Nixon Fixation Pushes Professor to Listen to All Tapes

Richard Nixon is always on Luke Nichter’s mind, so much so that the history professor was chatting about the 37th president’s European policies while his wife was giving birth.

Nichter has spent the last decade listening to almost 3,000 hours of secretly recorded White House tapes of Nixon being Nixon, unvarnished. He has come to know Nixon’s views and locution so well that he finds himself subconsciously finishing the 37th president’s sentences.

The result of his obsession is a new book, “The Nixon Tapes,” published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt to coincide with the 40th anniversary today of the president’s resignation from office. It is a 768-page tome of transcripts of recordings made in 1971 and 1972.

Nichter is one of a handful of researchers who have listened to almost all the tapes that have been released by the National Archives. That work has given him a unique perspective on a complex leader who has been hailed for his foreign policy prowess but criticized for attempting to cover up a host of crimes that doomed his presidency. Nixon resigned from office on Aug. 9, 1974, as the U.S. House was moving toward his impeachment.

“The thing about Nixon is that at some moments he’s just as bad as his worst critics say,” said Nichter, an associate professor of history at Texas A&M University, Central Texas, in Killeen. “But he is also just as good at moments as his proponents say. Some will say that our book leads to a much more sympathetic view of what it’s like to be president. It may seem more sympathetic. But it’s a more honest portrayal.”

Avoiding Watergate

Nichter’s book, co-authored by Douglas Brinkley, a writer and history professor at Rice University in Houston, includes commentary and context to guide readers through the tapes. It largely avoids the Watergate scandal, which came to light after the White House-orchestrated break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate building in Washington in June 1972.

Nichter and Brinkley plan to address the Watergate cover-up and associated criminal activity in a second volume of transcripts.

Nichter has made digital copies of the tapes, which were originally on a voice-activated tape-recording system, available on a website “It’s a public service,” he said.

‘Extraordinarily Precise’

He did the vast majority of the book’s transcription, listening to the tapes at the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, California, or at his home office in Austin, Texas. Because the sound quality is poor, Nichter had to get creative to hear and understand what was being said. Sometimes, he used headphones. Other times, he angled a speaker just the right way.

“Luke is extraordinarily precise in his transcriptions,” Brinkley said in an interview. “He knows the voices. He can transcribe a particular day of the presidency in a day. It would take me three weeks.”

Nichter’s efforts are a boon to future scholars who can easily access the tapes online and quickly digest transcripts, said Thomas Blanton, the director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University in Washington.

“It’s an extraordinarily important public service to transcribe and publish this way,” Blanton said.

Dean’s Book

Nichter’s book is one of several being published to coincide with the anniversary of Nixon’s resignation.

John Dean, Nixon’s former White House Counsel, has written “The Nixon Defense,” a narrative that “reveals further examples of the administration’s contempt for the law,” Bob Woodward, the Washington Post editor and reporter who helped break the Watergate scandal, recently wrote in a review. Dean relied on hundreds of hours of tapes for the book.

Another is “Chasing Shadows,” by Ken Hughes, a research specialist at the Miller Center, an institute that focuses on presidential scholarship and an affiliate of the University of Virginia. Hughes also relied heavily on the tapes; the Miller Center has published hundreds of Nixon’s recordings and transcripts on its website.

Nichter, the son of U.S. postal workers in suburban Ohio, became a Nixon expert by accident. He wasn’t a lover of history. The subject first intrigued him while he served as an intern for then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert in 2000-2001 while obtaining a master’s degree in public policy at Regent University in Virginia.

New Field

He decided to return to Bowling Green University, where he had obtained his undergraduate degree in economics and business administration, to pursue a Ph.D. in history.

An adviser recommended he focus his research on the “frontier of archival record,” meaning a topic in which waves of records and other material are being newly released.

In that sense, the Nixon era is a researcher’s stocked pond -- new material is constantly being declassified. Since Nichter started investigating Nixon in 2005, the National Archives has released tens of thousands of pages of Nixon White House records and about one-third of the 3,000 hours of tapes. About 700 hours of tapes remain withheld for national security and privacy reasons.

Nichter, a 37-year-old with thinning blond hair and round cheeks, relied on the tapes for his dissertation about Nixon’s relations with Europe, earning his doctoral degree in 2008.

He decided to keep listening and transcribing. It was simply too exciting to “feel like a fly on the wall in the Oval Office,” he said.

Consoling Biden

Over the years, he has experienced moments where he was mesmerized. He was astonished as Nixon orchestrated the U.S. abandonment of the gold standard in 1971 and impressed with how the president and Henry Kissinger, his national security adviser and later secretary of State, took advantage of ping-pong to improve ties with China.

He respected Nixon for calling Senator-elect Joe Biden of Delaware in December 1972, after his wife and 1-year-old daughter were killed in a car crash. Biden’s two young sons survived.

“I know this is a very tragic day for you, but I wanted you to know that all of us here at the White House were thinking about you and praying for you, and also for your two children,” Nixon told the future vice president.

Nichter cringed, however, when he heard Nixon directing a clumsy cover-up of his crimes and utter what many consider to be racist and anti-Semitic slurs. “The ownership of the Los Angeles Times is now totally Jewish,” Nixon said in February 1972. “Poor Otis Chandler, who sits on the top of that heap,” he said of the newspaper’s then publisher.

Birth Chatter

Nichter’s wife, Jennifer, said she has put up with her husband’s fascination with Nixon because it interests her, too. She has a master’s degree in history. Yet even she has her limits. She said she wanted to slap him when he started talking about Nixon’s European policies while she was giving birth to their daughter, Ava.

“There are many times he will come in and find me and start talking about Nixon,” she said. “I just sort of zone out, going, ‘Uh, huh, uh, huh.’”

Yet, like Nixon, Nichter is complicated. His wife said she likes the name Henry if they have a boy. But Nichter isn’t so sure -- Kissinger is a frequent voice on his tapes.

“I don’t want to mix work with pleasure,” Nichter said.

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