My Response to the New York Times


Mr. Kutler is the Fox Emeritus Professor of History & Law at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  Currently, his play, “I, Nixon,” is being staged in Chicago. He is the author of The Wars of Watergate and Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes.

The New York Times recently decided that a yet un-referred article, submitted to the American Historical Review, and posing as serious history regarding Watergate accounts discredited by historians and courts alike, merited a front page news story on February 1.  Former White House Counsel John Dean may be the real target for this work, but the article focused itself on the issue of  historical accuracy, and hence because of my two books on Watergate, I became the target of choice. 

Peter Klingman, who made the charges, has a long relationship working with Leonard Colodny, author of  Silent Coup, a book now mercifully forgotten.  The book charges that John Dean, the admitted action officer for the Watergate cover-up, along with such improbable accomplices as Alexander Haig and Bob Woodward, successfully conspired to remove Richard Nixon.  Every Nixonian fantasy comes to life: Watergate Without Nixon.

Now, in another act of  bogus Watergate revisionism,  my book Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes (Free Press, 1997), and my motives have been attacked.   Up front, let me emphatically state my position on my scholarship for that book:  I never knowingly or deliberately falsified any information, conjured conversations, telescoped conversations – and I never changed any positive assertion into a negative or a negative into a positive.  I stand proudly next to my scholarly record of more than forty years.  My books immediately gained acceptance, and have continued to flourish.  Joan Hoff, an active Nixon revisionist,  was the rare critic at the time, unhappy that I did not do a complete edition, having, for example, omitted all of Nixon’s “uhs, a-has, and a-a-a-a-as.”  I plead guilty because  I was trying to spare my readers, and to save the publisher maybe two, if not three hundred worthless pages, as well as all those trees.

“Historian Peter Klingman” – as he introduced himself to me –  has been in touch for over a year.  At first, he politely presented his findings, and I immediately responded that without checking the record, it was quite possible that I made a mistake, emphasizing the difficulties of transcribing.  But Klingman does not believe my mistakes were accidental.  I cannot soothe his feelings.  Others may not understand the process that was involved, so a bit of background is in order.

In 1996, after four years of litigation against the National Archives and Richard Nixon, I won the suit, liberating the Nixon tapes for us all to use.  I did so with no help from any professional historical or journalistic organizations.  My  attorney, Alan Morrison, a distinguished constitutional law litigator, proved indispensable.  Scholars have used these tapes with appropriate care and have profited nicely from them.  Based on the comments of professional colleagues, historians and journalists alike, I feel justifiably proud of what I did in opening access to the tapes.

After winning the lawsuit, I signed a book contract and prepared to transcribe the tapes.  At first, I was overwhelmed.  I had access to what then was regarded as all of the “Abuse of Power” tapes – 201 hours of conversations, minus “national security” and “personal politics,” and “family” materials.  When I first gained access to the material, you could not leave the Archives with tapes; you had to work there with analog equipment, which at best was state-of the-art, c. 1950s.  While my settlement eventually provided that the tapes could be duplicated and disseminated publicly, including over the air, that did not occur until 2001. 

To undertake this daunting task, I hired a team of court reporters to listen to the tapes and prepare draft transcripts.  They could transcribe perhaps 30 per cent of the material because it all was so unfamiliar or undecipherable.  But it was a start.  Adam Land, my research assistant, and I then listened to the tapes and prepared our own transcripts.  For those unfamiliar with the Nixon tapes, other than telephone conversations, they are extremely difficult to hear (in analog versions, and with the available equipment, it would take approximately 15 hours to transcribe one hour of Nixon’s conversations).  In the end, of course, the responsibility for the transcriptions was and is mine, as was the difficult decision of what to include for a book that could not incorporate all of it for it would have run to thousands of pages. As I have acknowledged from the outset, my transcripts are far from perfect, but they certainty proved sufficient to substantially confirm and enhance the work of the Watergate Special Prosecutor and the House Judiciary Committee.  In my book, you may read how Nixon said that “hush money” “had to be paid” to Howard Hunt.  Then you can read how Nixon painfully (you really have to hear it) said that “the President of the United States could not admit he sponsored an illegal break-in” of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist.  You have to hear Nixon, after hearing the full cover-up story from Dean on March 21, promptly asked his secretary to bring him more money to maintain the cover-up.  Etc, etc.

