Within the thousand-page document, my grandfather found two transcripts of the same conversation from April 16, 1973, between Nixon and Assistant Attorney General Henry Petersen. However, the two transcripts were so different that no one—not even journalists or Nixon-administration members—had noticed that they represented the same conversation. Nixon had doctored the transcripts, and mistakenly released an unedited version along with the edited one. The doctored version contained far more words that were marked “inaudible,” and other words were changed so as to render sentences meaningless. My grandfather wrote to the Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, who broke the story about the transcript discrepancies.
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White House spokespeople tried to pass off the differences as mere typist errors, but as my grandfather asked the Associated Press, “How could people listen to the same piece of tape and hear different words?” The House Judiciary Committee demanded that Nixon release the unedited transcripts, and the rest—the Supreme Court case United States v. Nixon, the release of the “smoking gun” tape, impeachment hearings, political chaos, and Nixon’s ultimate resignation—is history.
Journalists loved the story of a random businessman who happened upon a political scandal, and my grandfather loved the attention: “L.I. Guy Detected Tape Tangle”; “Transcript Discrepancies Found ‘Just by Reading’”; “Slow Reader Finds Slip in Transcript.” Most of the stories were printed alongside a photo of him smoking a pipe and reading the transcripts, smiling slightly. The only news outlet that was displeased with my grandfather was The New York Times. Though my grandfather was a New Yorker, he didn’t give his hometown newspaper the scoop; instead, he went directly to The Washington Post. Apparently, a letter to the editor he sent a few years prior about the Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty received no response, and he was still nursing a grudge.
Walter Cronkite invited my grandfather to his studio for an interview on the CBS Evening News. When the camera cut to my grandfather during the broadcast, he was sitting slouched in his chair, wearing a big tie and an ill-fitting suit jacket. “I read it slowly and thoroughly, and 500 pages in, I came across two passages where it seemed to repeat,” he said as the camera lingered on his face, dominated by circular glasses. “It’s fascinating reading.”
My grandfather was a municipal-bond trader with no experience in journalism or politics, but he was meticulous to a fault. He once told me that he’d found the mistake because he read Faulkner, claiming that the process of reading his dense prose and shifting narrators prepared him to decode complicated texts. His basement was filled with stacks of newspaper clippings, and he spent hours on Ancestry.com long before genealogy became a popular American pastime. Once, at a graduation ceremony for my cousin, he read each name on the program, focusing so intensely that he nearly missed the moment when my cousin crossed the stage to receive his diploma. As he told the reporters who flocked to his hospital bed, “I guess I read things more slowly, more thoroughly than other people.”