Transcript: Luke Nichter on the Origins of the White House Taping System
Luke Nichter is Professor of History at Texas A&M University, Central Texas and the nation’s foremost expert on the Nixon Tapes.
Jonathan Movroydis: Welcome to the Nixon Now Podcast. I’m Jonathan Movroydis. This is brought to you by the Nixon Foundation. We’re broadcasting from the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California.
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Why did Richard Nixon install a taping system into the White House? Our guest today will answer this and other questions about the origins of the infamous Presidential Recording System.
His name is Luke Nichter. He’s a Professor Of History at Texas A&M University. And he’s the nation’s foremost expert on the Nixon tapes and he’s founder of nixontapes.org, the only website dedicated solely to the scholarly production and dissemination of digitized Nixon tape, audio, and transcripts. He’s also the co-editor of two volumes of the Nixon tapes with fellow historian, Douglas Brinkley. Luke, welcome back.
Luke Nichter: Thanks, Jonathan. It’s nice to be back.
Jonathan Movroydis: Just to kind of start off, can you tell us a little bit about the history of presidential recording? Richard Nixon wasn’t the first to tape, who was?
Luke Nichter: This is a fascinating topic. You know, when the Nixon tapes were first publicly disclosed in 1973 during a Watergate inquiry, as far as we knew, he was the first president to record himself. And then only through digging in various archives and National Archives and Presidential libraries, we realized Nixon wasn’t new having the first president at all taping. Taping actually started in 1940, all the way back in 1940, when technology was much more inferior than it was in the early 70s.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt as president brought press into his office and recorded a number of those basically press conferences for the purpose of when he was quoted the next day in the newspapers, he wanted to see whether he was quoted accurately. So, he used the tapes both to record history but also as a check on those with whom he met and spoke.
And presidents after Roosevelt each recorded more and more hours. So, after FDR’s death, Truman inherited his taping system. And then by the 50s, presidents were using Dictabelt recordings which could…expanded the capacity of recordings to 15 minutes at a time, which seems so meager to us today, but that was the latest technology. And so each president recorded according to the latest technology, and by the 60s, Kennedy and Johnson were recording in the hundreds of hours. But it was really Nixon that moved recording forward.
And he did so because technology had advanced by the early 70s, where he can make it sound-activated. So anytime Nixon was within physical range of one of the locations that was part of his taping system and there were various from around the White House, the West Wing, the mansion, Camp David, and various telephones, the system started automatically. So ultimately, Nixon recorded in the thousands of hours instead of hundreds, and he recorded more than all other presidents before him combined.
Jonathan Movroydis: And what is that voice activation? The fact that Nixon was voice activated, why does that make his or how does it make his taping unique?
Luke Nichter: Well, I think it makes his recordings unique for a number of reasons. As a historian, I think they just make it more honest. Prior to Nixon, for every conversation or meeting a president had, a decision had to be made to turn on the system or to keep it turned off. And I don’t think it takes a complete cynic to come to the conclusion that for most presidents prior to Nixon, they turned it on when it served the President’s interest and they surely left it off when it serves the President’s interest.
So, prior to Nixon, I think you get the sense as a listener, as a consumer of history from that time period that your history is a little more choreographed. Now, even in the Nixon age, you know, not everything was recorded. So, Air Force One wasn’t recorded, his homes in San Clemente and Biscayne were not recorded, So, not every location where the President spent time was recorded but many were.
So, I think for me, a more sufficient sample size, which is certainly, you know, in the thousands of hours than any other president and the fact that it captured everything when he was in one of those places, to me, it gives a much more accurate, honest representation of history and how the president thought, how he worked, and how his White House ultimately ran.
Jonathan Movroydis: How does it fit into…You’re a researcher, you’re a historian, when you go into the Nixon archives and you go through the presidential yellow pads, or you go through the decision memorandums, how do the Nixon tapes fit in with that whole record of paper history?
Luke Nichter: That’s a great question. You know, when I started my work on the tapes, I was a grad student at Bowling Green State University, and I was fascinated by the tapes. I couldn’t get enough. I couldn’t believe that I was listening to private recordings in the Oval Office and it made you feel like a fly on the wall in the President’s private space. You were hearing something forbidden, something you shouldn’t hear. And certainly, when these were recorded, the law regarding records being released to the public was such that we never should have heard these, they should still be secret.
