There was an AP story on Sunday about the passing of former Watergate chief counsel Sam Dash at age 79. The article credits Mr. Dash with uncovering the now infamous Nixonian taping system during the Watergate congressional hearings that were conducted in the early 1970s. Certain recordings made by the system, along with the congressional hearings and aggressive reporting by the Washington Post and New York Times, led to the eventual resignation of Richard Nixon as America's 37th president some 30 years ago, come Aug. 8.
Millions of us of watched those hearings, which began in the summer of 1973 and carried over into early 1974. This was almost a decade before the advent of CNN and other all-news channels, and the major networks had to balance the huge demand for coverage with the even huger demand for soap-operas-as-usual. Public television was able to assist in airing this important event on a daily basis, whereas CBS, ABC and NBC took turns. Ironically, the revelations that came out of these hearings rivaled anything that a soap opera writer could devise.
Sunday's AP story implies that, under cross-examination from Chief Counsel Dash, White House aide Alexander Butterfield "admitted" that President Nixon knew of the existence of a "secret taping system," something that the general public was unaware of at the time of the disclosure.
Secret taping system? Let's use some common sense here. One day early in his presidency, Mr. Nixon probably told a subordinate, "I want to record my calls and conversations for posterity." The subordinate told his subordinate, who contacted an Army Signal Corps White House liaison, etc. Soon, a room in the White House was selected, probably in the basement, or even adjacent to the Oval Office. Technicians were given clearance to come in and install a bank of recorders. These recorders were voice-activated, reel-to-reel units, maybe eight or 10 of them. There had to be personnel assigned to monitor the system, take the used reels off the recorder, rewind them, place them in labeled boxes, catalog them and replace them with new ones. There were shelves containing boxes and boxes of large 1/4- inch tapes. Secret taping system?
It is my understanding that many people, from U.S. Army techs to White House flunkies to Secret Service agents, knew of the existence of this system and of the contents of the tapes. It is even rumored that some of these tapes were "borrowed" for a night or two and played at parties in Georgetown and D.C. suburbia, with everyone getting a tremendous kick out of Nixon being Nixon. All of this, of course, occurred well before Mr. Butterfield "revealed" that such a system was in place.
Inside the Beltway, almost everyone knows almost everything that goes on. Somebody passes gas and everybody else knows who did it and probably what the person ate that caused it. The "secret" Nixonian taping system "revealed" by Mr. Butterfield was a secret only to those of us Outside (the Beltway).
The trivia answer for Alexander Butterfield is: He was the administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration from March 1973 to March 1975.
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