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White House aide Alexander Butterfield shocks the Senate Watergate Committee with his revelation of a secret recording system in the White House. Butterfield reveals that since 1971, President Nixon has been recording every conversation and telephone call in the Oval Office. (Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum 7/3/2007) Butterfield is actually the aide who, at Nixon’s request, had the taping system installed. (Sussman 1974) He is now the administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration.
Taping System Installed in 1970 at Nixon's Behest - Butterfield says the taping system was installed in the spring or summer of 1970, but corrects his testimony after committee chairman Sam Ervin reads him a letter from Nixon lawyer Fred Buzhardt stating that the first time the system was used was the spring of 1971; Butterfield then says the system was installed at that time (see February 1971). The system was installed and operated by Secret Service agents. Asked why Nixon would have such a system, Butterfield replies, perhaps ingenuously, “There was no doubt in my mind they were installed to record things for posterity, for the Nixon library.” Committee counsel Samuel Dash says the committee will request selected tapes to hear for themselves. Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox is also expected to request some of the tapes. Dash acknowledges that two other Nixon aides, H. R. Haldeman and Lawrence Higby, were also asked about the existence of the taping system, but both have refused to confirm the existence of the device. (Meyer 7/17/1973) Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s deputy, Alexander Haig, also knew of the taping system, but Kissinger himself did not know. Former White House counsel John Dean suspected that such a system existed. (Bernstein and Woodward 1974, pp. 331)
'Small Fry' - Butterfield is described by one reporter as a “small fry,” the man responsible for keeping Nixon’s schedule and handling paper flow. On July 13, three committee staff members prepare Butterfield for his public testimony of July 16. They ask whether there is a White House recording system, but are not prepared for Butterfield’s answer, or the ramifications of his admission. Butterfield makes the same admission three days later, in open testimony before the committee and the television cameras, and in more detail. (Feinsilber 6/7/1997) Butterfield explains his reluctance to discuss the recording system by saying, “It is very obvious that this could be—I cannot say that any longer—is embarrassing to our government.” (Meyer 7/17/1973)
No Longer Dean's Word Against Nixon's - During preparation, when the staff members ask Butterfield how the White House could have such detailed knowledge of the conversations, Butterfield replies: “I was hoping you guys wouldn’t ask me that.… Well, yes, there’s a recording system in the White House.” Nixon had had five voice-activated microphones placed in his desk in the Oval Office and two in wall lamps by the office fireplace, Butterfield reveals. More were in the Cabinet Room, Nixon’s “hideaway” office in the Old Executive Office Building, and even at Camp David, the presidential retreat. Before Butterfield’s testimony, Nixon and his top legal advisers felt they could duck and deny the worst charges against them. They feel that much of the Watergate imbroglio boils down to Nixon’s word against White House whistleblower John Dean (who had informed the committee that he suspected a recording system existed), and as Haig, who succeeded Haldeman as Nixon’s chief of staff, told Nixon: “Nobody in Congress likes [Dean]. We can take the son of a b_tch on.” Few in the White House know of Nixon’s secret and extensive taping system. Although senior Nixon aide H. R. Haldeman had told the few aides who do know of the system to invoke executive privilege and refuse to discuss it, Haig quietly told at least one aide, his former deputy Lawrence Higby, to “tell the truth” if asked under oath. Nixon’s lawyers had effectively rebutted Dean’s earlier testimony when Buzhardt secretly supplied a sympathetic Senate lawyer with highly detailed, nearly verbatim accounts of Nixon and Dean’s private conversations—accounts drawn from the secret tapes. Haig will later claim to be “shocked” at Butterfield’s revelation, saying, “It never occurred to me that anyone in his right mind would install anything so Orwellian as a system that never shut off, that preserved every word, every joke, every curse, every tantrum, every flight of presidential paranoia, every bit of flattery and bad advice and tattling by his advisers.” In reality, Haig had known of the system for months before Butterfield’s testimony, and had advised Nixon to have the tapes destroyed before the Watergate prosecutors could get their hands on them. (Meyer 7/17/1973; Werth 2006, pp. 81-82) “Without the tapes,” reporter Mike Feinsilber will write in 1997, “it was unlikely Nixon would have had to give up the presidency.” (Feinsilber 6/7/1997) Butterfield was considered so unimportant that, had Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein not pressured committee lawyers to interview him, the committee may not have bothered with him. (Bernstein and Woodward 1974, pp. 330-331)
A gap of 18 and ½ minutes is found on the tape of a conversation between President Nixon and his aide, H. R. Haldeman, from June 20, 1972 (see July 13-16, 1973). Nixon lawyer Fred Buzhardt says he has no explanation for “the phenomenon.” Nixon’s secretary, Rose Mary Woods, denies any deliberate erasure. But electronics experts will eventually find that the tape has been deliberately erased at least five separate times. White House chief of staff Alexander Haig will blame “some sinister force” for the erasure.
