Monday, February 11, 2013

A Research Exercise with the Watergate Tapes

James O’Toole*

Richard Nixon press conference, November 17, 1973
The recent announcement that the famous 18-minute gap on the Watergate tape recordings may in fact be recoverable gives me the chance to share some experience I’ve had with using the tapes in teaching. Several times over the years, I have put together an exercise in the criticism and use of sources that asks students to assess three distinct sources, each of which purports to tell exactly what happened at a specific historical moment. (I have used this mostly in graduate research seminars, but it also works with undergraduates if you give them a little more guidance and background.)

First, I have the students read two transcripts of the “Cancer on the Presidency” meeting of March 21, 1973. That was the meeting in which John Dean, the White House counsel, told President Nixon about the involvement of high-level officials in the burglary and cover-up; H.R. Haldeman joined the meeting about half-way through. The first transcript is the one that the White House itself released as the investigation gathered steam. In part, of course, Nixon’s hope was that release of these transcripts—the notorious “expletive deleted” version—would forestall the attempt to release the tapes themselves. The second transcript is the one produced later by the judiciary committee of the House of Representatives, after it had secured the tapes and as it was considering impeachment. Students can readily identify differences between the two versions at critical points in the meeting. They also note seemingly minor word changes that have the effect of softening the tone in the White House version. Most of the time, they identify factors that may have biased the sources—obvious in Nixon’s case, though I’m also pleased that they usually point out possible bias in the committee version as well.

Only after the students have read and compared the two transcripts do I ask them to actually listen to the recording itself. (When I first did this, it was hard to get access to it, but it is now readily available on the Internet.) They immediately note that the Judiciary Committee transcript is by far the most accurate in representing what was said. But they also pick up on such things as tone of voice, emphasis, background noises, pace of the discussion, and other things that only come through aurally. When I ask them which version is the more “reliable” as historical evidence, most of them will strongly make the case for the need to use all three in any description or analysis, both of the particular meeting itself and the larger historical subject of Watergate. Even with students whose research will never come anywhere near Watergate—as indeed my own does not—this has been an effective exercise for getting them to think about the nature of historical sources and how we use them. Others may want to give it a try.

*James O’Toole holds the Charles I. Clough Millennium Chair in History at Boston College. His most recent book is The Faithful: A History of Catholics in America (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008).  


Randall said...

Enjoyed reading this. I've used a little of the tapes in class. I usually put the transcript up on PowerPoint while I play them. Students seem to enjoy the fly-on-wall feeling.

Doing the same right now for a course on the Vietnam War, but using Kennedy's dictaphone comments about the assassination of Diem. The transcripts are missing all of the "Er, uh," "The, uh," that are classically JFK.

Chris Beneke said...

Thanks for sharing this Jim. One of the values of your exercise is that it underlines not just the seemingly rock solid solidity of the past, but also its seeming felicity with words. That's got to give students pause.