Rice historian Douglas Brinkley’s new book explores ‘The Nixon Tapes’

Forty years ago this summer, Richard Nixon became the first American president to resign. The key evidence against him in the Watergate scandal came from audio recordings that Nixon had made in secret starting in 1971.

Coinciding with the scandal’s anniversary milestone, Douglas Brinkley, a Rice University history professor and a fellow at Rice’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, and fellow historian Luke Nichter, an associate professor of history at Texas A&M University, tackled 3,700 hours of White House tapes in the new book “The Nixon Tapes.”

Nixon’s voice-activated taping system captured every word spoken in the Oval Office, Cabinet Room and other key locations in the White House and at Camp David between 1971 and 1973. Yet less than 5 percent of those conversations has ever been transcribed and published, according to the authors. Now, thanks to Nichter’s massive effort to digitize and transcribe the tapes, the public can read an extraordinary 700-page account of Nixon’s important yet controversial presidency. “The Nixon Tapes” includes commentary and context to guide readers through the tapes.

By April 1971, halfway through his first term, Nixon had seven secret microphones installed in the Oval Office. A Feb. 16, 1971, transcript reads:

Nixon: “Mum’s the whole word. I will not be transcribed.”
White House aide Alexander Butterfield: “Correct.”
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.”
Butterfield: “Right.”

“FDR did a little selective taping, we have John F. Kennedy’s tapes during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Johnson tapes on civil rights, and all that are valuable,” Brinkley told “CBS Sunday Morning” July 27.  “Nixon, it’s the whole kit and caboodle.”

The book offers a selection of scenes from the year Nixon opened relations with China, negotiated the SALT I arms agreement with the Soviet Union and won a landslide re-election victory.

“Nixon is playing the chess game of the world,” Brinkley told “CBS Sunday Morning.” “He’s moving all the pieces, and his goal is to make America the pre-eminent power, and if we had to share our power throne with somebody, it would be China. So you can come away respecting his intellect while disliking the lack of moral fiber in the man.”

The New York Times Book Review noted that the editors “artfully cull from the more than 3,500 hours of tapes a fairly coherent documentary record. The exchanges published here give a more vivid sense than most accounts of the climate of urgency, risk and anticipation that enveloped Nixon’s and Kissinger’s effort. To witness these two titans of ambition, vainglory and suspicion … is to receive gritty instruction in statecraft and psychology alike.”

Brinkley has also authored books on Gerald Ford, Teddy Roosevelt and Jimmy Carter.

Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, “The Nixon Tapes” arrived in bookstores in late July. Brinkley and Nichter will discuss and sign the book at 7 p.m. Sept. 3 at Houston’s Brazos Bookstore, 2412 Bissonnet St.

About Jeff Falk