This episode was written & produced by Kevin Edds.
Watergate is one of the most widely-referenced scandals in our nation’s history. The actual word itself has been appropriated in order to name many later scandals. But for a new generation of Americans, Watergate is just a name, or an event that they speak about but may not know many details. What was the real scandal behind Watergate? Who was involved and why? How did an open reel tape recorder secretly planted in the White House basement lead to the demise of the 37th President of the United States? Featuring Luke Nichter, author of The Nixon Tapes, and founder of NixonTapes.org.
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SMOKING GUN TAPE, Pt 1 – Haldeman: Now, on the investigation, you know, the Democratic break-in thing, we’re back to the-in the, the problem area because the FBI is not under control…
You're listening to Twenty Thousand Hertz... The stories behind the world's most recognizable and interesting sounds. I'm Dallas Taylor. This is the story… of The Watergate Tapes.
SMOKING GUN TAPE, Pt 1 – Haldeman: …their investigation is now leading into some productive areas…
This is an excerpt of a secret recording in 1972 of President Richard Nixon’s Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman, updating the President about the FBI’s continuing investigation into the Watergate scandal.
SMOKING GUN TAPE, Pt 2 – Haldeman: …also there have been some things like an informant who came in on the street to the FBI in Miami...
While it’s hard to hear, this is the infamous "Smoking Gun" tape, the recording of Nixon discussing the illegal Watergate break-in. This tape was like a smoking gun at a crime scene that had Nixon's fingerprints all over it.
Just over 40 years ago a startling series of events in our nation’s political history took place. Almost everyone has heard about the Watergate scandal, but many don’t know what really happened, why it’s called “Watergate,” and how our lives are different today because of it.
Here’s Nixon himself commenting on the break-in.
SMOKING GUN TAPE, Pt 3 – Nixon: Well, I mean, ah, there’s no way… I’m just thinking if they don’t cooperate, what do they say? They they, they were approached by the Cubans. That’s what Dahlberg has to say, the Texans too. Is that the idea?
It’s this piece of audio that led to the downfall of the 37th President of the United States. Before we dive into the details of this tape, let’s rewind and find out how we got here.
Before this scandal, the law was completely different. Nixon personally owned these tapes, not the US government. Despite the fact that recording without consent or knowledge was illegal, it was still pretty common in the White House.
Luke: We now know that presidents back to FDR in 1940 taped, and so did Truman and Eisenhower and Kennedy and Johnson. Nixon was actually continuing a long trend that had started over 30 years before.
That’s Luke Nichter, an Associate Professor of History at Texas A&M. He’s also a historian and has been listening to, transcribing, and digitizing the White House tapes of Richard Nixon.
Luke: What I've heard is that Nixon, after he was elected in November of '68, he had the typical meeting, the incoming president with the outgoing president. On the tour that Johnson gave Nixon of the White House, it included his taping system and, "You ought to have something like this for yourself to have your record," but Nixon obviously had the system torn out and didn't use it; I mean ultimately replaced with a far more sophisticated system.
Nixon had the US Secret Service install a state-of-the-art Sony tape recorder with microphones hidden in the oval office, cabinet room, and other places where he would have private conversations.
Luke: Unfortunately, the people running the system day-to-day and putting the new reels on didn't have the same understanding and weren't as sophisticated. They're basically going to Peoples Drug in Dupont Circle and buying the cheapest kinds of tapes you can use, a thin little tape. The result of having this thin little tape is not only has it not held up very well over the years, the originals are reportedly in pretty bad shape.
But also, the quality is terrible [tape clip], It's as little as putting a saucer or a teacup down on a desk where the microphones are embedded sounds like an earthquake.
Despite the low quality tapes the Secret Service chose to use, Nixon’s recording technology was different from Johnson’s in a very key way.
Luke: What Nixon did was also different in a couple respects, because Nixon's was the first one that was sound-activated.
Taping systems prior to Nixon, Kennedy's and Johnson's, had to be turned on and off for every conversation. Obviously, it was turned on when it suited the president's interest and it was turned off when it suited the president's interest.
Nixon, for all those other faults, was someone who loved history. I think he thought that it was unfair to history, that you needed to capture everything.
Nixon wore a device similar to a pager, that was issued to him by the Secret Service. If it came within range of one of the microphones, it would come on automatically.
Luke: Sometimes Nixon would leave his jacket in the oval office and he'd go out to the Rose Garden. Sometimes we'd get his dogs barking [barking dogs SFX], we'd get cleaning crews [vacuuming SFX], we'd get tour groups [crowd SFX], we'd get staffers setting up or tearing down a meeting [staffers prepping meeting], we'd get the whirring blades of Marine One [helicopter SFX], the presidential helicopter. You'd get all kinds of other things that aren't really historical, but will also tell you a lot about history.
