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New York Times Probes New Interpretation of John Dean's Role in Watergate Cover-up  

Historian Peter Klingman Investigates Overlooked Conversations from March 16, 1973

In a front page article (February 1, 2009, page A1) in The New York Times entitled "John Dean at Issue in Nixon Tapes Feud", Patricia Cohen examines the methodology used by pre-eminent historian Stanley I. Kutler in his book Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes. Published in 1997, Kutler's book has long been viewed as the standard work on the Watergate and "Abuse of Government Power" (AOGP) related materials from the Nixon tapes. However, historian Peter Klingman now offers a different interpretation of Counselor to the President John W. Dean III's role in the Watergate cover-up. Klingman has recently submitted his findings to the American Historical Review, the scholarly journal of the American Historical Association.

The specific issue under consideration in Klingman's work is whether Kutler's conflation of two distinct conversations from March 16, 1973, one earlier in the day and one later, subsequently "painted a more benign portrait of a central figure in the drama, the conspirator-turned-star-witness, John W. Dean III, the White House counsel who told Nixon that Watergate had become a 'cancer' on his presidency."

Since Cohen's article makes reference to several conversations captured on the taping system between President Nixon and John Dean, as well as Nixon aides H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, Ronald Ziegler, and Richard Moore, has made these and other conversations now under scrutiny freely accessible to the public, below.

The participants are as follows:

P = President Richard Nixon
HRH = Chief of Staff H.R. "Bob" Haldeman
JDE = Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs John D. Ehrlichman
JWD = Counsel to the President John W. Dean III
RAM = Special Counsel to the President Richard A. Moore
RLZ = Press Secretary Ronald L. Ziegler



Time Participants Presidential Daily Diary Transcripts Audio
OVAL 878-014 03/13/1973 12:42 - 2:00 pm P, JWD, HRH pdf (2.5m) pdf (138k) mp3 (67.3m)
WHT 037-099 03/14/1973 8:55 - 8:59 am P, JWD pdf (156k) pdf (15k) mp3 (4.0m)
WHT 037-108
03/14/1973 4:25 - 4:34 pm P, JWD pdf (156k) pdf (11k)
mp3 (501k)
WHT 037-109 03/14/1973 4:34 - 4:36 pm P, JWD pdf (156k) pdf (13k) mp3 (1.5m)
WHT 037-116 03/15/1973 Unk between 9:22 am and 10:05 am RLZ, JWD pdf (193k) pdf (15k) mp3 (5.7m)
OVAL 881-003 03/16/1973 10:34 - 11:10 am P, JWD, RLZ pdf (203k) pdf (53k) mp3 (30.1m)
WHT 037-134 03/16/1973 8:14 - 8:23 pm P, JWD pdf (203k)  pdf (51k)

mp3 (8.6m)

OVAL 882-012a 03/17/1973 1:25 - 2:10 pm P, JWD, HRH pdf (357k) pdf (65k) mp3 (11.1m)
OVAL 882-012b 03/17/1973 1:25 - 2:10 pm P, JWD, HRH     mp3 (8.1m)
OVAL 884-017 03/20/1973 Unk between 1:42 pm and 2:31 pm P, JWD, RAM pdf (208k)   mp3 (10.4m)
OVAL 886-008 03/21/1973 10:12 - 11:55 am P, JWD, HRH pdf (221k) pdf (279k) mp3 (91.5m)
WHT 044-027 03/27/1973 Unk between 4:20 pm and 4:57 pm HRH, JWD pdf (153k) pdf (14k)

mp3 (4.3m)

WHT 044-080 03/29/1973 Unk between 5:35 pm and 6:24 pm JDE, JWD pdf (174k) pdf (15k)

mp3 (5.4m)

OVAL 897-004 04/16/1973 10:00 - 10:40 am P, JWD pdf (273k) pdf (104k) mp3 (22.9m)


On February 4, 2009, I was asked by the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations' magazine Passport to consider writing an article that made sense of the debate and controversy ignited by Patricia Cohen's February 1 Times article. At first I was hesitant. I do not have a "side" in this debate, and I have written no incendiary blog entries (or other blog entries for that matter) regarding the at times heated jousting that has taken place since February 1. Visitors to my website have always had free access to my research without any type of editorializing on my part. Besides those reasons, I do not consider myself to be a Watergate expert, and until this controversy, this website did not even feature any Watergate-related content. While I have always recognized the importance of the issue, I assumed that there was little "new" to be discovered after a generation of analysis. However, after looking into the issue, I realized that in terms of the overarching goal of this site--to make the most complete, digitized collection of Nixon tape recordings freely available to the public--the Watergate tapes, believe it or not, are especially in need of such transparency. In 2009, there is no single, complete collection of Watergate tapes in existence. 

For example, the Watergate Trial conversations compose the 12.5 hours that were used in the actual trial. These were released to the public on May 28, 1980, and most of them can be found on the web in some form. Next, in a separate collection, there are the Watergate Special Prosecution Force conversations. These 47.5 hours of tapes were subpoenaed with the trial tapes, but since they were not used in the actual trial, they were neglected and put into a separate collection. Much less attention has been paid to these tapes, and few can be found online or in any transcribed form. Even in 2009, one must physically travel to the National Archives facility in College Park, MD, to listen to analog cassettes in order to gain "ready access" to these neglected tapes. Adjoining the tapes is a massive textual collection, which represents the written records of the Special Prosecution Force. Finally, a third collection where one has to look for Watergate material is in the Abuse of Governmental Power series. This collection alone had three different releases, in 1993, 1996, and 1999, and included 204 hours of tapes. Excerpts of this collection were what Stanley Kutler used in his book Abuse of Power.

Therefore, even in 2009, research into Watergate remains a daunting task. It is ironic that these recordings, which were fast-tracked for processing and release in the 1970s for use in the Watergate Trial, remain arguably the most backward, illegible collection of all of the Nixon tapes. They are split over a maze of collections as described above, and only a handful are fully transcribed or available online. No book or thorough study of Watergate has yet been written that comprehensively integrates this material and thus tells a comprehensive story of Watergate. Therefore, why is it so surprising to some that there would be new aspects or angles to Watergate, when so much of the evidence has been neglected for over three decades?

On February 18, New York Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt informed me that he was examining the controversy of the February 1 article and its aftermath. For reader's unaware of Mr. Hoyt's background, it is quite serendipitous that he was the one to examine this issue for the Times. Having covered Watergate as the Washington correspondent for the Miami Herald, Hoyt needed no introduction to these matters. I explained what I knew about the controversy--my initial surprise but disinterest, my investigative work with a portion of the "neglected" tapes, and whether there was indeed anything "new" about this issue. The spirit of my forthcoming article can be found in Hoyt's February 22 column

The rest of the details will appear in the April edition of Passport. The article is my attempt to explain to a non-specialist audience exactly what Patricia Cohen's February 1 article was about, what Stanley Kutler did or did not do, whether there is new light to be shed on John Dean's role, and whether any of this changes our understanding of Watergate. Most importantly, I use a portion of these "neglected" tapes for the first time to connect readers with the tapes so that they can make their own inferences about this material and this debate.



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