Archives to publish the Watergate tapes

Experts question interest 25 years after Nixon quit


WASHINGTON -- Two or three times a day, someone takes a seat at the National Archives in College Park, puts on a headset and eavesdrops on history.

Those who do hear private White House conversations between President Richard M. Nixon and his aides in the Watergate crisis, which culminated in his resignation 25 years ago today.

Relatively few people -- mostly historians and researchers -- have listened to the Watergate crisis unfold in conversations the president recorded. That will change Jan. 1, when for the first time, 264 hours of White House tapes will be available for public duplication and sale. Currently, tapes can neither be reproduced nor distributed.

Historians and archivists are not sure what to expect.

Will the tapes be packaged into a sort of greatest hits of key conversations, such as the so-called "smoking gun" tape of Nixon discussing the Watergate break-in, or the one in which John Dean warned Nixon of a "cancer on the presidency?" Or will there be a flurry of media play, followed by disinterest among all but Nixon buffs and historians?

"It's a good question," said Karl H. Weissenbach, director of the Nixon Presidential Materials staff at the National Archives. "Whether they will be used for late-night comedy or whatnot, I don't know."

The archives plans to hire a vendor to duplicate the tapes for sale to the public, the media, libraries and others, Weissenbach said. He did not know how the tapes would be grouped or priced.

The tapes will be issued as part of a 1996 settlement between the Nixon estate, which fought their release for years, and a group that wanted the process to go faster.

"As long as Richard Nixon was alive, we were not going to have these," said Stanley Kutler, who wrote "Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes" and sought the release of the tapes. "He did not want to confront the embarrassment once more in his life."

Nixon supporters say the tapes distort his record as president because they represent only a fraction of the nearly 4,000 hours of White House conversations that he recorded over five years.

Pub Date: 8/09/99

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