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'The Nixon Tapes' review: The Nixon White House, according to the microphones

President Richard Nixon meets with foreign affairs adviser

President Richard Nixon meets with foreign affairs adviser Henry Kissinger in his White House office, June 1973. Credit: AP / Jim Palmer

THE NIXON TAPES, edited and annotated by Douglas Brinkley and Luke A. Nichter. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 758 pp., $35.

It's hard to recall, 40 years after the fact, just how shocked many Americans were when they read the transcripts of the White House tapes concerning Watergate, which provided the evidence of criminal conduct that ended the presidency of Richard Nixon on Aug. 9, 1974. It wasn't just evidence of a criminal presidency that upset them, but the picture that emerged of Nixon as vulgar, vindictive and racist; surprisingly indecisive and confused; and seemingly lacking in both moral standards and common sense. While many were appalled by the transcripts, Charles Rangel, the Democratic congressman from Harlem, said he enjoyed them completely because "they destroy the myth of white superiority."

"The Nixon Tapes," as edited and annotated by Douglas Brinkley and Luke A. Nichter, isn't likely to shock anyone at this point, given all we now know about Nixon's presidency. The two are respected historians (Brinkley for a time was on the faculty at Hofstra), and their focus is on the key foreign policy events of 1971 and 1972. Even at 758 pages, this doorstop of a book is no more the complete Nixon tapes than the three-actor, 90-minute comedy "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)" is the complete Shakespeare. There were 3,700 hours of secret taping by Nixon between 1971 and 1973, far more than by presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson combined. Brinkley and Nichter describe their selections as "a sampling."

They omitted the tapes dealing with Watergate because they've already been written about extensively. Fewer than 10 percent of the tapes dealt with domestic policy, and most of those were from the Cabinet Room -- not the Oval Office -- where cross-talk and poor microphone locations made them almost useless. Brinkley and Nichter say that while the tapes contain many bigoted slurs and much off-color gossip, they ignored most of that in an effort to be fair-minded and not publish a compendium of "gotchas." They left in enough to show Nixon's dislike of Jews; his attempts to have the IRS target key Democrats; his dismissal of Indira Gandhi as "a bitch"; and his complaining that aides hadn't done enough to show how tough he had been in his first term. "For Christ's sakes, can't we get across the courage more?" he said. "Courage, boldness, guts? Goddamn it! That is the thing." And they show Henry Kissinger -- who often seems toadying and obsequious in his praise of the president -- engaging in bad-mouthing and back-stabbing of rivals.

But for the most part, "The Nixon Tapes" contains serious discussions about foreign affairs, the most important of them involving Nixon and Kissinger, who was his national security adviser at the time. It shows their complicated and intense maneuverings to get the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty with the Soviets, to open doors to China and to get American troops out of Vietnam, all three of which they eventually did, to great acclaim. The book ends shortly after the president won re-election in a landslide.

Nixon presumably created the secret taping system as a source for his memoirs. Except for his chief of staff, none of the people being taped knew about it. He never intended the tapes to be made public; they became so only after the courts ordered him to turn them over first to Watergate investigators and then to the National Archives.

Many discussions are disjointed, with Nixon and Kissinger repeatedly interrupting one another, and with Nixon wandering off onto totally unrelated subjects and sometimes seeming confused or uninformed. But Brinkley and Nichter conclude that he, nonetheless, "was a ruthless political operator, fully in control of his White House foreign policy agenda." Their annotations provide important context to the discussions, and their work is likely to be welcomed and applauded by historians, academics and foreign policy wonks, while having less appeal to most others.

"The Nixon Tapes" shows the value of such recordings for historians, and in Nixon's case for criminal prosecutors and congressional investigators as well. It also shows why no future president is likely to make such recordings again.

Anthony Marro covered the Watergate hearings for Newsday and was editor of the newspaper from 1987 to 2003.

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