Expletives Deleted or Not, Secret Tapes Proved Fatal to Nixon Presidency


It was a Friday afternoon in July and the witness was just a small fry: Alexander Butterfield, who kept President Nixon’s schedule and handled his paper flow. Three staff members of the Senate Watergate Committee were questioning him, preparing for his public testimony the following Monday.

Trolling, one asked whether there might be something down at the White House, some sort of recording system?

Butterfield took a breath.

“I was hoping you fellows wouldn’t ask me that,” he said.

And with that, history turned a corner. What Butterfield revealed that afternoon in 1973--and on television to the senators and the world three days later--was electrifying news: For 2 1/2 years, Nixon had been secretly taping his conversations.


Five microphones in his desk and two in wall lamps by the fireplace, still more in the Cabinet Room, at his hideaway in the Old Executive Office Building, and at the presidential retreat at Camp David, Md., picked up everything said in Nixon’s presence.

Now Watergate was no longer the word of one man, White House counsel John Dean, against another, Richard Nixon. Now there was incontestable contemporaneous evidence to be had.

Without the tapes, it was unlikely that Nixon would have had to give up the presidency.

More than anything else that happened in the Watergate scandal--the 25-month drama that brought down a president--Butterfield’s disclosure was fatal to Nixon’s presidency.

From that moment, the investigation into those behind the break-in at Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate building became a battle over access to the tapes.

Nixon fought hard. He fired a special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, who insisted on getting the tapes.


He went on television with a pile of loose-leaf notebooks that he said contained transcripts of the tapes. “The president has nothing to hide,” he said. This “will tell it all.”

It didn’t. He had doctored the transcripts and cleaned up his language. “Expletive deleted” became part of the political and popular lexicon.

The ploy failed. The House Judiciary Committee, considering the possibility of impeaching Nixon, joined the special prosecutor in demanding the tapes themselves.

Even Nixon’s expurgated version damaged him: They showed the president as a vengeful schemer--rambling, undisciplined, mean-spirited and bigoted.

When the Supreme Court, a year after Butterfield spilled the beans, ordered Nixon to surrender the tapes to Cox’s successor, Nixon had reached the end of his rope.

Refusal surely would have guaranteed his removal from office.

And, as it turned out, so would compliance.

Two weeks later, Nixon gave up a final tape, made six days after the break-in. It recorded a discussion between Nixon and White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman. Told that the FBI’s investigation was leading to Nixon’s reelection campaign, Nixon instructed Haldeman to tell the FBI, “Don’t go any further into this case, period.”

That was it: Evidence that almost from day one Nixon played a role in the conspiracy to conceal White House involvement. The House Judiciary Committee had already approved three articles of impeachment. But the vote was partisan: Democrats firmly against Nixon, Republicans mostly in support. He could still hope for acquittal in the Senate.

With the release of the incriminating tape--the famous “smoking gun”--Nixon’s Republican support in Congress vanished.

On Aug. 9, four days later, Nixon became the first president in history to resign.

Why didn’t Nixon destroy the tapes when their existence was revealed--and before they became subpoenaed evidence whose destruction would have been a crime?

Nixon would say later that failing to destroy them was his biggest mistake. But he had convinced himself that he would never have to give them up.

Moreover, he thought he could use them selectively to bolster his claim that he had nothing to do with Watergate. And he wanted them to write his own version of history.

When Nixon resigned, he sought to take the tapes and his White House papers with him. Newly installed President Ford had the truck stopped from leaving the White House grounds and Congress passed a law seizing the materials on behalf of the American people. It ordered that those parts that don’t concern state secrets or purely personal matters be made public.

Nixon, for the rest of his life, and his estate ever since have fought to keep the tapes from being heard. Of 3,700 hours of tapes in the archives, only about 7% of them are available to anyone who cares to listen. The rest are still being fought over.