Newly Released Testimony Is Vintage Nixon

Nov 10, 2011

The National Archives has released President Nixon's long-secret grand jury testimony in the Watergate scandal. Nixon gave the testimony, spanning 298 pages, in 1975 after he had been named an unindicted co-conspirator, resigned and been pardoned for criminal abuses of government power.

From the get-go, the testimony is vintage Nixon — manipulative, self-pitying, and as unrevealing as possible.

Timothy Naftali, the director of the Nixon Presidential Library and curator of the library's Watergate collection, characterizes Nixon as a "hostile witness" who was "not offering any new material to the grand jury."

From the opening of his testimony, Nixon is in filibuster mode. He makes a lengthy opening statement, contends he is seeking to cooperate with prosecutors, but then contends that he can't be expected to remember things that go back two or four years.

Indeed, his memory before the grand jury is nil — a fact remarked upon by historian Stanley Kutler, who sued to get the transcript released. Kutler says that he would be rich if he had $10 for every "I don't recall" uttered by the former president. To cite just one example, Nixon, faced with the transcript of a tape-recorded Oval Office conversation in which he ordered documents destroyed, says, "The references to destruction are mystifying to me. I can't recall directing that they be destroyed."

The Nixon Library's Naftali reports that other assertions also flatly contradict clear-cut evidence. Along with the grand jury testimony released by the Archives on Thursday, the Nixon Library also released presidential tape-recordings and transcripts previously kept secret. For instance, there is a tape-recorded conversation Nixon had with a top aide on how to hide the hush money that was being raised to give to the men who were caught in the break-in and bugging operation at the Democratic National Committee headquarters. The transcript records Nixon saying, "I wouldn't want to suggest ... any subordination of perjury, but on that one I would be very damn hazy."

When he gets to the grand jury, Nixon is hazy too about what might have happened to create the famous 18 1/2 minute gap in a critical Oval Office tape recording, just three days after the Watergate break-in. His theory, he says, is that his secretary, Rose Mary Woods, erased the recording by accident.

The grand jury testimony also shows Nixon eating up time with long digressions about foreign affairs, the unfairness and "brutality" of politics, and even at one point his notion that, despite the conclusions of experts, perhaps the 18 1/2 minute gap wasn't the result of an erasure at all; instead, it may have simply been a blank spot that was never recorded.

Time after time, the former president portrays himself as the victim. When the special prosecutor at the opening advises Nixon that he is under oath and that false testimony would subject him to criminal prosecution, the former president harrumphs that he understands such warnings are required for everyone, but contends that it was not necessary for him. He then notes he is testifying voluntarily, despite the fact that he thinks his appearance will make it more difficult for future presidents to get candid confidential advice.

Later, he complains that the written notes he is asked to examine — notes that previously had been made available for him to review — are difficult to read, and he suggests that the special prosecutor get a new duplicating machine.

Not long after that, Nixon pops a pill and says, "I think it should be recorded, I am taking anti-coagulant ordered by the doctors every day at 12 o'clock. That means that if I am ever in an accident and start to bleed, I will bleed to death, unless the doctor is there within 10 seconds."

Kutler, the historian who sued to have the grand jury transcripts released, describes the testimony as being a "performance by Nixon," in which the former president simply "runs out the clock."

The Nixon Library's Naftali says that the transcripts reveal a president whose testimony is simply not credible. That, says Naftali, has value in a democratic society. "Seeing a president under oath, jousting with lawyers about issues that a bipartisan majority in the House had found him guilty of, is important and significant. And equally important, and I think a source of pride, is the fact that we can read it. It's a very healthy thing when in a society the government releases materials even when they don't make presidents and government look good."

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