August 21, 2013

Newly released Nixon tapes span Watergate, Soviet summit

The Associated Press

YORBA LINDA, Calif. — President Richard Nixon had just delivered his first major national address on the Watergate scandal that would ultimately cost him the White House when the calls of support began pouring in.

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President Richard M. Nixon points to the transcripts of the White House tapes after he announced during a nationally-televised speech that he would turn over the transcripts to House impeachment investigators, on April 29, 1974, in Washington.

1974 Associated Press File Photo

President Nixon talks with Henry Kissinger on April 13, 1973

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President Nixon talks with George H.W. Bush on April 30, 1973

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Audio tapes released Wednesday show that within hours of the speech on April 30, 1973, the beleaguered 37th president heard from Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and evangelist Billy Graham.

The calls were captured on a secret recording system that Nixon used to tape 3,700 hours of phone calls and private meetings in his executive offices between February 1971 and July 1973.

The final chronological installment of those tapes — 340 hours — were posted online by the National Archives and Records Administration as part of a release that also includes more than 140,000 pages of text documents. Another 700 hours of tapes remain sealed for national security and privacy reasons.

Since 2007, the National Archives has released hundreds of hours of the tapes, offering the public an unvarnished and sometimes shocking view of the inner workings of Nixon's administration and insight into the president's private musings on everything from Watergate to Vietnam.

Wednesday's release did not include significant new material on Watergate, but did show the incredible strain on Nixon in the summer of 1973 with the growing scandal stemming from the 1972 break-in at Democratic headquarters by burglars tied to the president's re-election committee.

The day Nixon gave his speech, two top White House staffers, H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, had resigned, as well as Attorney General Richard Kleindienst.

In the speech, Nixon said he was not aware of or connected to the Watergate break-in. He said he supported punishment for those involved in possible criminal actions and accepted responsibility for ceding the authority of his campaign to others whose "zeal exceeded their judgment and who may have done wrong in a cause they deeply believed to be right."

White House counsel John W. Dean III was also fired that day, a special Senate committee to probe Watergate was being formed and a special Watergate prosecutor would be assigned within weeks.

Reagan, who called late that night, reassured a needy Nixon that the speech was the right one to make during such a crisis.

"I just want you to know, we watched and my heart was with you. I know what this must have been and what this must have been in all these days and what you've been through," Reagan said.

"You can count on us, we're still behind you out here and I wanted you to know that you're in our prayers."

At the end of the call, Reagan told Nixon: "This too shall pass."

That same evening, Bush, who had recently been appointed chairman of the Republican National Committee, called to say he had watched the speech with "great pride."

This time, however, an angry and exhausted-sounding Nixon complained to Bush about the reaction from TV commentators.

"The folks may understand," Nixon said, before adding later: "To hell with the commentators."

The following year, Bush would privately write Nixon a letter urging him to resign, which he did on Aug. 9, 1974.

Politicians weren't the only ones who checked in that night.

Graham spoke at some length with Nixon, dissecting the network TV coverage and briefing the president on CBS' coverage, which he deemed the most negative.

"I felt like slashing their throats. But anyway, God be with you," said Graham, who also told Nixon the speech was "his finest hour."

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