Released tapes shed light on Nixon bid to dodge scandal
Late ex-US president suggested former aide avoid Watergate questions by asserting national security
Late former US president Richard Nixon with his wife Pat and daughter Tricia, resigning on August 9th, 1974, in the wake of the Watergate scandal. Photograph: Reuters
Just hours after a national address promising “no whitewash” of Watergate, President Richard M Nixon privately urged his new attorney general not to appoint a special prosecutor and suggested a former aide avoid questions by asserting national security priorities.
A series of secret tapes released yesterday, the final ones to be made public, shed new light on Nixon’s efforts to staunch the mushrooming scandal in the spring of 1973.
On the same night he pushed out top aides and gave his first speech on the episode, Nixon stayed up late making and taking a series of phone calls that planted the seeds for further cover-up.
While he received supportive calls from the likes of Ronald Reagan, George Bush and Billy Graham, Nixon also made a point of talking with Elliot L Richardson, his choice to take over as attorney general. In the prime-time speech, Nixon told Americans that he had granted Richardson “the authority to name a special supervising prosecutor”. But now on the phone, he privately told Richardson not to do so.
“The one thing they’re going to be hitting you on is about the special prosecutor,” Nixon said. “The point is I’m not sure you should have one.”
Instead, Nixon said, Richardson should “assume responsibility for the investigation” himself.
He later talked to Charles W Colson, his former White House counsel, who assured Nixon he would not talk about the anti-leak plumbers operation - the infamous Democratic Party offices burglary at the centre of Watergate. “You say we were protecting the security of this country,” Nixon advised.
Richardson ultimately rebuffed Nixon’s recommendation and appointed Archibald Cox as special prosecutor, only to resign months later rather than follow the president’s subsequent order to fire Cox. Colson later pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and served seven months in prison.
The back-to-back phone calls on the night of April 30th, 1973, were among 340 hours of taped conversations released by the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum yesterday.
Forty years after Nixon turned off his secret recording system, the treasure trove of historic recordings has provided an unparalleled window into the workings of one of the nation’s most tumultuous presidencies.
Nixon’s tapes were the means of his undoing as they captured his involvement in the Watergate cover-up, but they have given historians a deeper understanding of triumphs such as the diplomatic opening to China as well as the darker side of the nation’s 37th president.
“Because of the tapes, the fiercely secretive Nixon has wound up running the most open White House in history,” said Gary J Bass, a Princeton scholar whose new book The Blood Telegram is based partly on the tapes.
“You can listen in on top-secret, obscenity-filled, blunt conversations and reconstruct how Nixon’s decisions really got made in a way that’s totally unequalled for any other administration.”