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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)
In his first interview session with former President Richard Nixon about Watergate (see April 13-15, 1977), David Frost asks about what then-chief of staff H. R. Haldeman knew on June 20, 1972 (see June 20, 1972), when he and Nixon discussed Watergate in the conversation that would later be erased from Nixon’s secret recordings (see November 21, 1973).
Avoiding Questions - Nixon tries to accuse Frost of putting words in his mouth; Frost refuses to be baited. Nixon then uses diversion, addressing not the June 20 conversation, but instead spinning out a discourse focusing on his lack of advance knowledge of the break-in and accusing the media of pinning unwarranted blame on him. Frost lets him speak, then focuses again on the conversation: “So we come back to, what did Haldeman tell you during the eighteen-and-a-half minute gap?” Nixon dodges the known material in that conversation—the suggested “public relations offensive” to evade criticism and investigation of the burglary, and instead says that he and Haldeman were worried that the Democrats had bugged the Executive Office Building.
Questions about Stennis's Hearing - He tries to segue into a digression about charges of Democratic eavesdropping from the 1950s, but Frost pulls him back, and asks why he offered to allow only one senator, Mississippi Democrat John Stennis (see October 19, 1973), to hear the tapes. Stennis was “alas, partially deaf and very old.” Frost notes that the sound quality of the tapes was often poor, and adds, “If you and [Nixon’s personal secretary] Rose Mary Woods could not hear them clearly, Senator Stennis was not an ideal choice.” Nixon tries to turn Frost’s question into a challenge to Stennis’s intellect and even his integrity, but Frost repeats: “His hearing is crucial. You’ve just said so.” Nixon retorts that he has never noticed a problem with Stennis’s hearing, and even if Stennis had hearing problems, “[a]fter all, there’s an invention called hearing aids…” Frost is clearly enjoying Nixon’s marked discomfiture, but is unaware that he is making a gaffe of his own: Stennis has, by all accounts, perfectly good hearing. However, Nixon knows nothing of Frost’s error, and writhes under Frost’s relentless questioning about Stennis’s alleged inability to adequately hear everything on the tapes. (Frost’s gaffe will not be noticed at the time and will first be revealed in James Reston Jr.‘s 2007 book on the interviews, The Conviction of Richard Nixon.)
Who Erased the Tape? - Frost focuses on the question of who exactly erased the June 20 tape. It has been determined that only three people could have possibly erased the tape: Stephen Bull, Nixon’s assistant; Rose Mary Woods, Nixon’s secretary; and Nixon himself. No one was ever indicted for the crime of destruction of evidence because Watergate prosecutor Leon Jaworski was unable to determine who of the three might have actually performed the erasure. Nixon tells Frost that it could have been rogue Secret Service agents who erased the tape, but that charge falls flat under its own weight of implausibility. Bull had offered to take a lie detector test in denying that he erased the tape. And if Woods had erased the tape, it would have undoubtedly been by accident. The tape was subjected to at least five separate manual erasures, making an accidental erasure unlikely at best. That leaves Nixon as the most likely suspect. Nixon refuses to admit to erasing anything, and Frost says, “So you’re asking us to take an awful lot on trust, aren’t you?”
Avoiding Perjury Charges - After further dodging and weaving, Nixon finally falls back on a legal reason why he won’t answer the question: he had already testified under oath to a grand jury that he had not erased the tape; that Woods most likely erased the tape by accident. Being pardoned for his crimes during his presidency by Gerald Ford (see September 8, 1974) wouldn’t cover his lying under oath after his resignation, he says, and he isn’t going to give a jury a chance to charge him with perjury. (Reston 2007, pp. 118-122)
Interview Airs in May - This interview will air on US television stations on May 4, 1977. (Television News Archive 5/4/1977)
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