If you've become tired of the release of Nixon tapes in which the former president disparages races, religions and former presidents, you can blame and sympathize with Karl Weissenbach. Since 1991, Weissenbach has worked with the National Archives' Nixon presidential materials staff in College Park, Maryland, the last six years as director. Given the fascination with the last 240-hour batch Weissenbach's crew put out, we thought we'd ask him what it's like to have what we regard as the most exciting job in the world. We started by asking him about Nixon's observation that Ronald Reagan was "weird."
Did your jaw drop when you heard what Nixon said about Reagan?
No, because when I listen to the tapes, I don't make judgments about what he's saying. I'm listening to determine what conversations we can release, taking into account issues of national security as well as personal or privacy issues. I know that sounds bureaucratic, but that's my job.
Of the240 hours of tape you released, how much of it is Nixon talking about Reagan?
Probably a minute or two.
Do you ever hear something juicy on the tapes and find it really hard to keep it to yourself?
I never talk about Richard Nixon's tapes or papers outside the office, not even to my wife.
You've been listening to Richard Nixon for 12 years. . . .
Not only do we listen, we listen and review the tapes over and over. We review every syllable. This being the government, of course, they bought the very cheapest recording equipment, so it's very hard to decipher sometimes, especially if Nixon is banging on a table or someone has a glass with ice in it or if there's four or five people in the room and you can't figure out who Nixon is talking to.
I was going to ask if sometimes you can't get Nixon out of your head, that he gets stuck there like a bad commercial jingle.
Not really. I live 70 miles from the office on a mountaintop—near Camp David, interestingly enough. I have plenty of time to let go, and by the time I'm home, I'm busy fighting the kids for the remote when they want to watch Nick at Nite and I want to catch something on the History Channel about the Nixon presidency. I'm fascinated by the Nixon presidency. Sometimes, if I'm listening to something on my Walkman, my little girl will say, "Daddy, are you listening to Nixon?"