COLLEGE PARK – Eight years after his death, President Nixon can still pack a room full of reporters and keep them buzzing.
Nearly 50 international journalists flocked early Thursday to the modest, gray-on-gray basement reading room of the National Archives II in College Park for the release of 500 hours of Nixon-era White House tape recordings.
Reporters were already lined up and waiting when the doors to the Archives opened, said archivists. One media truck from the BBC had been waiting outside for hours.
“I’m pretty surprised at the turnout here,” said Karl Weissenbach, director of the Nixon Presidential Materials Project, as he watched the room fill with reporters, laptops, cameras and tape recorders.
“Especially the media. I mean, since there are other things going on in Washington right now — well, it’s a pleasant surprise,” he said.
But to reporters and historians alike, the Nixon tapes are irresistible. Watergate, Vietnam, China, assassinations — the hours of recorded White House conversations spanned the gamut of hot-button political issues from the era.
“It’s a gold mine,” said Jim Wolf, a Reuters correspondent. “You could spend all 500 hours listening to the tapes and find 500 different stories here.”
One that attracted Wolf’s attention in particular was the way Nixon tried exploit the attempted assassination of Alabama Gov. George Wallace. On the tapes, Nixon can be heard trying to tie Wallace’s attacker, Arthur Bremer, to anti-war liberalism and support for Democratic presidential candidates George McGovern and Ted Kennedy.
In one especially candid conversation from May 15, 1972, Nixon gives his wife, Pat, the same spin on the assassination attempt:
NIXON: “It’s a horrible thing, that’s right. Bad people did this.”
PAT: “Who did it?”
NIXON: “The liberals.”
PAT: “Oh. Do they know who did it?”
NIXON: “Of course. There’s some University of Wisconsin — or somebody from Wisconsin was there — a 22-year-old kid with a .38 gun. One of those things, you know. It had to be one of those left-wingers.”
In a conversation recorded later that day, Nixon can be heard giving White House special counsel Charles W. Colson an unmistakable go-ahead to plant liberal, antiwar literature in Bremer’s apartment.
“I thought it was interesting Nixon thought there was such gain to be had,” Wolf said. “At one point Nixon is saying, screw the record — just get it out there.”
By 10 a.m., the Archives reading room looked like a swap meet with reporters and a few researchers eagerly trading their hand-written request slips with the archives staff for written logs and tape cassettes.
While enthusiastic about the release, some attendees grumbled about beefed-up security that complicated Thursday’s release. After running a four- tier gantlet of security checks, George Lardner Jr. of The Washington Post asked, “What do you think you’re doing, guarding the Taj Mahal?”
Weissenbach smiled apologetically and later explained the increased security was a direct response to post-Sept. 11 terrorism concerns.
“We have to be more vigilant now in protecting our documents, as well as everyone’s safety here,” he said.
One of the few historians who braved Thursday’s media frenzy was Stanley Kutler, the researcher and writer from Wisconsin who sued the federal government in the early 1990s for the release of the Nixon tapes.
“We wouldn’t be here today if Nixon was alive, because Nixon was determined to fight this until his last breath,” Kutler said. “He died in 1994, and we settled in 1996.”
While he warned against making sweeping judgments from recorded “sound bites” instead of serious research, Kutler emphasized the importance of keeping presidential papers available to the public.
That access was established in the Presidential Records Act of 1978. President Bush in November issued an executive order placing restrictions on the release of presidential papers, starting with those of Ronald Reagan, prompting Kutler and others to again file suit against the government.
“This is not a country where we have an officially ddesignated history,’ he said. “This is a country where we are supposed to figure out that history for ourselves.”
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