Some of the most fascinating parts of the Nixon tapes are meetings that weren’t even political in nature. It was almost as if he was the host of his own private talk show.
Luke: The president talks to celebrities and musicians and pop culture figures, world leaders. The president talks to everybody. When someone's in there, who you think like, "I can't believe Nixon's talking to Ray Charles," and then tells the story that I'm not sure I've read anywhere else, and they're only there on the tapes.
Charles: I lived next door to a gentleman who was a pianist.
Charles: I loved to hear him play. He was my sole inspiration because he could have, you know, pushed me off the stool, I mean, you know, and told me to go play.
Charles: But he didn’t. You know I guess he must have felt that any child that is willing to give up his playing time—
Charles: —to listen to music, he must have it in his bones.
Luke: Nixon always interrupts everybody he talks to. For several minutes, he didn't interrupt Charles. You can tell he liked the story. When Ray Charles got done telling the story, Nixon said, "Now that was a great story."
What the tapes are more than just politics or Nixon, they're a time capsule of Americana ... I mean you've got Johnny Cash talking about prison reform…
Nixon: Johnny, how are you? It’s going to see you again!
Cash: It’s my pleasure.
Nixon: Good to see you. You look good.
Cash: I’m doing alright.
Luke: You've got all these people who you would never think Nixon would be talking ... I mean Nixon, this cardboard cutout, stoic, the ultimate square in the 1960s, and the tapes reveal so many more dimensions about someone.
Another interesting visitor to the Nixon White House was Elvis Presley. Elvis wore a purple velvet suit with a large gold belt buckle along with his trademark sunglasses. He also brought along a gift—a Colt .45 pistol—but in a display case.
According to a Nixon aide’s notes of the meeting Elvis asked the president for a badge from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. And within the hour it was done.
But while Elvis was invited into the Oval Office, unfortunately his visit occurred two months before Nixon’s recording devices were installed.
Besides Nixon, the Secret Service, and a few White House aides, the recording system was entirely secret. Perhaps for Nixon the historical record was more important than the privacy rights of those being recorded.
Luke: If the president is meeting with somebody, usually the lowest ranking person is taking minutes or notes. If they're really skilled, it can look almost like a transcript, but ultimately edited out for political content, gossip, language.
Taping changed the way the White House worked. With the tapes rolling, Nixon changed the way you conducted business. He would say to say Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, "Come into the oval office. Let us talk candidly. No staff present, no notes. We'll just talk like old friends." He did this time and again.
Because of the recording system, these types of intimate conversations may have led to political progress between the two nations.
Nixon: If we decide to work together, we can change the world.
Luke: These, for the most part, have never been transcribed, never been published. Most people don't know where these are at on the tapes. These are incredible conversations because, in this case, the tapes aren't just supplementing the traditional record, they are the record.
Another interesting moment we have on tape is a conversation between Nixon and his wife Pat, in which they discuss a pair of pandas being brought from China to the National Zoo.
Nixon: We announced today that the pandas would go to the Washington -
Pat: Yeah, I got the word.
Nixon: And I think it’s fine, everybody as pleased with it and -
Nixon: - the weather’s good here, it’s not quite as cold as it probably ought to - it could be [unclear] but they can live in this kind of weather. And so, it’s a good story and we said that you and I had both, that we had decided it should come here.
Nixon’s excitement to share the news about the pandas with his wife shows a different side to the president than most of us ever hear about, all thanks to the tapes.
Nixon: It’s gonna be a hell of a story.
In the two and a half years that the recordings took place a lot happened. Nixon was reelected in a landslide. The recorded conversations involving the campaign are some of the most authentic accounts of election politics we have on record. Other important events included the Vietnam War, huge domestic reforms like the first Earth Day, the creation of the EPA, the beginning of Amtrak, the Endangered Species Act, the Wilderness Act, the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.
Luke: People don't question the money we carry in our wallet. In August of 1971, the US dollar went off the gold standard, which many economic historians credit as the beginning of globalization.
Again, a tribute Nixon in taking us off the gold standard and all those conversations, how that happened, why, and when are all in the Nixon tapes.
Nixon became so comfortable with his recording system, that the few people that did know about it felt he almost forgot it was there. That allows us now to listen to a president unfiltered and unrestrained. But it also led to the most detrimental piece of audio in political history, the “Smoking Gun” tape.
