The Oval Office Tapes

The Case is Cracked

On July 13, 1973, Alexander Butterfield, Deputy Assistant to Richard Nixon, revealed in testimony that there was a White House recording system that automatically recorded everything in the Oval Office.

Things Get Complicated

The tapes were then subpoenaed by the Senate and special prosecutor Archibald Cox. Nixon, citing executive privilege, refused to release the tapes.

Cox refused to drop the subpoena, thus sparking the so-called "Saturday Night Massacre." This refers to the efforts of Nixon to find someone within the judicial department to fire Cox. Nixon prompted the resignations of the Attorney General and his deputy before he found his man, Solicitor General Robert Bork. Bork dismissed Cox and appointed Leon Jaworski as the new special prosecutor.

The Public Gets a Taste of "Tricky Dick"

To avoid more tape subpoenas, Nixon agreed to release a 1,308-page transcript of some edited tapes. Nixon claimed that the tapes proved his innocence. This transcript allowed Americans to see a side to the president they had never seen before. A vulgar side at that.

Despite the release of the transcript, Judge John Sirica subpoenaed the tapes and some documents. Nixon argued that he shouldn't release the tapes because the confidential conversations between the president and his advisors shouldn't be a matter of public record. The lawyers of the Watergate Committee and the Special Prosecutor's office responded that any conversations involving illegal affairs should not be concealed due to claims of executive privilege.

The Courts Make Their Final Ruling

Nixon appealed the case all the way through the judicial system. The matter was finally resolved in the supreme court case United States v. Richard Nixon. The court ruled unanimously that the president had to hand over all 64 tapes to the special prosecutor.

The Smoking Gun

Of the hours of footage obtained, the most important was the recording of a conversation between Haldeman and Nixon that is now called the "smoking gun" tape. When Nixon's attorney, Fred Buzhardt, first heard the tape, he called Nixon's Chief of Staff, Alexander Haig, and said "Well, we've found the smoking pistol!" The taped conversation revealed that Nixon had authorized hush money to the Watergate burglar E. Howard Hunt. It also revealed that Nixon had ordered the CIA to tell the FBI to stop investigating certain topics dealing with the Bay of Pigs incident.

Nixon's Credibility Crumbles

Even after the release of the tapes, there were still problems involved. The White House claimed that some of the subpoanaed tapes did not exist. There were various gaps in tape, the longest being over 18 minutes. Various explanations were offered, although most believe that it was just another example of the Nixon administration's deceitful tactics.

The smoking gun tape was hard evidence that President Nixon was directly involved in the cover-up of the Watergate burglary. Everything went downhill from there for "Tricky Dick" Nixon.

Jury listens to the tapes

Sketch by Betty Wells. Source : University of Texas Archives

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