On Aug. 9, 1974, President Richard M. Nixon ate a hearty breakfast of corned beef hash and poached eggs in the Lincoln Sitting Room and tried to figure out what to say at a meeting set for 9:30 a.m., when his chief of staff walked in and put a sheet of paper on his desk.
Nixon read the one sentence it contained and signed it: "I hereby resign the Office of President of the United States."
The only president to resign, forced out of office by his cover-ups of the Watergate scandal, Nixon died in 1994, but today, exactly 25 years after leaving the White House, he still commands attention and makes headlines. He will make still more news at the start of the next millennium when 264 hours of tapes detailing his "abuses of governmental power" are scheduled to go on sale for the first time.
For the moment, Nixon's White House tapes are heard only by those willing to travel to the National Archives facility in College Park, don headsets and try to make out what is being said.
But in January, according to a timetable reluctantly approved by the Nixon estate in 1996, the tapes are to be duplicated for sale to the general public, including eager radio and television broadcasters who want to regale their listeners with lively excerpts--such as the one in which he ordered a burglary at the Brookings Institution.
"You're to break into the place, rifle the files and bring them out," Nixon told his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, on June 30, 1971, in the midst of an outburst over critics of the war in Vietnam, especially those who may have been involved in leaking the Pentagon Papers, a secret Defense Department history of the conflict. Nixon suspected some telltale documents could be found at Brookings.
"Just go in and take them," he demanded, almost shouting. "Go in around 8 or 9 o'clock . . . and clean them out."
No such burglary was carried out, although a White House operative appears to have checked out the think tank and concluded that entry would be too difficult. Nixon was frustrated that it wasn't done immediately.
"We're up against an enemy, a conspiracy that are using any means," Nixon told Haldeman and national security adviser Henry A. Kissinger the next morning, July 1, 1971. Pounding his desk repeatedly, he said, "We are going to use any means. Is that clear? Did they get the Brookings Institute [sic] raided last night? Get it done! I want it done! I want the Brookings safe cleared out."
National Archives spokeswoman Susan Cooper said plans for sales of the tapes are in the initial stages and prices have yet to be set. But those familiar with tentative arrangements say it is likely that individual conversations will be available for purchase, cassette by cassette, along with logs outlining the subjects discussed and, in the case of the 12 1/2 hours tapes played at the 1974 Watergate cover-up trial, transcripts.
Officials expect the cover-up trial tapes to be the most popular. They include the "cancer on the presidency" warning that White House counsel John W. Dean III delivered to Nixon on March 21, 1973, and the "smoking gun" tape of June 23, 1972, shortly after the break-in and bugging at Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate. In that conversation, which smashed Nixon's hopes of surviving a Senate impeachment trial, the president approved a plan to use the CIA to limit the FBI's Watergate investigation for political reasons rather than the national security reasons Nixon had given in public statements.
Tapes aside, Nixon has been the subject of at least four historical studies this year and the target of a wicked movie satire, "Dick," which is drawing large audiences to see history turned into farce, with barbs for everyone from Nixon to Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.
"It's juvenile, it's wicked, it's mean," said John Dean, who has seen the movie. "No one is spared. But it is also funny. I saw it in a theater with young people and older people. There are two sets of jokes. The older people laugh at one set and the kids at another. It's pure farce. But they won't be playing it at the Nixon Library."
The succession of high-level scandals and independent counsels since Watergate may also have produced some generational differences. Dean said he was startled by a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll indicating that the misdeeds of Watergate--such as Nixon's misuse of the IRS, the FBI and the CIA--have faded considerably. The poll found that 76 percent of Americans now think that "other political scandals" of the past 25 years were "just as bad" as Watergate. Only 18 percent said Watergate was worse.
Why the endless fascination with Nixon then? There may be two answers.
For older people, said Lee Edwards, a Catholic University professor of politics and author of several political biographies, "he's been mixed up in our lives, for people on the right and on the left, for all of our lives."
For younger people, according to Stanley Kutler, a University of Wisconsin historian and editor of "Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes," Nixon has become "a comic figure."
"I mean that in a literary sense," Kutler said, citing the movie "Dick" as an example. "You talk about politics and say, 'I am not a crook,' and people laugh."
Still more Nixon White House tapes, totaling 445 hours of listening time, are to be made public for listening at the National Archives on Oct. 5. But the Nixon estate, which is seeking more than $200 million for the government's seizure of his tapes and papers, has voiced many complaints about particular segments and could still delay the release by filing a formal protest.
The 445 hours of recordings cover conversations from February 1971, when a taping system was set up in the Oval Office, to July 1971 and represent the first of five chronological releases to be completed around 2003, according to Karl Weissenbach, director of the Nixon Presidential Materials Project at the Archives.
The recording machines were shut off in July 1973 after former White House aide Alexander P. Butterfield disclosed their existence to the Senate Watergate Committee. Nixon held on for 13 more months, until disclosure of the smoking gun tape convinced him that the situation was hopeless.
"I brought myself down," he acknowledged later. "I have impeached myself."