Now comes Peter Klingman, making all sorts of allegations as to my work, my character,  and my motives.  He walks dangerous ground: does he have any  right to defame me to my attorney, not to mention elsewhere?  During our earlier, short conversation, I failed to satisfy him.  When I read his version of the tapes in question, and with no firm commitment on my part, I said it was possible that I made the errors he alleged, but certainly I had no ulterior purpose in mind.  Klingman then demanded I listen to them; I declined because I am now hearing impaired.   For some reason, this enraged the man, and he made further demands.  I then cut off all communication with him. 

One thing I can say for sure about Klingman’s findings: his editing of the tapes in question hardly proves Dean guilty of any of the things that Klingman and his fellow revisionists contend.  Their thesis of Dean’s culpability as the Watergate principal remains rubbish.  Klngman  and his fellow bogus revisionists, now seek to impugn my scholarly standing on the basis of an allegation involving a few pages.  The whole of my Watergate scholarship, in the book of tapes, as well as my Wars of Watergate, gets in the way of their efforts to rewrite history.

Frankly, at this point, it is astonishing to have to defend my career and my scholarship in such a manner.  Granted, I have chosen a more public role for myself than many of my colleagues, and I often hear the bullets flying.  I want opponents as open and transparent as myself; I do not work in dark corners questioning motives.  I welcome criticism and controversy, but only with civility.

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    Maarja Krusten - 2/8/2009

    From my previous employment at the National Archives, I know and like and respect both Dr. Hoff and Dr. Kutler.

    The author of an article in the Tampa Tribune in 1998 noted that "Hoff and Kutler are rivals of sorts as presidential historians and each has been critical of the other's work." Perhaps because I am most comfortable assessing issues in a fact-based, merit-based environment, I do not see how making guesses about jealousy or ranking them in terms of eminence is helpful. To his credit, Dr. Kutler himself does not make such arguments in his essay above.

    While I'm disappointed in how most scholars have discussed this issue -- Jeremy Young and Rick Shenkman being notable exceptions -- I cannot say I am surprised. During my years of listening to the Nixon tapes, I heard Richard Nixon and H. R. "Bob" Haldeman discuss various matters. As released records later showed, some of these involved public relations ("how will this play"). Based on what I've read over the years on this issue and others, I wonder about the extent to which scholars think about how their arguments will play in a setting outside academe.

    When it comes to the public arena (as opposed to the proverbial "faculty lounge"), I would urge scholars to think more strategically and to consider what Timothy Burke (who blogs at Easily Distracted) has called the "unlike." See Dr. Burke's observations on "Mr. Obama's Neighborhood" at
    U.S. Presidents are well served by advocates who consider the diverse nature of their listeners, why shouldn't scholars, also?

    One can find merit in works produced among a range of scholars. In the age of the blogosphere, I've even read beautifully written and argued presentations on some issues by doctoral candidates for which I could find no match among more established scholars.

    It is not uncommon for academic historians to offer differing interpretations of historical events. Their findings enter the marketplace through their books and readers are free to assess them as they wish. I'm not going to tell people how they should interpret something as complicated as Watergate, aspects of which may forever remain shrouded in mystery. But, as I noted above, I do find troubling attempts -- by anyone arguing any side of these issues -- to ascribe motives to people which are based on largely on speculation. If conclusions are to be made, why not lay out the known facts and just let readers make them?

    To his credit, Dr. Kutler himself has admitted there are errors in the transcripts. It is clear that, as Fred Graboske has pointed out, and Luke Nichter's transcription shows, that a small portion of transcript of an evening telephone call appears within a transcript from a morning face-to-face office meeting in _Abuse of Power_.

