On the evening of August 8, 1974, Richard Nixon took a seat behind his Oval Office desk, looked into a camera, and announced his resignation from the presidency. Perfectly timed to mark the 40th anniversary of that epochal event, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post reporters who broke the Watergate scandal that brought Nixon down, are coming to town this month as part of the Brilliant Lectures series. 

Woodward and Bernstein became famous for exposing Nixon’s attempt to cover up the 1972 break-in of the Democratic National Committee’s offices in the Watergate complex by hired agents of his administration. When I asked what the lasting significance of Watergate was, Woodward said it proved that even the president wasn’t above the law—contrary to Nixon’s repeated claims, most famously in his post-resignation declaration to journalist David Frost: “When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” 

“Nixon’s idea was that the presidency can be used as an instrument of personal revenge,” Woodward told me. “You listen to those tapes, and there’s a sense among Nixon and his people that they are entitled to be reelected, that they know best.” 

“Those tapes,” of course, are the 3,700 hours of recordings made by Nixon’s voice-activated taping system, which he had secretly installed in the Oval Office and elsewhere throughout the White House in 1971. News of their existence first became public in 1973 during the Watergate hearings, and, following a fierce legal battle, the White House was forced to hand them over to Congress in July 1974. Fifteen days later, Nixon resigned. 

Rice University history professor Douglas Brinkley recently co-edited The Nixon Tapes, a new collection of transcripts, with Texas A&M history professor Luke Nichter; the two will speak about the project this month at Brazos Bookstore. Although the book only covers the years 1971 and 1972, ending before the Watergate scandal began making headlines (Brinkley and Nichter are planning a follow-up volume dedicated to Nixon’s second term), it paints a vivid portrait of the kind of paranoia and rage that later led to Nixon’s self-destruction. 

“He always wanted to be the tough guy in the room,” Brinkley told me. “He was a bit of a geek, and he tried to compensate for that by using vigorous, macho language—it’s a lot of ‘Those sons of bitches’ and ‘I’m gonna get the bastard.’ It becomes almost pathological, his need to constantly use ugly language to get his points across. That’s something that other presidents I’ve written about—FDR, Theodore Roosevelt, Reagan—would have never done.” 

Possibly the strangest thing about the tapes is that they exist at all—many of Nixon’s advisors urged the president to destroy them. “If Nixon would have burned the tapes, he probably would have been able to survive his crisis, the way Clinton came out of the Lewinsky affair or Reagan came out of Iran-Contra,” Brinkley said. “But he saw the tapes as his inheritance. He was going to use them to write a multi-volume history of his presidency, like Eisenhower and Truman did. His hubris, his narcissism, was just so high.”

The tapes did help write the history of Nixon’s presidency, of course. It just wasn’t the history he expected.

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