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This Day In History: Nixon Justifies Release of White House Transcripts Instead of Tapes

Richard Nixon, Address to the Nation on Presidential Tape Recordings, April 29, 1974

On April 29, 1974, President Richard Nixon addressed the nation to explain the edited transcripts he was releasing of the White House tapes in response to the House Judiciary Committee’s subpoena for the actual tapes. The president continued to refuse to release the actual tapes, claiming that the Constitutional principle of executive privilege applied to them and claiming that they were vital to national security. The tapes contained conversations that would reveal what Nixon knew about the break-in two years prior at the Watergate complex, the subsequent cover up and what he did about it.

In the April 1974 speech, Nixon defended his innocence and the right to presidential privacy. He told the nation:

Ever since the existence of the White House taping system was first made known last summer, I have tried vigorously to guard the privacy of the tapes. I have been well aware that my effort to protect the confidentiality of Presidential conversations has heightened the sense of mystery about Watergate and, in fact, has caused increased suspicions of the President. Many people assume that the tapes must incriminate the President, or that otherwise, he would not insist on their privacy.
But the problem I confronted was this: Unless a President can protect the privacy of the advice he gets, he cannot get the advice he needs.

This principle is recognized in the constitutional doctrine of executive privilege, which has been defended and maintained by every President since Washington and which has been recognized by the courts, whenever tested, as inherent in the Presidency. I consider it to be my constitutional responsibility to defend this principle…

I have been reluctant [to release the tapes] because the principle of confidentiality is absolutely essential to the conduct of the Presidency. In reading the raw transcripts of these conversations, I believe it will be more readily apparent why that principle is essential and must be maintained in the future. These conversations are unusual in their subject matter, but the same kind of uninhibited discussion—and it is that—the same brutal candor is necessary in discussing how to bring warring factions to the peace table or how to move necessary legislation through the Congress.

Of course, as we now know, Nixon ordered a cover up of the cover up just one year before. On April 18, 1973, Nixon asked his Chief of Staff, Bob Haldeman, to destroy the tapes. However, Haldeman didn’t destroy the tapes, perhaps knowing that if he did so, he would go down in history as the fall guy.

The House Judiciary Committee rejected the edited transcripts, arguing that they did not comply with the subpoena for the actual tapes. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court. In July 1974, the Court ruled in United States v. Nixon that Nixon must turn over the tapes.

Watch and read Nixon’s April 1974 speech here and be sure to check out the Miller Center’s Watergate collection here.

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