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Play, Pause, Stop, Record: Why Presidents Taped

The Case of Richard Nixon

From the moment Franklin Delano Roosevelt ordered the thick Oval Office floor drilled to install wiring, to the bugged lamp on Truman’s desk, the manually-operated Dictabelt system of the Kennedy-Johnson years, to Richard Nixon’s massive 3,700 hours of tapes—the disclosure of which hastened his downfall—these six presidents have left as part of their legacies one of the most controversial sets of government sources. Undoubtedly, the tapes will occupy the interest of historians for decades more, as still more than a third of the total hours of the tapes of the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations remain unreleased to the public as of this writing. For these “indefatigable listeners,” these surreptitiously recorded hours with top aides, journalists, and former and future leaders help to confirm what we have already learned from textual records, but sometimes this added texture modifies our understanding of even decades-past events. [1]


The participants are as follows:

P = President Richard Nixon

APB = Assistant to the President Alexander P. Butterfield

HRH = Chief of Staff H.R. "Bob" Haldeman

For a key to other participants' names, click here (136k).

Conversation Number



Download Audio
Download Transcript
OVAL 450-01 2/16/71 Unk between 7:56a - 8:58a P, APB mp3 (2.1m) pdf (24k)

OVAL 450-10

2/16/71 10:29a - 10:49a P, APB, HRH mp3 (1.7m)

pdf (18k)

OVAL 452-17

2/19/71 1:39p - Unk before 2:25p P, HRH mp3 (2.1m)

pdf (22k)

OVAL 456-05

2/23/71 10:05a - 11:30a P, HRH mp3 (2.6m)

pdf (29k)


In particular, it is perhaps ironic that the greatest quantity of these presidential recordings, by Richard Nixon, is also the least utilized or understood, apart from their starring role in Watergate. Despite hundreds of publications since the 1970s that have mentioned the Nixon tapes and a flurry of theories from administration officials and Nixon scholars and agonistes alike about why Nixon decided to bug himself, still the most commonly asked question about the taping system has to do with why Nixon decided to tape himself in the first place. [2] Through technological advances, we can now more easily listen to and transcribe these tapes and we can clearly hear Nixon himself on the taping system describing the origin, installation, and potential uses of his taping system. These conversations largely corroborate Nixon’s memoir claims and the details of the taping system itself, but also hint at the darker motivations and political uses of recorded conversations.

These tapes comprise 4 conversations recorded between February 16 and February 23, 1972 in the Oval Office (OVAL). We have produced transcripts for these conversations and have made them available on this page. In addition, we have also produced links to mp3 audio files (the type found at the Nixon Presidential Library) as well as high quality audio that we have produced. We encourage visitors to this site to listen to the audio while reviewing the transcripts.


In his memoirs, Nixon listed several reasons behind his decision to record his conversations throughout the executive offices. The primary reasons were administrative and historical, part of the president’s desire to make his administration “the best chronicled in history.” Nixon recalled that he “wanted a record of every major meeting” and that an earlier system of taking notes, “ranging from verbatim transcripts of important national security sessions to ‘color reports’ of ceremonial events…proved cumbersome, because it was not always convenient or appropriate to have someone in the room taking notes." [3] From the revelation of the taping system in 1973 until his death in 1994, Nixon consistently argued that his reasons for taping were primarily historical. Nixon emphasized that the secrecy of the system overrode any objections related to right to privacy concerns of those taped, and that the benefits he perceived in terms of later writing his memoirs and having a record of major meetings overrode the costs and staff time to maintain the system. That the taping system had other potentially useful political functions should not be doubted, and Nixon did not deny such alternatives.


For Nixon’s chief of staff, H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, the historical utility of the taping system was only “a secondary benefit,” while the “primary intent” of taping conversations to protect Nixon, like earlier presidents who had taped their conversations, “from the convenient lapses of memory of his associates.” The purpose of the tapes, “was not,” Haldeman argued, “to provide tapes for historians to peruse, but for the President's use alone—for reference when visitors… made statements that conflicted with their private talks with the President.” Haldeman noted “a secondary benefit” of the tapes, for providing Nixon “with valuable reference material for his own use.” The chief of staff stressed that the tapes were “never for the use of historians." [4]


