The Disputed Nixon-Dean Watergate Transcript: March 16, 1973
HNN Editor: The New York Times reported in a frontpage story on Sunday February 1 that questions had been raised about Watergate transcripts published by Stanley I. Kutler in Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes (1997). The story included an allegation that Kutler had conflated two conversations: A face-to-face meeting between Richard Nixon and John Dean on the morning of March 16, 2003 and a telephone conversation between the two that took place that night. The transcript left out most of the evening conversation. Some historians argue that the material left out was damaging to Dean, with whom Kutler is friendly.
The Times published the audio from three tapes. Nixontapes.org is publishing helpful transcripts. The one below features the complete text of the telephone conversation between Nixon and Dean on the evening of March 16, 1973. The part in italics shows the excerpt Kutler mistakenly claimed was part of the morning face-to-face meeting.
Note: Permission to reprint this transcript was provided by Luke Nichter, Assistant Professor of History at Tarleton State University-Central Texas, who created the Nixontapes.org website.
Date: March 16, 1973
Time: 8:14 - 8:23 pm
Location: White House Telephone
Participants: Richard M. Nixon, John W. Dean, III
Dean: Yes, sir.
Nixon: Any report on the meeting with [Richard] Kleindienst?
Dean: There was a report, a good report, a very successful meeting. He laid it out—
Nixon: Who’d he meet with?
Dean: —exactly what he would do, and he said they didn’t balk an inch.
Nixon: Who’d he talk to? Ervin and, uh—?
Dean: Ervin, and Baker, and both counsel.1
Nixon: Um-hmm. Um-hmm.
Dean: And they, they bought it. That, one, there would be a summary report, a synopsis report,
which would be issued to them only; not for any other members of their committee.
Dean: It would be for investigative purposes only; it could not be put in the record; it could not be displayed publicly any way. And, if they had any questions about that, the synopsis report, then they could come down to the Bureau—those four—and look at the raw file they wanted to look at, if they contested something that was in the synopsis.
Dean: That was it. Zero.
Nixon: In other words, this is a report that would be given by [L. Patrick] Gray?
Dean: By Gray. Right.
Dean: They put out—In fact, there’s a press release that Ervin put out that said they had worked out a satisfactory arrangement with the Department of Justice to receive the necessary information from the FBI in a way that would protect any innocent persons from damage.
Nixon: Um-hmm. Hmm—
Dean: And that’s the—That went out this afternoon, and—
Dean: —we got a question—Ziegler got a question, the press office, “Was that—was the
arrangement satisfactory with us?” “Absolutely.”
Dean: So that—Again, that’s the spirit of cooperation of turning over information, and—
Dean: —no problem at all.
Nixon: Well, you should go forward, and working with Dick Moore and others, with regard to the matter of getting sort of a general statement that might be prepared—I mean to be given to me after the court sentences. You see?
Dean: Right, I—
Nixon: I don’t know whether we will want to use it or not, but we, in order to know, we’ve got to see what it could be. You see?
Dean: I just learned late this afternoon that Sirica is going to, definitely, sentence on Fri—a week from today.
Dean: He plans to give a speech from the bench at that time—
Dean: That the government is recommending no specific term in years for any of the defendants.
Rather, prison sentences for all of them, but not a specified term of years. But the whole thing is up to him—
Nixon: Up to the jury? Then, how—who determines the term of years?
Dean: Sirica himself will.
Nixon: Oh. Um-hmm. Then, when will he announce that?
Dean: That’ll be on Friday. At least for the five that pleaded. They may not sentence the two that are on appeal.
Nixon: Um-hmm. And, so he’ll announce the sentences a week from Friday?
Dean: That’s correct. A week from this—today.
Nixon: A week from today. Um-hmm.
Dean: I had a—I had a long conversation with Dick Moore just this evening. I just arrived home and Dick and I really have been talking all this time about—
Dean: —this whole thing, and there is a degree of impossibility in writing a sort of let’s-hang-it-all-out report without creating problems that would open up a new grand jury—
Dean: —without creating problems that would cause difficulty for some who’ve already
Dean: I’ve caveated some of these to Dick. Dick doesn’t have—possess all the knowledge I
Dean: Particularly this [fellow assigned with Dick.]
