40 Years Ago: A Very Popular Paperback Book

White House Scripts book covers

40 Years Ago: A Very Popular Paperback Book

By R. Alan Clanton | published June 18, 2014 |
Thursday Review editor

County commissioners in Arlington County (Virginia) recently approved a proposal by a company called Monday Properties to demolish the multi-level parking structure once used by Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward and his secret contact for Watergate investigation information. Back then, Americans knew the name of Woodward’s source only as Deep Throat, a moniker penned by Managing Editor Howard Simons to describe Woodward’s extremely shy contact as “being on deep background.” Decades later, a former top FBI agent named Mark Felt would reveal himself to have been the secret source.

The demolition of that parking garage will take place sometime next year, and its destruction will make way for a high rise apartment building and a small retail complex. There is already a commemorative marker on the street near the garage now, explaining the historical significance of the site, but the county and the developers agreed to enlarge the signage, possibly adding additional materials and even photographic displays.

The passing of that garage was, perhaps, to be expected. Some buildings of historic significance survive, some do not. A parking garage hardly compares to Monticello, or the Custis-Lee Mansion.

In the meantime, a more important milestone has been reached in the long shadow of Watergate. Forty years ago, newspapers and book publishers printed the first editions—almost all of them in paperback—of the Presidential Transcripts. Both the New York Times and the Washington Post partnered with publishers (The Times with Bantam, the Post with Dell) to make available, for about $2.50, a massive paperback with the complete text of the tapes released by Richard Nixon and his staff in 1974.

The subtitle of the book was in fact the official title of the materials handed over by Nixon to Congress: Submission of Recorded Presidential Conversations to the Committee on the Judiciary of the House of Representatives by President Richard M. Nixon. A more cumbersome namesake than just “The White House Transcripts,” as those pages became popularly known.

By the time of the publication of the books, Watergate had become a national obsession, with hundreds of reporters working full time on the topic, and the majority of nightly broadcast news devoted to the investigation.

The whole thing had started on the night of June 17, 1972 (42 years ago, yesterday), when five Cuban-American men dressed in upscale suits broke into the offices of the Democratic National Committee, which at the time was in the Watergate, an upscale multi-use suite of offices, apartments and hotel in Washington, D.C. The burglars were caught with electronic bugging equipment, thin envelopes of cash (the $100 bills were in sequence), and a couple of small notebooks which contained some phone numbers of people at the White House. Woodward was sent to their arraignment, and the investigation began in earnest, with Woodward working alongside veteran reporter Carl Bernstein.

In addition to the Washington metro police, the FBI began investigating. Working in a parallel trajectory, Woodward and Bernstein did their own gumshoe work even as the FBI moved slowly with its massive inquiry. By early 1973 the case had found its way to the attention of Congress, and into several courtrooms. Hearings were launched on Capitol Hill, with all the predictable grandstanding by politicians, courtroom theatrics by attorneys and counsel, evasions and obfuscations by witnesses. One of those called to testify was Alexander Butterfield, a mid-level staffer and security expert for Nixon. A day or two after rumors began circulating that some of Nixon’s conversations might have been tape-recorded, Butterfield was asked directly by Senate Counsel Fred Dalton Thompson if there was a taping system. Butterfield not only acknowledged the taping, but said it had been expanded to include most offices in the EOB, and that the system was voice-activated.

Contrary to the widespread mythology of Watergate, Nixon did not install the taping system. The first tape recorders were installed during the last year of the administration of Franklin Roosevelt. The recording systems were expanded and upgraded by subsequent presidents, from Truman to Eisenhower to Kennedy. Lyndon Johnson further expanded the taping system, upgrading it even more, and it was during Johnson’s tenure that tape recording systems were added to key phone lines as well, including in the Oval Office, the Lincoln Sitting Room, and the several smaller offices. The recording systems were eventually centralized and housed in a small utility room on a lower level of the White House, where they were maintained and checked daily by the Secret Service. Several agents rotated the seemingly mundane duty of swapping out full recordings with blank tapes, and making sure that all the machines were operating properly. Tapes were labelled by hand, and placed into cardboard boxes or on shelves.

Shortly after Nixon became President, newer Sony and Uher recorders were installed to replace the older gear, and by some reports as many as ten recording mechanisms—using scores of small lavalier mics in eight different rooms—were in operation by 1972. In addition, Nixon asked that phone recording systems be expanded and upgraded as well. The President’s secretary, Rose Mary Woods, had an expensive, top-of-the-line Uher 5000 machine near her desk, available for playback and transcription.

The essential fact of Nixon’s role in the taping system was his suggestion, probably in 1971, that all taping mechanisms activate automatically upon the start of conversation in any of the monitored offices. No longer would someone have to manually—and emphatically—press a button to begin recording what was being said. Soon after Butterfield revealed the existence of the previously secret taping system, members of both the House and the Senate were determined to gain access. If Congress and the courts could find evidence that Nixon had been ordering his loyal lieutenants to interfere with the investigations or to destroy evidence, then Nixon could be charged with obstruction of justice.

Seeking to verify some of what John Dean had told investigators, the special prosecutor, then Archibald Cox, wanted access to specific tapes. The White House stonewalled. Cox asked District Court Judge John Sirica to send subpoenas to the White House requesting eight of those tapes.

Nixon still refused to release any tapes, citing executive privilege. His reasoning had some legal basis, and though it was apparent he was simply dodging having to take direct responsibility for any wrongdoing, Nixon and his lawyers argued that the separation of powers meant that Congress had no blanket authority to reach into the president’s personal conversations, many of which may involve matters of national security or international relations. But the Democratically-controlled House and Senate were having none of that, and Sirica confirmed that he too would not budge—the White House would have to relinquish those eight tapes.

