Taking home Nixon tapes is a tricky task

Research: National Archives lets public make copies, but the process isn't user-friendly.

April 21, 2001|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - Great moments in U.S. history often have humble, confusing and sometimes unintelligible beginnings. But with resolve and perhaps an advanced degree in library science, Maryland citizens can now bequeath to their grandchildren a recording of Richard Nixon praising Johnny Unitas!

At the National Archives yesterday, the public was allowed for the first time to copy for free any portions of the 1,284 tapes the government had previously released of Nixon's White House conversations. For years, the public has been able to listen to transcripts of the 3,700 hours of gap-toothed recordings on historic subjects such as Watergate, Vietnam and the Washington Redskins. But researchers had to travel to College Park because copying was prohibited.

This week, the National Archives learned that the Nixon estate was offering the public a chance to copy the Nixon tapes. "We found out Tuesday. We had three days to get ready," said Karl Weissenbach, director of the Nixon Project.

The rush job accounted for the lack of "public" in the equation; archivists and reporters seemingly outnumbered regular civilians yesterday. Weissenbach predicted greater public turnout once word-of-mouth spreads. Besides, it was Friday, and who wants to do tedious research on Friday?

It is the latest development in the Nixon Project. When we visited the Archives for Tape-Nixon Opening Day, Weissenbach handed us "A Chronology of the Processing and Opening of Nixon Presidential Materials and Tapes Litigation." The tobacco suits had nothing on this bad boy. If nothing else, the litigation document illustrates why no U.S. president since Nixon has chosen to record their conversations. Nothing but grief and legal briefs.

Entering the National Archives is a trip in itself. First-time visitors must sit for a photo ID, and the picture rivals in abject horror any driver's license mug shot. We had to check our jacket and reporter's notebook in a 25-cent rental locker. Our pens were also useless. Once inside Room 4000, we could take notes only with No. 2 pencils and government-issued notebook paper. The regulations nearly took the fun out of reporting.

Archivist David Lake walked us through the process - an assignment he cheerfully accepted until later, when our collective will to commit research seemed to wither. As it turns out, one does not simply stroll into the Archives and tell the nice man at the desk, "Excuse me, I want to burn a copy of Nixon talking about, you know, some Watergate stuff. And I got five minutes."

Citizens need to be specific about dates and subjects. The computers here aren't set up yet to narrow searches. If you type in NIXON and WATERGATE, be prepared to spend the next 10 years browsing for that choice morsel of conversation when, for instance, Nixon tells his loyal chief of staff, "We are going to use any means. Is that clear?"

Disregarding Lake's advice about specificity, we asked him to ask the computer to conduct a few special searches for us:

NIXON and ELVIS. Although Lake says the famous picture of Nixon with the King "is the most popular picture by far among visitors to Archives," no tape of their conversation exists. NIXON and JOHN LENNON: nothing. NIXON and WILLIAM DONALD SCHAEFER: one minor mention. NIXON and HUNTER S. THOMPSON: no way.

NIXON and UNITAS: pay dirt.

A "John `Johnny' Unitas" reference is on original tape No. 503-11. Lake then went to the Big Book, the binder that shows the Unitas mention is on reference tape No. 646-6. See, there are original and reference tapes and probably lawsuits that separate the two.

After a serious pink form was executed, a nice man at the desk handed us the prized Unitas cassette. According to the 27,000- word "subject log," Nixon's Unitas reference occurred May, 21, 1971, between 12:11 p.m. and 12:20 p.m. in the Oval Office.

The 503-11 number (stay with us now) meant we had to fast-forward through 10, nearly unintelligible Nixon conversations until he finally got down to business in conversation No. 11. His voice on the muddy tapes doesn't resemble the Nixonian voice we knew and loved and gave us night sweats. He sounds like any other guy conversing from a cave.

Finally, we would have something more than an autographed Unitas football to give our children. We would have Nixon on Unitas!

After a mysterious 16-second gap while discussing former Redskins quarterback Sonny Jurgenson, Nixon said for the record:

"Here's Johnny Unitas, he comes back again. He's a leader of men, no question about it, a leader of men. Strong. Intelligent. A fine personality, a fine character." The president then presented cuff links to visiting Olympic swimmer Don Schollander and tape No. 503-11 was officially over.

And there we had it - our Unitas presidential tribute.

Except for one detail - and the National Archives can't stress this enough for anyone coming by to copy a tape. Bring a cassette. They don't provide them. And a cassette is about the only thing you don't have to check in a locker.

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