For sale: Nixon's fall, audio version

Recordings: The National Archives is making his greatest hits available for purchase by the public.

November 10, 1999|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,Sun Staff

COLLEGE PARK -- You've read the book. You've seen the movie. Now own the tapes.

For the first time, the National Archives is selling copies of the audiotapes that helped make Richard M. Nixon a former president.

Twelve hours of Watergate recordings labeled "abuses of governmental power" will be released on Jan. 21. Only orders postmarked by Nov. 22 are ensured first-day delivery.

"Wow! I'm going to get online right now and order some," Christopher Beam, director of the Edmund S. Muskie Archives at Bates College in Maine, said when told of the sale.

Until now, you had to travel to the National Archives complex where the tapes are stored if you wanted to hear Nixon tell chief of staff H. R. Haldeman: "You're to break into the place, rifle the files and bring them out."

But for $18 per cassette ($702 for the entire 39-tape set), you can plug the 37th president into your dashboard, your boom box or your home entertainment system.

Listen to the tapes made famous during the 1974 Watergate cover-up trial: the "smoking gun" conversation that sealed Nixon's fate, counsel John Dean's warning of the "cancer on the presidency," Dean's resignation.

But wait, there's more.

An additional 251 hours of recordings covering the Watergate Special Prosecution Force tapes and other "abuse of powers" conversations between Nixon and his staff will become public Jan. 28.

These offerings were made possible by a 1996 settlement between the archives and representatives of the Nixon estate, who felt many of the president's musings went beyond the public's right to know.

Who would want to own the Nixon tapes?

Archives spokeswoman Susan Cooper said her bosses don't know how big the potential audience is. The first batch of tapes essentially will be made to order, hence the Nov. 22 deadline.

Publicity has been sparse, just a news release and an order form on the National Archives Web site (www.nara.gov).

The natural market is libraries, historians, teachers and journalists, Cooper said.

Beam, who listened to and cataloged the tapes for more than four years while on the National Archives staff, said the seamy side of the Nixon administration remains a draw for regular folks.

"There's going to be a certain fascination because you're listening in to the cockpit of the American political system," he explained. "Even the most inane and banal conversations were revealing about Nixon's character, the character of his aides and the inner workings of the White House."

Alexander Bloom, a professor of history at Wheaton College in Massachusetts and a Pulitzer Prize nominee, said John F. Kennedy and Nixon "form the two pillars of optimism and cynicism" that define politics of the 1960s.

"We went from 'Ask not what the country can do for you' to 'I am not a crook,'" said Bloom, who teaches a course in modern presidential history. "It's a real stark contrast for students."

The John F. Kennedy Library in Boston has been releasing cassettes since 1983. It has a catalog of 80 tapes ranging from the Cuban missile crisis to telephone calls.

Each time a tape is released, the 30 to 50 copies are quickly snapped up by scholars, reporters and Kennedy memorabilia collectors. A new batch must be recorded about every three months.

"It's not Hollywood, but it's pretty busy," said Kennedy archivist Alan Goodrich.

The warts-and-all aspect of the Nixon tapes extends beyond the content to the quality of the recordings.

"These tapes were tapes the Secret Service bought at a drugstore. They were meant for Nixon's memoirs. The microphones were voice activated and scattered around the Oval Office and Cabinet room," said Cooper. "Some tapes are better than others."

Beam said the quality ranges from "impossible to difficult to listen to. Telephone conversations are the best, and Oval Office tapes are better than Executive Office Building tapes. The Cabinet Room is the worst."

But Nixon experts and hobbyists can follow along through each illegal act and expletive with the transcripts posted on the Archives Web site.

Presidential expert Lewis Wolfson of American University in Washington noticed an oversight, however. "They aren't offering a tape with an 18-minute gap, are they?" he asked.

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