These were the President’s personal property. And so I did the thing that I would advise my own students was absolutely foolish, is that I started with the tapes and I just got lost in fascination with the tapes. I think where the tapes serve a purpose that extends from the textual or the paper records, which are the traditional records you look at, the memoranda in an archive, or the President’s correspondence, or in this case, the yellow pads.
I think what the tapes show is really the linkage between those pieces of paper because when you go into an archive, you either…things are siloed. You request domestic policy records, you request foreign policy records, and even will say within foreign policy. You want National Security Council records. Do you want meeting memoranda, minutes? Do you want China? Do you want Soviet Union? Do you want Vietnam? Do you want it by specific staff assistant? Do you want the Kissinger files? Do you want, later, Scowcroft files? Do you want…? I mean, everything is siloed, is compartmentalized, everything’s in a box, everything’s in a folder.
The tapes show how all those folders and boxes are connected. You know, the tapes are much more like a conversation you’d have with a friend or a parent. Where you discuss the news of the day, you discuss the problems, you see how they’re interrelated in the President’s mind, you weave in what’s going on the hill. You weave in some, you know, what are we doing for dinner tonight? What are we doing this weekend? When are we leaving for Florida? On Friday. You weave in family. Presidents are also fathers, they are spouses, they have family concerns just like we do.
And so, I think when you have a tape and nothing siloed, you see the issues from the President’s perspective, the way that he thought about them, and the way the decisions were made, all options considered, not considered, and how the president reflected after the fact. And it’s pretty rare that you find any of that kind of linkage in the traditional textual records.
Jonathan Movroydis: You’d mentioned that the tapes were the President’s personal property. Just for the sake of history and knowing their origins to the public, how ultimately did the tapes become accessible to researchers?
Luke Nichter: Well, in President Nixon’s case, what happened ultimately was during July of 73, before the Ervin committee, the Watergate committee in the Senate, the staff assistant who operated the taping system day-to-day, Alexander Butterfield, testified that the tapes existed. That was something that we, you know, again, now it’s commonplace to think, what president since 1940 taped? Well, don’t think about it in 2018 terms, think about it in 1973 terms, which is presidents have never taped before. This is a brand new thing. And when he disclosed the fact the tapes existed, you have to remember in 1973, the Watergate committee, its central goal, I think, was best stated by Senator Howard Baker of Tennessee, which was their goal was to figure out what the President knew and when did he know it. And up until the point of the taping system being disclosed, it was he said, it was she said, it was conflicting testimony. It was different ways to read into…between the lines of memoranda or a textual record and the tapes were, you know, not exactly showing what the President knew and when he knew it, but they at least could show you what the President said and when he said it.
So, in terms of a higher standard of evidence, I don’t think you can use the tapes in isolation. You need the context of the textual records, but you also can’t look at a subject during a period that was taped and ignore the tapes. The tapes are a new kind of evidence, a powerful kind of evidence that helps you to confirm or to correct what you see, you know, in other records.
Jonathan Movroydis: Let’s take a listen to some of the tapes. President Nixon began recording on February 16, 1971. These tapes are authentic, but many of them, to the untrained ear, are very, very inaudible. We’re gonna post a transcript of this tape online but just for some flavor for our listeners, I’m going to play it right now.
Richard Nixon: How does it work in here?
Alexander Butterfield: Well, they’re [the Secret Service] sorting it out now. Richard Nixon: What activates it?
Alexander Butterfield: When you have the locator on, the machine starts. [unclear] You might not be surprised by this [unclear], locator on. It tells us where you are, throughout the executive office. And it’s automatically working, so it’s working now.
[Noise; possibly an unclear exchange]
Richard Nixon: The system stays off, no? It’s working?
Alexander Butterfield: You’re wearing the locator right now and you’re in the office [unclear]. It doesn’t have an on-and-off switch. It depends on voice activation—
Richard Nixon: Right.
Alexander Butterfield: —so you don’t have to turn it on and off.
