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Fresh Air Remembers Historian Stanley Kutler


This is FRESH AIR. We're going to remember historian Stanley Kutler. He died Tuesday at the age of 80. Kutler helped uncover some of the dark secrets of the Nixon administration. Some of Nixon's secretly recorded White House tapes were released in April 1974. Nixon resigned that August.Nixon tried to prevent the release of the remaining tapes, but in 1992 Kutler and the advocacy group Public Citizen sued the National Archives which led to the 1996 release of about 200 more hours of Nixon White House tapes. Those recordings detail how the Nixon administration tried to destroy Daniel Ellsberg who leaked the Pentagon papers and how the group of former CIA agents known as the Plumbers broke into the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist looking for incriminating information. The Plumbers were later caught breaking into the Democratic headquarters of the Watergate hotel and office building leading to a massive cover-up which the tapes document.Cutler had the tapes transcribed them as the basis of his 1997 book "Abuse Of Power." I spoke to him when it was published. I asked him about one of the big questions surrounding the Watergate scandal. Why did Nixon try to cover it up instead of letting other people take the fall?


STANLEY KUTLER: I think I've got another dimension to it. I think that the standard answer that I and others have often given as for the institution of a cover-up is because there was a need to protect the president from any revelation of the so-called White House horrors of the first term - that is the existence of the Plumbers which engaged in illegal break-ins and the Houston Plan which also authorized illegal break-ins, the IRS abuses, the enemies list and so forth. Those are the standard reasons given for the cover-up.But here in these new tapes, Nixon on two occasions - one is when he's talking about the Plumbers break-in of Ellsberg's psychiatrist office and a second one, he's talking about the authorization of illegal break-ins under the so-called Houston Plan. He says, I cannot admit that the president of the United States authorized illegal acts. It was a kind of psychological moment. Here was the man who for 25 years had championed himself as the advocate of law and order - the man of high-toned moral principles is now going to go out and admit that he authorized second-story men to engage in illegal break-ins for his administration. It was really more than he could bear to face.

GROSS: What about Henry Kissinger? How does he come out looking in the tapes? I mean...

KUTLER: Well...

GROSS: ...Nixon thinks Kissinger is leaking to the press at some point.

KUTLER: Oh, yeah. You see this...

GROSS: So they have a quarrel between them about that. But what was Kissinger in on, and what did he actively participate in?

KUTLER: Yeah. Well, I - you know, there is an obvious tension between these two men. Nixon is very unhappy, you know, when Kissinger gets a Nobel Prize. Why not me? After all, didn't Kissinger take his orders from Nixon? He would resent if Kissinger became man of the year on Time Magazine cover. There was a rivalry there. Well, throughout these tapes, his reference to Kissinger asking for wiretaps of his key national security council aides to find out who's leaking to the media. And Kissinger is up to his ears in that. And Nixon keeps reminding him of it. There are conversations, though, that, in the eyes of many people today, don't serve Kissinger very well. He appears to be the ultimate tutee buttering up the president. There is a conversation on the night of April 30 after Nixon has fired Haldeman and Ehrlichman, his key aides, and Kissinger has this conversation with him and reminds - tells Nixon again how great he is and that Watergate doesn't mean anything. History's going to remember Nixon as the great man of peace and so forth. Yet in his own memoirs, at the same time - in his diary which appears in his memoirs, Kissinger says for the night of April 30 that he knew that Nixon was dead in the water at that point, that the administration was paralyzed and probably on the way out.

GROSS: The last tape that Nixon made in the White House - the last tape that you've transcribed for your...

KUTLER: Well, I think it's the last tape that he made in the White House - the last recording we have. It's on July 12, the day that Butterfield relieved - revealed the existence of the tapes.

GROSS: His final words - Nixon's final words in a conversation with Kissinger are keep fighting. What's the context of that conversation and the significance of Nixon's words?

KUTLER: Well, it's a conversation - he and Kissinger often engaged in these kind of mutual support conversations of each trying to buck up the spirits of the other. And the word - I find that conversation fascinating because the word fight runs through his memoirs like a red thread - battle, conflict - he was a combative man. He saw life as a constant struggle and a constant battle and a constant fight. I was struck by the fact that these are almost his last words in this last recorded conversation. Keep fighting. The fact is that the man, when you think about it - from May '73 on, Nixon realizes the consequences for him - that if any of this cover-up is ever revealed, uncovered, that he is in serious trouble. He will probably have to resign. Yet he fights. He fights desperately.

On the night of April 30 when he fires Haldeman and Ehrlichman there are all these very depressed, distraught conversations he has. If you look at the conversations on May 1 - if you listen to them, he's full of fight, full of energy. He's determined to fight on. And the fact is that he kept fighting from the time this taping system closed down, July '73, almost until the day he resigned. And finally then he realized how hopeless it was.

GROSS: Journalist Stanley Kutler recorded in 1997. He died Tuesday at the age of 80. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.