Rupert Cornwell: The joy of eavesdropping on powerful people

'The only other government whose deeds have been so documented is Hitler's Germany'
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A New batch of White House tapes, and the question arises once more. Why is it that even now we can never get enough of Richard Nixon, that gravelly voice, dripping with prejudice, resentment and insecurity, as it crackles across the abyss of history?

Part of it, of course, lies in the popular reputation, however unfair, of Nixon as one of the 20th century's great villains: it is no coincidence that surely the only other government in history whose deeds have been so documented and pored over is Hitler's Germany. And whatever his degree of villainy, Nixon was political, nay geopolitical, incorrectness made flesh.

That Nixon briefly considered using nuclear weapons in Vietnam is well known, acknowledged by the man himself in his memoirs. In the tapes just released by the National Archive covering the first half of 1972, we hear him asking Henry Kissinger: "The nuclear bomb, does that bother you, I just want you to think big?" Boy, if the anti-war movement had heard that line.

Apropos of the Vietnam protesters, another remark must be mentioned, contender for new collective noun of the year. Nixon is muttering about the protesters, "a wild orgasm of anarchists sweeping across the country like a prairie fire." Forget the mixed metaphor. "An orgasm of anarchists" – not even George Bush senior or junior could have come up with that one.

But these gems are by the way. The unedited Nixon is ultimately so compelling because we are eavesdropping on people who hold supreme power, talking about momentous events which their very words were shaping. There is something prurient, almost pornographic, about the process – "écouteurism", you might say, to coin the audio equivalent of voyeurism.

Even more extraordinary, Nixon knew full well the tape was running as he talked (presidents have taped themselves at least since Kennedy's time). Yet plainly he was not playing to the gallery of history. He might have been trying to bait Kissinger when he spoke of using nuclear weapons in Vietnam, for the idea was dropped as quickly as it arose. Never, though, did he dream the tapes would be made public. Watergate, of course, would change all that, within a couple of years.

Our fascination is also tribute to the openness of America. How splendid if a similar taping system existed at Downing Street. Maybe one does – but never in a million years will we learn of its existence. Instead we must content ourselves with cabinet papers, 30 years after the event; not verbatim transcripts, but sanitised minutes.

Americans, however, must see and hear everything for themselves. Did you ever wonder about the remarkable photographs of crucial moments at the White House? Take, as just one example, that famous shot of a exhausted, almost broken Lyndon Johnson slumped alone across the Cabinet cable, listening to another tape, this one of his soldier son-in-law Chuck Robb reporting on what it was really like in Vietnam. A picture, it is said, can be worth 1,000 words. This one told the history of a presidency. For it, we must thank the official, ever-present White House photographer – again, a function which does not exist in Britain.

All of which underlines the point that the problem with the US is not so much obtaining information as assessing the mass of information that the American system spews forth. This in turn illustrates another crucial difference with Britain (and Europe, for that matter): America's yearning for the statistical, factual truth.

In Cold War times it used to be joked that while in countries such as America you knew everything and understood nothing, in the paranoically secretive Soviet Union you knew nothing yet understood everything. We Europeans tend to go for the psychological truth. We may be a little shakier on the facts, but we pride ourselves on seeing to the heart of the matter.

America wants chapter and verse. Hence the national obsession with lists, opinion polls and sports averages. Even so, it often misses the point. And when Americans do not have chapter and verse, they tend to indulge a separate mania for conspiracy theories to fill the gaps. The wonderful thing about Nixon is that we do know practically everything that can be known, but still we cannot fill the gaps.

Take the new tapes. They catch him fulminating against the Jews in the Justice Department. We hear him dismissing complaints about the drunken gropings of a distinguished US ambassador on a flight back to Washington: "People chase girls, and it's a hell of a lot better for them to get drunk than to take drugs. That's my position, and let's stop this crap."

But these episodes only complicate the picture further. The recent American presidency has thrown up some compelling character studies – LBJ and Bill Clinton to name but two. But none, I contend, matches Richard Nixon. Which was the real Nixon: the gifted world statesman, or the vindictively petty score-settler? The stiff public figure, or the private paranoiac? All the above, or none of them?

Next year the National Archives will doubtless release another batch of tapes. We will experience more frissons of écouteurism. And one day we will know everything there is to be known. But still, mercifully, we will understand nothing.