.  And that is no small thing.

This blog has long contended many of the answers to Trump’s actions on the international stage would be revealed with the tax forms.  The citizens of this nation have to ask why Trump attempts so vigorously to hide his tax returns?   We should put this matter into historical terms.  No other president in the last 50 years has felt that they needed to keep all their tax returns secret.

Just consider the last election cycles, and it is easy to laugh at Republicans who have cheered Trump on over his had behavior at a time when both President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton,  along with President Obama released decades of tax returns. Yet Trump has fought in court, appeals to ever-higher levels, in a maddening determination to keep his tax returns secret.

It is no small thing to claim that the rule of law is still the guardrails on our republic.  These are trying times, as we all know too well.  While I would have liked to see an even harder knock on the concept of a unitary executive, I know that court cases are made at the margins many times.  I wish the oversight power of Congress had been provided the foundation it deserved in a nation that is to have three separate and powerfully effective branches.

But having said what I wished had happened does not detract from what was won.  A solid win that limited presidential power and a stunning loss for Trump who has done more to undermine our republic than anyone since Andrew Johnson severely botched reconstruction.

And so it goes.

History Will Judge Senators Concerning Impeachment

I found the following article most interesting for two reasons. As a Nixon history buff, it confirms what I have noticed from my own readings about the people who found their way mixed up in the political orbit of President Richard Nixon.  Secondly, it underscores my contention that the partisan games the Republican senators are now playing in Washington regarding the impeachment trial of Donald Trump will be judged most harshly by historians.

And with the following account, we can also state those partisans will get a headline at the time of their death that will not please those who care about legacies.

Here’s what we found when researching these obituaries.

In that summer of 1974, seven Republicans joined the Democrats to vote for at least one article of impeachment, including Thomas Railsback (Ill.), Hamilton Fish Jr. (N.Y.), Lawrence J. Hogan (Md.), M. Caldwell Butler (Va.), William S. Cohen (Maine), Harold V. Froehlich (Wis.), and Robert McClory (Ill.) 

Ten Republicans voted against all three articles of impeachment: Edward Hutchinson (Mich.), David Dennis (Ind.), Delbert Latta (Ohio), Trent Lott (Miss.),  Joseph Maraziti (N.J.), Wiley Mayne (Iowa), Carlos Moorhead (Calif.), Charles Sandman (N.J.), Henry Smith (N.Y.), and Charles Wiggins (Calif.). 

Regardless of whether the congressmen voted for or against the articles of impeachment, their legacies were largely defined by this one moment. So much so that newspapers titled their obituaries with reference to this vote: 

“Former Rep. Joseph Maraziti, 78, Defender of Nixon on Watergate” 

“Wiley Mayne; House GOP Member Who Voted Not to Impeach Nixon” 

“Sandman, Nixon Supporter, Dies” 

“Lawrence J. Hogan Sr., Md. Republican Who Called for Nixon’s impeachment, Dies at 88”

“M. Caldwell Butler, a Key Vote Against Nixon, Dies at 89” 

“R. McClory; Backed Nixon’s Impeachment” 

“Thomas Railsback, Congressman Who Broke with GOP to Back Nixon Impeachment, Dies.”

“Charles Wiggins, 72, Dies; Led Nixon’s Defense in Hearings”

Talking With God, Richard Nixon Style

Art Buchwald is as fresh and entertaining today as when his columns were first published in newspapers around the nation.  That is one sign of being a great writer, and possessing a great wit.  With the impeachment trial underway for Donald Trump, I felt this a good time to offer a slice of history from when President Nixon headed off to Camp David to formulate the removal of his two closest aides as the Watergate investigation closed in around his White House.  (This column had been clipped by Aunt Evie and placed in a box with of all sorts of news clippings from over the decades.  I was waiting for the perfect time to post this item…the national mood says now.)

Buckwald Pres Day of Reckoning

Watergate Related Obits Piling Up

Here at the Caffeinated Politics desk Donald Trump impeachment proceedings are being followed with email updates, radio, and newspapers.  If there were not enough current impeachment proceedings to ponder there are also the obituaries coming in from that other historical impeachment period when President Nixon and Watergate made for headlines.

