April 9, 2015– A couple of weeks ago I was in Charlottesville, Virginia, at the Virginia Festival of the Book, speaking on a panel about American presidents and their audiotapes, most especially the Nixon tapes, at the Miller Center of the University of Virginia, which staged this event. We were a good panel–I had compiled a selection of presidential tape recordings from all who had used them, colleagues Luke Nichter and Ken Hughes, respectively, had co-edited a set of transcriptions specifically of Nixon tapes, or written a book based primarily on the Nixon tapes.
But I remember thinking that Stanley Kutler, the guy who really ought to have been there, was missing. Then today I see he has passed away. Much was lost there. Among historians Stan numbered among those who–absolute bulldogs–never let go until the story is told. The Nixon tapes–more specifically, the American public’s access to them–is one particular legacy of Kutler’s work.
Briefly, the Presidential Records Act of 1978, now credited with preserving the documents of denizens of the White House by making these records government property, actually followed on a Watergate-era law passed to secure Richard Nixon’s documents, including some 3,432 hours of tape recordings. A small fraction of these had been used in the Watergate investigation and prosecutions, but Nixon asserted that his tapes and documents were personal property. The disgraced president was correct in terms of practice–previous presidents had been accorded that privilege (George Washington’s relatives even sold his papers)–but perhaps only because the country had never before been forced to focus on this matter. Presidential documents, after all, are created at government expense, on government equipment, by United States employees, and housed in government facilities.
Based on congressional action the Archivist of the United States took custody of the Nixon records, but the process of opening them to scholars or anyone else halted once Mr. Nixon asserted property rights. Long negotiations followed to establish a “value,” then a price, then haggling. There were some partial deals. The former president asserted that some remnant of the set were exempt as his private records, and continued to dispute releases across the board. Nixon’s tapes and documents languished for decades. Until Stan Cutler took a hand. In 1992 Kutler and the Ralph Nader group Public Citizen filed suit to force release of the material. Under pressure of the lawsuit the Archivist stopped dragging his feet on finalizing the acquisition, and began a more systematic effort to open the files. More years passed while all this material underwent review for secret information.
Dr. Kutler got the first tranche of new tapes and commissioned transcripts, which he used for the eye-opening 1997 collection titled Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes. Since then there have been periodic releases of tapes, until today when we are near the end of the road, with only the last few months of White House tape plus the previously-excised security classified passages still kept in the darkness. But for Stan the public would likely still be waiting.
Stan’s monument of a book The Wars of Watergate, written while the tapes were still a political football, proved surprisingly generous toward a former president who went out of his way to stymie Kutler and all of those who, like him, sought to understand the dark underside of the Nixon White House.
It may be true, as the wags put it, that “even paranoids have real enemies.” But Stanley Kutler was a friend of the truth more than an enemy of Richard Nixon. With the predicament the country is in today, we need friends of the truth more than ever.