This tape would mark the beginning of the end of the Watergate scandal, an event that started a two-year courtroom and political saga that not only changed history, but still impacts the way we discuss scandals today.
But what exactly was the Watergate scandal? We’ll get to that, in just a moment.
Despite his overwhelming electoral victory in 1972 and his numerous accomplishments in Office, to many people, Nixon’s ultimate legacy comes down to one word... Watergate.
Luke: Watergate is part of pop culture today everyone knows the term 'Watergate', but if you actually pin them down to say, "Well, what do you know about Watergate?" It's this scandal or scandal culture that was created in Washington. While every scandal, it seems like, since Watergate has this suffix -gate appended to it, very few people can actually tell you much about the original 'gate', Watergate.
In its most basic element, Watergate was a break-in that took place in the early morning hours of June 17th, 1972 in the Watergate office complex which housed the offices of the Democratic National Committee. Five burglars, some whom were former CIA agents, were found to have ties to President Richard Nixon's Committee to Reelect the President.
The break-in involved the installation and maintenance of wiretapping devices that could listen in on the affairs of the Democratic National Committee.
Luke: What we then learned later was there already had been prior break-ins. The speculation is what they were doing on the 17th was they weren't planting bugs, they were fixing bugs that had been planted on a previous break-in.
What we learned was there had been other break-ins, and including this exact location, this exact team of burglars. During the campaign of '72, breaking and entering was a political device.
To this day, we still don't have definitive answers in terms of who ordered the break-in, why they broke in when they did, or what they were looking for.
In hindsight, we look back, and anybody who can use Wikipedia says, "Didn't Nixon win in a landslide in '72? Why did his people need to be doing this silly thing?”
The Watergate break-in spurred numerous investigations into the Nixon Administration’s involvement with the event. Senator Howard Baker is famously quoted as saying…
[Senator Baker Recording - “What did the president know and when did he know it?”]
It was all hearsay and conflicting testimony… until the discovery of Nixon’s White House recordings.
Over a two-year period, investigations into the Watergate scandal uncovered Nixon’s secret taping system. In 1974 the Supreme Court ruled Nixon must release the tapes to a special prosecutor, leading to the discovery of some very important recordings.
Luke: Anybody who Googles 'smoking gun' and 'Watergate' or 'the Nixon tapes', there is a recording that's called the smoking gun tape. Ultimately, this and a handful of other tapes were the most damaging to Nixon.
[SMOKING GUN TAPE: Pt 4 – Nixon: How do you call him in, I mean you just, well, we protected Helms from one hell of a lot of things. Haldeman: That’s what Ehrlichman says.]
[Nixon: Of course, this is a, this is a Hunt, you will-that will uncover a lot of things. You open that scab there’s a hell of a lot of things and that we just feel that it would be very detrimental to have this thing go any further. This involves these Cubans, Hunt, and a lot of hanky-panky that we have nothing to do with ourselves.]
Luke: What the tape reveals was that Nixon was aware of a cover-up of the Watergate break-in. In other words, that he and that his White House staff had knowledge of a break-in and that they were actively doing things to conceal the purpose much earlier than he said in public statements. And beyond that, that he was willing to use the CIA to possibly block the FBI investigation of Watergate.
Here’s Haldemann again updating Nixon on the status of the investigation.
SMOKING GUN TAPE: Pt 5 – Haldeman: the FBI guys working the case had concluded that there were one or two possibilities, one, that this was a White House, they don’t think that there is anything at the Election Committee, they think it was either a White House operation and they had some obscure reasons for it, non political,… Nixon: Uh huh. Haldeman: or it was a…
Nixon: Cuban thing-
Haldeman: Cubans and the CIA. And after their interrogation of, of…
Haldeman: Colson, yesterday, they concluded it was not the White House, but are now convinced it is a CIA thing, so the CIA turn off would… Nixon: Well, not sure of their analysis, I’m not going to get that involved. I’m (unintelligible).
Haldeman: No, sir. We don’t want you to.
Nixon: You call them in.
Nixon: Good. Good deal! Play it tough. That’s the way they play it and that’s the way we are going to play it.
When it came to listening to what was on the tapes, technology again played a huge role, but this time because of how we consumed news in that era. There was no internet, no YouTube, and no way to share the recordings with the general public. The only way to hear what was on the tapes was to actually sit in the courtroom.
Luke: You read news accounts of the time it was kind of fascinating when the tapes were eventually used in litigation. People would wait up around the block of the courthouse. This could be the only the only time you can hear tapes. The news account were fascinating because people would wait all day. Overnight they'd sleep on the sidewalk to be one of the 55, or whatever it was, who could sit in the public part of the courtroom.
