A lesser known figure in the Watergate scandal made history 49 years ago

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Jul. 16—LEWISTON — It was 49 years ago, on July 16, 1973, that a man named Alexander Butterfield "reluctantly" revealed during a public hearing of the Watergate Investigation Committee the existence of a tape recording system in Richard Nixon's White House that would upend his presidency within two years.

Three days earlier, Watergate investigators for the U.S. Senate had called Butterfield to a private meeting on an ominous "Friday the 13th."

The investigators asked him: "Did Nixon ever record his conversations?"

They knew other presidents before him, such as Lyndon Johnson, had recorded select phone calls for posterity.

"They weren't sure how much was being recorded or who was in charge," said Chris Beam of Lewiston, whose job it was while working at the National Archives in Washington in the late 1970s to listen to roughly 1,500 hours of the estimated 3,700 hours of Nixon's recorded White House conversations.

"Why would Nixon want to record his conversations? Well, for historical purposes, for memoir purposes," Beam said in a recent interview with the Sun Journal. "So, who was in charge of that? Alexander Butterfield."

Butterfield answered the Senate investigators' question with: "I wish you hadn't asked me that," Beam said.

Butterfield went on to describe the extensive nature of the recording system he had helped install in the White House more than two years earlier, Beam said.

"Nixon was always very conscious of his place in history," Beam said. "And so, looking forward to the end of his presidency, which he hoped would be at 1977, there'd be a Nixon Presidential Library, and he would write his memoirs to talk about what he did, justify what he did and so forth."

In late 1970, a group of Nixon associates took a trip to Texas to talk to Johnson about his Presidential Library. They knew that Johnson had recorded a lot of his phone conversations, and Johnson had said those recordings were very valuable for the construction of his memoirs, Beam said.

When the group returned to the White House, the idea had gelled that maybe Nixon ought to have a recording system, Beam said.

Installed in February 1971, the recording setup was a low-tech affair, Beam said.

"I think the overriding consideration with the taping system is that it had to be kept absolutely secret," he said.

For that reason, they didn't dispatch staffers to procure state-of-the-art high-end equipment, Beam said. Instead, they relied on tape recorders they had on hand, like the kind you might check out from the audiovisual department at a school, he said.

And instead of putting the White House Communication Agency (staffed by the U.S. Army Signal Corps) in charge of the system, which might compromise the furtive nature of the operation due to that agency's expansive workforce and shift rotation, the Secret Service was tasked with overseeing the recordings to prevent a possible leak of the tapes, Beam said.

Johnson had always been acutely aware of when he had a telephone call that he wanted recorded, Beam said. Johnson would signal to his secretary, who would press the record button on the call.

The system that was installed in the Nixon White House "was far more comprehensive and they did not want — well (Nixon's Chief of Staff) H.R. Haldeman — did not want Nixon trying to turn on and off machines because Nixon was a klutz," Beam said. "So the system was set up so that Nixon never had to operate it."

Once the recording system was in place, "after many, many months, I don't think (Nixon) was even aware that he was being recorded," Beam said. "And nobody was allowed to listen to the tapes to check on whether the recordings were of decent quality."

It turned out that more than a few were not.

"Many of the conversations are very ... the audio quality ranges from unintelligible to somewhat intelligible," Beam said.

Most of the incriminating statements uttered by Nixon and captured on tape about the attempted cover-up of the Watergate burglary have been made public, Beam said.

He also listened to the 18-and-a-half minutes of silence in the recordings that had apparently been erased.

Rosemary Woods, Nixon's personal secretary, "said that she might have done it while making transcripts of the conversations, but that's since been debunked," Beam said.

The court hired some experts who said that the gap was because of apparent erasure, Beam said, where somebody had apparently rerecorded a section to create a blank.

"I think somebody else did it," he said.

Beam said he's skeptical about Nixon having the manual dexterity to successfully undertake such a task.

"I think what happened was that somebody had come across potentially incriminating information during that conversation with Haldeman, erased it, and then realized there's so much stuff there that one would have to spend a lifetime listening to the tapes to glean out the Watergate-related material," he said.

