Richard Nixon taped roughly 3,700 hours of his conversations as president. About 3,000 hours of those tapes have been released, while the rest remain closed to protect family privacy or national security. The public has a general impression of what’s on the Nixon White House tapes—the expletives deleted, the so-called “smoking gun” when Nixon appeared to try to use the CIA to derail the FBI investigation of Watergate, the slurs against blacks and Jews.
But very few people have actually listened to more than a few hours of tapes. Less than five percent of the recordings have been transcribed or published. The tapes, stored at the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California, will in time give us a much clearer and more accurate picture of Richard Nixon. Two tapes-based books published this summer, timed to the 40th anniversary of Nixon’s resignation on August 9, 1974, go a long way toward showing Nixon’s underappreciated geopolitical genius and how he became the victim of his own emotionalism.
The Nixon who emerges from Luke Nichter and Doug Brinkley’s massive (700-plus pages) The Nixon Tapes, a collection of transcripts from 1971 to 1973, is at times profane and raw. Speaking of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, he tells National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, “We really slobbered over that old witch.” He shows the typical prejudices of his generation against gays. But there is no doubt that he is in charge—ruthlessly so, exploiting rivalries between his aides. He seems to delight in secrecy and in playing the great game of power diplomacy, even when he is frustrated by the Russians, Chinese, and North Vietnamese, as well as America’s allies. It’s not always clear where Nixon is going—he vents, rages, tries on bluffs and provocations—but he, and not Kissinger, is calling the shots.