Snipping at Nixon History

Times Staff Writer

Sometime in the very near future, Bill Cowell will hunker down in front of a bulky 25-year-old tape player in a nondescript cubicle at the National Archives, clap on a headset and, guided by codes on a sheet of paper, find a precise spot on a thin, brown ribbon to mark with his grease pencil.

Then Cowell will flip a couple of levers, slip the delicate magnetic tape into a small aluminum block and slice away the voice of former President Richard M. Nixon.

Cowell, 59, can’t tell you what words he’ll be cutting. A former military intelligence officer, Cowell was hired as a kind of historical surgeon at the National Archives because he knows how to keep a secret.

But he will say that the conversations involve mundane moments in Nixon family life and the late president’s comments on internal Republican Party politics -- details that would be fascinating for biographers but that a federal judge ruled 11 years ago were none of the nation’s business.

So Cowell will cut. Uncomfortably, and with a nagging sense that he’s destroying something of value. But he will cut.


“These tapes were recorded in the Nixon White House by Nixon, for Nixon, and should be a national treasure, and here we are cutting them up,” lamented Cowell -- who, despite his intelligence background, has an archivist’s passion for publicly preserving the past. “Obviously, I don’t think too highly of the court decision, but we’re kind of stuck with it. I really do think we’re destroying a historical artifact that should be preserved.”

Cowell and others at the National Archives are editing Nixon’s tapes for public release -- the final stage of a legal wrestling match that began in 1974 when Congress, fearful that Nixon would destroy evidence in the days after his resignation, ordered that the 37th president’s White House records be seized.

That included the infamous White House tapes: About 2,800 hours of conversations surreptitiously recorded on 950 reels via microphones hidden in Nixon’s Oval Office desk and fireplace, in the nearby Cabinet meeting room, Nixon’s second office in the Old Executive Office Building and in three places at Camp David. Nixon also tapped his own phone.

All the machines were voice-activated, which meant they captured virtually everything that was said: Small talk. Political strategy. Arms negotiations. The Watergate cover-up. Family matters. To listen is to be a fly on the Oval Office wall, as though “The West Wing” were a reality radio show.

“That is really the stuff of history,” said Roger Morris, a former National Security Council staff member under Nixon and President Johnson whose books include a Nixon biography. Morris said he was dismayed by the work the National Archives finds itself forced to do: “I just have a kind of blanket and sweeping preference for opening up everything.”

Nixon, though, felt otherwise.

After Congress seized the files, Nixon argued in court that Congress lacked the authority to take his property. He lost that argument but did persuade the court that the federal government must pay him for the material; Nixon’s estate and the government settled in June 2000 on $18 million.

Nixon also successfully argued that details about his family and internal Republican Party conversations were not matters of legitimate public interest. Those are the words Cowell and his colleagues are slowly excising.

“I had a number of discussions with him about it” before Nixon died in 1994, said John H. Taylor, executive director of the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace in Yorba Linda. “He was theologically passionate about the purely personal” material being withheld.

Less clear, Taylor said, was how strongly Nixon felt about keeping private his conversations on Republican political matters.

“His attitude about the political tapes present sufficient flexibility that I feel comfortable in at least probing the idea” of eventually making that material -- which, at least for now, is preserved on working copies -- available to researchers, Taylor said.

Ironically, some of the personal material being cut -- Nixon talking about his family life -- would, if released, soften history’s perception of the much-maligned former president, showing him as a caring father and husband, said Mike Hamilton, who oversees the physical editing of the tapes.

“We’re cutting things out of the record that would probably show him in a more favorable light, as a person,” Hamilton said.

The existence of the tapes was a secret until former Nixon aide Alexander P. Butterfield mentioned them almost as an aside while being interviewed by Senate Watergate Committee staffers before testifying in the Watergate hearings.

Nixon was not the first to secretly tape in the Oval Office. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson all did it to one extent or another.

Nixon initially was appalled at the thought of secret recordings, and had Johnson’s tape machines removed shortly after assuming the presidency when FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover warned the new president not to use his own phone because “little men you don’t know will be listening,” according to William Doyle’s 1999 book “Inside the Oval Office: The White House Tapes From FDR to Clinton.”

