In the cool, wood-paneled stillness of the National Archives, 22 reporters and 11 members of the public -- tourists and Watergate groupies, college students and retired government employes -- checked their earphones, perched on the edge of their seats and waited.
"Hi, Phil, how are you?" said President Richard M. Nixon. "Sorry to keep you waiting."
With those words the government unwrapped Washington's newest tourist attraction yesterday at 9:10 a.m. -- the first of 31 tape recordings that led to the resignation of President Nixon.
The first words that filtered through the static were Nixon's small talk with Phil J. Campbell, an assistant agriculture secretary. It was March 23, 1971, and they were huddled in the Oval Office with John Connally, John Erlichman, Clifford Hardin, George Schultz and others, about to agree on boosting price supports for milk producers.
Laughter cracked the scholarly stillness when Nixon later remarked to White House Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman on June 23, 1972 -- six days after the Watergate breakin -- that G. Gordon Liddy "must be a little nuts."
"He is," said Haldeman.
That came from the famous "smoking gun" tape, which established that Nixon knew of White House efforts to cover up the scandal six days after the Watergate break-in on June 17, 1972. Liddy, one of the masterminds of the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters, served longer in prison for Watergate crimes than any of the other conspirators.
Frank Smist, 28, a Georgetown University graduate student with a briefcase in hand, was, at 6 a.m., officially the first in line to hear the tapes. After listening to two hours of tapes, he emerged from his rendezvous with history and pronounced to waiting cameras: "They confirmed my worst suspicions."
Washington is a town that once hung on every House Judiciary Committee revelation about the cover-up, savored each juicy phrase minted by the Watergate conspirators: "stonewall it," "modified limited hangout," "cancer on the presidency."
But yesterday, as the public inauguration of the tapes turned into a media circus, with reporters outnumbering a meager handful of history's voyeurs two to one and elbowing each other for interviews, the past seemed far away, anticlimactic.
"I see the same TV reporters who covered Watergate; we all look a little older," reminisced CBS-TV correspondent Fred Graham, natty in a blue blazer, after he performed in an open door leading to the listening room.
"We always kidded ourselves about 'wallowing in Watergate.' I'm not going to call this 'the last wallow.' In the future they'll be releasing other tapes and we'll all be charging down here to do the same thing."
Again, laughter cracked the scholarly silence of the East Search Room when Nixon complimented White House Counsel John W. Dean III for containing the scandal in the tape of Sept. 15, 1972, the day the indictments of minor figures were handed down.
"Goldwater put it in context," Nixon remarked on the tape. "He said, 'Well, for Christ's sake, everybody bugs everybody else. We know that.'"
Later, Nixon advised his campaign manager, Clark MacGregor, to "get a good night's sleep and don't bug anybody without asking me -- OK?"
Until now, only federal prosecutors, Nixon and his associates and those at the Watergrate trials had been privy to the taped conversations that ultimately made Nixon the first U.S. president to resign. All told, 12 1/2 hours of tapes were made public, but 6,000 hours of other conversations remain sealed until the courts decide whether they will be made public.
The three major networks, Warner Communications the Public Broadcasting System and others are pushing to have the conversations made public, with entrepreneurs salivating over their commercial value as records and tapes. Nixon, who told TV personality David Frost that he'd sure as the . . . dickens" wished he'd destroyed the tapes, is fighting to keep them secret. Nixon contends the tapes should not be available "to be played at cocktail parties and in satiric productions, and to enterprising and imaginative recipients."
Much of the tapes sound as if they were recorded inside a grinding disposal, or, at best, amidst the clatter of a noisy kitchen. "It sounded like a crockery fight," observed WJLA-TV film critic John Corcoran.
Some tapes, however, are of excellent quality.
Still, listeners could hear plates crashing on a few tapes, pens scratching on note pads, birds chirping on the White House lawn and cave-like echoes. That should be understandable, said Jim Hastings, 34, chief archivist for the Nixon tapes project. After all, he said, Nixon ordered the Secret Service to bug him by implanting five microphones inside his Oval Office desk and inside two lamps flanking the fireplace. Other recordings were made from his secret hideaway office in the Executive Office Building and on the telephone in the Lincoln Sitting Room of the White House.
Nonetheless, if the guffaws, chortles and general amusement provoked by certain sections of the tapes are any measure of their commercial potential, entrepreneurs are likely to continue beating down the courthouse doors to get at them.
American University students Gabriel Berger, 20, and his Bethesda housemate, J. Hunter Bryan, 21, agreed that their made Tuesday midnight scramble to throw sleeping bags, carrots and orange juice into the car and camp outside the Archives had been worth it.
"This has been a real ego trip," said Berger, who was passed from NBC to ABC to CBS for his thoughts on the tapes.
Unfortunately, Berger and Bryan added, they spent the night at the wrong Archives door, on Constitution Avenue. They discovered their mistake when a Philadelphia television reporter came by at 4 a.m. to scout out the mob that never materialized. But by the time they moved around the building, Smist had taken the head of the line.
"I figured on selling my place in line for $1,000," said Bryan, who added that he would have paid "at least $100" to be among the first to hear the tapes.He was still shaking his head over the fact that the sequel to the "Star Wars" movie was drawing his friends at a frenzied pace the tapes could never touch.
Elizabeth Pimental, a Houston nurse on a visit to Washington, found the tapes a little "boring." But she was hardly disappointed since she'd come "to find out a little more of Nixon's way of dealing with people, his tactics. It's reliving Watergate."
Arlington Heights, Ill., housewife Shirley Wendorf, who arrived with her 19-year-old daughter Sarah, said that she'd felt as if she'd been allowed inside the Oval Office itself.
"It was like eavesdropping," she said. "It was really something when I heard Nixon say, 'Game plan' to get the votes. It's unbelievable that he didn't destroy them . . . that he ever taped them in the first place."
Since all the tapes had been played in court, there were no new Watergate revelations. But listeners said they came away with a feel for the nuances behind Nixon's words that had been impossible to pick up from reading edited transcripts.
The former president's barnyard expletives were not deleted from the tapes.
The tapes will be played at the National Archives in several sessions, from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday.Tickets for the 96 seats are offered each day on a first-come, first-served basis.