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Tuesday, October 12, 2004

The 18½ Minute Gap Gets Bigger 

Courtesy of Zemblan patriot J.D.: Thanks to an 11-year-old court order, history is about to be erased. From the L.A. Times:
"These tapes were recorded in the Nixon White House by Nixon, for Nixon, and should be a national treasure, and here we are cutting them up," lamented Cowell — who, despite his intelligence background, has an archivist's passion for publicly preserving the past. "Obviously, I don't think too highly of the court decision, but we're kind of stuck with it. I really do think we're destroying a historical artifact that should be preserved."

Cowell and others at the National Archives are editing Nixon's tapes for public release — the final stage of a legal wrestling match that began in 1974 when Congress, fearful that Nixon would destroy evidence in the days after his resignation, ordered that the 37th president's White House records be seized.

That included the infamous White House tapes: About 2,800 hours of conversations surreptitiously recorded on 950 reels via microphones hidden in Nixon's Oval Office desk and fireplace, in the nearby Cabinet meeting room, Nixon's second office in the Old Executive Office Building and in three places at Camp David. Nixon also tapped his own phone.

All the machines were voice-activated, which meant they captured virtually everything that was said: Small talk. Political strategy. Arms negotiations. The Watergate cover-up. Family matters. To listen is to be a fly on the Oval Office wall, as though "The West Wing" were a reality radio show . . . .

After Congress seized the files, Nixon argued in court that Congress lacked the authority to take his property. He lost that argument but did persuade the court that the federal government must pay him for the material; Nixon's estate and the government settled in June 2000 on $18 million.

Nixon also successfully argued that details about his family and internal Republican Party conversations were not matters of legitimate public interest. Those are the words Cowell and his colleagues are slowly excising.

Ironically, some of the personal material being cut — Nixon talking about his family life — would, if released, soften history's perception of the much-maligned former president, showing him as a caring father and husband, said Mike Hamilton, who oversees the physical editing of the tapes.

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