Nixon: Yeah. [laughs]
Dean: And, in fact, it might—I told him, I said, “It might be to your attorneys, Dick [laughs] to
write from your place –”
Nixon: Yeah. Yeah.
Dean: And, so we’ve planned to—
Nixon: And then you could look it over. [laughs]
Dean: Right. We plan to meet tomorrow and see what—
Dean: —we can [frank] out, and—
Nixon: Well, that’s something is worth, perhaps, doing in terms of the of, of—well, frankly, what is, what could be helpful if it could be worked out, or just something that where, in the most general terms, the—is virtually saying what I might even say in answer to a press conference question, but in more general terms, that an investigation has been conducted, and we find this, and that, and the other thing. And whack. Just like that. You see what I mean?
Nixon: Rather than going into the specifics of who did what to whom. You see what I mean?
Dean: I do.
Nixon: So that—so that people could say, “Well—”
Dean: Not a total stonewall.
Nixon: Oh, no, no. And not a total—and not supposed to be a total answer.
Nixon: But, simply saying, “Well, the President has finally said, ‘Now, that it’s over this is it.’
And the—after this is over we can now say that this person—these people were not involved, and et cetera; these were, and—And, I don’t know. But at least think, think in those terms to see if something could be worked out. In very general terms, I realize the problems of getting too specific, because then—then you do open up the possibility of, oh, ‘Why didn't you say that?
Why didn't you say that?’ But you just put it [a report] in very general terms, you see?
Nixon: I don’t know. Do you think that's possible?
Dean: It’s going to be tough, but I think—I think it’s a good exercise and a drill that is absolutely essential we do, uh, to go through—
Nixon: Yeah, that’s the point. The exercise is important.
Dean: It, it sharpens thinking and it, as I, as—
Nixon: Find out what our vulnerabilities are and where we are and so forth and so on.
Dean: Right. I would there’s [chuckles]—maybe there will be some time when, when I should possibly report a little fuller than1 really have, so you really can appreciate in full some of the vulnerable points and where they, they lead to.
Nixon: That’s right.
Dean: I don’t think that should be a written document right now.
Nixon: Oh, by no means. No, by—I don’t want any damn written document about any of that.
Nixon: I’m just speaking of a document that is put out.
Dean: A public document.
Nixon: Which you, as sort of a report, perhaps, which we could then deliver to Ervin. You
Dean: That might—It’s gonna be tough, but I’ll tell you, it’s certainly worth the effort—
Nixon: Yeah. Just sort of a general thing, and very general, very general. You know?
Without—by all means, laying off of—don’t get into the, ‘Well, we investigated this. We investigated that. We saw this. We deny this. We support this. And so forth.’ Lay off of all that. I have in mind a sort of—Basically, so that it can be said that something was presented that I have seen, or that—You know what I mean? So that they—So that my reiterated statements from time to time, ‘That, well, no one on the White House staff is involved,’ have some basis, you see.
Dean: A lot of the—a lot of my conclusions were based on the fact that there was not a scintilla of evidence in the investigation that led anywhere to the White House.
Dean: There’s nothing in the FBI file that indicates anybody in the White House was involved.
Dean: There’s nothing in what was presented before the Grand Jury indicating—
Dean: —White House involvement.
Nixon: Well, just saying some of those things could be helpful.
Dean: That’s right.
Nixon: See? It could be helpful—
Nixon: And then we just put it out and then let, let the Committee try to prove otherwise.
Dean: And, I understand that they will not get the Grand Jury minutes, which is good because
the Grand Jury is more thorough than the FBI.
Dean: The Committee’s starting ten paces behind, and Ervin does not, I’m told, have a total disposition for what he’s doing. He just doesn’t relish it. He wants to find out things. He’s—
Nixon: Why not?