In the first conversation captured on tape, Assistant to the President Alexander Butterfield briefed the president on the recently installed taping system and described how it worked, confirming details tape experts have long known. Butterfield told the president how the system was both a sound-activated taping system and tied to the presidential locator system. [5] Butterfield said, “You’re wearing the locator right now and you’re in the office,” and because the system operated by “voice activation” the president didn’t need “to turn it on and off.” Nixon inquired if it would be possible to expand the system, which at the time only operated in the Oval Office. Echoing the rationale he would express years later in his memoir account, Nixon stressed the reason behind his decision to tape: “You see, the purpose of this is to have the whole thing on the file for professional reasons.” Butterfield acknowledged that it was possible to expand the system, and for record-keeping purposes the recordings “could be used to make notes.” Butterfield told the president that he had gone over the potential use of the tapes for note taking with Chief of Staff H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, and noted that the system was an office secret because, “There are only five people who know about it, outside of Haldeman, then you and me." [6]


In another conversation later that same morning with Butterfield and Haldeman, Nixon had obviously by then considered the potential uses of the taping system as Butterfield had noted earlier, including making transcriptions of the tapes. “Mums the whole word. I will not be transcribed,” he ordered. And, in case for some reason material from the tapes was needed, perhaps, as Nixon noted, “maybe we want to put out something that's positive, maybe we need something just to be sure that we can correct the record,” Haldeman noted that, rather than mention the existence of a taping system, the correction would be “on the basis of ‘Butterfield’s notes’ or ‘the president's notes’ or ‘my notes.’" [7]


In addition, Nixon and Haldeman discussed additional potential uses of the surreptitious taping system; in this case, to review tapes related to the disclosure that Undersecretary of the Interior Fred Russell had been “fired." [8] In this conversation, Nixon suggested to Haldeman using the tapes regarding instructions on how Russell’s resignation cum firing should be portrayed to the press. Haldeman was clearly enthusiastic about the tapes and advised the president “let’s use the recording,” but suggested the use of tapes “on the basis of your notes.” Nixon again expressed his desire to avoid transcription from the tapes: “I don’t want you to transcribe those unless it’s important. See?" [9]


In the last noteworthy conversation that mentions the taping system, President Nixon contemplated using the taped conversations to both inform press briefings by Press Secretary Ronald Ziegler and as a means of record keeping. Nixon forgetfully asked Haldeman if presidential aide Alexander Butterfield knew of the taping system that had been installed three days earlier. Responding incredulously to the president’s apparent lapse of memory, Haldeman pointed out to the president, “Yes, sir. He put it in.” In terms of utilizing the tapes for record keeping, Nixon explicitly stated: “I don’t want anything transcribed unless I say so.” Haldeman concurred and hinted at keeping the system secret: “That’s right…not even transcribe it. Tell [Butterfield] to go back and listen to it and just make notes off of it…As if he had been sitting here making notes.” [10]


In these conversations dealing with the installation and operation of the taping system, all link the use of recordings to produce meeting records or notes for the file. Confirming what he said in his memoirs after the fact, in one conversation Nixon lamented the problems of having a note taker in meetings to Haldeman: “It just doesn’t work to have somebody be in here every minute.” [11] The sheer volume of memoranda of conversation (“Memcons”), telephone conversation (“Telcons”) transcripts, meeting notes, diaries, and memoranda for the record, and millions of pages of textual documents produced by the administration attest to Nixon’s desire for thorough, reliable, and accurate record—but also a record flattering for the administration.


Nixon felt that secrecy of the taping system was paramount. Nixon explicitly told both Haldeman and Butterfield that the tapes were not to be transcribed without his express orders, minimizing the chance that someone could suspect that they were being taped. At least initially, the political uses of the tapes and a desire to control the depictions of meetings were also on the president’s mind. Two of the conversations discuss record keeping and political matters such as the “firing” of Fred Russell in one recording, and Nixon’s desire to reduce regional social spending in the other. Also, despite Nixon’s best efforts at maintaining secrecy, author Anthony Summers concluded that some astute foreign dignitaries and domestic personages, such as John Dean, suspected that they were being taped, especially since Nixon ended the thorough use of note takers after the installation of the taping system, even for lengthy, detailed meetings, which surprised some visitors that Nixon appeared to not want any summary of the meeting. [12]


The above conversations also confirm some of the reasons behind the choice of an automatic taping system. Later describing the tapes as an “objective record,” Nixon stated: “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.” [13] Historians have largely concurred with Alexander Butterfield that the automatic taping system was the natural choice since the president was technologically challenged. [14] Although not conclusive, the first conversation corroborates both Nixon’s and Butterfield’s claims. Nixon seemed pleased when Butterfield told him that the president would not need to turn the system on or off and Nixon referred to having the tapes for “professional reasons.”


