The bootleg burglars

Abuse of Power
February 27, 1998

In common with so many recording artists of yesteryear, it is, perhaps, only a matter of time before the issue of the boxed set. Voice-activated! Unexpurgated! richard nixon live at the white house. Backing vocals: Gordon Liddy and the Plumbers. Duets: Haldeman and Erlichman. Denials: Ron Zeigler. Homilies: Henry Kissinger. Of this soul-destroying exercise in criminal kitsch, what might loosely be called the Watergate tapes offer us the authentic voice of the first rascal. Abuse of Power is the transcript of those tapes, edited and in large measure elicited by Stanley Kutler, the distinguished scholar who joined forces with the advocacy group Public Citizen to file a suit for their release. After five years of litigation and mediation - and after Nixon's death - an agreement made with the National Archives and the Nixon Estate provided for the release of more than 3,700 hours of tapes over a four-year period beginning in 1996. The first tranche of this material, 201 hours' worth, purports at last to fulfil the 1974 congressional mandate on the archivist of the United States to "provide the public with the full truth, at the earliest reasonable date, of the abuse of governmental power popularly identified under the generic term 'Watergate' ".

We have good reason, therefore, to be grateful to Stanley Kutler. We have equally good reason to wonder about the fullness of this truth. Some information has evidently been withheld. The cryptic insertions "(Withdrawn item. National Security") and "(Withdrawn item. Privacy)" recur in the text. This may be no more than a minor irritant, but in the nature of things it is impossible to be sure. Inasmuch as the tapes were voice-activated, the pauses and hesitations of natural speech are, by definition, absent; there is a truncation, or dramatisation, at work here whose effect is not easy to assess. Of the conversation that has been recorded, inevitably, there is a good deal that is unintelligible, marked as such by the editor "when I think that something important was said", but not otherwise, it seems. Inevitably, also, much has been filleted by Kutler from the printed version - already a heavy book - such that most of the substantial conversations appear in "segments", like scenes in a play, thus subtly (and artificially) enhancing the dramatic schema of the work. Certain of the editorial interpolations, bearing a curious resemblance to stage directions, betray a similar tendency. "The hour is late. Nixon is tired, and slurs his words a bit." Tired and emotional, one might think, is a perfect fit for the president's maudlin monomania.

More fundamental reservations derive from the duplicities and contrivances of the chief protagonists. The existence of the tape-recording system was known only to Nixon and Haldeman (and a few aides). As Kutler notes, these two were not above holding contrived conversations for the record ("Well, Bob, let's look at the actual facts here"), expletives and operatives alike deleted. Naturally enough, others had their suspicions, as indicated by defector John Dean ("the sonofabitch") in his testimony to the Senate select committee. One of them was surely Henry Kissinger, who appears here as a kind of one-man chorus, ritually protesting his innocence to an incredulous tape and an equally incredulous president: Kissinger: "I don't know a damned thing of what really happened in the Watergate thing, but my impression is that -" Nixon: "Well, what happened you know very well, some assholes -" Kissinger: "The stupidity."

Nixon: "As I told you, Mitchell wasn't tending the store and some jackasses did some things and that's all."

Kissinger: "Oh, it's total stupidity. I'm not against - I believe in playing rough. I think it was stupidly done, but that's another matter. What I'm saying is, leaving aside what happened, I think the public respects you for hanging tough. They don't understand all the nuances of all this crap of -"

Henry was always a better pander than he was a politician.

Beyond the play-acting, what clots the tapes is the practised idiom of conspiracy. Everything is nondescript, euphemistic, vague. A typical exchange between Nixon and his good friend Thomas Pappas, a Greek-American businessman who gave hush-money to the needy, at the president's request, and who had the great virtue of dealing, discreetly, in cash: Nixon: "Let me say one other thing. I want you to know what I was mentioning last night. I am aware of what you're doing to help out on some of these things that Maury's people (in the Committee to Re-elect the President, CREEP) and others are involved in. I won't say anything further, but it's very seldom you find a friend like that, believe me."

Pappas: "Thank you."

Nixon: "Frankly, let me say Maury's clean as he can be."

Pappas: "I know."

Nixon: "Mitchell is. A few pipsqueaks down the line did some silly things."

Pappas: "Sure."

Nixon: "But it's down the line. Down the line, they're all guilty. You know that... But nobody in the White House was involved. It's just stupid."

Pappas: "I spent eight months, did you know that?" Nixon: "Eight months?" Pappas: "Yes (unintelligible). Every day at the office I made 12 trips back and forth from the time I started in January."

Nixon: "How did you do it?" Pappas: "Well, I did it because - well (unintelligible)."

Nixon: "And basically, as you say, we were so shocked - I was so shocked to hear such a stupid thing, mainly because if you're going to bug somebody, for Christ's sake, first, you shouldn't bug them. But, second, if you're going to do it, (why?) the (Democratic) National Committee? They don't know a Goddamn thing."

Pappas: "That's right."

Nixon: "I thought it was the most (stupid?) thing. But, you know, amateurs. That's what it is. Amateurs. Believe me."

For Nixon, however, Watergate was far more than a bugging or a break-in, amateur or professional. As he himself once remarked: "The cover-up is what hurts you, not the issue" - and the cover-up of the cover-up. In the final analysis the only revelation of the new Nixon tapes is the mind-numbing banality of evil. For the President and his cronies, "Watergate" was a way of life.

Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, Keele University.

Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes

Author - Stanley Kutler
Editor - Stanley Kutler
ISBN - 0 684 841 4
Publisher - The Free Press
Price - £20.00
Pages - 675

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