John Taylor has an impossible job. As the executive director of the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace in Yorba Linda, he's responsible for portraying the most corrupt president in American history as a "statesman"-a president who made sweeping progress on relations with China and the Soviet Union and ended the Vietnam War "honorably" but "made mistakes" while attempting to protect his own aides and the American people.
When Nixon was alive, maintaining the fiction was no big deal. But after Nixon died in 1994 and the National Archives began releasing the former president's voluminous White House tapes-more than 3,700 hours of Nixon and his aides lying, scheming and conspiring-Taylor's job as chief polisher became immeasurably more difficult.
Two weeks ago, the National Archives released the latest batch of Nixon audiotapes: 54 minutes of previously classified conversations detailing Nixon's abuse of power during the Watergate scandal. The newly released tapes augment 201 hours of conversations that were released last year and transcribed by University of Wisconsin professor Stanley I. Kutler.
For Taylor, the new tapes are a public-relations nightmare. One of the most wrenching of the new conversations occurred on April 27, 1973, just days before Nixon sacked H.R. Haldeman, his chief of staff. Between 4:41 and 5 p.m., Haldeman and Nixon sat in the Oval Office and discussed E. Howard Hunt, one of the burglars Haldeman was bribing to keep quiet. Hunt was making signals that he might talk unless he got more money. For Nixon, that meant serious trouble: Hunt had orchestrated earlier crimes, including the 1971 break-in at the office of the psychiatrist who was then counseling former Pentagon analyst and Vietnam War protester Daniel Ellsberg-a crime that hadn't been yet linked to the Nixon White House:
Nixon: "What we have to do is keep Hunt quiet."
Haldeman: "And to keep him quiet on a national-security matter."
Nixon: "Yes, we can't have him or let him [unintelligible] Ellsberg."
Earlier tapes transcribed by Kutler show Nixon intimately connected to the hush-money payments-even to the point of personally thanking Greek-American businessman Thomas Pappas for, in Nixon's words, "help[ing] out on some of these things that . . . others are involved in." That "help" eventually totaled $549,000. Clearly, the Watergate "cover-up" wasn't something that shocked or bothered Nixon.
These new tapes are one more body blow to Taylor's Nixon history. Rather than ignore them, Taylor cribbed a tactic from the Machiavellian former president himself, pre-empting the Archives' release by posting his own transcripts of the tapes on the Nixon Foundation Web site.
But Taylor also altered the conversations released by the Archives. In the case of the April 27 conversation, Taylor cleansed the former president's words with a few keystrokes-omitting Nixon's words about keeping Hunt quiet and shortening his next statement-making it appear Nixon was actually trying to prevent a cover-up:
Haldeman: "Keeping them [Hunt and the other defendants] quiet on a national-security matter-"
Nixon: "Yes, we [can't] do that."
After the sanitized exchange, Taylor commented that it was "unclear what national-security matter was being discussed." But for readers of the Washington Post-which actually sent its reporters into the Archives' listening room and reproduced the original Haldeman-Nixon exchange cited above -there was no mystery: Nixon rationalized the 1971 Ellsberg break-in as a "national security" operation. To do otherwise would be an admission that his aides regularly committed crimes to further his own political agenda.
Taylor has long argued that stories of Nixon cursing, bribing and blackmailing were "lies," "ridiculous caricatures" and "character assassination." In his introduction to the new transcripts, Taylor blasts Kutler for allegedly "mishandling" the tapes and filling his 1998 book with "manipulations."
Yet Taylor's own transcripts show a hateful, fearful and often profane Nixon, obsessed with screwing his political enemies-real and imagined. We hear him seeking dirt on John F. Kennedy's Vietnam War policies ("It shows Kennedy was the one who got us in the damn war"); cursing-for no apparent reason-"that crazy asshole," then-Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau; and auctioning off ambassadorships to such heavyweight campaign contributors as the late Raymond Guest ("Probably dumb as hell, but he'll be all right"). And for the first time, the conversations confirm a long-held story that the White House Plumbers also busted into the Chilean Embassy just a few weeks before their Watergate operation.
Taylor lets it all fly in his transcripts. But he wasn't so forthright concerning an intriguing March 18, 1972, Oval Office conversation when Nixon and special counsel Chuck Colson refer to Hunt as "the fellow who broke all the stuff about [Cuban President Fidel] Castro's sex life." But that's all we know, since Taylor deleted 1 minute and 39 seconds-for "privacy" reasons.
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Throughout the posted transcripts, Taylor injects his own commentary in a desperate effort to soften the blow Nixon's own words do to his legacy. Concerning one previously released June 17, 1971, conversation when Nixon barks at Haldeman, "Goddamn it, get in [to the Brookings Institution] and get those files. Blow the safe and get it," Taylor cautions readers that they need to "understand Richard Nixon's anger during that moment of his presidency."
For some reason, Taylor also included six and a half pages of history detailing the events leading up to the murder of the hated South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem. Taylor also felt no need to explain references to Pappas, despite the critical role he played in Watergate.
Then again, clarification isn't what interests Taylor. Throughout his introduction and commentaries, Taylor chips away at the damning transcripts, comparing Daniel Ellsberg to some hypothetical Nazi spy in the Roosevelt White House, blaming the White House burglars on the exigencies of the Vietnam War, and repeating the classic Nixon lie that White House aide John Dean-not Nixon himself-orchestrated the Watergate cover-up. Taylor also includes the astonishing statement that "the tapes from 1972 show that the president urged his aides over and over again not to cover up the Watergate burglary."
So far, 242 hours of Nixon tapes have been made public. With nearly 3,500 hours still to go, it's clear Taylor has a lot of work ahead of him.