by Rick Bretz
Today’s writers have to admit that past investigative journalists (Woodward, Bernstein, and others) who went after President Richard Nixon after the Watergate break-in have a bit of irony to live with today. In a classic law of unintended consequences, since Gerald R. Ford’s Presidency, historians and journalists have been denied the fascination of looking back at an Administration’s legacy by listening to oval office audio tapes. The zealousness of attacking Nixon and forcing his resignation has deprived journalists and authors of pulling back the curtains to see how the White House brokers exercise power.
I write about this because of the current story in the headlines concerning President Lyndon Johnson’s latest audio tape release that shows how Johnson dealt with President Nixon’s perceived interference with the Vietnam peace talks before the 1968 Democratic Convention and Presidential Election. The tapes reveal that Johnson knew that Nixon used a proxy to approach the South Vietnam ambassador to tell him to hold off on accepting peace terms from the Johnson administration because he could get them a better deal. Johnson ultimately decided not to make this public due to security issues but did tell candidate Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who never used the information thinking that he had the election won.
It’s a fascinating bit of history in a long line of Presidential audio tapes. The history of audio tapes recording power broker meetings in the oval offices dates back to 1940. President Franklin Roosevelt got the tape rolling in a word and every President until Nixon used it since that time. The total hours for these audio tapes amounts to just under 5000, recording for history telephone conversations and meetings from both political parties. President John Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon were prolific in their use of the audio recordings. A discussion concerning what is on those tapes is for another day. Look at what the media and learning institutions could have been pouring over with a critical eye if audio recordings would have continued. Journalists and lawyers won the battle but lost the war. They proved a point that politics is a dirty business but at the same time they short-changed history. Because of what happened to Nixon, no President since has wanted to put himself in that kind of situation by having that kind of evidence used against him. And for good reason, since Nixon, gotcha journalism has ruled the headlines in addition to 24/7 television and internet media outlets. There’s an empty space everyday that media professionals have to fill.
If not for Nixon’s poor decisions and paranoia, the media and lawyers working the circumstances, today’s writers, authors and college professors would have been analyzing and listening to meetings and phone conversations detailing a number of historical events. I am not saying that Nixon was without fault, but as a historian it is regrettable that major events are not on tape for others to analyze today. Reading someone’s words is not the same as hearing a President or Chief of Staff or Cabinet member at the moment with the personality that comes with speaking the words. One only has to listen to President Johnson’s tapes to understand that.
These are just of a few events lost to history.
President Ford-The Nixon pardon, the national recovery from Nixon’s resignation, the economic recovery, the Middle East peace process, the 1976 Election.
An argument could be made that if Nixon wasn’t forced to turn over the audio tapes, there never would have been a Ford Administration.
President Carter-The Panama Canal Treaty, the Shah of Iran overthrow, the Iranian Hostage Crisis, the 1980 Election, The Soviet Union Invasion of Afghanistan, The Oil Embargo, The Olympic Boycott, The Taiwan Issue, Israel-Egypt Peace accords.
President Reagan-The Grenada Invasion, the Cold War strategy, and disarmament talks, the Berlin Wall Speech, the 1984 Election, The Libyan Bombing, The Economic Recovery, The Space Shuttle Disaster, the 1988 Election.
President Clinton-The 1992 Election, The David Koresh Waco disaster, the ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, The Somalia Conflict, the Haitian support operation, Osama Bin Laden, the first terrorist attack on the twin towers, the 1996 election, the 2000 election.
President George Bush-The 2000 Election, 9/11 Terrorist Attack, the Afghanistan Invasion, The Iraqi Invasion, Osama Bin Laden strategy, the defense build-up and strategy, the 2004 Election, the Financial Crisis, the 2008 Election, Hurricane Katrina.
President Obama-The 2008 Election, the economic crisis, the Osama Bin Laden decision, the gun control issue, the 2012 Election.
Those are just a few events from each President since Nixon. There are several more topics that would have been enlightening if there would have been an audio recorder in the Oval Office. The point is, due to past events, we, the public, have missed out on many behind the scenes decisions. The curtain remains forever closed where the great and powerful work behind.