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Richard Nixon’s Secret White House Tapes: Echoes of a Cover-up

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Richard Nixon’s Secret White House Tapes: Echoes of a Cover-up

Evening Seminar

Evening Lecture/Seminar

Tuesday, September 30, 2014 - 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. ET
Code: 1M2736
S. Dillon Ripley Center
1100 Jefferson Drive, SW
Metro: Smithsonian Mall Exit (Blue/Orange)
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This program has been postponed to Wed., Oct. 15, 2014 at 7 p.m. in the Ripley Center.
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Forty years after Watergate forced Richard Nixon to resign, Americans still ask why he launched the cover-up that destroyed his presidency. There’s no proof that Nixon knew in advance of plans to bug and burglarize Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate complex. Howard Baker, the avuncular ranking Republican on the Senate Watergate Committee famous for asking witnesses what the president knew and when he knew it, claimed Nixon would have survived if he’d just lined up everyone responsible on the White House lawn and fired them all.

The conventional wisdom bequeathed by the scandal remains: “It’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up.” According to historian Ken Hughes, however, Nixon could have lost the presidency much faster if he had not launched the Watergate cover-up. Drawing on 13 years of research on the secretly recorded White House tapes of Nixon and Lyndon Johnson, Hughes shows how an unobstructed FBI investigation of Watergate would have led back to crimes Nixon had committed before anyone dreamt of breaking into the Democrats’ headquarters—crimes the extensive Watergate investigations of the 1970s failed to uncover. The cover-up was not only a political necessity for the president, according to Hughes: It actually worked.

Hughes plays excerpts from the tapes and shares declassified documents showing how the pattern of law-breaking that culminated in Watergate began before Nixon’s presidency, starting with the secret sabotage of Vietnam peace talks in the closing days of the 1968 presidential election. This episode, known as the Chennault Affair, meant that Nixon took office needing to cover up the crime that got him elected in the first place.

For Hughes, that need is the thread tying together some of the worst abuses of power of Nixon’s administration, including the Huston Plan to use break-ins and wiretaps in the name of fighting domestic terrorism and Nixon’s creation of the “Plumbers,” an illegal, unconstitutional secret police unit operated by the White House. By putting politics over peace, says Hughes, the Chennault Affair also foreshadowed Nixon’s ultimate abuse of power as president: timing American withdrawal from the Vietnam War to coincide with his reelection campaign. 

Hughes is a research specialist on the White House tapes at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, which focuses on the American presidency.

Other Connections

“They have to be paid.”  President Nixon wanted to delay the Watergate break-in trial until after the 1972 presidential election, and on August 1 of that year, White House Chief of Staff H.R. “Bob” Haldeman informed him that he would get his wish. Listen to a transcripted recording of part of that conversation from the Miller Center’s Presidential Recordings Program.