In his memoirs, Nixon stated: “[B]efore long I accepted [the taping] as part of the surroundings.” [15] The conversations confirm that Nixon was not consciously aware of the taping system most of the time, at least not after the first few weeks of taping. In conversation 456-5, Nixon could not remember that Alexander Butterfield had supervised the installation of the system, and all three of the significant mentions of the taping system are from the first week of operation, which began on February 16, 1971. It is possible that there are more taped conversations that mention the taping system between the start of taping and the current end of publicly available conversations in November 1972. If so, they have remained undiscovered among the thousands of total hours of recordings. Despite such a remote possibility, the logs produced by the National Archives and Records Administration have proven very reliable and accurate, a testament to the thousands of hours that went into their production. It is true that there was another minor mention, an offhand reference to taping, in a conversation from April 1971, but after that point there’s no reason to believe Nixon did anything but forget about the taping system through at least November 1972.


If the Nixon White House pre-tape systems of “color reports” and other note taking methods were quickly recognized as lacking, why did the administration wait more than two full years after Nixon inauguration in January 1969 to install a taping system? Henry Kissinger offers one explanation that regarding planned incursions into Laos , Nixon did not want a repeat of the public relations fiasco that accompanied the disclosure of secret raids into Cambodia the year before. [16] However, Nixon had forcefully ordered the removal of President Johnson’s Dictabelt taping system in one of his first acts before assuming the presidency, so why the change of heart? Was such a taping system so much more appealing in 1971 than in 1969? Unfortunately, the tapes themselves only confirm the reasoning behind taping, primarily historical but also political, but do not delve into the issue of timing. [17] Could Nixon have been anticipating the seeds in rapprochement with the People’s Republic of China to sprout, as they did haltingly through the Pakistani channel up to April 1971, two months after the installation of the taping system? Was the decision based more on moves in Vietnam , long recognized by scholars to have been the administration’s “crucible?” Could the reason have been much more mundane—keeping advisors in check, as Haldeman has suggested, and as the tapes partially confirm? Despite so much uncertainty regarding the timing of the installation of the taping system, its demise is well-known. With Richard Nixon in the hospital, Haldeman’s successor—Chief of Staff Alexander Haig—ordered the deactivation and removal of the taping system within hours of Butterfield’s July 1973 testimony to the Ervin committee which revealed the existence of the taping system in the process of its escalating Watergate investigation.


Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s National Security Advisor and later Secretary of State, questioned the benefit of the tapes:


What could anyone uninitiated make objectively of the collection of reflections and interjections, the strange indiscretions mixed with high-minded pronouncements, the observations hardly germane to the issue of the moment but reflecting the prejudices of Nixon’s youth, all choreographed by the only person in the room who knew that the tape system existed? …The significance of every exchange turns on its context and an appreciation of Nixon’s shifting moods and wayward tactics. Remove these and you have but random musings—fascinating, entertaining, perhaps, but irrelevant for the most part as the basis for the President’s actions. [18]


Kissinger’s warnings to the contrary, if one cannot accept the observations, justifications, and decision-making process by the primary policymakers themselves in the moment, what historical source can be considered truly valid? It is difficult to believe Kissinger’s argument that Nixon choreographed all or even most of his conversations. This is not to say that Nixon did not on occasion manipulate conversations to get viewpoints on record—he did, as Kissinger describes in Years of Upheaval—but it is a dubious assertion that the president was in control of all of his conversations, especially ones in which he had little to no speaking part.[19]


