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THE CRISIS: Round 2 in Nixon’s Counterattack

9 minute read

Round 2 in Nixon’s Counterattack

Still pursuing his Watergate counteroffensive, President Nixon flew into Memphis and met behind closed doors with 16 Republican Governors. “Are there any other bombs waiting in the wings?” he was asked. “If there are, I’m not aware of them,” he replied confidently.

The discussion turned to the White House claims that some of Nixon’s court-demanded tape recordings were “nonexistent” or of poor quality. The President quickly assured his listeners that all seven of the existing requested tapes were fully “audible.”

Perhaps it was not a bomb, but the pin was soon pulled on a fair-sized hand grenade. Next day, reading nervously from a slip of paper, Special Presidential Counsel Fred Buzhardt told Judge John J. Sirica in a Washington federal courtroom that 18 minutes of conversation on one of those tapes was impossible to hear. It had been mysteriously obscured by an unwavering “audible tone.” The President, Buzhardt conceded under questioning, had been told of this before he spoke to the Governors.

While Sirica scowled at Buzhardt and obviously struggled to conceal his irritation, the President’s lawyer claimed that “the phenomena occurs during the course of the conversation—that is, not at the beginning or end”—between Nixon and his former chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, on July 20, 1972. This was just three days after five men were arrested during the wiretap-burglary of Democratic National Committee headquarters. It was also after Haldeman and another former aide, John Ehrlichman, had been briefed on the arrests by then Presidential Counsel John Dean.

Dean, in turn, had already talked at length to G. Gordon Liddy, one of the leaders of the Watergate burglars and counsel at the time for Nixon’s reelection finance committee. Fired Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox had sought this tape because, he had advised the court, “this was the first opportunity for full discussion of how to handle the Watergate incident. The inference that they [Ehrlichman and Haldeman] reported [to Nixon] on Watergate and may well have received instructions is almost irresistible.”

Medium-High. Buzhardt could not explain how the tone had got on the tape. He said Government technicians had been told about it, had listened to it, and could not account for it either. He had even allowed one of the prosecutors, Carl Feldbaum, to hear the affected portion. Feldbaum described the noise as a “medium-high hum.”

In court, Prosecutor Richard Ben-Veniste urged Sirica to take immediate custody of all of the subpoenaed tapes. Buzhardt objected that several conversations not under subpoena were also on the reels containing the desired recordings. Unmoved, Sirica indicated he would order the reels subpoenaed if they were not voluntarily turned over to him by Monday of this week. He added sourly: “This is another instance that convinced the court that it must take steps to safeguard the tapes, to make certain nothing like this happens again between now and when we actually listen to the tapes.”

The newest tape revelation was especially embarrassing to the White House, since it was the fourth recording promised to the court that now is claimed to be either wholly nonexistent or partly inaudible. Moreover, this tape is the same one about which Nixon’s personal secretary, Rose Mary Woods, had testified in Sirica’s court three weeks ago. She said she had spent 31½ hours trying to transcribe the conversation. While she mentioned various troublesome sounds, including bomblike noises when the President put his feet on his desk near a hidden microphone, she made no mention of such a large segment of conversation being obliterated by a persistent tone. If the obscuring sound had been present when she heard the tape, she presumably would have informed the court.

Technical experts consulted by TIME (see box following page) contend that the described sound could only occur while the White House equipment was set to record, not to playback. But if the sound was present on the original recording, it presumably would have been detected by any of a number of White House officials who have heard some of the tapes. They include the President, Miss Woods, Haldeman, Presidential Aide Stephen Bull and former Presidential Aide Alexander Butterfield. According to Buzhardt, the discovery was made only on Nov. 14, when he and another White House counsel, Samuel Powers, were cataloguing the tapes for presentation to the court. If the sound was not introduced in the original recording of the conversation, it could have been picked up during an attempted erasure or rerecording, the experts say.

Sirica announced that a six-man panel of electronic experts, agreed on jointly by the White House and the prosecutors, will make physical and electrical studies of the tapes when they are turned over to the court. The panel will not actually listen to the recordings, however; and it will work at an uncommonly leisurely pace, reporting their preliminary findings in January.

