IT WAS GOOD of President Nixon to publish the transcripts. Of course, if he wanted to record his advisors' conversations, he should probably have asked their permission first, but both he and they have so much else to answer for that a little bugging among friends isn't even worth mentioning. As historical or legal evidence, the tapes would have carried more weight than edited versions of Nixon's favorite excerpts from them. But as long as the transcripts exist, it's only fair for us to be able to read them--it's always interesting to recall the battles of the past, as Nixon does so well and so frequently, and it's reassuring to know once and for all that in the privacy of his own home, the president is just like folks, talking about saving his own hide without his accustomed blather about peace with honor or national security.
Still, there's really no good reason for headlines about the transcripts' "epic story" or for the Judiciary Committee to pretend that they are a more significant document than, say, the Pentagon Papers. But then, Congress has been moving closer to Nixon's way of looking at things for awhile now. The most important account in the Judiciary Committee's bill of investigation, Nixon's "secret" bombing of Cambodia for three years, quietly dropped from their priority list a couple of weeks ago. Of course, if Congress cared as much about innocent people's lives as about electioneering dirty tricks, it would have impeached Nixon years ago for continuing the Indochina war. But it's still moderately disturbing to find that Congress's vision doesn't even go beyond tax fraud. It's enough to make you feel the way Thaddeus Stevens felt about the first impeachment of an American president--that by the time Congress finishes watering down his crimes to fit its conceptions, there'll be nothing left worth trying him for.
As for the press, its unusually satisfactory coverage last week of what may really bean epic story--the whirlwind sweeping across Portugal--ought to have been enough to give it some sense of proportion. The new spirit of Portugal may be more relevant even to an impeachment inquiry than the transcripts are, because it is an inspiring example of a people trying to take government into their own hands--something the American people's elected representatives in Congress are shamefully reluctant to do. And the parallel goes further than that. Getting rid of Marcello Caetano and replacing him with Antonio de Spinola didn't guarantee real change any more than replacing Richard Nixon with Gerald Ford would--but without that spur thousands of Portuguese would not have taken to the streets, no longer afraid of the fascist police who'd tortured dissenters for 46 years. In the same way, getting rid of Nixon is a necessary first step toward real change--not a guarantee that it would come, but a sine qua non.
If the transcripts help bring this first step about, by providing unmistakably clear supporting evidence about the undemocratic workings of the present American government (which the Nixon-Johnson foreign policy, as well as Nixon's stepped-up domestic repression, should have made clear long ago), then they really will be important. Even by themselves, they help show the petty baseness of the Nixon administration--the ways it went beyond its predecessors in its closeness to big business and its attacks on opposition. The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that the point of the original Watergate burglary was apparently to make sure Larry O'Brien didn't have evidence John Mitchell had suppressed an antitrust investigation of Howard Hughes in exchange for a $50,000 contribution. It's a tribute to Nixon's personal qualities--well evidenced on the transcripts--that the report isn't even too surprising.
But taken by themselves, the transcripts shouldn't distract Congress or the American people from other things--such as fighting President Nixon on issues ranging from his continuing support for repression in southeast Asia to his impounding vitally needed funds voted by Congress for domestic programs. If Nixon succeeds in using the transcripts to narrow questions like these to questions of his prior knowledge of one burglary--or even of just what bad name he called Robert F. Kennedy '48--the American people will have lost the battle before it even begins.
The transcripts are funny in spots, and intermittently interesting, and of some historical and political importance. But there's no reason to waste a lot of time on them. Congress should stop worrying about deleted expletives, get its [expletive deleted] together, and throw the [characterization omitted] out.