Watergate Discussed - Former Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox’s subpoena of the tape (see July 23-26, 1973) says that “there is every reason to infer that the meeting included discussion of the Watergate incident.” That supposition is bolstered by previous testimony from former White House aide John Ehrlichman (see July 24, 1973). Watergate prosecutor Leon Jaworski says he is considering having all the remaining Watergate tapes placed under guard to prevent any further tampering. (Lardner 11/22/1973; Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum 7/3/2007)
Three Suspects - Evidence later shows that only three people could have made the erasure: Woods; Stephen Bull, Nixon’s assistant; and Nixon himself. (Reston 2007, pp. 33)
Washington Post Learns of Gap - Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward learned of “deliberate erasures” in the first week of November from his FBI source, W. Mark Felt (see May 31, 2005). White House sources confirmed that the tapes were often of poor quality, and that some inadvertent gaps existed, but, as press secretary Ron Ziegler tells Woodward’s colleague Carl Bernstein, to say that those gaps were deliberate would be “inaccurate.” When the deliberate gap is reported, Ziegler calls Bernstein to say that he did not know about the gap beforehand. Neither Bernstein nor Woodward doubt Ziegler—by this time, it is obvious that Nixon’s paranoia and penchant for secrecy extends even to the most trusted members of his staff. (Bernstein and Woodward 1974, pp. 333-334)
Symbolic - In 2005, Woodward will write: “The missing 18 1/2-minute gap soon becomes a symbol for Nixon’s entire Watergate problem. The truth had been deleted. The truth was missing.” (Woodward 2005, pp. 103)
A small team of investigators working for the Senate Watergate Committee issues a preliminary report about the suspicious $100,000 gift made to the Nixon re-election campaign by President Nixon’s close friend, Charles “Bebe” Rebozo, which may have been disbursed illegally to Nixon’s family and friends, and perhaps to Nixon himself. Nixon has angrily declared the entire matter off-limits, but a four-man team of investigators, headed by former assistant US attorney Terry Lenzner, has uncovered much of the truth behind the Rebozo gift. The investigators have until May 28, when the entire Watergate Committee is slated to terminate its proceedings. Lenzner and his team were greatly aided by testimony from Nixon’s personal attorney, Herbert Kalmbach, who testified before the committee and was later found guilty of taking part in the Watergate conspiracy (see February 25, 1974). Kalmbach said that Rebozo had asked him about the potential illegal use of the donations, but then changed his mind and claimed he had never made the donations in the first place (see April 30 - May 1, 1973). In his own testimony, Rebozo denied ever asking Kalmbach anything about the donations; Kalmbach must have “misunderstood.” However, the evidence shows otherwise. Lenzner’s investigators believe that Rebozo did indeed make the donations, and that they were indeed illegally disbursed to Nixon’s friends, brothers, and other unnamed people, as Rebozo had originally claimed. The investigators have found that in April 1973, when he first spoke to Kalmbach, Rebozo was looking for a fast, safe way to replace the cash so he could safely claim that he had never made the donation. Lenzner believes that Rebozo secured the replacement cash from another millionaire friend of Nixon’s, financier Robert Abplanalp, through Abplanalp’s lawyer, William Griffin. In May 1973, Lenzner believes that Rebozo and Hughes Corporation executive Richard Danner, the original source of the contribution, met with Nixon, where Abplanalp provided the cash to replace the missing $100,000. Lenzner hopes to secure IRS files on Rebozo that will confirm the team’s findings. Lenzner believes that White House lawyer Fred Buzhardt was in charge of what he calls the “Hughes-Rebozo cover-up.” Buzhardt testified once before the committee, but was able to recall so little that he has been summoned to testify a second time. “It was an incredible performance,” says one committee investigator. “He couldn’t remember anything—not even what he was doing two days before he testified.” Ultimately, little will come of Lenzner’s investigation. (Time 5/6/1974)
President Richard Nixon`s chief of staff Alexander Haig pays an urgent call on Vice President Gerald Ford to discuss the terms under which Nixon will resign (see August 8, 1974). Haig gives Ford a handwritten list of what White House counsel Fred Buzhardt, the author of the list, calls “permutations for the option of resignation.” The idea is for Nixon to agree to resign in return for Ford’s agreement to pardon Nixon for any crimes Nixon may have committed while president. Ford listens to Haig but does not agree to any terms. The next day, after learning of the meeting, Ford’s own counsel, Robert Hartmann, is outraged that Ford did not just throw Haig out of his office. With fellow counsel John Marsh, Hartmann demands that Ford call Haig and state unequivocally, for the record, and in front of witnesses that Ford has made no such agreements. Haig considers Hartmann essentially incompetent, and Hartmann views Haig as a power-hungry “assh_le.” The subsequent tensions between Haig, one of the Nixon holdovers in Ford’s presidency, and Ford’s staff will shape future events in the Ford administration. In part to counteract Haig’s influence, Ford will name former NATO ambassador and Nixon aide Donald Rumsfeld as the head of his transition team. Rumsfeld will in turn name former Wyoming congressman and current investment executive Dick Cheney as his deputy; Cheney has lectured his clients that Watergate was never a criminal conspiracy, but merely a power struggle between the White House and Congress. (Werth 2006, pp. 20)
