President in crisis: Another time, another tape

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Indy Lifestyle Online
TAPES, tapes, tapes! Just over 25 years after an American president was forced to resign after he had failed to keep a set of tapes from the public domain, President Bill Clinton has lost his fight to keep a new set of tapes secret.

Nixon's tapes were not videotapes, but the old-fashioned audio kind. There were 64 of them, recorded by the secret equipment he had installed in the Oval office to bug conversations. He was not alone: Kennedy and Johnson both had limited recording equipment in the White House. But the revelation of this equipment, by Air Force Colonel Alexander Butterfield during the Senate hearings in 1973, was one of the first serious blows to Nixon's credibility.

Among the tapes was one that came to be known as the "smoking gun", recorded on 23 June 1972, less than a week after the break-in at the Democrat campaign office in the Watergate complex. On it, Nixon could be heard clearly ordering his top aide, HR Haldeman, to tell the FBI to stop its investigation because it would "open the whole Bay of Pigs thing up again".

Nixon argued that conversations with his aides were covered by "executive privilege". The Special Prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, sued.

The Supreme Court heard oral argument on 8 July. By this time the House of Representatives judiciary committee was actively debating impeachment proceedings. On 24 July the Court handed down its decision. Yes, there was such a thing as executive privilege. But no, the tapes were not covered by it.

Four of the justices had been appointed by Nixon. One, William Rehnquist, excused himself because he had served in Nixon's administration. The other eight voted unanimously.

Nixon was staying at the Western White House at San Clemente, California. The faithful General Al Haig woke him.

"How are things going?" the President asked. "Unanimous?"

"Unanimous," said Haig. "There's no air in it."

"None at all."

"It's tight as a drum."

Briefly, Nixon thought of refusing to comply. But his goose was cooked. On 8 August 1974 he said he was resigning. He lived for another 20 years, long enough for some people to say he had really been quite a good president. In spite of everything.

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