Richard Nixon: Oh, this is good. Is there any chance to get two? You see, the purpose of this is just to have the whole thing on the file…
Alexander Butterfield: Yes, sir.
Richard Nixon: …for professional reasons.
Source: Oval 450-01. 6 February 1971. 7:56am-8:58am. Nixon, Richard and Butterfield, Alexander.
Jonathan Movroydis: As you can hear, that tape is very, very inaudible. That’s President Nixon with his White House aide, Alexander Butterfield and Alex Butterfield is explaining how the taping system works. Luke, who is Alex Butterfield? You mentioned a little bit about his testimony revealing the tapes earlier. But, who is he?
Luke Nichter: Well, first, I’ve got to say, I remember when I transcribed that tape, and it sort of gives me nightmares to hear how terrible that audio is, you know, I think all the tapes, you know, the quality is pretty poor. You know, the technology was cutting edge for the early 70s, but it’s pretty primitive today. It was a pretty advanced system, sound-activated, you know, Sony players. But the problem was they tended to go to the local drugstore and buy tapes, kind of the thinnest quality tape you could get, which kind of defeated the purpose of having this really great system. So thankfully, they’re not all that bad.
But I think to answer your question, I would say, it just takes patience to listen to these, and thankfully, the only way I could do this, the only way I could make sense out of a tape that’s that terrible is, we have technological advances that you didn’t have then and now with terabyte hard drives and with software, we can slow down, or speed up a tape, we can separate out the noise, we can boost levels, we can lower levels, is the only way I could do this work. And here, you know, when you hear Alexander Butterfield’s voice in this conversation, you know, he was basically the President’s appointment secretary, he was not…he was a former military official. He was not someone who you’d say was in the inner circle, the Nixon inner circle. He was not someone you’d say who was a substantive policy maker in the sense of Kissinger over foreign policy or Ehrlichman over domestic policy.
He was basically the guy who made the trains run on time and this is about the most you ever hear him speak on the tapes. Because typically, what he’s saying is he’s coming in the Oval Office when a meetings over because he knows the President’s schedule and he’s saying something to the president like, “Mr. President, it’s 10 a.m. and your 10 a.m. appointment’s here.”
You know, his job’s to move people and paper in and out of the Oval Office. And so, that’s his basic job and he was one of the very few people who knew about the taping system. The vast majority of those, who you’ll hear on these tapes did not know they’re being recorded.
The only people who knew were the Secret Service who installed the system, Chief of Staff, Bob Haldeman, and a few people below him, probably Larry Higby, probably Dwight Chapin, Butterfield, and then ultimately Steve Bull who replaced Butterfield in ‘73. But this was an extremely small circle of people who knew the tapes and that’s the role that Butterfield typically plays in a tape.
Jonathan Movroydis: In this tape, Nixon says, “The purpose of this is just to have the whole thing on file for professional reasons.” What does it mean by that?
Luke Nichter: It’s a great question. I’ve thought about that statement a lot of times. You know, there’s no great statement from the president either in the tapes themselves, and he only talks about the taping system itself a few times. I mean, my belief is that he really turns this thing on and he forgets about it, and, you know, operates normally. After all, there’s no reason you want to indicate to the person you’re meeting with her or talking to that you might be being recorded or saying things intentionally for a record, you know, let alone so speaking into a microphone, hidden microphone.
So, you know, he doesn’t give us a clear indication in the tapes themselves or in his memoir why exactly he taped. But I think it’s a combination of things. I think for professional reasons mean here you’ve got someone who loved history who is a great reader and consumer of history, and he knew that presidents, almost everything they do, makes history.
And so, I think part of it is to keep it for historical record that he can maybe use, that he could refer to, that maybe in retirement, he could retire to San Clemente, the western White House, and he could write a multivolume, you know, Churchillian memoir accurately quoting exactly what he said or said to him as Churchill did with his multivolume memoir of his actions during World War II.
For professional reasons, to me, also means that he just wants to record what other people say, that then if they go out and say something different, he says, “You know, no, no, no, you know, this is exactly what you said.” I think he wanted it for a variety of reasons. But I think most of all, he just wanted to record of what occurred during his presidency. And this was a presidency that was based extensively on private diplomacy.