But Nixon installed his own system in 1971, hoping -- as did FDR -- to create a record to resolve disputes over what was said, and as an aid when it came time to write his memoirs. In doing so, he inadvertently loaded the smoking gun that would prove his involvement with the Watergate cover-up.

Since 1980, the National Archives has processed and released 2,000 hours of the 2,800 hours of conversations, and archivists don’t expect to finish until 2008.

It all begins with the original recordings on six-hour reels of quarter-inch tape. The tapes are kept in a climate-controlled vault on the first floor of a sprawling, 1.7-million-square-foot glass-and-steel complex on 33 acres in suburban Washington, a short distance from the University of Maryland.

Two teams do the work under Karl Weissenbach, director of the Nixon collection. A technical crew, which includes Cowell, takes the first step by making digital copies of the originals. After feeding them into computers to bleed out background noise and hiss so the conversations are easier to hear, they make working copies on digital audiotape.

Then, as many as six archivists -- the staff has fluctuated -- use those copies to determine what will be available to the public and what will be withheld.

By federal law, conversations that are deemed secret because they fall into any of seven other categories -- including national security, trade secrets or sensitive investigations -- must be “withdrawn” from the final recording released to the public. Under the court order won by the Nixon family, conversations about personal matters or internal GOP politics must be physically cut out of the original tapes.

As the archivists listen, they create a log that annotates the recordings -- loose descriptions of who is present and the general topic of discussion. No transcripts are made, but the log breaks down the tapes into specific conversations, which can be difficult to define as one meeting meshes into another and as aides and officials enter and leave the Oval Office.

“They go through second by second and listen to each conversation,” said David Mengel, who supervises a staff of three archivists. “If they come across anything that fits under our conditions to withdraw ... then they would identify by time code and by key words, the last words that are said before the withdrawal starts and the first words that are said during the withdrawal.”

Each conversation is reviewed twice, and the archivists must all agree on what they are hearing and whether any of the total of eight exemptions apply. If they can’t make out what is being said, the conversation is automatically withheld.

Finally, those who were part of any conversation to be included in the final tape are notified that their voices are being prepared for public release.

Sometimes figuring all that out turns the archivists into detectives, matching tapes with White House visitor logs to figure out who was in the Oval Office for a given conversation, then matching voices to names. Some, like then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s, are distinctive and easy, as are regular voices like those of Nixon aides John Dean and H.R. Haldeman.

When small groups of people making a rare Oval Office visit turn up on the tape, the archivists’ work is tougher. Sometimes the archivists debate over what is being said, as different ears hear different things.

“We have a pretty cumbersome process,” Weissenbach said. “We look at the daily diary. We look at the president’s schedule. We might look at newspaper clippings. We might look at books that talked about a particular subject.... It can be very difficult to identify all the people, but we’re not going to release a conversation without knowing who said what, when and to whom.”

Even when the voices and topic are clear, though, the decision whether to release the material may not be. For instance, if a conversation that might fall under the national security exemption has already been aired publicly -- in memoirs by participants, news accounts or other materials -- the archivists can decide that the exemption no longer applies.

Once the editing is done, the material to be released publicly is copied onto compact discs that the public can listen to and copy in the public reading room here at the National Archives complex.

Cowell and his colleagues then go back to the original tapes and physically remove the personal material.

Despite all the years of legal wrangling, the court order requiring the tapes be cut up left a couple of glaring holes. It does not tell the National Archives what to do with the working copies of the original tapes they use to create the public files, though Weissenbach said he suspects they also will be destroyed or modified to cut out the private Nixon moments.

Also unclear is what to do with the snippets cut from the originals. Without court guidance, or an agreement with the Nixon estate, the archives staff has been stuffing the outtakes in “burn bags,” diagonally striped brown paper bags propped against a wall in the archivists’ office. The snippets are uncataloged and would be impossible to reassemble in any meaningful way, Weissenbach said.

“Doesn’t look like much, does it?” Weissenbach said as he reached into one of the bags outside Cowell’s cubicle and pulled out a Medusa’s snarl of Nixon family secrets.

The ribbons of history glistened dully in the fluorescent lights, mute witnesses to a fading past.