The press accounts are great because they say things like, "Today is the only time we will ever hear of these conversations." Of course, now we look back, 40 years later, and think, "Well, thanks to the internet and technology, anybody can listen to these in their own homes or on their own mobile device," but at the time this was so earth-shattering that ... a president had this veil of like a monarch. I think Watergate and the tapes, in a sense, tore the veil in half and made the president more human.
Within 10 days, even the most die-hard supporters of Nixon, the Republican Party, and they were dwindling, gave up their case at that point. Within two weeks, Nixon resigned.
Cronkite: Good evening. President Nixon reportedly will announce his resignation tonight…and Vice President Ford will become the nation’s 38th President tomorrow.
Rather: President Nixon released transcripts that he did indeed know about the details of the Watergate break-in…
Rather: During the afternoon the president did more work on his speech. He began clearing out his desk…White House aides said privately, “It is over.” Some secretaries wept…
Cronkite: This is indeed an historic day, the only time a president has ever resigned from office in our nearly 200 years of history…
Nixon: Good evening, this is the 37th time I have spoken to you from this office, where so many decisions have been made that shaped the history of this nation. Each time I have done so to discuss with you some matter that I believe affected the national interest. In all the decisions that I have made in my public life, I have always tried to do what was best for the nation…
Luke: One of the lores of Watergate, is that the cover-up is always greater than the crime. In this case, it was true for Nixon. It really was his behavior during the cover-up period that ultimately did him in.
The question for many still remains: Since the tapes were ultimately his downfall, why did Nixon secretly record himself in the first place?
Luke: The best answer I can give, is that Nixon wanted his record of what was said to whom and when, that he knew that those around him would go write their own memoirs, they would have their own histories.
You have to remember the law was totally different. These tapes were his personal property. He could've destroyed them, he could've dumped them in the Pacific, that was okay. During Watergate, that would look bad, but he was entitled to do that. Today the law completely errs on the other side, that everything a president does is public, public record. They should be in the archives one day.
I think Nixon wanted his record. He wanted to retire, he wanted to write his multi-volume memoirs, like Winston Churchill did after World War II. These were going to be his history, that he was going to settle scores one day with this.
Nixon’s unfortunate legacy is being the only president in US history to resign. After countless documentaries, TV shows, books, and articles about the Watergate scandal it would seem that the story has been completely written. Or has it?
Luke: 3,451 hours were recorded. Just around 3,000 hours have been released to date. We have this 500-plus hours that have never been released.
We have all these court records, that have never been released because they're serving to protect someone.
To put a time frame on this it typically takes 30 to 50 years to get some records declassified, if ever at all.
Luke: It's taken over a hundred years just to release the clothes Abraham Lincoln was wearing on the day he was assassinated in 1865 at the Ford's Theater.
A couple of years ago there was a World War I document that was declassified, and thought, "What could possibly still be secret from World War I?" This document obviously had some continued operational use for many years to justify its ongoing classification.
In this case, the only way you can get records like this that are in a legal limbo is to find a friendly judge to issue a ruling to open them.
Luke has actually been working on this issue for several years which could blow the lid off of some yet unknown details of the Watergate scandal.
Luke: It's still a matter that's before the judge, Judge Royce Lamberth in Washington. This is an ongoing petition now. As a historian, my fingers are crossed that one day we'll have all the records released, so stay tuned.
Watergate changed so much about American politics and our nation. The various ways we consume media, how politicians go about their duties, and what constitutes privacy has all been impacted by a tape recorder that was hidden in the basement of the White House.
Luke: It made journalists into heroes and really launched the field of modern investigative journalism as we know it. A whole generation of young people wanted to go into journalism. The legal structure really changed. New laws scrutinizing public access and records.
It was a break-in that occurred in 1972, but it also was a bigger, more transformative event in US history. People, as stakeholders in our democracy, became more active and called into account our elected officials. Ultimately it was a watershed moment. It changed the political landscape, it changed investigative journalism, and it changed the relationship between the American people and their government.
Twenty Thousand Hertz is produced out of the studios of Defacto Sound, a sound design team that makes television, film, and games sound incredible. Find out more at Defacto Sound dot com.
This episode was written, produced, and edited by Kevin Edds… and me, Dallas Taylor… with help from Sam Schneble. It was sound designed and mixed by Colin DeVarney.
Many thanks to Luke Nichter, author of The Nixon Tapes, and founder of NixonTapes.org. Check it out for more info. Also, this episode only scratches the surface of the nuances of Watergate and the Nixon tapes. If this piqued your interest, there are tons of movies, books, and wikipedia articles waiting for you.
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