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My Response to the New York Times

The New York Times recently decided that a yet un-referred article, submitted to the American Historical Review, and posing as serious history regarding Watergate accounts discredited by historians and courts alike, merited a front page news story on February 1.  Former White House Counsel John Dean may be the real target for this work, but the article focused itself on the issue of  historical accuracy, and hence because of my two books on Watergate, I became the target of choice. 

Peter Klingman, who made the charges, has a long relationship working with Leonard Colodny, author of  Silent Coup, a book now mercifully forgotten.  The book charges that John Dean, the admitted action officer for the Watergate cover-up, along with such improbable accomplices as Alexander Haig and Bob Woodward, successfully conspired to remove Richard Nixon.  Every Nixonian fantasy comes to life: Watergate Without Nixon.

Now, in another act of  bogus Watergate revisionism,  my book Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes (Free Press, 1997), and my motives have been attacked.   Up front, let me emphatically state my position on my scholarship for that book:  I never knowingly or deliberately falsified any information, conjured conversations, telescoped conversations – and I never changed any positive assertion into a negative or a negative into a positive.  I stand proudly next to my scholarly record of more than forty years.  My books immediately gained acceptance, and have continued to flourish.  Joan Hoff, an active Nixon revisionist,  was the rare critic at the time, unhappy that I did not do a complete edition, having, for example, omitted all of Nixon’s “uhs, a-has, and a-a-a-a-as.”  I plead guilty because  I was trying to spare my readers, and to save the publisher maybe two, if not three hundred worthless pages, as well as all those trees.

“Historian Peter Klingman” – as he introduced himself to me –  has been in touch for over a year.  At first, he politely presented his findings, and I immediately responded that without checking the record, it was quite possible that I made a mistake, emphasizing the difficulties of transcribing.  But Klingman does not believe my mistakes were accidental.  I cannot soothe his feelings.  Others may not understand the process that was involved, so a bit of background is in order.

In 1996, after four years of litigation against the National Archives and Richard Nixon, I won the suit, liberating the Nixon tapes for us all to use.  I did so with no help from any professional historical or journalistic organizations.  My  attorney, Alan Morrison, a distinguished constitutional law litigator, proved indispensable.  Scholars have used these tapes with appropriate care and have profited nicely from them.  Based on the comments of professional colleagues, historians and journalists alike, I feel justifiably proud of what I did in opening access to the tapes.

After winning the lawsuit, I signed a book contract and prepared to transcribe the tapes.  At first, I was overwhelmed.  I had access to what then was regarded as all of the “Abuse of Power” tapes – 201 hours of conversations, minus “national security” and “personal politics,” and “family” materials.  When I first gained access to the material, you could not leave the Archives with tapes; you had to work there with analog equipment, which at best was state-of the-art, c. 1950s.  While my settlement eventually provided that the tapes could be duplicated and disseminated publicly, including over the air, that did not occur until 2001. 

To undertake this daunting task, I hired a team of court reporters to listen to the tapes and prepare draft transcripts.  They could transcribe perhaps 30 per cent of the material because it all was so unfamiliar or undecipherable.  But it was a start.  Adam Land, my research assistant, and I then listened to the tapes and prepared our own transcripts.  For those unfamiliar with the Nixon tapes, other than telephone conversations, they are extremely difficult to hear (in analog versions, and with the available equipment, it would take approximately 15 hours to transcribe one hour of Nixon’s conversations).  In the end, of course, the responsibility for the transcriptions was and is mine, as was the difficult decision of what to include for a book that could not incorporate all of it for it would have run to thousands of pages. As I have acknowledged from the outset, my transcripts are far from perfect, but they certainty proved sufficient to substantially confirm and enhance the work of the Watergate Special Prosecutor and the House Judiciary Committee.  In my book, you may read how Nixon said that “hush money” “had to be paid” to Howard Hunt.  Then you can read how Nixon painfully (you really have to hear it) said that “the President of the United States could not admit he sponsored an illegal break-in” of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist.  You have to hear Nixon, after hearing the full cover-up story from Dean on March 21, promptly asked his secretary to bring him more money to maintain the cover-up.  Etc, etc.

Now comes Peter Klingman, making all sorts of allegations as to my work, my character,  and my motives.  He walks dangerous ground: does he have any  right to defame me to my attorney, not to mention elsewhere?  During our earlier, short conversation, I failed to satisfy him.  When I read his version of the tapes in question, and with no firm commitment on my part, I said it was possible that I made the errors he alleged, but certainly I had no ulterior purpose in mind.  Klingman then demanded I listen to them; I declined because I am now hearing impaired.   For some reason, this enraged the man, and he made further demands.  I then cut off all communication with him. 

One thing I can say for sure about Klingman’s findings: his editing of the tapes in question hardly proves Dean guilty of any of the things that Klingman and his fellow revisionists contend.  Their thesis of Dean’s culpability as the Watergate principal remains rubbish.  Klngman  and his fellow bogus revisionists, now seek to impugn my scholarly standing on the basis of an allegation involving a few pages.  The whole of my Watergate scholarship, in the book of tapes, as well as my Wars of Watergate, gets in the way of their efforts to rewrite history.

Frankly, at this point, it is astonishing to have to defend my career and my scholarship in such a manner.  Granted, I have chosen a more public role for myself than many of my colleagues, and I often hear the bullets flying.  I want opponents as open and transparent as myself; I do not work in dark corners questioning motives.  I welcome criticism and controversy, but only with civility.

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