August 25, 1980 12:00 PM

THE WATERGATE TAPES at the National Archives, Wash., D.C.

When President Nixon resigned six years ago, authorities agreed that he could have ridden out the Watergate storm and finished his term except for one factor—”the Tapes.” From the moment in July 1973 that Alexander P. Butterfield, a former Nixon aide, revealed the existence of a White House recording system, the tapes and their contents became a national obsession. When he finally released edited transcripts of the tapes the following April—complying with a unanimous Supreme Court edict—Nixon predicted that “these materials…will tell it all.” They did, of course, in a way he never intended. But the endless pages of turgid and often cryptic dialogue—with a maddening succession of “unintelligible” and “expletives deleted”—left open such nagging questions as “What did he mean?”, “How did he say it?”, “What do they really sound like?” Now Americans can hear for themselves.

Every weekday, between 8:30 a.m. and 4 p.m., some 150 visitors don headphones in a second-floor room of the National Archives building on Pennsylvania Avenue at Seventh Street. They are listening to some 12½ hours of the more than 1,200 hours of presidential tapes—the 30 conversations entered as evidence in the cover-up trial of H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, John Mitchell, Robert Mardian and Kenneth Parkinson (plus one recording presented in the illegal campaign case in which John Connally was acquitted). The tapes are played on a rotating schedule, and three days are required to hear them all. Each day’s tapes are divided into four to six listening sessions lasting one to two and a half hours each. (Tickets for each session are free, on a first-come, first-served basis, starting at 8:15 a.m.)

Considerable dedication is required. The sound is uneven, marred by distracting noises. As John Dean dryly puts it: “I don’t think they are going to make the Top 40.” Dean’s is one voice that is seldom incomprehensible. “It comes through like a radio announcer’s, unfortunately,” he says.

The famous “smoking gun” tape is the one everybody wants to hear. Recorded June 21, 1972, six days after the break-in, it reveals Nixon approving Haldeman’s plan to have the CIA order the FBI to “stay the hell out of” the Watergate investigation; the pretext was that secret material related to the 1963 Bay of Pigs invasion would otherwise be compromised. That transcript was first released on Aug. 5, 1974, and it so thoroughly demolished Nixon’s long-standing insistence that he had never used the CIA to stifle the FBI that he was forced to resign within three days. Nashville attorney James Neal, who prosecuted the cover-up case, says that until he studied this and other damaging tapes, “I had been very reluctant to believe that Nixon was involved. Then I became convinced that it was absolutely true.”

Both the smoking gun and the second-most-important tape—containing Dean’s “cancer on the Presidency” remark—are played on Day One of the Archives cycle (Aug. 22, 27, Sept. 2, 5 and so forth). Other highlights of the first day’s playback involve Dean’s March 21, 1973 meeting with the President to forecast that the scandal could no longer be contained and to seek guidance. After Dean mentioned that it might take $1 million to buy the silence of E. Howard Hunt and others implicated in the burglary, Nixon responded at one point, “We could get that. You could get it in cash. I know where it could be gotten. But the question is who the hell would handle it?” Then, speaking of “taking care of” Hunt (Dean’s words) and other potential “blackmailers,” Nixon said, “I wonder if that doesn’t—let me put it frankly—I wonder if that doesn’t have to be continued?” A further problem was whether Nixon could survive the political ramifications of eventually offering Hunt clemency. Dean thought not. “It may further involve you in a way you should not be involved in this,” he told the President. Nixon responded with the line that has been bread and butter to satirists ever since his own pardon: “No—it is wrong, that’s for sure.”

Though perhaps less explosive, Day Two (Aug. 20, 25, 28, Sept. 3, 8) is full of key exchanges and Watergate-isms, like Nixon’s “Give ’em an hors d’oeuvre [meaning let’s sacrifice Dean] and maybe they won’t come back for the main course” (April 14, 1973, in a conversation about Dean’s approaching testimony); Ehrlichman’s characterization of Mitchell as “the Big Enchilada” (March 27, 1973); and his memorable endorsement of “a limited hang out” of the full truth (March 22, 1973).

Day Three (Aug. 21, 26, 29, Sept. 4, 9) captures the increasing paranoia and desperation of the final days, “with the wagons around the White House,” as everyone kept describing it. Nixon and Haldeman, for instance, worry on April 25, 1973, whether Dean had worn a concealed tape recorder to the March 21 meeting. Nixon: “That’s what may be his bomb.”

One Washingtonian still to catch the tapes is columnist Art Buchwald. “I’m dying to hear the 18½-minute gap,” he grins. (Sticklers will note that the June 20, 1972 tape with the gap in it was not presented in the cover-up trial and so is not in the Archives’ possession.) “The gap is the one for me,” Buchwald explains, “because I don’t know if I want to hear Nixon’s voice again or not.”

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