Nixon was somebody who met with very powerful leaders, Soviet, Chinese, Vietnamese, and did a lot of personal diplomacy. He didn’t delegate it to others. He was the one who had tough conversations with Soviet Ambassador, Dobrynin, or Foreign Minister Gromyko or the Vietnamese or later the Chinese.
And for the president, you know, the tapes improved his workflow in the Oval Office. If the process before taping had them…you know, my note taker sits in the office and tries to make an accurate record of things that are said and promises that are made and then a transcript is produced and goes in the President’s file. This is a whole lot better. First of all, it’s more accurate, well, as long as you’ve been listening or hear the audio clearly, but then this allows the president, someone who conducts this very personal type of diplomacy, to say to a foreign leader, ally, or rival, “You know, why don’t you just come into the Oval Office and we’ll have an intimate conversation? No staff present, no notes, let’s just talk like friends.” And so that gave Nixon the chance to have a very accurate readout of those meetings. And in some cases, we have tapes of meetings with Brezhnev in Chinese, where because there was no note taken, no Memcon, no record of the conversation, some of these tapes are the only record of the conversation. And these are…so in some cases, tapes simply confirms what’s in other records. But some of these tapes are the only record and those are really important.
Jonathan Movroydis: If that’s the case, though, why did Nixon wait two years to install this taping system? Why didn’t you do it during, you know, the transition when President Johnson told him it was a great idea?
Luke Nichter: I think that’s another great question. I have no idea. As far as I understand, after Nixon was elected in ’68, he, as president elects do, made a visit to the White House. And as has been written, I think by both President Nixon and President Johnson, he got a thorough tour of President Johnson’s operations, including his taping system. President Nixon probably would have been surprised by that.
This was a generation of leaders who taped. They taped their phone calls, they taped their correspondence. After hours, they would call a phone number, and they would dictate their correspondence. It was a recorded call, kinda like a long answering machine or voicemail, and oftentimes, correspondence secretaries would come into the office in the morning before anyone else, listen to it, type the correspondence. And then when you come into the office, it’s already for your signature or for your review or to edit and so forth. So, I mean, taping was a way of life for President Nixon and those of his generation. The only thing I can think of is he just wasn’t satisfied with the options. That he didn’t want to inherit Johnson system, he didn’t like the options presented to him by the Secret Service.
And by ’71, the technology had improved where it could be sound-activated. And I think ‘71 is also a critical year because, whether it’s purely coincidental or whether he thought in these terms of the time of taping was particularly historic because we were beginning ping-pong diplomacy with the Chinese. I mean, a number of his most significant initiatives began in ‘71 and ultimately reached a climax in ‘72.
However, I sometimes joke that because he waited two years to tape, we also didn’t get recordings of probably some of what would have been some of the most entertaining conversations in the Oval Office, you know, such as when he mailed Elvis Presley. We, of course, don’t have a recording of that. So he waited two years to get everything, but thankfully, he got what he did. Because for the period that was taped, I would argue that there’s no richer record of any other time of his presidency or any other presidency.
Jonathan Movroydis: You’d mentioned some of the locations, some of the spaces that were equipped with the recording equipment. Is there any particular location or locations that have more value than others in terms of conversation?
Luke Nichter: Yeah, that’s interesting, because, you know, a president uses different spaces differently. I mean, I think probably this is true of any president. They have spaces where more formal meetings take place. They have places where more casual meetings take place. A president probably has a place that he likes to hang around with his pals and just talk-shop. And so presidents use spaces differently. You know, leaders of his generation, at least in terms of the tapes, don’t do a lot of substance on the phone. You know, there’s sometimes a concern…you’ll be hearing on the tapes recorded telephone conversations. You know, a long telephone conversation for President Nixon is really over two minutes.
And, you know, he’ll say things like,” Well, we really shouldn’t talk about this on the phone.” You know, this was a time when most of their phone calls were not placed directly, they were placed through an operator, through a switchboard. And a lot of times, you get the idea that people of that generation kind of wonder if someone else could be listening in. And so the real business tend to take place face-to-face.