To this day, no one has taken responsibility for the intentional erasure, Beam said. Because the National Archives staff made a written record of every meeting and phone call, it might be possible to narrow the list of suspects, "even if it was just somebody stepping into the Oval Office on a routine matter and leaving."

The gap appears during an Oval Office conversation between Nixon and Haldeman, Beam said.

After serving in the U.S. Marine Corps, including a tour in Vietnam, Beam earned a doctorate in history at the University of Illinois.

He landed a job in Washington D.C. in 1977 at the National Archives.

"I came on board just when the court approved the National Archives taking over Nixon presidential materials," Beam said.

After completing an initial training period in 1978, the supervisor of the tapes section invited Beam to join that division "because, surprisingly enough, there weren't that many people who wanted to work on this, because they were very difficult to listen to, I mean, in technical quality."

Beam said he became "very interested in it because the first project we did was in response to a court order for conversations in April and May of 1971, concerning anti-war demonstrations, and one of those demonstrations was by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War."

Beam said he had come to oppose the war after his military service.

Because he became one of the senior archivists there, Beam said, "I could pull some rank and so I chose to listen — to work on — the tapes that covered 1972 and early 1973, when big things were happening in Vietnam and also the Watergate scandal was starting to unfold. So I listened to a lot of those key conversations," he said.

Beam said he spent four-and-a-half years on that project.

"They had it recorded at very slow speed and you don't get good quality recordings from that," Beam said.

"Nobody was allowed to listen to the tapes to spot check if the system was working or if the audio quality was sufficient and so forth." he said. "So, those of us who are working on the tapes were sitting in this windowless room, plugged into a reel-to-reel recorder and having to go back and forth and trying to figure out what people were saying."

The Nixon White House recording system was shut down on July 18, 1973, two days after Butterfield testified at a public hearing about the existence of the tapes to Watergate investigators.

What ensued was a "long struggle over access to the tapes," Beam said. In April 1974, Nixon agreed to make available transcripts of certain taped conversations.

It was during those intervening months that Woods was said to have mistakenly created the gap as she was transcribing the tapes, Beam said.

Much of what he heard in those 1,500 hours of White House conversation, Beam said he can't share.

"We didn't do a whole lot of transcription, but we would do an outline and then we'd earmark those portions of the conversation with the digital number there: what should be restricted; what may be restricted for national security reasons; for personal privacy reasons; (and) for trade secrets."

There was also a category, which Bean said he never felt comfortable with, that was labeled "personal political," when Nixon was speaking in his role as the head of the Republican Party.

Listening to those 1,500 hours of recordings provided Beam with a "fly-on-the-wall" perspective, he said.

What he remembers best is not the smoking gun statements about Watergate, he said, but learning about the people who inhabited Nixon's inner circle.

"He didn't meet with very many people," Beam said. "He tended to be reclusive."

But among those close advisers, "well, it was interesting," he said. "For one thing, in addition to whatever substance they were talking about, you get a real feel for the personalities and the interpersonal dynamics between Nixon and people like H.R. Haldeman, (national security advisor and, later, secretary of state) Henry Kissinger, (chief political adviser) Charles Colson and (domestic affairs counsel) John Ehrlichman, and maybe a few others."

It was Haldeman who spent the most time conversing with Nixon on the recordings, Beam said.

"Nixon would sometimes pop off with some crazy idea that was either illegal or politically dubious and Haldeman would bury these ideas until Nixon either forgot about them or had second thoughts, and he could get away with doing that because, I think, Nixon trusted him."

Haldeman ruled the White House staff "pretty much with an iron fist," Beam said. "He was totally loyal to Nixon. There's no hidden agenda with him and Nixon knew it."

Beam said he has considered the parallels — or lack thereof — between the demise of Nixon's presidency and the Jan. 6 Committee's probe of the events of that day and what role Trump played in them.

"There's so much I feel I don't know about what has gone on in the Trump White House," he said, not having had the benefit of hundreds of hours of recorded conversations about efforts to reverse the election outcome.

Beam said there appears to be a "crucial difference" between the two presidencies.

While Nixon enjoyed "loyal support from many Republicans, he didn't have anywhere near the cult following that Trump appears to have," Beam said.