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Frederick J. Graboske, Nixon Tapes Archivist, explains why he concluded Stanley Kutler's alterations were deliberate

[HNN Editor: This article is by Mr. Graboske, the former Nixon tapes archivist at the National Archives, who was cited by the NYT recently as a tapes expert in an article assessing the accuracy of Stanley Kutler's Watergate transcripts. Graboske is a longtime critic of the mainstream media's Watergate narrative endorsed by Stanley Kutler. When Silent Coup, the controversial history of Watergate that claimed John Dean was behind the conspiracy, appeared in 1992 Graboske endorsed it enthusiastically. The accusations against Kutler were leveled by independent historian Peter Klingman in an as-yet-to-be-published article. As HNN reported recently Klingman worked closely with Leonard Colodny, the co-author of Silent Coup. After the NYT story about Klingman's charges was published, the paper's ombudsman reviewed the story for accuracy and fairness. He concluded that the Times blew the story"out of proportion." HNN asked Mr. Kutler if he wished to comment on Mr. Graboske's article. He declined. But in an email to Mr. Graboske, Mr. Kutler indicated he was confident that despite the controversy his reputation remains intact. He ended by referring to his critics (Colodny, Klingman, Graboske) as Lilliputians. The email is reproduced at watergate.com. ]

Preparing transcripts of the Nixon tapes is a difficult task. My staff at the National Archives and I did a number of them. With experience we got our transcription time down from 400 hours per hour of conversation to 100 hours. The results were good, but not perfect. In addition to the relatively poor quality of most of the recordings, we were faced with rendering “natural conversation,” with its repetitions, stuttering, and slurred words. The key phrase in one transcript was “ . . . so Harlow didn’st shustem/shust ’sim (rendered phonetically).” Everyone who listened heard that meaningless word/phrase. The participants had a shared knowledge of the subject, and no one questioned the speaker about what he meant.

On another occasion we had prepared a transcript for Judge Gesell to review in camera. I took the transcript and a copy of the tape to his chambers to play for the Government lawyers and for Nixon’ss counsel, R. Stan Mortenson. At one point Stan interrupted the proceeding and said he had an alternate rendering of one of the sentences: same cadence, different words, different meaning. The Government’ss lawyers agreed, only to have Stan say that this incident proved the suggestibility to the written word of people listening to the tapes. In fact, he said, that was not at all what he had heard and he presented a third version: same cadence, different words, different meaning. It was then that I realized that transcriptions of the Nixon tapes never would be wholly acceptable to men of good willsomeone always would hear some word or phrase differently. These criticisms would cast a pall over the entire transcription and, therefore, I decided against producing a Governmentsponsored set of transcripts.

With this background I approach with sympathy anyone attempting to produce generally acceptable transcripts of the Nixon tapes, such as Dr. Kutler. In his editorial note he stated that he removed extraneous wordsthe repetitions, stutters, etc. He notes also that some may disagree with particular renderings of words. I have no problem with his work on any of these issues. My fundamental disagreement lies with the conflation of portions of two transcripts from two different tapes (Oval Office and WH Telephone), recorded hours apart.

Preparation of a transcript is done by working from the tape logs — the topic outlines of every conversation prepared by the Archives staff. The logs note the conversation number (the tape number plus the position of the conversation on the tape, such as 881-03), the participants, and the start and stop times of the conversation. As in all historical research, context is important; the times listed on the logs provide the sequence for the conversations. Once a conversation, or a portion thereof, has been identified for transcription, someone listens to the tape and produces a rough transcript. Sheer mental fatigue precludes effective transcription more than about 4 or 5 hours per day, so others review the transcript until there is general agreement. The typed document would retain its tape identification information and its pages numbered in sequence. Each transcript is integral.

To conflate 2 transcripts would require literal or electronic cutting and pasting. This is a deliberate act. Of course, one could imagine a scenario in which the physical pages of more than one transcript (say, those for March 16) were scattered on a desk and accidentally merged, despite the conversation identifiers and page numbering. However, I assume that the court reporters who prepared the transcripts provided them in both electronic and physical format, so that a diligent author could check his work with the physical transcripts against the electronic form. This “accident” scenario implies a level of sloppiness on the part of the researcher/author that casts a pall not only over the publication in question but over the entire corpus of his work. I choose not to believe that of Dr. Kutler. He states in his forward that he is “ . . . aware of my responsibility for accuracy” and that “ . . . there is no distortion of the thrust or intent of the passages. “ The conflation of the two transcripts demonstrates that he failed in that responsibility.

By choosing to publish only portions of the Nixon/Dean conversations Dr. Kutler asks us to trust his historical judgment on relative importance. Obviously, the physical constraints of publishing a book of standard length preclude publishing the entire corpus of transcripts, although a CD-ROM could have been includedas Bob Haldeman did with his diaries. The danger here is one of lack of context. To understand Nixon and his actions with regard to Watergate, these conversations should be seen in the context of other conversations he had on these topics, including those which Dr. Kutler chose not to include, such as March 13. A portion selected for publication is torn from the context of the rest of the conversation. This is a problem inherent with such a “highlights of Watergate“ book: the selections could be seen as agenda-driven.

The Watergate tapes are available on-line at nixontapes.org. Researchers should use this site as their primary source rather than relying on the flawed Kutler book.

Related Links

  • HNN Hot Topics: The Watergate Transcript Controversy
  • Read entire article at Frederick J. Graboske at the website, http://www.watergate.com, run by Len Colodny