Nixon Logs Burn to Ashes

July 1, 1998

Thousands of pages of history about Richard M. Nixon were tossed into a shredder at the National Archives last month. Just to make sure no one pieces them together again, archives officials had them stuffed into 126 burn bags and hurled into an incinerator at the Pentagon yesterday morning.

Still other precautions, such as “a burn bag log that accounts for both the number and size/type bags pending destruction,” were required in a June 10 archives memo to “lessen the possibility of someone taking or replacing a burn bag(s) pending destruction.”

The records, totaling more than 70,000 pages, weren’t classified and had nothing to do with national security. They were logs, draft logs and copies of logs, summing up what have been deemed to be “private/personal” or “private/political” conversations on the former president’s White House tapes.

The documents were covered by a federal court order, affirmed on appeal this spring, that requires the archives to return to the Nixon estate all the “personal and private” conversations scattered throughout his original White House tapes. The ruling applies to the logs as well as the tapes.

Accordingly, the only uncensored log of all the Nixon tapes, a computer-generated version covering some 27,000 pages, will be sent to the estate. The archives will keep a sanitized version, with all the “personal” topics deleted.

Archivist John W. Carlin and his staff are still wrestling with the question of what to do with the fragile tapes themselves, a total of 3,700 hours. Trying to edit out the 819 hours of “personal” discussions would probably result in the destruction of most of the originals, including, for instance, segments dealing with the Watergate scandal, archives official said. The editing also could take more than five years, they estimated.

A three-judge appeals court decided March 31 that this would not matter because precisely edited digital copies, with only the “personal” fragments removed, will still exist.

Some of the “private” materials are purely personal conversations, such as Nixon talking with family members. But most of the 819 hours are “private/political” discussions, dealing for instance with Nixon’s decision in 1974 to get rid of then-Sen. Robert J. Dole (Kan.) as Republican national chairman. Such conversations have been labeled “private/political” because Nixon was acting not as president but as head of the Republican Party.

Government lawyers argued to the appeals court that the original tapes were historically important artifacts and should be kept in the public domain in case new technology makes it possible to decipher extensive portions now labeled “unintelligible.”

Although archives officials last fall obtained new equipment that can distinguish between noise and speech, the appeals court was not informed of the acquisition and it dismissed the new technology argument as fanciful speculation. The Justice Department decided in May against any further appeal.

At the archives complex in College Park, officials decided to deal with the logs first. Methodical shredding began in early June at the Nixon Presidential Materials Project, where employees found themselves using coffee cans to scoop up the pulverized bits and pour them into large, grocery-size burn bags with diagonal red and white stripes.

Such extraordinary handling is usually reserved for classified documents, but archives officials decided the logs were “highly sensitive,” and in the June 10 memo not only ordered creation of a burn-bag log but laid down a rule requiring the same size bag for each new load.

“There was a lot of moaning on the staff,” one archives employee said. “So much valuable stuff going up in flames.”

Gerald George, archives director of policy and communication, described “the stuff we burned this morning” as “duplicate or excessive logs,” accumulated over the years.

“This is stuff we might have thrown out anyway,” he said. George said there was nothing in the papers that was destroyed “that we have not retained on a comprehensive log” pending final arrangements with the Nixon estate. But he acknowledged that this “comprehensive log” will have to be surrendered to the Nixons before long.

Some archives specialists favor a bonfire for the original tapes as well. “Cutting and splicing them is going to be a monumental waste of time,” one said. “Once you start cutting, you’ve destroyed the tapes.”

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