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The Watergate Transcript Controversy: The Story Behind the Story

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  • HNN Hot Topics: The Watergate Transcript Controversy
  • Since the publication of Sunday's New York Timesstory accusing esteemed historian Stanley I. Kutler of making serious mistakes in the Watergate transcripts he published in a book in 1997, bloggers have been wondering how the Times came upon it. Speculation has been wild. Had Peter Klingman, the historian who leveled the main charge (in an article under consideration by the American Historical Review), tipped off the paper? Had someone at the American Historical Review (AHR) leaked the story? And what had been the motives of the leaker, if there was one? Was there a plot to destroy Kutler? Was this part of the ongoing effort by Nixon apologists to clear Nixon and put the blame for Watergate on John Dean?

    An investigation by HNN shows that none of these surmises is accurate, though long-time critics of Kutler are involved, some of whom claimed in the past that Dean was the prime mover behind Watergate. The series of events that culminated in the Times's publication was less the result of design than of that ever-favorite explanation of the modern historian, contingency. While a small band of researchers have long been critical of the Kutler transcripts, none plotted to put the controversy on the Times's front-page--that was the work of a relative newcomer to Watergate research--but they were delighted when the article appeared. In fact, they had long ago given up hope of attracting the media's attention to the problems they had found in the transcripts. One of the reasons Peter Klingman had decided to go to the AHR with his article was because he and others had concluded that the media were indifferent to the story. A decade ago when the researchers had tried to get the media to take notice of errors that had cropped up in the transcripts they had succeeded in getting just one outlet, the somewhat obscure Tampa Tribune, to publish a single story. (Click here to read an excerpt.)

    Ironically, both Dean and Kutler at key points may have inadvertently helped trigger the events that ultimately led to the Times's publication.

    The story begins a long time ago.

    Contingency #1: Dean sues Len Colodny, leading to the release of Watergate tapes. Colodny was the co-author of the controversial book, Silent Coup (St. Martins Press, 1991), which claimed that Dean, not Nixon, was behind the Watergate Affair. After the book's publication Dean sued Colodny and St. Martins Press. The suit was eventually settled, but as with everything involving Colodny and Dean, the suit's settlement became a matter of dispute. Colodny says his insurance company paid him some $400,000 to get out of it. John Dean says a confidentiality agreement prohibits him from saying what the settlement was but he was happy with it, noting that $15 million dollars was spent defending the book, which the publisher stopped selling. (The book can be read online at Colodny's website.)

    The end of the lawsuit did not end what by now had become a small war between two dedicated camps, with Dean and his supporters on one side and Colodny and his supporters on the other. But things did quiet down. Then one day in 1998 while listening to the Watergate tapes he had subpoenaed in the course of the lawsuit, Colodny happened to realize that Stanley Kutler's transcripts (published in his 1997 book, Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes) included some errors, which he believed were serious. This was Contingency #1.

    It was at this point in time (sorry; couldn't help myself) that Peter Klingman became involved. Working with Colodny, Klingman, a Ph.D. (University of Florida, 1972) who previously had focused on Florida history, assembled the tapes in an archive and started a website, The Nixon Era Center. In 1998 the Tampa Tribune published its story about the transcript errors and in 2002 Klingman published a long article analyzing them. He appended to the article a sharply-worded attack on Kutler's professional standards. No one paid the least attention. For six years that was pretty much the end of the debate involving the transcripts' accuracy.

    Contingency #2: Kutler declines use of his transcripts. Then last summer from out of the blue Colodny heard from the author of a new book that quoted the Nixon tapes. The author (whom we'll call Mr. X) was concerned. When he was researching his book he had asked Kutler for permission to quote from the Abuse of Power transcripts. Kutler, with whom he had crossed paths before under unpleasant circumstances, had said no and Mr. X had hired someone to listen to the tapes at the National Archives to get the quotes that were needed. But Kutler, believing Mr. X had actually simply gone ahead and used his transcripts without permission, was now demanding a settlement of some kind, without specifying what he wanted. Stirred by this story, which smacked to him of a threat, Colodny thereupon decided to take a fresh look at the tapes. It was then that he realized, he told HNN, that Kutler had made more mistakes than either he or Klingman had previously identified. Colodny believed the errors seemed to fall into a pattern that minimized Dean's responsibility for the Watergate cover-up.