    I do not know how this occurred. As I noted above, I tend to think that errors in the book occurred due to inadvertence. In addition to the factors I cited above (ratio of hours spent on transcription, sound quality), I have the advantage of having watched Dr. Kutler work with Nixon's textual file collections (the so-called White House Special Files) while being in charge of the research room at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). (Various archivists rotated through that role.) There were rules for how to use the research room. We instructed researchers to work with one folder at a time, one box at a time. We told researchers, "do not pull out multiple folders and multiple documents because to do so places them at risk of becoming intermingled. Make sure that original order of documents -- so precious to archivists - is not lost." Had we National Archives' employees ranked researchers based on how they well they handled materials in the reference room, Dr. Kutler would not have been ranked among the neatest. I offer that as an observed fact for readers to consider.

    Others don't have the advantages I have of having spent ten years doing nothing but listening to Nixon's unreleased tapes. Or knowing many of the players in the NYT story. But even without that, I would hope basic fairness and standards of scholarship would lead to focus most on known facts and not veer off into arguments that are less than helpful.

    Jeremy Young - 2/7/2009

    To be fair to Hoff, I've never heard anyone describe her as "ambitious but not particularly talented." It seems to me she has a pretty impressive reputation.

    Walter Charles - 2/6/2009

    This has been a very interesting outgrowth from a very uninteresting NYT article, which has led me to do some research in order to educate myself on all of the players. My findings, I believe, shed a small amount of light on the greater circumstances.

    First, Len Colodny is not a trained historian, and his work "Silent Coup" was reviewed by Stanley Kulter, and in his published review he accurately pegged it as being without any positive merit. I tried to read Silent Coup myself, but due to its less than fine prose, I simply became bored and put it back on the library shelf. I forced myself to pick it up a second time, and I trudged through it completely. I wish I had the time I spent reading it back.

    I then read Joan Hoff's "Nixon Reconsidered". I found it to be slightly better than Silent Coup, but without any significant scholarly merit. To me, it seemed as though she really did not reconsider Nixon at all and in her book she noted that Colodny's work, which was published before hers, was notable.

    In researching Colodny and Hoff on the internet, it appears as though they work together to somehow find loop holes in history that will prove Nixon did not do what the tapes prove he did. Why are they doing this?

    I then listed to some of the Nixon tapes that I found on the web. Darn hard to make out so very much of what was being said. Errors in transcription would be easy to make.

    Why won't the NYT explain how the story was developed? Who were the sources? Why is the NYT hiding this?

    In conclusion, I believe that jealousy was at the heart of this bizarre story. Kutler is incredibly successful; Klingman is without success; Colodny is utterly discredited; Joan Hoff is viewed as ambitious but not particularly talented.

    Caroline Hill - 2/6/2009

    I work in other materials and other time periods. I have never tried to listen to the Nixon tapes.
    I know Stanley Kutler to be a man of the greatest integrity and was very puzzled to read the NYT article. Why was it published? I still don't know. I am certain that Kutler did the best he could and that any transcription errors were inadvertent, 'sloppy' or not.

    Brian Robertson - 2/4/2009

    I agree. I do not believe labels such as "Nixon partisans," "Nixon apologists," or "Nixon haters" serves any constructive purpose.

    Maarja Krusten - 2/4/2009

    The Wars of Watergate go on, it seems.   Perhaps "mistakes were made," as they say in Washington.  But can anyone other than the person who made them really say why?  Issues such as the ones under discussion need to be handled with great care and thought.  None of us can read minds or be absolutely certain about someone else's motive.  That includes the motives of Dr. Kutler -- and Dr. Klingman. And the other people mentioned in the NYT article.   (The contents of Dr. Klingman's AHR submission are unknown to the public at large although there seems to be a lot of speculation as to what it might contain.). 

