The Technological Decision That Doomed Richard Nixon

A botched burglary, lies, cover-ups, abuse of power—all of these things culminated in the resignation of President Richard Nixon forty years ago. But history could have turned out differently if the scandal-ridden president had not made a fateful decision years earlier.

[Image: Library of Congress]

Less than a week into his presidency, Nixon was anxious to bring in an official White House historian. But his aides didn't share his enthusiasm. In part, they worried that the presence of an outsider would inhibit candid discussions. And, they warned the president that there was no way to predict how such an historian would write the story of his administration. Nixon perhaps had in mind the equivalent of Harvard historian Arthur Schelsinger, Jr., whose book, A Thousand Days, was a generally positive account of JFK's tenure in the White House. But, in the opinion of Nixon's staff, Princeton historian Eric Goldman's account of the Johnson presidency was definitely an "anti-Johnson" book.

And that's where Nixon's fateful decision comes into play. Writing at his blog, Presidential Power, historian Matthew Dickinson notes:

In 1971, so as to provide a more accurate history of his administration's proceedings, Nixon had a secret taping system installed in the Oval Office, the Old Executive Office Building, the Cabinet Room and at Camp David. Conversations were recorded via this voice-activated system for more than two years, starting on February 16, 1971 through July 18, 1973. It was these tapes, particularly this so-called "smoking gun" tape dating from June 23, 1972, that provided clear proof that Nixon obstructed justice by trying to impede the investigation into the Watergate break in.

When a unanimous Supreme Court ruled 8-0 that Nixon must hand over the tapes to an independent prosecutor, and the transcripts of the tapes were made public, Nixon lost any hope of surviving the Watergate scandal. Forty years ago today, he officially resigned the presidency. It is tempting, of course, to surmise that if only Nixon had appointed a court historian, he might not have also seen the need to install a taping system. But that is probably not the case. From the moment they take office, all presidents, and their immediate advisers, are aware that they are making history and they understandably want to insure an accurate record of the events in which they participate. But meeting notes can only go so far toward providing that record. For this reason Franklin Roosevelt, Kennedy and Johnson all secretly recorded some White House conversations. Kennedy did so despite the presence of Schlesinger, Jr., as his White House "court historian."

But these previous recording systems differed from Nixon's in one key respect: they had to be manually activated by the President. This meant that they were forced to exercise a bit more discretion than Nixon did when deciding what to record for posterity. Had Nixon been forced to activate his recording devices, he might never have decided to essentially tape himself admitting to crimes. But in his memoirs Nixon defends the decision to install a voice activated machine: "I thought that recording only selected conversations would completely undercut the purpose of having the taping system; if our tapes were going to be an objective record of my presidency, they could not have such an obviously self-serving bias. I did not want to have to calculate whom or what or when I would tape." Alas for the future of his presidency, Nixon was initially "conscious of the taping, but before long I accepted it as part of the surroundings."

"From the very beginning," Nixon writes in his memoirs, "I had decided that my administration would be the best chronicled in history." Little did he know how prescient that statement was. No subsequent president has, to my knowledge, kept any recording system in their White House, and for good reason. And, with the advent of e-mail, even the paper documentary trail is a less reliable history of a president's time in office (although there are safeguards in place that are intended to preserve electronic messages as part of an administration's presidential records). Had Nixon been less conscious of the need to accurately record the events of presidency, he might have emulated his predecessors and utilized a manually-activated recording device. But he did not.

"For want of a switch," Dickinson concludes, "he lost the presidency."