COLLEGE PARK – A handful of reporters and one researcher showed up at National Archives II Thursday to peruse previously classified segments of tape that were used as impeachment evidence against President Nixon.
“We’re always hoping to find something historically significant. There are certain Holy Grails in Nixon research,” said James Rosen, a Fox News Channel reporter who was on hand Thursday.
The archives released tens of thousands of Nixon’s confidential files and 54 minutes of taped conversations that touch on everything from Watergate to the Vietnam War and the Pentagon Papers.
The tape segments were the final declassified pieces of conversations that the House Judiciary Committee used against Nixon while determining whether to draw up articles of impeachment.
Journalists flocked to the 10 listening stations, toting laptop computers and gripping transcripts of the tapes prepared by the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace Foundation.
They said they hoped to find clues about a variety of unanswered questions, including whether Nixon knew about the Watergate break-in in advance and his immediate reaction to it.
Some weren’t quite sure what they were looking for.
“I’m not really looking, I’m reviewing,” said Mike Ahlers, assignment editor at CNN’s Washington bureau. “I’m not sure if there’s going to be a story.”
Archives officials set aside a basement lecture room for Thursday’s release and all the reporters were on the side of the room with listening stations for the taped material. On the other half of the room, where carts of more than 300 boxes of documents lined the walls, the study tables were empty except for one person.
“I’m looking for new information about Vietnam-era POWs (prisoners of war)”, said Silver Spring resident Roger Hall.
Hall, who planned to sift through five boxes of records Thursday, said he began researching the topic more than a year ago while working on a degree in general administration at the University of Maryland.
He became so interested in the government’s efforts to recover POWs from the Vietnam War that he began a business that submits Freedom of Information Act requests on the subject on behalf of families whose sons are still missing.
Hall said the Nixon Project lets him know about document releases ahead of time and he marks the date on his calendar. Rosen, who said he has been working on a Nixon-related book for seven years, admitted that coming to the archives was “indulging a passion” as well as completing an assignment.
“Nixon is an endlessly fascinating president,” said George Lardner Jr. of The Washington Post. “The description from his White House years are unparalleled.”
Lardner, who has written extensively about Nixon records, said he was looking for information about “events abroad” or “possible burglaries.”
Despite the interest in the newly released records, some academics doubt they will provide additional insights into Nixon.
Joan Hoff, author of “Nixon Reconsidered,” said she expects the tape segments to merely add details to the commonly known Watergate facts.
“These are the drips and dregs of the bulk of the collection,” she said. “If it does reveal anything new, there will be hell to pay because it wasn’t released earlier.”
Still, archives staffers expect visits from top scholars in the upcoming months.
“It’s history more than fast-breaking news,” said archivist Steve Glenn. “There will be books written in the next six months, but no one will be looking in the next six hours.”
With that in mind, archivists viewed the mostly empty tables Thursday with some optimism.
“It’s a pretty good turnout,” said archivist Eric Chaskes. “We know it’s a bad, bad turnout when only the (Associated Press) comes.”