Nichter decodes Nixon in new book
Alumnus publishes ‘The Nixon Tapes: 1971-1972’
By Matt Markey
As a graduate student trudging up the staircase leading from the basement at Williams Hall in the fall of 2004, he was also stepping out of the early 1970s, and one of the most troubling eras in American politics.
For the countless hours he spent in the lower reaches of that building on the Bowling Green State University campus, Luke Nichter seemingly had been at the White House, in the Oval Office, along with Henry Kissinger, H.R. Haldeman, John Dean and Alexander Haig.
And with President Richard M. Nixon.
It was in the basement at Williams that Nichter, wrapped in headphones and locked in on the turbulent times of the Nixon presidency, was exposed to the voices and discussions behind the curtain as Nixon and his secretive inner circle dealt with domestic issues, international affairs and political foes.
“It was a ‘time machine’ experience in many ways,” said Nichter, now a Ph.D. and an associate professor of history at Texas A&M University-Central Texas. Nichter is also a nationally recognized expert on the Nixon tapes and co-author of the book “The Nixon Tapes: 1971-1972” with Douglas Brinkley.
“It’s as if you are there when all of these critical conversations took place, and you are listening in as it all unfolds. For someone who loves history, it is an incredible experience.”
For many years, an intense and contentious debate raged over the subject of releasing the tapes while the former president, who resigned in disgrace in August of 1974 as the net of impeachment rapidly closed around him, fought to keep them private. Nixon continued that battle until he died, although Congress had intervened before that and declared the tapes to be public property.
Following his death, the tapes were released piecemeal, but initially historians and researchers had to visit the National Archives in Maryland in order to listen to them, and no transcripts existed.
Eventually, copies of the tapes were made available, and Nichter probed that treasure trove of history during his marathon sessions in Williams Hall. He developed a fascination with Nixon, the tapes, and the time period, when the Vietnam War was winding down, diplomacy with China was forging ahead, the Cold War simmered, and Watergate was about to explode onto the front page. And it all swirled around Nixon, the enigmatic villain and hero in so many instances.
Nichter has shared his extensive study of the Nixon tapes with students, educators and interested individuals around the world. His nixontapes.org website offers free access to digitized recordings of about 3,000 hours of the tapes that were released prior to 2014.
“Here we had this president who had been elected in a 49-state landslide in 1972, and then was forced out of office less than two years later,” Nichter said. “Listening to these tapes, you are actually hearing what happened in the day-to-day conversations at the highest level of our government during this incredibly eventful period in American history.”
Nichter earned an undergraduate degree in economics and business administration from BGSU, and then worked as an intern in Congress while completing his master’s degree in public policy. When Nichter returned to Bowling Green to pursue a Ph.D. in history, one of his advisers – Dr. Douglas Forsyth – encouraged him to consider an examination of the phenomenon surrounding archival records that had just been released to the public.
“When you’re a grad student, you have it drilled into your head that you have to specialize, to put your mark on something,” Nichter said. “You then make a decision with limited information, and that decision impacts you for a very long time – one thing leads to another. You have to find something that motivates you, something that is going to get you out of bed on a cold morning. I found the right thing to match my temperament when I found Nixon.”
The curiosity and fascination with Nixon initially led to trips to the National Archives, and then to the sessions in Williams Hall, peering into the Nixon presidency through the portal offered by those thousands of hours of tapes.
“I distinctly recall sitting down in the basement of Williams Hall and at first just listening to a bunch of voices, with no transcript to follow,” Nichter said. “I knew Kissinger had a very distinct voice, and Nixon did as well, but the others all sounded very much alike. It took me six months to get all of the voices down, but after a while you do start to get the sense you are there, in the room.”
What Nichter began unraveling and bringing into focus as he digested each tape was of significant historical value. With the curtain pulled back, President Nixon was exposed as a much more complex individual than many had believed in the post-Watergate days.
“When I really started to delve into these tapes and invest so much time in them, one of my first concerns was if this was all just old news,” Nichter said. “Since there had been umpteen books written on Nixon, I wondered what we could really learn from these tapes, and was there anything new here.”
Nichter got that question answered as he began to immerse himself in the project, and as divergent and much more detailed sculptures of the 37th president emerged.
“The more I listened, the more I realized that there was so much more to learn about Nixon, and his days as president,” Nichter said. “It’s something I think about a lot. Nixon really is a man of extremes — sometimes crude and bigoted, and at other times brilliant and uncannily skilled at dealing with international affairs.”
Nichter, who has also written book-length biographies of Lyndon Johnson, George W. Bush, and Nixon for the series “First Men, America’s Presidents,” said the uniqueness of the tapes has given historians a look at Nixon’s intricate personality and demeanor. While with most of our other presidents, all we know is what we are presented when they are in front of the cameras. Nichter said the tapes offer Nixon in much more stark detail.
“I’ve asked myself if he is really that much different,” Nichter said. “All presidents are interesting, so is Nixon that much different from other presidents, or is it just because we have so much of him on the tapes? It’s a hard question to answer as a historian.”
Although the Watergate scandal dominated the story lines surrounding Nixon, just a small percentage of the tapes contain conversations on that topic.
“Most people have heard only very powerful little snippets, but when you listen to an entire day, morning to night, you learn that Nixon is a very different person in many different situations. He is different with his staff than he is with old friends, and different when speaking with allies or with rivals.”
Nichter said the Nixon on the tapes and behind the scenes is often unfiltered, even though the president was usually the only person in the room who knew the conversations were being recorded.
But as Nichter learned, these tapes go well beyond Nixon and the early 1970s. When he was elected president, Nixon already had almost a quarter century of political life behind him, so the tapes reveal a “cross-section of American life and American society” from that wider era, Nichter said.
“These tapes give people something to think about,” Nichter said. “As a scholar, it is one of the most gratifying things that you can hear, to hear that you have started a conversation, even if you are not quite clear where that conversation will go.”