This summer marks the thirtieth anniversary of President Richard M. Nixon's resignation. In 1974 the Watergate investigation had been under way for more than two years, during which time Nixon had denied any wrongdoing. His claims unraveled, of course—in part because of conversations he himself had tape-recorded.
Nixon left behind some 3,800 hours of taped conversations in all, dealing with virtually every aspect of his presidency. In February of 1971 he had begun installing what was to become an extensive recording system in multiple locations. The only people with knowledge of the system were H. R. Haldeman, Nixon's chief of staff; Alexander Butterfield, one of Haldeman's aides (Butterfield later disclosed the existence of the tapes to Watergate investigators); and a handful of Secret Service technicians. Nixon shut the system down in July of 1973, as the Watergate investigation gathered force.
The National Archives and Records Administration in College Park, Maryland, has been gradually releasing the Nixon tapes since 1996. Some 2,019 hours have been made available to date. The recordings provide a window onto a highly complicated man: deeply insecure, venal and petty and given to racial and ethnic slurs, but also sophisticated in his understanding of domestic and foreign affairs (and of the often frustrating ways of the giant bureaucracy under his command). I have listened to Nixon tapes as each batch has been released, creating transcripts of conversations that are frequently elliptical and sometimes difficult to hear. Following are excerpts from recordings made in 1971 and 1972.
Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, April 7, 1971