    An aside, for those who don't know this.  I'm a historian but I once worked as a federal archivist.  Dr. Kutler called me as a witness in the lawsuit he filed in 1992 against the National Archives.  My testimony helped him, not the George H. W. Bush Department of Justice, which "represented" me and the National Archives.   Nixon's representatives once flung mud at me as a result.  So, I'm *very* leery of people sliding too far into speculation.  (It's not easy being a federal witness and testifying in a way that does not help DOJ when your representation lies with DOJ.) 

    I don't know Peter Klingman but cannot read his mind any more than I can read Dr. Kutler's.  So you'll hear no mud slinging from me about him or anyone else.

    I know Stanley Kutler, regard him as a friend (as I do
    Joan Hoff) and tend to think the existing errors in the transcripts occurred due to inadvertence. The ratio Dr. Kutler cites -- 15 hours to transcribe 1 hour of conversation -- was much lower than the 300 hours to 1 hour and 100 hours to 1 hour ratios we used at NARA.  The former was our ratio in 1978-1979, the latter reflects our switch from typewriters to Datapoint word processors, among other tech changes.  Of course, the few transcripts we prepared were in response to court subpoenas.  So we were striving for what we called "99% accuracy."  The tapes vary greatly in quality.  Telephone tapes tend to be pretty good, except for one which had signal problems.  Oval Office tapes have moderately good quality.  Some of the OEOB tapes have very poor sound quality and are marred by the sound of a ticking clock as well as an unusual amount of ambient noise.

    What can we learn from all this?  Well, for me, President Obama provides a good example of how to handle mistakes.   If the "leader of the free world" is able to say quickly, in terms of immediate damage control, "I messed up," and "I'm responsible," then so can anyone else.  Dr. Kutler has done that now.  Professor "K C" Johnson points out here on HNN that "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."    Dr. Johnson's low-key reaction seems reasonable to me.  And Dr. Kutler himself writes, "I welcome criticism and controversy, but only with civility."  I say, hear hear.

    People *can* live and learn.  John Taylor, the director of the Nixon Foundation, once jousted with me in 1996 on the letters page of the Chronicle of Higher Education.  John and I now are "virtual friends," having come to know and understand each other better through the blogosphere.  We both have come to understand the grey areas that surround Presidential records, and not to resort to black and white depictions. 

    So, what's the broad lesson?   Isn't it better to avoid name calling and good guy-bad guy framing?   (I seem to remember a recent President whose administration took a lot of heat for framing issues that way).  Sure, it's painful to be the subject of allegations, or to watch a friend or colleague come under attack.  (I've been there myself, in both positions.) 

    Is the best response for defenders of Dr. Kutler to say:

    -- "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. . . " (Professor Stanley Katz)

    -- "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" (Professor Stanley Katz) 

    -- "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 (John W. Dean)

    -- "It appears the Times has been hoodwinked by historical hucksters and Nixon apologists."  (John W. Dean)

    -- "But these Watergate revisionists elevated by the Times seek to create a false history."  (John W. Dean)

    --  "But I had not expected the New York Times to be so easily snookered by the bogus Watergate revisionists, after all these years—unless, of course, they wanted to be."  (John W. Dean)

    One of the people quoted in the New York Times story is Frederick J. Graboske, former Supervisory Archivist, National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials Project, Nixon Tapes Processing Staff.  He appears to reflect an archival ethos when he expresses respect for historical evidence in the NYT article.  I, for one, didn't pick up on anything beyond that.  I know Mr. Graboske well, he once was my boss at NARA.  We've been friends since 1976.  He is no "huckster" or "Nixon apologist" or "Watergate revisionist" or anything of the kind.   Why did none of the people who spoke up to defend Stanley Kutler make it clear that they were not including Mr. Graboske in their characterizations?  Or were they including him?  Surely the mere expression of concern over an error in a transcript does not turn someone into a "huckster" or an "apologist?"  Mr. Graboske spoke in his quoted comments with all the civility for which Dr. Kutler might have wished. 

