In April 1974, President Richard Nixon released a thousand-page transcript of secretly recorded White House conversations, hoping to put an end to the Watergate scandal that was threatening his presidency. After the House Judiciary Committee demanded the tapes of these conversations, he offered the transcript instead, claiming it would prove his innocence. “The master of concealment, in a sudden reversal, has stunned the nation with an avalanche of garbled disclosure,” commented the New Yorker staff writer Jonathan Schell from the week of the release. “And through the sheer volume of the release, he has accomplished a takeover of our daily lives. The good citizen who reads it all finds himself leading Richard Nixon’s life instead of his own.”
My grandfather, John Northrop, was one such citizen. Thanks to a back injury sustained while lifting bags of fertilizer in his backyard, he later told reporters, “For a few days I had nothing to do but lie on my back and read these.” Poring over the transcripts in his hospital bed in Huntington, New York, he stumbled upon evidence that Nixon had been dishonest—and provided a final nail in the coffin of Nixon’s already troubled presidency.
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.
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.”
My grandfather’s role in Nixon’s impeachment is entrenched in my family lore. I remember asking my grandfather the first time I heard the transcript story, as a young kid, “If you hadn’t hurt your back, would Nixon never have resigned?” I now understand the naïveté of my question—the scrutiny of investigative journalists, the courts, and the Senate Watergate Committee would likely have led to Nixon’s downfall, regardless of my grandfather’s actions.
But if his downfall was, in fact, inevitable, why did every major newspaper from The Philadelphia Inquirer to the Detroit Free Press print a story about the thorough reader who found a damning mistake? Why were reporters eager to draw the connection between a backyard injury and the undoing of a corrupt administration? Perhaps it was because my grandfather was a regular citizen who brought a history-making piece of information to light. His story allows everyone to believe, if just for a moment, that paying attention and getting involved is all it takes to make a difference.
With the recent Trump impeachment inquiry, which began as a result of the transcript of a phone call with the Ukrainian president, history seems to be repeating itself. But despite the echoes of Watergate, our current political moment seems fundamentally different because of intense polarization and the splintering of partisan news outlets. I don’t know whether an ordinary citizen like my grandfather, even with keen eyes and a sharp mind, could save the day—but I suspect that, somewhere, people are poring over transcripts of testimony, giving it a try.