Nixon's Tapes, Dole's Record

It was Richard Nixon's last favor for Bob Dole. Weeks ago, when lawyers for the Nixon estate were massaging the final details of an agreement to make public many of the conversations Nixon furtively taped while President, they moved to change an important item. The Nixon estate -- basically his daughters Julie Eisenhower and Tricia Cox -- had tentatively agreed to a September release of 201 hours of taped conversations dubbed the "abuses of governmental power" tapes (aka the Watergate tapes). But then the Nixon legal team informed historian Stanley Kutler and Public Citizen, both of whom had sued to gain access to 3,700 hours of the President's recordings, that the Nixon family wanted to push the date of this first release up to mid-November. The family, an attorney explained, did not want the tapes to distract from the elections.Kutler and Public Citizen decided not to contend this point, and in April all parties to the dispute held a press conference to announce the schedule under which installments of the Nixon tapes will be made public over the next several years. But an obvious question lingers: What could twenty-four-year-old tapes contain that might affect a presidential election in 1996?There are two possibilities: the general and the specific. The disclosure of these 201 hours of tapes -- with their expletives deleted -- would be a poor advertisement for the Republican Party. The Nixon family might reasonably worry that an airing of the darker history of the G.O.P. would hurt Dole, who so movingly eulogized Nixon at his funeral. But Nixon's children could have additional cause for silencing their father's voice until mid-November. Perhaps these tapes captured Dole in conversation with Nixon or recorded others' unflattering remarks about the Senator.The Nixon-Dole relationship in the early 1970s, when Dole chaired the Republican National Committee, was not an easy one, according to the diary of Nixon Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman. When Nixon tapped Dole to head the R.N.C. in late 1970, he was not the President's first choice. The consensus in the White House was that Dole was too divisive. During his tenure at the R.N.C., the White House regularly ordered him to attack the Administration's political enemies, and he did so loyally. But after the disappointing Republican performance in the 1972 Congressional elections, Nixon blamed Dole and the R.N.C. In Nixonian fashion, he had other Republicans wage a whispering campaign against Dole to pressure him to resign from the R.N.C. Dole resented being forced out, complained to Nixon and threatened to resist, but ultimately yielded. (Years later, these two Republican warhorses grew closer.) If the Watergate tapes include references to Dole, they may not be pretty.There is also the chance -- though probably slim -- that something more incriminating than a negative appraisal exists on the tapes. Dole was fortunate to have been shoved from the R.N.C. before Watergate reached a boil. But he was linked to two Watergate-related matters and managed never to suffer politically for it. Could the Nixon tapes change that? Both episodes occurred in 1971. That year the I.T.T. corporation pledged $400,000 to the G.O.P. for its 1972 convention in San Diego, and a memo written by an I.T.T. lobbyist (and disclosed in 1972 by columnist Jack Anderson) suggested that the $400,000 was an inducement for a favorable ruling from Nixon's Justice Department on an antitrust issue. Dole, then head of the R.N.C., knew of I.T.T.'s offer of financial assistance. Was he aware of the proposed quid pro quo? There is no evidence that he was in the know. When the Senate Judiciary Committee investigated the matter in 1972, it never called the Senator as a witness. If there are passages on the Nixon tapes related to the I.T.T. affair, however, they would be included in the Watergate installment, according to Frederick Graboske, a former supervising archivist at the Nixon project of the National Archives.In the other incident, Dole in 1971 accepted money from the Nixon campaign slush fund that later paid for the Watergate break-in, according to testimony before the Senate Watergate committee. The $3,000 in secret funds underwrote a trip Dole took to Vietnam to enhance his foreign policy credentials, so he could be a more effective defender of Nixon's Vietnam policy. Dole had declined to spend R.N.C. or Senate funds on the visit, but, according to a Nixon campaign memo, he agreed that if asked he would say that a "private source" had supplied the money. The incident shows that Dole had knowledge (perhaps sketchy) of the unorthodox bookkeeping at the Nixon campaign committee (known best as CREEP) and that he was willing to keep mum about it.The Senate Watergate committee did not question Dole about his use of the CREEP cash. Few people know what's on the Nixon tapes. The estate probably is stalling the release of the tapes more from a better-safe-than-sorry position than out of fear of a particular slip of the lip. But by such stalling, it is continuing a tradition, for politics has continually trumped history during the long fight over the disposition of the recordings. In 1987, the National Archives' own archivists finished their review of the tapes, and the Archives was in a position to release the entire collection -- with certain portions deleted for reasons of national security and privacy. Nixon fought this ferociously and successfully, and the National Archives never forcefully challenged him. Several archivists left the Nixon project disenchanted and embittered, believing the National Archives and a series of administrations, including the present one, had rolled over for Nixon. (The motivation for Nixon's successors in the Oval Office is clear: They all wanted as much control as possible over their own presidential records and, thus, had a strong interest in Nixon's crusade.)With the recent settlement, the Nixon estate has agreed not to raise any objection to releasing the Watergate-related tapes, except for material it claims does not fall within the legally defined category of "abuses of governmental power." Given how tenaciously the estate has blocked disclosure in the past and how broadly its lawyers have defined the available exemptions, several archivists who worked on the Nixon tapes fear that the family will attempt to prevent the release of relevant passages. "I have no great confidence in the Nixon review," says Graboske. "[The Nixon attorneys'] job is to protect their employer Richard Nixon and now his estate.... They will make objections to everything that has to do with the [1972] campaign and say it is a private political association" -- a category that the Nixon lawyers have used to censor portions of the tapes.As for the delay in unveiling the Watergate tapes -- conveniently pushing the disclosure beyond the election -- Graboske notes that "a review need not last that long. One person can review 201 hours in eight weeks. Why the delay? It could only be political. Somebody somewhere is concerned about Senator Dole." Lawyers for the Nixon estate decline to discuss the delay.Last year, when historians and archivists protested President Clinton's nomination of former Kansas Governor John Carlin -- a politician, not a historian -- to head the National Archives, Dole rushed to his fellow Kansan's defense and declared, "History may be too important to be left to professional historians." With the two-month postponement, behind-the-scenes politics again triumphs over discomfiting history and the public's right to know. The ghost of Nixon -- and the shared history of Republicans -- will not disturb Dole's quest for the White House.

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