And so, you know, President Nixon is also interesting because the taping system started small, and it grew. I mean, when it started, we’re talking primarily about the Oval Office, the Executive Office Building, and one telephone, and ultimately, it grows to, you know, the Oval Office, two different phones in the Oval Office are recorded separately. You have his smaller office across to West Executive Avenue in EEOB-180 where he has smaller meetings as well as one of the phones in that office. Then he expanded it to…in the evenings, he liked to make phone calls to friends, to follow up on things earlier in the day he just didn’t have time for, or things he’d like to get moving for tomorrow’s work day.
He’d also make calls late in the evening to the Westcoast when it was three hours earlier where people were still working. And so, he would retire to the Lincoln sitting room. I think he liked the history of the Lincoln sitting room. It was Lincoln’s bedroom originally when President Lincoln occupied the White House.
Just that phone was recorded in there. And then he ultimately added on even later in ‘72, Camp David, two different locations in Camp David, both his cabin in the room where meetings took place, but also on the phone. So even that’s curious, and we don’t have the answers for that, that over time, more taping locations were added. So obviously, he liked it. He liked the fact that it was capturing content. I know of no evidence that he ever reviewed a tape. There’s no evidence he ever listened to a tape until 1973 when he realized his tapes were gonna be used against him as evidence during Watergate. So it’s curious why it started when it did. It’s curious why it started in the locations that it did. And it’s curious that more locations were added on over time. So, by the end of the system, we’re recording far more hours of his time per week than we were per week at the very beginning of the system in ‘71.
Jonathan Movroydis: Let’s listen to another tape, this one a little bit more audible. This is a conversation between President Nixon and his chief of staff, Bob Haldeman.
Richard Nixon: They’re not so—They’re not all unhappy left-wingers to be bright. Also, you can’t then operate our people. I told [Press Secretary Ronald] Ziegler to cover that whole thing with Fred Russell. Goddamn that burned my ass!
Bob Haldeman: Yeah.
Richard Nixon: [You don’t] embarrass the man after two years. I don’t care if he was a hard ass, a screwball, or a nut, you don’t say he was fired. You know what that does to a man, Bob?
Haldeman: Ron’s statement, incidentally, didn’t really say he was fired. It—it, you know, mulled it around the other day.
Richard Nixon: [unclear] I told Alex [Butterfield] he was fired. That’s what we wanted to get out.
Bob Haldeman: He was fired because…
Richard Nixon: See, that’s a problem I believe. Oh well, it will turn out fine except [unclear] talked to him. You are open to our—[tape noise]. Would it not be possible to just do these without the [unclear]. We talked about doing it before.
Bob Haldeman: Sure.
Richard Nixon: Since you’ve got the recording—Oh, wait a minute.
Bob Haldeman: Let’s use the recording.
Richard Nixon: That’s right.
Bob Haldeman: But we can—we can do it on the basis of your notes. I mean we can put the thing out afterwards.
Richard Nixon: If I deal it or something?
Bob Haldeman: No, see, I can go back. We can go back and we can use the recordings, but we can’t—
Richard Nixon: I don’t want you to transcribe those unless it’s important. See?
Bob Haldeman: We can just run it back and take notes off them.
Richard Nixon: Oh, hell, maybe we’ll have somebody to—It’s just a little bit awkward for them both to be standing, you know, without anything to do.
Bob Haldeman: It’s probably more awkward for you than it is for anybody else.
Richard Nixon: Maybe it is. Well, then, why don’t you do it? Just have him come in, you know, or help to be part of the [unclear]. But what I’m dealing with really is that I have an advantage to be able to make notes, but just we’ll let them work. But having them come in each time and then go out, then they don’t have the feeling notes work and then go out and they don’t have the feeling that it’s [unclear]. It will be less awkward for me. I feel awkward because I think it’s awkward for the [unclear] knowing me to remember what the hell he’s saying there.
Source: Oval 452-17. 19 February 1971. 1:39pm – Unk before 2:25pm. Nixon, Richard and Haldeman, H.R.
