But we know the broad contours of what is in all those tapes — the equivalent of 14 days’ worth of what presidential speechwriter William Safire might have called Nixon notions, nostrums and negativisms. We know the Watergate story, how it began (a third-rate burglary) and how it ended (the only presidential resignation in history), and in these times it is important to remember that none of it could have happened without a newspaper (The Washington Post).
So the value in these tapes isn’t in the broad but in the specific, not in the breathtaking size of this historical trove but in the tiny details in small bites of conversation. With that in mind, you might consider a few minutes of White House banter, chosen at random but revelatory precisely because of what transpired in the Oval Office on a day of neither infamy nor fame.
The morning session began with presidential press secretary Ronald Ziegler telling Nixon a new Harris Poll found that Americans, by a 77-13 margin, did not think the president should resign from office, adding that there was a strong undercurrent in the country to give the president the benefit of the doubt on Watergate.
And though the apparent agenda for this session was wide-ranging — White House staff matters, the possible resignation of Secretary of State William Rogers, the invitation by Hanoi to permit American families to visit burial sites in North Vietnam, the end of the protest and occupation at Wounded Knee in South Dakota — the conversation always returned to Watergate. It was like a magnet, drawing together all the metal filings (and all the material in various metal filing cabinets) in the conversation and in the room.
Indeed, this recording was made just as the balance of the president’s attention was shifting from the geopolitical to the purely legal, from statecraft to stalling and scrambling for survival.