WASHINGTON — Washington. -- In the beginning there was the word, recorded on stone, then on papyrus, then in notebook by pencil. Only later was there the pocket tape recorder, today an essential tool of the newspaperperson. For years I balked at this step into high-tech journalism, afraid I would end up with blank noise.
Now, playing archaeologist as I plunge into the undisturbed depths of my file drawer, I calculate that the first layer of old cassettes dates back two decades, plus or minus. Their contents run from super-sublime to sub-ridiculous.
Here is the late Jack Pollack, Democratic boss of Northwest Baltimore, reminiscing in his plywood-paneled office on Redwood Street. He laughs in triumph about the time he defied the party establishment to gather enough petition signatures to nominate someone, it's not clear who for what. To rub it in, he rented an armored truck and ''rode shotgun'' to deliver his list to Annapolis.
Here is Charles Evers, as we drive on a rainy night from Fayette to Jackson, telling about what got him and his brother Medgar into politics. He is the newly elected mayor of Fayette, and he brags about the black road supervisors, constables, justices of the peace and election commissioners who hold office along with him in Mississippi.
''Old [Sen. Theodore G.] Bilbo inspired me,'' he says. ''In Decatur when I was a kid, Medgar and I used to go listen to him when he came to speak. He was a redneck, that's what he was. He talked racist, but he acted different at home. He was a backdoor integrationist. He'd point to us and say, 'See them two little niggers sitting down there? If you don't take care, some day they going to be up here saying they want to go to Washington, to represent you instead of me.'
''Medgar poked me and said, 'That ain't a bad idea, Charlie.' ''
Here at the Hotel Roanoke is a lanky young woman named Annie Dillard, who has just published her first book. She got her graduate degree in English, she says, but ''I was trying to define myself. Poet? Theologian? I decided nobody's going to read my poetry, so I took whole sections of my poems and just spread them across the page.''
The result was ''Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,'' which won the Pulitzer Prize, and nearly 20 years of other books almost as good.
Here is Gen. William C. Westmoreland (Ret.) explaining how he happens to be running for governor of South Carolina. ''You know my pattern of operating. . . . I like to get out in the field. . . . When they asked me to take this economic-development job I got out to see all 46 counties and made an economic appraisal. Inevitably, I knew I'd be accused of political motives.''
By some miracle, this confessional suddenly turns into Teddy Wilson's ''Moonlight on the Ganges.'' But there are other tapes.
Here is Richard Nixon before the National Association of Broadcasters in Houston. He will resist ''the unreasonable demand to go through all the files of the president,'' he says. ''That would mean no president would be strong enough to stay in office. I'm trying to be as forthcoming as possible'' with Congress, ''but I must think of future presidents. I will not participate in the destruction of the office of the president while I am in this office.''
His audience applauds.
Here in a hideaway at the Capitol is Mike Mansfield, looking back over 34 years in Congress from what seemed to be the end of a public career -- before he spent another decade as ambassador to Japan. Here is President Jimmy Carter in the Roosevelt Room, confiding that with the failure of the Iran hostage rescue mission, he will start campaigning again.
Here is Vice President George Bush, whose tape has unaccountably sunk a decade too deep into the dig. He is talking about the time he was shot down as an Avenger pilot in 1944. ''It was shock -- no, not shock, just total recognition that you had just narrowly escaped death, your best friends were dead. . . . Then on the [rescue] submarine, on war patrol . . . I'd wake up at night thinking of the plane, on fire, being very close to death.''
Here are conversations with the political names of a generation. But the ones I remember best are the ones you never heard of. Here, over the highway hum of a Greyhound somewhere in Alabama, is a country girl named Sheila Phillips, on her way to join the U.S. Army, spilling all to a stranger on a bus. Here are Aquilla Burdette and Siller Brown, and tapes that are treasure to me but trash to anybody else, and there is no way my wife is going to let me keep them in the house.
Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun.