HNN Hot Topics: The Watergate Transcript Controversy





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John Dean ("The Times Has Lost The Watergate Plot" writing at TheDailyBeast blog)

John W. Dean, former Nixon White House counsel, has written ten books, including Broken Government: How Republican Rule Destroyed the Legislative, Executive and Judicial Braches, and is working on his next.

On the front page of Sunday’s New York Times on February 1, I was greeted with the headline: “John Dean’s Watergate Role at Issue in Nixon Tapes Feud.” When the Times reporter writing this story, Patricia Cohen, contacted me a few days earlier, I told her I could not believe the Times was reporting on this non-story. It is a claim of a self-professed “independent historian,” Peter Klingman, who has no credentials whatsoever to talk about Watergate, yet he is attacking one of America’s most eminent historians, Stanley Kutler of the University of Wisconsin, regarding his work on Watergate. When I found the story on the front page of the nation’s paper of record, I was sure I could hear a desperation death rattle of dead-tree journalism.

The Times story is about a “submission” to the American Historical Review of the American Historical Association (AHA), not a peer-reviewed article published in the journal of the prestigious organization of professional historians. Most journalists would consider an unpublished submission even less credible than a complaint filed in a lawsuit (since lawyers can be disbarred for false and frivolous complaints), and scrupulous journalists only report on legal complaints after they have been litigated and tested. To say the Klingman’s submission is untested is an understatement, and the Times fails to mention—a fact I quickly learned—that this submission has been rejected by other professional journals. This is not surprising.

It appears the Times has been hoodwinked by historical hucksters and Nixon apologists whose goal is to find a beachhead within the mainstream media to gain legitimacy for their crackpot revisionism. They desperately want to be taken seriously by organizations like the AHA. The Times has given them their biggest victory in over two decades of seeking legitimacy. There is nothing inherently wrong with revisionism when it is called for and based on solid new information. But these Watergate revisionists elevated by the Times seek to create a false history.

This front page Times story could not have made the comics pages of The Washington Post, for the reporters who lead them to their Watergate Pulitzer, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, are well aware of the work of these Watergate revisionists. Like me, Woodward has for years been under false and vicious attack from these revisionists. Maybe this explains why this was news for the New York Times, which is still after all these decades smarting from its remarkable failure to cover Watergate as it occurred, finding itself scooped by the Washington Post on the biggest story of the last half of the 20th Century. Or maybe the Times editors hope these revisionists are on to the real Watergate story, and they still want to embarrass the Post. If that is the thinking at the Times, they should brace for their own coming and further historical humiliation, for there is simply too much hard information establishing the fact that the Times has published a bogus story.

Times reporter Patricia Cohen did not ask me for my comments about the substance of her story, only for my reaction to Klingman’s submission charging that Stanley Kutler had been shilling for me for years, distorting his historical writings and his transcripts of the Nixon White House tapes to somehow protect me. When I asked her why the New York Times would cover this ridiculous charge from a Watergate revisionist her response was vague. Because there was something of a chuckle in her voice, I had the impression she did not take the charges very seriously. I was not even sure she was going to publish anything, and she certainly never said a word suggesting I was the centerpiece of her story and Klingman’s charges. The last reporter to do that to me was from the National Enquirer....

Stanley Katz (writing at his blog at the Chronicle of Higher Education website)

Mr. Katz teaches public and international affairs and directs the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies at the Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. He is a past president of the American Council of Learned Societies, the Organization of American Historians, and the Society for Legal History.

Has The New York Times lost it completely? Yesterday morning I was flying back from the West Coast, alternately reading Hobbes’ Leviathan and the Sunday Times, in which I found on the first page, under the fold, an article by Patricia Cohen (a very competent reporter) entitled “John Dean’s Role at Issue in Nixon Tapes Feud.” I was puzzled, since I was unaware that any new information on John Dean and Watergate had appeared. So I read the article, with increasing puzzlement, since I still could not see that there was any news about Dean.

So why is our newspaper of record publishing a front page story about a nonevent? Beats me. So far as I can tell, someone named Peter Klingman (identified only as “an historian” — but not an historian I have ever heard of before) has submitted an article to the American Historical Review alleging that (my friend) Stanley Kutler deliberately manipulated his published transcriptions of the Nixon tapes (in his 1997 Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes) so as to exonerate John Dean from complicity in the Watergate cover-up. Somehow a copy of Klingman’s article (or a description of it) reached Cohen, and this unpublished, un-peer-reviewed material appears to be the source of her story. It is hard to imagine that Klingman is not the source of the story — or one of his friends, since he appears to be one of a group of Nixon apologists (including the well-known historian Joan Hoff) who are attacking the Kutler book of transcriptions. The only description of Klingman I could find on the Web says that he worked as an archivist for the authors of a recent book claiming that Nixon was a victim of the Watergate scandal. The issue Klingman apparently raises is whether Kutler deliberately omitted material from his published transcription of portions of the Nixon tapes in order to protect Dean — and thus to implicate Nixon.

I am not sure this would be front-page news even if it were demonstrably true. After all, we know a great deal about what happened during Watergate, and there does not seem to be any new affirmative evidence about Nixon. The tapes are, after all, available to researchers at the Archives, and Kutler’s book was only an attempt to make some of the material quickly available in print for the use of the public. Despite Joan Hoff’s quoted statement that Abuse of Power is “used authoritatively,” Kutler has never claimed to have published the full and official record, and any trained historian would know that his book is not authoritative in that sense. His subject was Nixon’s complicity, not Dean’s, and there is no evidence that he consciously manipulated his transcriptions.
The Nixon apologists are entitled to make their own case for his innocence, but they need to make it on the basis of the official record. If conspiracy theorists think Nixon has been maligned by history (this also beats me), let them produce the evidence from the record. We’ll see whether the AHR thinks Klingman’s essay worth printing. If so, then it will be worth reading and evaluating. Until then, Cohen’s story does not appear to merit the prominence her editors have given it. Back to Hobbes.

Joan Hoff (writing in an email to HNN)

Ms. Hoff, Research Professor of History, Montana State University, Bozeman, is the author of Nixon Reconsidered.

It is too bad that Stanley Katz knows so little about the content of the Nixon tapes which his friend Stanley Kutler helped to release in 1996 that he claims to be “unaware that any new information on John Dean and Watergate” and he dismisses those who do as simply "a group of Nixon apologists.”

The tapes in question do not make a case for Nixon’s "innocence," as Katz claims. They do exactly the opposite. They show that Nixon and Dean (unfortunately for Kutler) were more guilty of obstructing justice by participating in the cover-up than was known at the time of trials of Nixon’s aides, including Dean. These tapes can be viewed on line because the New York Times provided the URL information. Kutler’s omissions of certain tapes (March 13, 17, and 20, 1973) and manipulation of two conversations on March 16 have been known about for years and Kutler has refused to acknowledge the importance of either his editing or omissions. The evidence is there for anyone who wants to read the actual tapes.

More importantly, Katz completely ignores comments by Frederick J. Graboske, a Vietnam veteran, who worked for over a decade on the Nixon tapes when they were in the possession of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). Graboske courageously testified for Public Citizen and Kulter in the case that resulted in the release or more Nixon tapes He underwent a very difficult cross examination by Nixon's attorneys because his story did not fit what the George H. W. Bush Department of Justice want to hear. Graboske is (and was) no enemy of Kutler. He is a friend of accurate evidence. I can only assume that Katz chooses to disregard his impeccable reputation when it comes to the Nixon tapes because Graboske is someone else that Katz doesn’t know. Friends seem to count more than facts: Katz’s friendship with Kutler and Kutler’s with Dean

That Patti Cohen’s story appeared on the front page of the New York Times also seems to bother Katz more than the facts of the story. As far as I know, this is the first example of when the Times has ever published an article questioning standard interpretation of Dean’s role in the Watergate cover-up. So perhaps it warranted front-page coverage. Investigative reporters and scholars have long ignored the contradiction between the tapes and Dean's Senate testimony and his attempt to censor works (including my own) in violation of the First Amendment that deviate from the portrayal of him as the reluctant witness and hero of the Watergate.

Finally, I did not say that Kulter has claimed his book is the final word on the transcriptions. If Katz was even modestly aware of textbooks segments and monographs on Watergate he would know that historians, political scientists, and journalists cite his work as though it were authoritative because the tapes are so difficult and time-consuming for individuals to transcribe on their own.

What this dispute over the Nixon tapes really demonstrates is the need for an authoritative set of transcriptions which the government should have undertaken years ago. By authoritative I mean transcriptions that include every word, pause, grunt, stutter, expletives, and uhs, etc. to prevent more misuse and/or distortion of the Nixon tapes. Sanitized transcriptions such as Kutler's and the ones now being prepared by the Miller Center’s Presidential Digital Recordings project are not what is needed to end disputes over what the tapes actually say. Watergate is one of the most important events in contemporary U.S. history and the tapes provide the most significant insight into the functioning of an administration we will ever have.

Robert "KC" Johnson (writing at HNN blog Cliopatria)

Mr. Johnson is a professor of history at Brooklyn College.

A historians’ dispute makes the front page of the Times website today. The issue: an article submitted to the American Historical Review by Peter Klingman, claiming that Stanley Kutler trimmed his Nixon tape transcriptions, Abuse of Power, in such a way to obscure John Dean’s role in the affair.

I haven’t read Klingman’s article; perhaps he cites questionable correspondence or remarks made by Kutler. But the Times article implies that Klingman’s claims about Kutler’s allegedly improper motives stem from disagreements over Kutler’s transcripts.

In this respect, I’m inclined to agree with the one clearly neutral source the article cites: my former Miller Center colleague Ken Hughes, who probably knows more about the Nixon tapes than anyone around. Ken told the Times that the attacks on Kutler were “misguided,” adding, “I was very critical of errors in the transcripts and I thought he had left out some important conversations, but they are entirely honest and predictable mistakes that anyone who would try to make a transcript from extremely difficult tapes could make.”

Digitized copies of the Nixon tapes area available at the Miller Center’s website; with the exception of the phone calls, they’re not at all easy to hear. I don’t know what sort of audio software Kutler used in the production of his book, but it clearly would have been something less sophisticated than what’s available now. It’s therefore not at all surprising to learn that transcription errors were made.

There are, to be short, lots of non-malevolent explanations for mistakes in Kutler’s transcripts—ranging from honest errors in attempting to transcribe the tapes without a good editorial process in place to (perhaps) his choosing to exclude transcripts of one or two conversations not for sound editorial reasons but because they were particularly difficult to hear, and thus transcribe.

If the thrust of the Times article—errors as part of a pro-Dean conspiracy—seems misguided, that doesn’t absolve Kutler of the professional obligation to have corrected errors when those were brought to his attention, perhaps through an errata section on a website. And some of the errors attributed to Kutler in the article—listing a Nixon-Dean meeting and a later telephone conversation of the same day as one, continuous meeting—were, at best, very sloppy mistakes.

In that respect, Joan Hoff’s comments in the article should be treated as a caution: “The book,” she said, “is used authoritatively as the official transcript of the event.” Historians using the tapes should always go back to the source—especially since the tapes now are all available, in digitized form, on the Miller Center website—rather than rely on published transcripts. Kutler’s book definitely shouldn’t be considered an “official transcript” in that respect.

Bernard A. Weisberger (email to the Public Editor of the NYT)

Mr. Weisberger is the author of many history books and served as a contributing editor of American Heritage. Disclosure: He is friends with Stanley Kutler.

As an historian myself, I cannot for the life of me understand the prominence given in the Times of Feb. 1 on the alleged" cover-up" of John Dean's role in the Watergate affair by Stanley Kutler in his book, Abuse of Power, based on extensive extracts from the Nixon tapes to which the American people have access thanks to Kutler's own lawsuit to prevent their being hidden or destroyed by Nixon or his loyal advocates. The charge is that Kutler knowingly manipulated the tapes to make Dean look more high-minded than he in fact was while helping the President to erase his awareness of and sanction to criminal activities. What silliness! In his testimony before the Ervin Committee Dean freely acknowledged his own share in the cover up, and in the very title of his later memoir, Blind Ambition, did not spare himself in the matter of self-interested motive He cooperated with the prosecution when the conspiracy was already beginning to unravel and in turn received a light sentence when himself convicted. How would any changes in chronology or small omissions, perfectly understandable considering the extreme difficulties of transcription, difficult working conditions and considerations of space in publishing the results of many hundreds of hours of conversation, change anyone's estimate of John Dean? What possible significance for historical understanding of Watergate could there be in these so-called revelations of a"plot" to polish up Dean's image? The whole affair smacks more to me of an academic tiff bred by lingering pique among historians who still rally to Nixon's defense and who resent Professor Kutler's unearthing of the damning evidence against him from his own lips.

It is, in fact, such a non-story--based on such a poor source (an unpublished, not yet peer-reviewed journal article by a little-known historian with an acknowledged bias) that a smart editor would have spiked it. Instead the Times chose to give it front page play in the widely read Sunday edition. I think readers deserve some explanation.

Keith Olson (email to HNN)

Mr. Olson is professor emeritus at the University of Maryland, College Park, and the author of Watergate: The Presidential Scandal that Shook America (University Press of Kansas).

In its front-page story of February 1, 2009, The New York Times gave unmerited credibility to Peter Klingman's accusations again Professor Stanley I. Kutler. Klingman maintains that Kutler, when he edited Watergate: The Fall of Richard M. Nixon, intentionally mis-edited the transcript of President Richard M. Nixon's two conversations with his counselor John W. Dean, on March 16, 1973 and omitted other conversations. The motive, according to Klingman, was Kutler's desire to portray Dean in a more favorable image because the two had become friends.

Kutler, one of the historical profession's most distinguished members, has defended himself well. Ken Hughes, at the University of Virginia's Miller Center for Public Affairs, moreover, has called the accusations against Kutler"misguided." For eight years Hughes has examined the tapes.

In her story in The New York Times Patricia Cohen called Klingman's unpublished manuscript an"article." An unpublished manuscript is not an article. Before publication history journals submit a manuscript for evaluation to two or more anonymous specialists. An unpublished manuscript that makes serious charges should not be the basis for a front-page story. Cohen and The New York Times owe Professor Kutler an apology.


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Maarja Krusten - 2/9/2009

There are three questions that come to mind as a result of the NYT piece, none of which relate to status, prominence, scholarly camps, or other side issues:

(1) technical issues and other factors that can lead to errors in transcription with such materials;
(2) what is the best course for a published author who becomes aware from research by third parties of whom errors in transcription;
(3) what is the best course in handling such issues for a scholar who becomes friends with one of the principals he has studied, as Dr. Kutler acknowledges he did with John Dean after publishing his books on Watergate.


Maarja Krusten - 2/9/2009

It's been interesting to see the extent to which for many of the third parties who have spoken out, the approach taken parallels that taken during 43's administration by supporters of and spokesmen for George W. Bush in discussions of the Iraq war. Over the last five years, I read a number of emotional debates about Iraq in various blogs. I looked at them as an Independent, someone who sometimes votes Republican and sometimes Democratic. Almost never did I see a supporter of the war acknowledge to an opponent, "I understand why the American public increasingly struggles to understand why we went to war, given the fact that no WMD were found." And almost never did I see an opponent of the war admit that mistakes may have occurred through poor decision makingand obstructed information flow rather than deliberate intent to lie. Instead, arguments about George Bush tended to veer off into debates over strawmen characterized, in the worst cases, by ad hominems. Rarely did someone close the loop on the core questions underlying the dissension.

Here, too, I am in the center, as I know, like and respect both Dr. Kutler and Dr. Hoff. In the case of the controversy over the transcripts, I haven't seen a single third party scholar say, "I compared Luke Nichter's HNN posted transcript to what is published for March 16, 1973 in Dr. Kutler's book. Until I read the NYT piece, I had no idea that a conversation that was presented in the book as a seamless whole actually was not one at all. It opened my eyes to what happens when errors otherwise are undetectable to the general reader." Like the American public's increasing concern during 2004-2006 about why our troops were in Iraq, that isn't mentioned by most of the scholars to whose pieces Rick Shenkman linked.

Instead, we've largely gotten straw man arguments and avoidance. Astonishingly, in addition to references to status and prominence, we've even gotten good guy, bad guy framing from some of those who've spoken out on the issue. This almost seems like an effort to shut down discussion of how difficult is transcription and what a scholar should do if something he publishes in a book turns out to have errors in it. It reminds me of the people who said "you're either for us or against us" and attempted to frame any criticism of President Bush as unpatriotic.

At least Dr. Kutler, unlike GWB, admitted graciously in his own essay that he recognizes that there were mistakes and that he welcomes discussion and controversy, if handled in a civil fashion. K C Johnson pointed at Cliopatria to the fact that issuance of errata would have taken care of this. I agree with Dr. Johnson's low key approach. Too bad others chose to frame the issues differently. As a result, it has been interesting to see the parallels between this debate and those that took place during 43's Presidency over W's policies in Iraq. Quite an eye opener for me.

Maarja Krusten
Historian and former Nixon tapes archivist