    Why is there so much "you're either for us or against us" framing in public debate these days?  And the binary view that divides people into good guys and bad guys, even when the matter involves scholarship rather than politics?    Where are the grey areas?  The willingess to go only where the evidence takes a fair minded person?

    Dr.  Kutler states that he won his lawsuit "liberating the Nixon tapes, for us all to use.  I did so with no help from any professional historical or journalistic organization."  As he knows, because I've told him personally, Dr. Kutler deserves a great deal of credit for his courage in bringing his lawsuit.  I would guess that he must have felt very lonely at times.  Not only did he receive no help from historical organizations, to this day, few historians concern themselves about questions that surround archival matters and Presidential records.  (Or if they do, they do not speak up here on HNN or in their blogs.)   Of course, the liberation did not occur solely due to Dr. Kutler's efforts. . . .  And the litigation ended when the parties (Dr. Kutler and Public Citizen as plaintiffs, the National Archives, as defendant, and representatives of Nixon's estate, as intervenors) reached a settlement in 1996.  That took a lot of negotiation and effort by all the parties.

    Even with this new controversy, I've seen no one address the issues – and the responses -- in as nuanced a manner as I believe they deserve.   There are messages and metamessages involved here and not all of them look good.   Right-wing bloggers tend to fulminate against the "elites," who look down their noses at others. I don't know who else is thinking of speaking up on this matter.   But why give them needless ammunition?   Do reputations only matter if one is "eminent" -- well-known as opposed to unknown?  It does not work that way in the merit-based civil service to which President Obama now hopes to attract young people.  Mr. Graboske served in Vietnam with the 1st Army Division (the "Big Red One"), went to graduate school, then joined the federal civil service.  He won many awards and "outstanding" performance reviews during his three decades in public service. He showed great courage in testifying for several days und
    er extremely difficult circumstances when called as a witness in Dr. Kutler's lawsuit against the National Archives.   

    Maarja Krusten
    Historian and former NARA Nixon tapes archivist

    Posted on personal time

    Kenneth Jerome Hughes - 2/4/2009

    Peter Klingman’s central charge -- that Stanley Kutler deliberately altered the historical record -- is unjustified. Kutler made honest mistakes in transcription, but so has everyone who's ever published a book of White House tape transcripts. 

    Ever since John Dean turned state's evidence in 1973, Nixon's partisans, from the president on down, have attempted to portray the stool pigeon as Watergate's chief culprit. But the Nixon tapes prove that the chief culprit was the president himself, at least from the time he authorized the wiretapping of political rivals in May 1971.

    I mention the May 1971 tape because it is one that Kutler left out of his book, Abuse of Power, although it establishes that, regardless of whether Nixon specifically authorized the specific wiretapping attempt by his campaign operatives at the Democrats' Watergate headquarters, he had authorized political wiretapping in general and thus bears responsibility for the crime that precipitated his downfall.

    Far from stacking the evidence against Nixon, Kutler did not even manage to squeeze all the taped evidence of the president's guilt into his book. There is as little reason to think that Kutler left tapes out of his book to exonerate Dean as there is to believe that he left out tapes to exonerate Nixon. 
    Klingman claims that if Kutler had published transcripts of the tapes from March 13 to March 20, 1973, readers might conclude Dean was more active in the cover-up that Kutler had indicated. Well, if anyone ever publishes transcripts of all of the tapes from February 16, 1971, to July 12, 1973, readers will have to conclude that Nixon bore a far greater role in his administration's wrongdoing (and his campaign's) before and after Watergate than any historian, Kutler included, has ever fully established.

    No one disputes that Dean played an important role in the cover-up -- not even Dean. But his was a subordinate role -- subordinate to Nixon's two top aides, Haldeman and Ehrlichman, and to Nixon himself. 

    Donald Roy Fulsom - 2/4/2009

    I've listened to many of the tapes over many years and consider your
    book the gold standard for accuracy and interpretation of the Abuse of
    Power conversations.  I've never found even one error.
    Hope your letter puts this issue to rest and this bad boy in his place
    (defending his untrue charges in a court of law).