There is a crackle in the recording. And it’s easy to be distracted by the sound of the scratching of a pencil, a noise made by an obsequious aide furiously taking notes when he is not making self-serving or flattering interjections. But the man at the center of this conversation is unmistakable, for there is only one person in the history of humankind who might have said this:
“I had no knowledge of the goddamned break-in, that’s for sure, no knowledge of the goddamned cover-up. Oh no. No participation and no authorization or knowledge of the goddamn cover-up.”
That is the 37th president of the United States shortly after 8 in the morning on May 8, 1973.
The man had plenty to say. He luxuriated in his poll ratings. He took comfort in the country’s belief he still had plenty to accomplish as president. He pressed the logic of whether he ought to speak of a cover-up at all, because merely using the term might acknowledge there was a cover-up. In the same building a quarter-century later, a man also courting impeachment would employ similar presidential logic and wonder out loud about the meaning of the word “is.”
The other day the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum released the final batch of secretly recorded White House tapes, and as usual they are a treasure. In those tapes are a festival of unctuousness (Gov. Ronald Reagan consoling the Watergate-beleaguered Nixon, counseling, “This, too, shall pass,” which, of course, it did not) and unreality (“I won’t let you down,” Attorney General Elliot L. Richardson tells the president, before doing just that, resigning rather than firing Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox).
Even the most devoted Watergate buff — and here I plead guilty, for the whole affair is an irresistible combination of politics, crime, justice, villainy, heroism, greed, mendacity and tragedy, all played out in the high technology of the time (tapes) and the low technology of our time (actual printed newspapers) — can’t digest 340 hours of conversations at once.