White House lawyer Fred Buzhardt, a Nixon loyalist who is retiring into private practice, orders Staff Secretary Jerry Jones to box up all the Watergate tapes and place the boxes on an Air Force truck outside the White House, joining boxes and crates of White House documents being shipped to Nixon’s home in San Clemente, California (see August 8, 1974). Ever since the now-infamous 18-and-one-half minute gap had been discovered on one of the tapes, Jones has been the only person authorized to enter the guarded vault in the EOB where the tapes are stored. Jones complies, believing that Buzhardt has authorization from President Ford’s personal lawyer, Philip Buchen. But two hours into the packing process, Buzhardt stops Jones from continuing. “I think what happened is Buchen changed his mind,” Jones later recalls, “and then Fred had a problem. I think we probably could have shipped them after Buchen told him not to. But Fred felt that being the case, we simply couldn’t do it.… It was a trust thing. We were all in the position that if we did the wrong thing, or if I relied on Fred and he did the wrong thing, or he relied on me and I did the wrong thing, or we both relied on [chief of staff Alexander] Haig and he did the wrong thing, we could go to jail.” By August 12, Jones recalls, “nobody knew what in the hell to do with these things.” (Werth 2006, pp. 72-73)
During a White House press briefing, Press Secretary Jerald terHorst is grilled about the fate of the thousands of hours of recordings made by former President Richard Nixon, recordings clandestinely made by Nixon of conversations with his aides, staffers, advisers, and visitors (see February 1971 and July 13-16, 1973). The practice of secretly recording White House conversations began with Franklin D. Roosevelt, but Nixon had gone far beyond the simple recording systems made by his predecessors. He had hidden microphones in the lamps and room fixtures in the Oval Office, his office in the Executive Office Building (EOB), the Cabinet Room, and in the Aspen Lodge at Camp David. In all, he made over 3,700 hours of recordings between July 1971 and July 1973. The tapes are loaded with evidence of criminal conspiracies and deeds involving Nixon and dozens of his closest advisers and aides, and are of intense interest to reporters and the Watergate prosecutors. TerHorst causes a stir when he tells listeners that the tapes are currently being guarded by Secret Service personnel, and “they have been ruled to be the personal property” of Nixon. Ruled by whom? reporters demand. The “ruling” is based on a “formal,” albeit unwritten, legal opinion by White House lawyers Fred Buzhardt and James St. Clair, who had helped frame Nixon’s Watergate defense. TerHorst is unaware of the legal dispute over the tapes brewing in the White House and in the office of Leon Jaworski, the Watergate special prosecutor. Ford was not involved in the decision to turn the materials over to Nixon, says terHorst, but concurs in it. TerHorst is speculating far more than the reporters realize; he has been given little information and only scanty guidance from Buzhardt. When asked if the decision to give the documents and tapes to Nixon comes from “an agreement among the different staffs, the special prosecutor, the Justice Department, and the White House legal staff,” terHorst replies unsteadily, “I assume there would be because I’m sure neither one would just take unilateral action.” (Werth 2006, pp. 71-75)
Because reporters do not realize that President Ford has ordered his staff to prevent the Watergate tapes from being spirited out of the White House, they begin speculating that Ford may be part of the conspiracy to get the tapes out of Washington (see August 8, 1974). Ford realizes that he cannot take advice from Richard Nixon’s lawyers any longer. He immediately replaces Fred Buzhardt with his own lawyer, Philip Buchen. Buzhardt had been an invaluable “mole” for Nixon, and is a valuable, if unofficial, legal adviser to Nixon chief of staff Alexander Haig as well. His loss is damaging to both the former president and his former chief of staff. Ford also removes Haig from any responsibilities for dealing with Nixon, and gives over custody of the tapes and documents to Buchen. Haig knows his days are numbered, but he is determined to accomplish one more task. “I’ve lost the battle,” he tells an aide, “but I’ll stay long enough to get Nixon the pardon.” (Werth 2006, pp. 79-83)