Nixon offered what became known as the Stennis Compromise, whereby Nixon would loan the tapes to U.S. Senator John Stennis. Stennis could, acting separately and independently, produce his own executive summary and analysis of the tapes to confirm or refute accusations that the President had acted illegally. Cox refused to agree to this arrangement, as did Judge Sirica. Angry that Cox would not budge, late that night, Nixon asked Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Cox from his job. Richardson refused to fire Cox, and instead resigned on the spot. Within the hour, Richardson’s second-in-command, William Ruckelshaus, also resigned when the task fell to him to fire Cox. Next in the line-of-succession came Robert Bork, then Solicitor General. Bork acquiesced to Nixon’s demand and fired Archibald Cox. The event became known as the Saturday Night Massacre.

Eventually, after various legal tactics collapsed and several delaying tacks failed, and under extreme political pressure, Nixon and his team released heavily edited transcripts of more than one hundred conversations. Nixon never conceded that Congress had the right to listen to the tapes, but he was willing to produce dozens of ring binder notebooks filled with 1200 pages of edited versions of those office encounters.

The transcripts were rushed into print, and bookstores from San Diego to Seattle, from Manchester to Miami, built Vokswagen-sized displays of the paperback versions. For a brief moment in 1974, those thick paperbacks became the biggest-selling non-hardback book on the best seller lists.

Nixon was embarrassed for the nation to see the kind of language and tone being used in the Oval Office, and he ordered his staff to expurgate the dozen or more offensive words so liberally peppered throughout the transcripts. Also exorcised were the racial epithets and religious slurs, only one part of the pattern of talk often employed by Nixon and his closest aides, Bob Haldeman, John Erlichman, John Dean, John Mitchell, Charles Colson and others. Notable writers and columnists decried the lowball synergy inside Nixon’s inner circle—small talk, cheap talk, backbiting gossip, coarse language. To those entering his office, Nixon would often offer disparaging remarks or insults about the person who had just left the room. In place of the ship’s boiler-room language and the crass insults and the ethnic slurs, phrases like “expletive deleted” or “characterization deleted” were employed. Instead of providing delicacy, the self-censorship only heightened the lack of intellectual debate and the absence of broad-minded governance—the leaders of the free world cursing and back-stabbing.

But the tapes also generated a strange ambiguity. In the press and among his many adversaries in a Democratically-controlled Congress, there had been a previously naïve narrative that the tapes would produce unambiguous gotcha moments—instances where those in the room with Nixon agree out loud and in clear language that they intend to commit a crime. But Nixon’s obsession with driving the conversations, along with his well-known tendency to think out loud—bouncing ideas, testing reactions, sizing-up outcomes, vetting and venting, even pulling back from some of the more absurd discussions—meant that for every occasion where Nixon seemed to be crossing the threshold into illegality, there was an instance moments later when he withdraws, demurs, or changes his mind.

The transcripts became 800 pages of Rorschach testing. Nixon’s closest allies in Washington, while appalled at the lowball comedy of what was on those tapes, could also find a man in an innocent state of mind even as he manipulated and maneuvered.  One could read into some of the passages what one expected to find, and a nation already deeply-divided by the scandal grew more divided.

Those big selling paperback books also made for strange reading. The men around Nixon used a kind of shorthand or coded language, at times filled with a mishmash of Army and Navy lingo, advertising jargon, football vernacular, and political Pig Latin, all of which which required contextual translation. There was “go the hang-out route” and “get it in the neck” and “deep six” and “beating the rap.” There was “over the hill” and “twisting in the wind.” There was “the long ball” and there were “Hail Mary Passes.” Accompanying the “expletives” were thousands of “inaudible” and “unintelligible” insertions. When hashed together with frequency, some passages become theater of the absurd, like reading Waiting for Godot backwards and with every fifth word deleted.

The books became the brunt of ten thousand jokes, the grist for hundreds of political cartoons, and the source of endless hours of reading for the millions who bought the book. It became history’s most unlikely political best seller, and a strange, jarring look inside the White House and into the siege-mentality thought processes of Nixon.

The transcripts, more importantly, showed a President and a top staff increasingly consumed by Watergate. Over time, weeks and months later, Nixon slowly defers much-needed work on hundreds of crucial issues—from Vietnam to the Soviets to China, from oil prices to wages to inflation. Even Nixon’s most savvy and thoughtfully-crafted endeavors in foreign policy begin to suffer, and the transcripts show the slow deterioration of Nixon’s focus and the growing isolation he felt.

Most critically, the book still reads in places like tragedy—Shakespearean in the certainty the heroes will all fall, either on their own sword, or by the sword of another. Each man (and in those days Nixon’s White House was all men) eventually must save his own skin, or take the fall to protect the next in the line of succession—protagonists and antagonists alike angling to the last.

The release of the transcripts was, to use one of Nixon’s office phrases, a Hail Mary Pass. He was betting that those binders would sate the hunger of a hostile Congress and assuage an irritated court. He was also placing his chips on the court of public opinion.

In his address to the American people the night he released the transcripts, Nixon said he knew the tapes would show him to be some who was trying to find the right path. He hoped that most Americans would see his actions as being honorable, though he knew it would be painful for his place in the history books.

“Never before in the history of the Presidency,” Nixon said that night, “have records that are so private been made so public. In giving you these records—blemishes and all—I am placing my trust in the basic fairness of the American people.”

Related Thursday Review articles:

Deep Background, Deep Demolition; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; June 16, 2014.