WASHINGTON -- While much of the country waits and wonders whether a single piece of evidence -- Monica Lewinsky's now-famous blue dress -- may imperil a presidency, other physical evidence that did indeed bring one down -- the Nixon White House tapes -- is being methodically mangled.
Under court order, National Archives technicians have begun cutting out 820 of the 3,700 hours of tapes to excise what have been characterized as "private" conversations of Richard M. Nixon with various individuals during the period after the 1972 Watergate break-in and cover-up.
At the time, concerned that Nixon might destroy the tapes that documented perhaps the worst political scandal in the nation's history, Congress passed a law taking possession of them. Nixon sued, claiming they belonged to him. The Supreme Court in 1977 upheld the law allowing the seizure, but said the deposed president had a right to claim all materials that were "personal or private."
Ever since, the archives and the Nixon estate have been embroiled in legal wrangling. The government has argued that cut- Nixon ting up the tapes to take out such material would be an affront to historical documentation of the case. The Nixon protectors have countered that a complete copy of the tapes will be retained by the estate, but the historians obviously have problems with that arrangement.
The central problem with the process of cutting out the "personal or private" parts of the tapes is the fact that included in the material so classified is talk of political matters pertaining to Nixon's role as leader of the Republican Party.
The law stipulated that Nixon was entitled to have returned to him any tapes covering conversations that did not relate to the carrying out of his constitutional duties as president, including discussions regarding private political associations such as his membership in the Republican Party.
Political materials could be kept by the government "only when those activities directly relate to or have a direct affect upon the -- zTC carrying out of constitutional or statutory powers or duties," the governing regulations said.
Why political material was lumped in as "personal" in the first place is baffling since political decisions are an integral part of any U.S. president's job. Such discussions are said to comprise the bulk of the so-called "private" portions of the tapes, and figure to be revealing about many political decisions surrounding the whole Nixon White House operation that covered up Watergate.
Beyond the tampering with history represented by the chopping up of the tapes, the cost of the process to the taxpayers is preposterous. Archivists have estimated more than $600,000 will spent over three to six years cutting out all the material deemed to be "private" and splicing the remaining tapes back together. And they have warned that some of the tapes may be damaged in the process.
The tenacious determination of the Nixon estate to protect this ,, material from public view is in keeping with its defensive posture ever since that day -- 24 years ago today when the just-resigned president boarded a presidential helicopter and waved goodbye the capital city from which he was being exiled.
The privately funded Nixon presidential library in Yorba Linda, Calif., has long labored to make the case that Nixon was railroaded out of the presidency. One section of the library offers a biased account of the Watergate affair to suggest that Nixon enemies, including the Washington Post, which won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage, unjustly did him in.
John Carlin, the Archivist of the United States, says he entertains hopes that the Nixon estate later on may agree to make public some of the conversations on political matters now classified as "personal or private." But waiting for that to happen is about as likely as it was waiting for Nixon to admit guilt, at the time or later, in the Watergate cover-up.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau.
Pub Date: 8/14/98