Jonathan Movroydis: In this conversation, President Nixon and Bob Haldeman are talking about an official at the Department of Interior, Fred Russell, and how they’re gonna deal with his firing and sort of the media implications of that. How would the taping system have been useful in this case, Luke?
Luke Nichter: Yeah, I think this is interesting, because, you know, here you have a conversation and the tapes are full of conversations about personnel issues. People in a government are always moving in, they’re moving out, they’re moving up, they’re moving into different positions. And so, I think what starts as a conversation about an Under Secretary of the Interior, Fred Russell, ends up being a fascinating conversation about what are we gonna do with these tapes? Are we gonna use them as we go along? Are we gonna keep track of what’s being recorded? And so to me, the conversation is kind of overtaken by this bigger issue.
And ultimately what happens, what’s being proposed, is should the president or should Chief of Staff, Bob Haldeman, have someone listen as they go along? Should we have transcripts made as we go along? You know, what should we be doing with these tapes? Should we just be putting them in the file and forgetting them? Or could they be used to our advantage somehow, as we go along?
And ultimately, as far as I know, they never used the tapes. Certainly, there’s no discussion on the tapes themselves. If they used the tapes, there’s not a discussion about using the tapes on the tapes. The first time that I’m aware that they ever used the tapes at all is in June of ‘73, when specific tapes, there’s talk of them being subpoenaed as evidence during Watergate. And, you know, these tape numbers and dates and times and conversations are mentioned. And Nixon just wants to figure out what are those dates and what are those times and what are those meetings that are going to be subpoenaed so he had some idea.
But I think ultimately, in this case, I think they made the right choice for history because I don’t think you can really accuse President Nixon or Haldeman of choreographing conversations. I think when you’re turning the taping system on or off affirmatively for every conversation, I think the reasons for recording are a little more suspect but in this case, this was an important fork in the road. You know, are we going to manipulate and use these tapes? Are we just going to put them in the file and let the Secret Service change the reels every day and put fresh tapes on? And as far as I can tell, they did the latter. They just filed these away and they really never made use of them or referenced them until deep into Watergate.
Jonathan Movroydis: Why do you think the president didn’t want these tapes transcribed?
Luke Nichter: Well, he doesn’t say in the recording. I mean, my hunch is because to have them transcribed would also expand the circle of people who knew about their existence. I mean, this is in, also, the early 70s the day when the early Xerox machines are all available and, you know, you have a transcript…a tape that only the Secret Service knows about and then now you have a transcript that could be floating around, that could be copied. I think a variety of reasons. Yeah, you, A, expand the knowledge of the system exists. B, and certainly, you see what happens during Watergate once the press or others figure out the tapes exist and how they can be used against Nixon. And then I think, you know, third, these were his records. This was his personal file and I think he wanted to make the final decisions about how these were used. And if you let others be a part of using them somehow, you’ve lost control of the central purpose of installing it in the first place.
Jonathan Movroydis: In another tape, in another early tape, Bob Haldeman and Nixon suggests that maybe Alexander Butterfield take notes of the tapes but not transcribe them. Did this ever happen? Or is there any record of that?
Luke Nichter: Not that I know of. I mean, it’s possible that Butterfield might have listened to tapes on his own time. But, you know, if an assignment of that importance had been undertaken, and here, it’s on a subject where very few people know about it, including the President, and I suspect we would know about that. I mean, I suspect there would be further tapes where Nixon says to Haldeman, “You can review these days or these meetings.” And, you know, ultimately, as Haldeman does on many other subjects, is he reports back. Here’s what he found. Here’s what we did. Here’s how we used it. Here’s how we got it out. And I just don’t find that content.
So if any tapes were reviewed, it was to such a limited degree that it wasn’t something that was ever done routinely or done where by and large the tapes were used for any other purpose other than just creating a historic record and filing them away.
Jonathan Movroydis: Our guest today was Luke Nichter, Professor of History at Texas A&M University, Central Texas. Our topic was the origin of the Nixon White House taping system. Luke, thank you so much for joining us.
Luke Nichter: Thank you.
Jonathan Movroydis: Please check back for future podcasts at nixonfoundation.org or on iTunes and SoundCloud. This is Jonathan Movroydis signing off.