    Kutler admits he made mistakes transcribing the tapes but denies he tried to minimize Dean's role. He concedes he did not give Mr. X permission to use his transcripts. "Not very fraternally of me, I will admit," Kutler told HNN in an email, "but why did he think he had license to incorrectly malign me, and then expect me to [do] him a favor?"

    How the tapes should be interpreted is often a matter of subjective opinion. Colodny himself originally argued in Silent Coup that Dean, not Nixon, was mainly behind the Watergate cover-up. In 2002, after listening to the tapes he subpoenaed in the course of the lawsuit with Dean, he changed his conclusion and charged point blank that Nixon was guilty as hell. But he was certain now that Kutler's errors in transcribing were deliberate.

    Once again Colodny called Klingman. This time Klingman decided that instead of going to the media he would make his case to academics. In August he began researching and writing the article that he eventually was to submit to the American Historical Review. In writing the piece he consulted experts who had long been involved in Watergate research: Herbert Parmet (author of a biography of Nixon), Joan Hoff (author of the revisionist Nixon Reconsidered), Irv Gellman (author of a biography of Nixon), and Fred Graboske (a tapes archivist at the National Archives). To a person, says Colodny, all were appalled at the errors in Kutler's transcripts. (Hoff, Gellman, and Graboske have confirmed to HNN that they were disconcerted by Kutler's errors. Parmet told HNN he believed the case Klingman made was overheated and not entirely convincing. "I could not go into court with this evidence," he wrote in an email. ) The article was finished in December and submitted to the AHR in January.

    Contingency #3: A friendship leads to the New York Times. Last October, while Klingman was pulling together his article, a Mr. Y, new to Watergate research, asked Colodny to review the manuscript of a book he was writing. Mr. Y cited Kutler's transcripts in the book. Colodny warned him off, telling him the transcripts were not always reliable. This January Mr. Y, whose book had just been published, mentioned to Colodny that he knew a reporter at the New York Times who might be interested in the story about the transcripts. "I'd like to run this by" her Mr. Y said, according to Colodny. Colodny agreed to cooperate by providing the audio recordings of the transcripts in question. He is convinced that it was those audio recordings which persuaded the Times to publish its piece.

    The end result of this series of events is that Stanley Kutler, a hero to historians for helping pry loose the Watergate tapes, has seen his scholarship called into question in a prominent forum by longtime critics. Because the criticism landed on the front-page of the New York Times suspicions once murmured only by a few in relative obscurity have inescapably become the subject of vigorous public debate.

    We have now laid out the facts as best as can be established as to how this debate came about. Who's right and who's wrong? This is a question beyond the scope of this article.

    Excerpt from the Tampa Tribune news story "Critics: Lapses flaw Kutler book on Nixon" (July 10, 1998)

    Last November, after the publication of his edited compilation of 201 hours of unreleased Watergate tapes, historian Stanley Kutler touted it as the definitive record of President Richard Nixon's conversations.

    "I am aware of my responsibility for accuracy, knowing I have compiled a historical record others will use," Kutler wrote.

    But an examination of the tapes and the transcripts in Kutler 's book show the University of Wisconsin historian compressed taped conversations, took conversations that happened at night and put them at the beginning of those from the morning and cut out comments that may bolster other versions of the Watergate scandal that differ from those written by Kutler .

    This, some historians and archivists say, compromises the book and its legitimacy as a historical source. ...

    Kutler acknowledges editing the tapes and leaving many out because they were unintelligible or irrelevant.

    "I edited the conversations with an eye toward eliminating what I believe insignificant, trivial or repetitious," he wrote in an editorial note in the book.

    One researcher critical of the book is Tampa author Len Colodny, whose 1991 book "Silent Coup" alleges Dean helped plan the Watergate break-in and the subsequent Nixon administration cover-up. Colodny sees motives behind Kutler 's edits.

    This is not the first time the two have been at odds. Kutler trashed "Silent Coup" in book reviews. ...