Saturday, January 31, 2009

Nixon tapes again

Former Nixon White House counsel John W. Dean III delivering the keynote address at the annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists, 28 August 2008.

The New York Times has just posted an article concerning the ongoing controversy surrounding historian Stanley Kutler, who played a pivotal role in securing the release of White House tapes documenting the Watergate coverup and whose transcriptions of the tapes have served as raw material for other scholars. The latest chapter concerns an article submitted to the American Historical Review by historian Peter Klingman, who is among a small group of researchers and journalists --and at least one archivist formerly employed by the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) -- who assert that Kutler's transcripts are problematic:
. . . Longtime critics of his transcripts say Mr. Kutler deliberately edited the tapes in ways that painted a more benign portrait of a central figure in the drama, the conspirator-turned-star-witness, John W. Dean III, the White House counsel who told Nixon that Watergate had become a “cancer” on his presidency.

Behind the accusations are rival visions of Mr. Dean, who is seen by some as a flawed but ultimately courageous man reluctantly sucked into the scandal, and by others as a primary architect of the cover-up who saved himself by deflecting guilt.
As the article notes, the controversy continues because the 1973 tapes at the center of it are not yet widely accessible to the public. In the mid-1990s, Kutler and a public-interest organization sued the federal government in order to obtain copies of approximately 200 hours of recordings that documented the White House's abuses of power and that had not been released to the public. NARA is gradually releasing the approximately 3,700 hours' worth of recordings in chronological order, but at present only those tapes created between February 1971 and December 1972 are publicly available; most of the November and December 1972 recordings are available online, and one of the tape processing archivists has written a summary overview of NARA's processing procedures.

The recordings at the center of this particular controversy were created in March 1973, and as the Times notes, they were released to the public in connection with a lawsuit that John Dean filed against one of Kutler's fiercest critics. Many Nixon scholars have since listened to these tapes, but they differ as to whether Kutler's transcripts accurately reflect their content.

Although the official release of the March 1973 tape recordings will probably resolve some of the major differences between Kutler and his critics, it is highly unlikely that it will put a definitive end to the controversy. As Kutler himself noted in the introduction to Abuse of Power, which includes his transcripts of these tapes:
The logistics of preparing these conversations for publication have been complicated and difficult. There are no transcriptions and the tapes cannot be removed from the National Archives at this time. Professional court reporters and transcribers prepared the initial transcripts. My research assistant and I then listened to the tapes to fill in significant gaps of "unintelligibles" and to insure accuracy as far as possible.The process of deciphering the tapes is endless. Different ears pick up a once-unintelligible comment, or correct a previous understanding. Such is the nature of the material.
Long after the complete run of Nixon tapes is released, scholars will likely continue to debate the meaning of all of the clicks, pops, hisses, and unintelligble words and phrases that the tapes contain. They will also continue to speculate about NARA's sound engineers' efforts to maximize the audibility of the tapes and the snippets that NARA's processing archivists are legally compelled to redact for national security, personal privacy, or other reasons. And, of course, they will differ as to how to interpret the information contained within these recordings and other archival records.

Controversies such as that focusing on the Nixon tapes and the Kutler transcripts are going to be with us for a very long time, and archivists aren't going to be the ones to settle them; we are stewards of the historical record, not the chief intepreters of it. However, if I worked for the Nixon Library or the NARA unit that is processing the Nixon tapes, I would be most interested in whether the American Historical Review opts to publish Klingman's article and in the content of the article itself. Heck, I don't even work for NARA, and my curiosity is piqued!

If your curiosity is also piqued, portions of Kutler's transcripts are available online via Google's Book Search and it looks as if the Times is planning to place audio excerpts from the March 1973 recordings on its Web site. The Times article concerning the controversy is slated to appear on page A1 of tomorrow's print edition, so Times staff may be waiting until tomorrow to enable the link to the audio files. I'll supply the link when and if it goes live.

Update, 1 February 2009: The Times has now placed links to the audio files in a sidebar that accompanies the main story; there is no separate link.

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