Tom Railsback, an eight-term Illinois congressman who forged what he called a “fragile bipartisan coalition” between his fellow Republicans and the Democratic majority on the House Judiciary Committee in 1974 to draft articles of impeachment against President Richard M. Nixon, died on Monday in Mesa, Ariz. He was 87.

On July 27, 1974, the judiciary committee voted 27 to 11, with 6 of the panel’s 17 Republicans joining all 21 Democrats, to send to the full House an article of impeachment. The article accused the president of unlawful tactics that constituted a “course of conduct or plan” to obstruct the investigation of the break-in at the offices of the Democratic opposition in the Watergate complex in Washington by a White House team of burglars.

“Railsback and Walter Flowers, a Democrat, basically created the coalition that was necessary to make the House Judiciary Committee vote a bipartisan one,” Michael Koncewicz, the author of “They Said No to Nixon: Republicans Who Stood Up to the President’s Abuses of Power” (2018), wrote in an email.

Also, there is news of the death of a ‘plumber’ from the Nixon era.

Egil Krogh, who as part of President Richard M. Nixon’s staff was one of the leaders of the secret “Plumbers” unit that broke into the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, a prelude to the Watergate burglary that brought down the Nixon presidency, died on Saturday in Washington. He was 80.

His son Peter said the cause was heart failure.

In November 1973, Mr. Krogh, known as Bud, pleaded guilty to “conspiracy against rights of citizens” for his role in the September 1971 break-in at the office of Dr. Lewis Fielding in Beverly Hills, Calif.

The Plumbers, a group of White House operatives, were tasked with plugging leaks of confidential material, which had bedeviled the Nixon administration. Mr. Ellsberg, a military analyst, had been responsible for the biggest leak of all: passing the Pentagon Papers, the top-secret government history of the Vietnam War, to The New York Times earlier that year.

The Plumbers were hoping to get information about Mr. Ellsberg’s mental state that would discredit him, but they found nothing of importance related to him.

In 2007, to mark the 35th anniversary of the Watergate break-in (in which he played no part), Mr. Krogh wrote an essay for The Times about the Fielding break-in, which he believed had established the mind-set for Watergate.

“The premise of our action was the strongly held view within certain precincts of the White House that the president and those functioning on his behalf could carry out illegal acts with impunity if they were convinced that the nation’s security demanded it,” he wrote. “As President Nixon himself said to David Frost during an interview six years later, ‘When the president does it, that means it is not illegal.’ To this day the implications of this statement are staggering.”  (emphasis mine.)

William Ruckelshaus’s Death Makes Us Ponder Lack Of Integrity Today


Over this holiday period, I learned of the death of William Ruckelshaus.  He died on Wednesday at the age of 87.

I do wish to pay him honor at Caffeinated Politics for what he did in 1973.  He made for one of those moments in history which we all need to be aware of, and recognize as the way we should wish for all federal employees to act.

Ruckelshaus resigned as deputy attorney general rather than carry out President Richard Nixon’s illegal order to fire the independent special Watergate prosecutor in the constitutional crisis of 1973 known as the “Saturday Night Massacre.  Now I fully understand he had an amazing career and his part that night decades ago should not be his legacy.  But given how much I write on this blog about character, and the need for virtue in public servants means that stressing his role at that time needs to be underscored.

Readers of history will recall that by the time of that famed Saturday night Nixon had already lost many of his closest associates.  By that time Ruckelshaus had been named acting head of the F.B.I.. The reason for that placement was due to his predecessor having allowed Nixon aides to examine Watergate files and had even destroyed evidence in the case.  Then he was named the top deputy to the attorney general.

On the night of the massacre, Nixon ordered his top three Justice Department officials, one after another, to fire the Watergate prosecutor, Archibald Cox, rather than comply with his subpoena for nine incriminating Oval Office tape recordings.  Ruckelshaus refused to fire Cox and resigned, as it should be noted his own dismissal was being issued by the White House.  Attorney General Elliot Richardson also resigned that night and serves as another shining example of principle and adherence to law and order. 

We need more people like Ruckelshaus in the government today.  People who are experts in their field, doing their jobs with honor and mindful of the Constitution.   Consider the need to even write such lines, or use a blog post to make such a point.  Yes, he was a man of courage in harsh political times.  But is it not a sad statement, especially about our current crisis, that honesty, decency, and sound character is considered to be extraordinary, rather than the norm?

Integrity matters.  It did then.  It does now.