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Butterfield Reveals Tapes

Transcript by Patrick Garrity, Ken Hughes, Erin Mahan, and Keri Matthews

“Nixon Bugged Own Offices,” the Chicago Tribune marveled on its front page 40 years ago, responding to the astonishing revelation by Alexander P. Butterfield, a little-known White House aide called to testify on July 16, 1973, before the Senate Watergate Committee during a nationally televised hearing. The Secret Service, at President Richard M. Nixon’s behest, had installed a voice-activated recording system that automatically recorded his Oval Office conversations, meaning that the Watergate-era question of “What did the President know and when did he know it?” could be answered objectively. For Nixon, it was the beginning of the end. After he lost a long legal struggle to keep his tapes from Watergate investigators, a transcript of one of them revealed that he had illegally obstructed the FBI’s investigation of the break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate office and apartment complex. Nixon resigned soon after. 

Nixon had some sense of the risks he was taking with the tapes, as is shown by the following transcript of one from the first day of secret recording, Feb. 16, 1971. It comes from a forthcoming collection of transcripts by the Miller Center’s Presidential Recordings Program to be published by Rotunda, the University of Virginia’s digital imprint. It will focus on Nixon’s first week of secret recording. On the first day of it, he resolved firmly: “I will not be transcribed.” 

Alexander P. Butterfield: You don't have any questions on this [Unclear.] business that you might want me to answer now? This--this voice--I explained to the President [unclear]--
President Nixon: No. Mum's the whole word. I will not be transcribed.
Butterfield: Correct.
President Nixon: This is totally for--basically to be put in the file--in my file. I don't want it in your file or Bob's or anybody else's. My file.
H. R. "Bob" Haldeman: Right.
President Nixon: At my instructions today. The whole purpose, basically, [unclear] vault so there may be a day when we have to have this for purposes of--maybe we want to put out something that's positive, maybe we need something just to be sure that we can correct the record. But we're going to have it, that's all. And also, though, because I won't have to have people in the room when I see people--1
Haldeman: That's right.
President Nixon: --which is much better. I can have my personal conversations, which I want to have, and don't have the people there, you know, which I'd much rather do anyway, unless I feel that I need them there to carry out something or as buffers. Then I'll have them, of course. So I think it'll work fine. It's a good system.
Haldeman: If you don't tell anybody you've got it and don't try to [unclear].
President Nixon: [Unclear.]
Haldeman: Any time anything is used from it, it's on the basis of your notes or the President's notes--
President Nixon: That's right.2
Haldeman: --or my notes or--
President Nixon: [Unclear.] For example, you've got nothing to use from this today. Just forget it. File it. Everything today will be filed.
Haldeman: Yes.
President Nixon: Fair enough? I think it's going to be a very fine system. And I think, incidentally, on those--I don't know, with these open office hours, should we just maybe use that and forget the note-taker business?3
Haldeman: Well--
Butterfield: Well, someone should cover it.
[Unclear exchange.]
Haldeman: I'd still use that. We've got--
Butterfield: We aren't getting--
Haldeman: Look at this from [Paul W.] McCracken. I'll look at this stuff and--and we're getting--
President Nixon: Well--
Haldeman: Take these things and look at what--what comes out of them--this--
President Nixon: OK. Good. I'm for it.

1: Richard Nixon had staff sit in on meetings to take notes and write memoranda of the conversations for the President’s file. 

2: In other words, if the White House issued a statement based on conversation captured on the Oval Office tapes, the official line would be that it came from handwritten notes of the President or one of his aides. 

3: The President would have brief meetings with celebrities, poster children and other notables which White House “anecdotalists” would attend with the aim of identifying colorful or humanizing remarks for later public dissemination. 

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