The latest tape debacle is certain to further erode public confidence in the integrity of the Nixon tapes. A Louis Harris opinion survey, begun after Nixon had started his series of talks with congressional Republicans but before his televised question-and-answer appearance at the Associated Press Managing Editors convention, showed that 55% of the public still did not believe Nixon’s claim that two of the tapes never were made. A plurality (47% to 27%) believed that the two tapes were destroyed because they would have revealed the President’s complicity in the Watergate coverup. More seriously, the percentage of Americans wanting Nixon to resign his office rose to 43%, a sharp climb from 36% in October.

Those sharp setbacks came as Nixon seemed to be making considerable progress in reversing his disastrous slide in public esteem, and indeed White House aides are eagerly awaiting the next round of opinion polls measuring his standing after the televised Florida press conference. His scrappy performances had won wide praise from his audiences. One somewhat bizarre episode after the conference, in which he seemed to have playfully slapped a friendly bystander (see THE PRESS), hardly distracted from this. Though Nixon kept promising more evidence of innocence rather than providing it after he had met with the Governors, Oregon’s Tom McCall declared: “I certainly believed him today.” Added California’s Ronald Reagan: “He couldn’t have been more frank. All of us are going home feeling better.”

Fundamentally Opposed. Yet the President continued to carry on his seemingly risky attack upon the credibility of former Attorney General Elliot Richardson, who had quit rather than carry out Nixon’s orders to fire Prosecutor Cox. Nixon told the Governors that there was a “difference of 180°” between what Richardson had said publicly about opposing the firing of Cox and what he had told White House lawyers at the time. Strangely, the White House still insisted that Nixon was not accusing Richardson of having lied.

Obviously puzzled at a similar Nixon assault on the integrity of Cox, Charles Alan Wright, the President’s counsel during the tense negotiations that led to the Cox dismissal, last week refuted Nixon’s version. While the President had claimed that the White House was unaware of Cox’s total rejection of a proposed White House “compromise” plan on the tapes until the end of that fateful week, Counsel Wright told TIME “We knew as early as Tuesday that Cox was fundamentally opposed on several points to the plan. It was absolutely clear by Thursday, or by Friday morning at the latest, that no agreement was possible.”

After several White House advance men had worked in Georgia for more than a week, the President received a warm reception in that state. Some 10,000 sign-waving Georgians greeted him enthusiastically as he arrived at Robins Air Force Base near Macon. Many wore the Nixon straw hats that had been so familiar in his 1972 presidential campaign. Nixon never mentioned Watergate in an airport speech, stressing his foreign policy accomplishments and the end of the Viet Nam War.

At Mercer University, where he appeared to help observe both the 100th anniversary of the law school and the 90th birthday of former Congressman Carl Vinson, a small group of protesters detracted little from the President’s rousing reception. Nixon’s only reference to his troubles was a typical football analogy: “I followed the Falcons, and I guess you would call them the comeback team of 1973,” he said. “They lost their first three and they have won their last six. I ought to have a talk with Norm Van Brocklin [the Atlanta Falcons coach] and find out how they did it.”

Finding Ways. While there were signs that Nixon’s comeback effort was progressing among his loyal followers in the South and elsewhere, his larger fate remained in doubt. As the tapes episode again demonstrated, he still has not carried out the promises of candor that he has so often made. Amazingly, Nixon’s aides contend that he is still trying to find ways to make the tapes and other critical facts public. His critics cannot be blamed for wondering why it is so difficult to find the means to do so.

On that front, there is yet a fresh potential impasse developing, of the very kind that set off the Saturday Night Massacre. Cox was fired by Nixon for his refusal to stop pursuing White House documents through the courts. The papers Cox wanted included White House reports and memorandums on the Watergate breakin, the ITT affair, campaign contributions, and operations by the White House plumbers; they were first asked for by Cox last July, five months ago. Soon after he took over from Cox, Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski asked for the same documents and gave the White House ten days to supply them. When the deadline passed last week with no word from Nixon or his aides, Jaworski fired off a tough second letter, and he may well go to court if it produces no response this week.

Should that happen, Nixon will be back to square one, exactly where he was before he fired Cox—righting his special prosecutor in the courts.

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