Beyond this criticism, the richness of the Nixon tapes has also proven to be a double-edged sword. In order to utilize the tapes for historical purposes, researchers must listen to tapes in real time and painstakingly transcribe audio that ranges in quality from somewhat decent to unintelligible. [20] Many aspects of Nixon’s personal idiosyncrasies and working style come into play when attempting to produce reasonably accurate transcripts of important conversations. Besides acoustic problems and background noises, such as the notorious ticking clock in the Executive Office Building, Nixon’s penchant for listening to music while he worked, movement in the office, problematic microphone placement, and poor quality recording materials has meant that some conversations will never be intelligible, no matter how much time, money, energy, or technological assets are at one’s disposal. [21] Stuttering, mumbling, verbal tics such as Nixon’s frequent “my point is…you see my point,” low or quiet talking, and the occasional recording of foreign languages, accents, and place names only increase the difficulty of producing faithful and accurate transcripts. [22] Regardless, after more than three decades, there is an untapped treasure trove awaiting those who take on the challenge—even on topics as small as Nixon’s decision to tape. For many scholars and casual listeners alike, Richard Nixon has truly been the gift that keeps giving, and with over 1,100 hours of Nixon tapes still to be released, this will continue to be the case for many years. [23] At least now we can understand the origin of the taping system, and straight from the mouth of the man who ordered its installation.

[1] Regarding the revelation of the Nixon administration tapes, Henry A. Kissinger once mused, “…As for their value for historical research by some indefatigable listeners, it must be doubted.” See Henry A. Kissinger, Years of Upheaval (Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1982), 111.

[2] For a discussion of Nixon agonistes, see the John Leonard New York Times review of Garry Wills, Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man, October 15, 1970.

[3] Richard M. Nixon, RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1978), 500.

[4] H. R. Haldeman, The Ends of Power with Joesph DiMona, (New York: Times Books, 1978), 192. Nixon and Haldeman both analyzed why earlier presidents had decided to tape. According to Nixon, his predecessor Lyndon Johnson “had a taping system for his office phone, his bedroom phone, the phone at Camp David, the phone at his ranch in Johnson City , and the phone at his office in Austin . In addition to the phone equipment, he had room microphones placed in the Cabinet Room and in the private office next to the Oval Office. At one point there was also a recording device that could pick up conversations in the room outside the Oval Office where Johnson's visitors would wait before being ushered in to see him. The Johnson system was operated manually, which permitted him to decide which conversations to record… Johnson thought that my decision to remove his taping system was a mistake; he felt his tapes were invaluable in writing his memoirs.” Nixon, RN, 501; Haldeman was less idealistic, as the above quotes show. It is worth nothing that Haldeman later distanced himself from The Ends of Power in his later years and released his daily diaries on CD-ROM and in annotated book form in an attempt to correct the record.

[5] The presidential locator system was basically a pager the president wore so the Secret Service could keep track of the chief executive’s whereabouts and deliver the “football” of nuclear launch codes at a moment’s notice.

[6] Conversation 450-1 between Richard M. Nixon and Alexander P. Butterfield, February 16, 1971, Unknown time between 7:56 am and 8:58 am in the Oval Office. It is unclear as to the idenity of the five people to whom Butterfield referred “outside of Haldeman, [the president] and [himself],” but one likely candidate was Haldeman’s assistant Larry Higby.

[7] Conversation 450-10 between Richard M. Nixon, Alexander P. Butterfield, and H. R. “Bob” Haldeman in the Oval Office, February 16, 1971, 10:28 am – 10:49 am. Thanks to Ken Hughes for providing a first draft of this conversation.

[8] See Oval Office Conversation 452-3 in which Nixon and Haldeman discuss a news story that Fred J. Russell was dismissed from his post in the Interior Department and that presidential aide John Ehrlichman actually fired Russell. Nixon argued that this was not fair treatment of Russell, who later became the U.S. Ambassador to Denmark . According to a Washington Post article, “Mr. Nixon formally acknowledged yesterday the resignation of J. Fred Russell as Under Secretary of the Interior.” See: “Nixon, Aides Meet on Foreign Policy,” The Washington Post (Feb 28, 1971), 2.

[9] Conversation 452-17 between Richard M. Nixon and H. R. “Bob” Haldeman in the Oval Office, February 19, 1971, 1:39 – unknown time before 2:25pm.

[10] Conversation 456-5 between Richard M. Nixon and H. R. “Bob” Haldeman in the Oval Office, February 19, 1971, 10:05am – 11:30am. This discussion was likely provoked by Nixon’s desire to disband the Appalachia Regional Commission and reduce regional social spending programs in early 1971. Nixon mentioned John Waters and Jack Williams, two players in the policy struggle, as the rationale behind using the tapes to review potentially contentious meetings or ones that did not get the right press “play” in the administration’s estimation.

[11] Conversation 456-5.

[12] Anthony Summers, The Arrogance of Power: The Secret World of Richard Nixon ( New York : Penguin, 2000), 345-360.