Dean: He’s more excited about the confrontation on executive privilege, I think, than he is about what else he might find.
Nixon: He would welcome that, wouldn’t he?
Dean: Oh, he’d love that.
Nixon: Well, so would we.
Nixon: I mean, let’s have it. Particularly if it’s on you—Oh, no, he won’t have it on you. He’ll—
Dean: No, I don’t think he’ll [chuckles] bite for that—
Nixon: On Chapin, huh?
Dean: Chapin or Colson.
Nixon: Uh-huh. Hmm.
Dean: I, I think that the other part of the report that we can probably put out with even greater
detail than, say, Watergate is Segretti. And that—
Nixon: That I would like.
Dean: And that—You see, that would put us in a very forthcoming posture.
Nixon: We could point out that the one case has now been determined by the courts, and that we
have nothing to indicate that the White House was involved. Now, second, with regard to
Segretti, let’s lay all this—let’s lay it all out. Here it is.
Dean: Now, sure it’s a little embarrassing—
Nixon: The problem there—
Dean: [Unclear] nothing, uh—
Nixon: Well, it’s less embarrassing than what’s been charged, and the innuendo.
Dean: That’s right.
Nixon: Of course, I realize the major problem there is the financing, but even that.
Dean: That—that’s going to have to be answered well before Ervin—
Nixon: That’s gonna come out. That’s right, so you—
Dean: —so we might as well leave it out—
Nixon: Yeah. That’s right. So, you can think about it. Ok?
Dean: All right, sir. Well—
Dean: We will win. [laughs]
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R.R. Hamilton - 2/5/2009
Dear Ms. Krusten,
Your comments usually bore me because you write with such Olympian detachment that refuses to take a side. However, you are finally, here, in your element and I have read all your comments on this matter with considerable care, interest, and appreciation.
Just a few minutes ago, I left my own comment for Prof. Katz over at one of the other sites discussing this matter.
Maarja Krusten - 2/4/2009
Many thanks to Dr. Nichter for making the transcript available and thanks also for his good work at Nixontapes.org.
For purposes of comparison, Stanley Kutler's _Abuse of Power_ includes the portion italicized above on page 231, as part of a conversation listed as purportedly taking place in the Oval Office between Nixon and Dean between 10:34 and 11:10 a.m. The published conversation in the book, an apparent merger of a small part of an evening telephone call and a morning meeting, is presented there as a single, seamless conversation. In point of fact, the segments were recorded within the White House complex at different taping stations (WHT and OVAL) and at different times of the day.
I do not know why and how this conversation was presented a single face to face meeting in Dr. Kutler's book. I know and consider to be friends several of the people mentioned in the New York Times article (among them Fred Graboske, Joan Hoff, and Stanley Kutler). I am not going to speculate on why the error occurred or why it has not been corrected. Questions first arose shortly after publication of the book and have been covered in an article in the Tampa Tribune in 1998 and at
Professor Stanley Katz has commented on the NYT story in a blog entry at the Chronicle of Higher Education - see
I do not know him and do not know why he cast his commentary as he did. HNN's readers can judge for themselves how effective Dr. Katz's commentary is or is not and how ell it served the intended purpose.
Not surprisingly, Dr. Katz's commentary elicited posted comments from a number of people, among them Frederick J. Graboske (former National Archives' Nixon tape supervisor), Dr. Joan Hoff, and me. Graboske offers some useful observations on transcription. I concurr with Fred's description of the challenges, as he and I worked together to produce a few transcripts required under court supboena in the late 1970s. Our work around 1978-1979 was very labor intensive and we then found it took 300 staff hours to produce one hour of transcript. Changes in technology later reduced that time.
Here at HNN as at the CHE, I would urge people to resist an urge to frame the story of the March 16 transcript as a "you're either for us or against us" story. I myself do not believe it takes place in a world filled with only two types of people, "Nixon haters" or "Nixon apologists." That type of framing may work sometimes in the political world but I'm not convinced of its effectiveness in the scholarly world.