Judge John Sirica, presiding over the Watergate trial of former Nixon aide John Ehrlichman, subpoenas former President Nixon to appear as a witness on behalf of Ehrlichman. Ehrlichman has heard the tapes the prosecution intends to use against him, and, already convicted of conspiracy and lying about his involvement in the Ellsberg break-in (see September 9, 1971), knows he needs a powerful defense to avoid more jail time. He demanded that Watergate special prosecutor Leon Jaworski hand over the White House files on Ehrlichman for his defense. But Jaworski instead gave Ehrlichman an affidavit from Nixon’s former White House lawyer Fred Buzhardt, who affirmed that nothing in those ten million documents would help Ehrlichman in his defense. Days later, Buzhardt suffered a heart attack, rendering it impossible for Ehrlichman to challenge his affirmation. Ehrlichman hopes that the subpoena will muddy the legal waters by provoking a confrontation between Nixon’s lawyers and Jaworski’s. CBS reporter Lesley Stahl informs her viewers, incorrectly, that it seems Jaworski “has indicted Mr. Nixon.” (Werth 2006, pp. 84-88)
President Ford names outgoing chief of staff Alexander Haig to be supreme allied commander in Europe, provoking an outcry in Congress and unprecedented demands that Haig be confirmed for the post by the Senate Armed Services Committee. Senator William Proxmire (D-WI) says, “I’d like to put him under oath to learn his role in the Nixon pardon” (see September 8, 1974). Haig will not be compelled to testify before the committee, but he weathers another scare, this one from inside the White House. Haig is told by former Nixon White House lawyer Fred Buzhardt, who now works for Ford, that the group preparing Ford for his upcoming House testimony on the pardon (see Mid-October 1974) has “prepared sworn testimony for the president that could very well result in your indictment,” as Haig will later write. Haig storms to the White House, reads the testimony, and demands an immediate audience with Ford. White House staffers refuse him. Haig then threatens to announce his knowledge of “a secret effort by Ford people to hurry Nixon out of the presidency behind Ford’s back.” Haig gets the meeting. He learns that Ford has not read the testimony, and decides that Buzhardt’s threat is hollow. (Werth 2006, pp. 335-336)
Author and former Nixon White House counsel John Dean writes in his book Conservatives Without Conscience that it was never public opinion that drove Richard Nixon to resign his office (see August 8, 1974).
Loss of Support among White House Officials Forced Resignation - In 1981, social scientist Bob Altermeyer wrote in his book Right Wing Authoritarianism that Nixon resigned, not because of his plummeting poll ratings, but “because [Nixon]‘s attorney had forced the disclosure of evidence so damaging that it seemed certain he would be convicted of high crimes by the Senate.” Dean approvingly cites Altermeyer’s conclusion and adds, “This is true, but there is more to the story.” Nixon had a number of legal recourses to answer any charges brought against him, Dean writes, “many of which [President] Bush and [Vice President] Cheney are promoting today under the rubric of national security and the inherent power of the presidency.” Nixon finally resigned, Dean argues, not because of public opinion, or of fear of the law, or even because of the erosion of support he suffered among members of Congress. It was the abandonment of Nixon by his own defenders in the White House that finally drove Nixon to resign. “Other than White House counsel Fred Buzhardt, and possibly chief of staff Al Haig (with whom Buzhardt had roomed at West Point), no one was aware that Nixon was lying about what he knew and when he knew it once the cover-up had initially fallen apart. Nixon provided the lawyer he had hired to defend him in the House’s impeachment inquiry (see May 9, 1974), James St. Clair, with false information, and St. Clair—as it happened—was a man of integrity and not a right-wing authoritarian follower. When he found out that his client had lied to him he had two choices: to resign or to join the new cover-up. He was, as it happened, interested in participating in the latter.”
Bush, Cheney Would Defy Law, Dean Argues - Dean continues: “Nixon at one point considered defying the Supreme Court ruling that he turn over his incriminating tapes (evidence that revealed that his defense was a sham) (see July 24, 1974) on the very grounds that Bush and Cheney argue. They have authority under the Constitution to read it and comply with it as they see fit. Once it was apparent that Richard Nixon had broken the law, he made the most significant decision of his presidency: the decision to honor the rule of law and resign.… [T]here is little doubt in my mind that Bush and Cheney, in the same situation, would not budge; rather, they would spin the facts as they always have, and move forward with their agenda. The president and vice president, it appears, believe the lesson of Watergate was not to stay within the law, but rather not to get caught. And if you do get caught, claim that the president can do whatever he thinks necessary in the name of national security.” (Dean 2006, pp. 181-182)
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