[13] RN, 502.

[14] “Alexander Butterfield Speaks on the Nixon Taping System,” John F. Kennedy Library

(February 16, 2003). Online: For a more detailed description of the taping system see John Powers, “The History of Presidential Audio Recordings and the Archival Issues Surrounding Their Use,” CIDs Paper, 12 July 1996, 86-108. See also: William Doyle, Inside the Oval Office: The White House Tapes from FDR to Clinton (New York: Kodansha International, 1999), 167-196.

[15] Nixon, RN, 502. Alexander Butterfield wholeheartedly concurred that Nixon was unconscious of the taping. Butterfield states: “We marveled at [Nixon’s] ability to…be seemingly be oblivious to the tapes. I mean, even I was sitting there uncomfortably sometimes saying, “He’s not really going say this, is he?” See: “Alexander Butterfield Speaks on the Nixon Taping System,” John F. Kennedy Library (16 February 2003) online:

[16] Henry A. Kissinger recollected: “Insofar as the Cambodia incursions gave impetus to [Nixon’s] decision [to tape], I was apparently an unwitting cause as well as target. The purpose was to prevent me from emerging as the “good guy” on decisions in which I had taken part.” See: Kissinger, Years of Upheaval, (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1982), 111.

[17] One prominent theory is that J. Edgar Hoover stoked Nixon’s paranoia by telling the president-elect that President Johnson had used widespread political wiretaps and had even bugged Nixon’s phone lines and campaign plane. Summers, Arrogance of Power, 314; Haldeman, Ends of Power, 4, 80-81.

[18] Henry A. Kissinger, Years of Upheaval, 111-112.

[19] Kissinger, Years of Upheaval, 113. Kissinger’s protestations about the taping system are also disingenuous since he had a team of secretaries surveying and transcribing his own phone and meeting conversations, many of which were taped—a fact that was relatively unknown until nearly thirty years afterwards. In addition to the tape selections, the National Security Archive is preparing 22,000 pages of Kissinger’s telephone conversations transcripts for inclusion in its “Declassified Documents Online” database available by subscription through ProQuest.

[20] In addition to the fact that the original tapes have physically degraded over time—despite the best preservation efforts—the typical researcher at the National Archives (NARA) uses analog copies of copies of copies of the originals. The analog nature of recording technology in the 1970s, and the use of analog tapes for listening copies for the first three chronological tapes releases has created a variety of quality control issues for transcription efforts since each generation of analog audio reproduction entails some loss of quality. Fortunately, scholars have been able to make arrangements to use NARA ’s production Digital Audio Tapes (DATs) that, theoretically, have almost no loss of quality from an original source. 

The National Archive’s initial “Abuse of Power” tapes release in 1996, in addition to the subsequent first, second, and third chronological releases, are publicly available only on analog audiocassette. Time, dirt, and use/listening create a number of quality control issues for analog audiocassettes. NARA ’s Fourth Chronological Conversation Tapes release in December 2003 was on digital compact discs, as were the first Fifth Chronological Release which took place on July 11, 2007. CDs avoid the pitfalls inherent with the earlier audiocassettes. For the release schedule and content of each release, see:

For materials from the first four chronological releases, the Miller Center at the University of Virginia has been an excellent source for high-quality audio material, despite some gaps, available via the internet at We are also grateful to Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive (NSArchive), for allowing us to do digital transfer work at home using the best quality audio, including the conversations included in this article.

[21] Archivist William Cowell has noted that since the taping system was unknown to but a handful of Nixon administration officials, the Secret Service personnel who operated the taping system often used ‘outside’ channels to purchase blank tapes. This apparently included runs to the local drug store for consumer quality blank reels.

[22] Because the system was voice—or more accurately sound activated—there are also dozens of hours of noise preserved for posterity. Low or quiet talking in this case refers to low volume speech distorted by its lack of amplitude, typically caused by a person speaking outside the effective range of the microphone(s).

[23] The quote that the Nixon tapes are “the gift that keeps on giving” is widely attributed to investigative reporter Bob Woodward, of Watergate fame, who also apparently listens to the tapes as he drives. Bob Woodward, “Landon Lecture,” 29 March 2000. Online:

Note: Selected portions of this article appeared in the journal White House Studies, Volume 8, Issue 2. For specific information on Volume 8, Issue 2, click here.



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