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Blah, Blah, Blah

the Nixon edition of The Watergate Tapes

By Seth M. Kupferberg

Sometime last fall, a disgusted Harvard radical invented Liberal Talk. "How do liberals talk?" he asked his friends. "Rome wasn't built in a blah, blah, blah," he answered. "Blah, blah, process of law. When you get older, you will blah, blah, blah."

But he was way behind the authors of the Nixon edition of the Watergate transcripts. Liberal Talk was just one of the styles tried out and discarded by these descendants of the nameless builders of the great Gothic cathedrals. On April 15, Richard G. Kleindienst '47 told President Nixon, "In the case of any, of any investigations and trials--you know, I mean--now that the time has come as a result of blah, blah, blah, you know."

Just two newspaper columns before, the transcribers tried out the style of Gertrude Stein '97:

What you do is the right thing to do and then when having done it then it would be recognized as the right thing. Right.

But not even the most hostile critic could ever claim that the transcribers turned to Stein without deep prior consideration--without initial recourse to a more modern style seemingly well suited to their dark vision of the obscurity of life. "That's tough," their president tells his press secretary, halfway through March 27, and the tape rolls on:

Z. I could--Two options: One would be to say that [unintelligible], the other would be to say the [unintelligible]. P. [unintelligible].

If this style--like every other style the transcribers try ultimately proves inadequate, it is because of what John D. Ehrlichman calls the "just monumentally tragic" substance of what they have to say--something so profound it might have troubled even Whitaker Chambers--according to President Nixon "one of the most brilliant writers according to Jim Shepley we have ever seen in this country--and I am not referring to the Communist issue--greatest writer of his time--about 30 years ago, probably Time's best writer of the century--"

Not that the transcripts lack comic relief. "OK, John," Nixon tells his counsel. "Good night. Get a good night's sleep. And don't bug anybody without asking me? OK?" "I don't think you want to anyway," H.R. Haldeman replies to his commander-in-chief's complaints about how slowly he is making his political problems disappear. "I think you want to end the war and freeze food prices first and then do this." "I wish it were Friday," says Nixon. "Friday is the time to do it," Haldeman concedes.

"I guess he should, shouldn't he?" Nixon observes, when his counsel suggests that Gordon Strachan pretend he knows nothing about anything. "I suppose we can't call that justice, can we?" "How bad would it hurt the country, John," the president quips, "to have the FBI so terribly damaged?" But though the president can be subtly satirical, he can laugh with the groundlings, too. "Well, they are really fine Americans, you know," he remarks--to general hilarity--of the owners of the Marriott Hotel chain. "And gee whiz, they don't drink themselves, but they make a lot out of selling it."

Nor are the transcribers afraid merely to suggest a joke, leaving the details to the imagination of their readers. Take the great pizza caper, for example:

D. ...He did some humorous things. For example, there would be a fund-raising dinner, and he hired Wayne the Wizard to fly in from the Virgin Islands to perform a magic show. He sent invitations to all the black diplomats and sent limousines out to have them picked up and they hadn't been invited. He had 400 pizzas sent to another--P. Sure! what the hell! Pranks! Tuck did all those things in 1960, and all the rest.

Yet Nixon is the first to admit even humor has its limits. "I will never forget when I heard about this [adjective deleted] first bugging," Nixon remarks. "I thought, what the hell is this? What is the matter with these people? Are they crazy? I thought they were nuts! A prank! But it wasn't! It wasn't very funny! I think that our Democratic friends know that, too." Nevertheless, on occasion even John W. Dean III--generally consigned by the transcribers to the thankless role of a suck-up straight man--rises to Nixonian heights of sarcasm. "We were bugged in '68 on the plane and in '62 even running for governor--[expletive deleted] thing you ever saw," Dean's boss tells him. "It is a shame that evidence to the fact that that happened in '68 was never around," Dean replies.

But beneath the gallows humor lies a mounting sense of desperation--brilliantly conveyed by the transcribers' development of nostalgically historical motifs. Three and four times over they go back to Nixon's prosecution of Alger Hiss, and three times they go even further, to the days when "the Communist front raised a million dollars for the Scottsboro people," when "nine hundred thousand went into the pockets of the Communists."

As early as February 28, the president begins to show signs of strain. Chester Bowles, he complains, leaked news of the American invasion of Cuba to the press. "Deliberately, because he wanted the operation to fail!" Nixon cries. "And he admitted it! Admitted it! This happens all the time. Well, you can follow these characters to their Gethsemane." "Of course, the stuff was involved with the [expletive deleted] Vietnam war," he concedes wearily, later that day. "I talked with some kid and he said I don't think that anybody incidentally would care about anybody infiltrating the peace movement that was demonstrating against the President, particularly on the war in Vietnam," he adds, a ray of hope breaking through his gloom. "Do you think so?" "No!" John Dean says bravely.

But from then on, things keep getting worse. By April 15, the president is a broken man, a hollow shell of his usual incisive self:

K. ...Then you are now in a position of obstructing justice.

P. Excuse me, if you'd explain that again. If you tell'em--if you tell'em--if you raise the money for the purpose of telling them not to talk.

K. After he's pleaded guilty...

P. And then you give 'em money?

K. Yes.

P. That's--I agree.

K. Yes--obstruction of justice.

P. Yeah. If the purpose of it is to get them not to talk. In other words, not to carry out what the judge said. I can see that.

K. Sure.

"I don't want to admit--dammit"--an entirely disillusioned Nixon adds the next day--"that nobody's so dumb to say that the--which they are, of course." And a day after that he trails off entirely:

These first four years are terribly important and so forth. I mean after all, you understand, that looking down the road, looking down the road, as far as--you say your dad was good at looking down the road?

And yet through it all, the president keeps his head, even when those around him, like John Ehrlichman with his offer to "sure as hell" give the Watergate defendants an "ironclad defense" ("What's wrong with prejudicing their rights?" H.R. Haldeman chimes in), are losing theirs, even when he himself explains that the thing to do is to "say, 'No, we are willing to cooperate,' and you've made a complete statement, but make it very incomplete."

"Just remember," Nixon says, "all-the trouble we're taking, we'll have a chance to get back one day." For this cool-headed thinker remembers other outcries over greater matters. "We heard that at the time, you know," the transcribers say he said on April 14, "when we did Cambodia. They said, you remember [unintelligible]."

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