On the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, it’s time to meet the man who sold all that blank reel-to-reel tape to the White House, 18½ minutes of which became famous for what wasn’t on it, not what was. His name is Fred Burke. He’s 89 and he keeps the subpoena he received from Watergate investigators framed on the wall of his Florida home.
“I started with Kennedy,” Fred said. “When Johnson took over, we did a lot of things for him.”
And Nixon? We’ll get to him.
Fred was born in Washington. His father worked at a poultry market on M Street. The family was very poor.
“I never actually had a bed until I was almost 13,” Fred said over the phone from Palm Beach Gardens, where he lives with his wife, Iris. “I slept on the couch.”
But Fred had a couple of things going for him.
“The thing that my father said to me when I was growing up was, ‘We don't have anything, but there's one thing you have that nobody can ever take away from you.’ That was my word.”
Fred was honest and he was a good salesman. In 1958, he co-founded a consumer stereo store called Audio Center. From his store on Fairmount Avenue in Bethesda he would eventually count among his customers Jack Kent Cooke, Abe Pollin and assorted politicians.
Audio Center was half of Fred’s work life. His other half was Professional Products, the firm he founded in the late ’60s with partners Charles Faulkner and Carter Kaufmann to focus on government clients. Professional Products became a preferred supplier for the technical department of the Secret Service, run by a man named Al Wong.
Fred sold the Secret Service cassette recorders that could be installed inside briefcases. He sold them Sennheiser microphones the size of a dime. He sold the White House three televisions that were installed side by side in a console so Lyndon B. Johnson could watch various newscasts simultaneously.
“He wanted to see everything going on at the same time,” Fred said. “He had a switcher so he could switch the audio.”
Fred’s company sold the White House the eight-track tape player that was installed on Air Force One. And when LBJ wanted to listen to country music on a flight to his Texas ranch, it was Fred whom the Secret Service woke up with a 2 a.m. phone call to find out where they could get the albums. Fred told them to contact the record distributor at 7 a.m., provide the list of albums, then send someone over to pick them up.
By the time the eight-tracks were delivered to Andrews Air Force Base, Air Force One had taken off. Fred said they were flown to Texas on Air Force Two.
“To me, that was the biggest waste of money ever,” he said.
At the same time that Fred was selling equipment to the Secret Service, he was selling stereo gear to customers from the Soviet Embassy. The CIA asked him to report what they bought.
As for that reel-to-reel audiotape, what the Nixon White House wanted was the tape in blank white boxes, without the manufacturer’s name on the outside. And they wanted it in massive quantities, from 200 to 300 reels per order. “For the archives,” Fred said he was told.
“I knew they were recording everything, but obviously that’s not my business,” he said. “Then I get a call: ‘Rose Mary Woods needs a tape recorder.’ They want a real good one, not a normal tape recorder. They order a Uher tape recorder.”
This was so Woods, Nixon’s secretary, could transcribe all conversations recorded in the Oval Office.
As you will have heard, Republican operatives were caught breaking in to the Democratic National Committee headquarters. What did Nixon know and when did he know it? Well, one tape had 18½ minutes of silence, a gap that Woods described as “accidental.” The Secret Service asked Fred if that was possible.
“My response to the Secret Service was ‘bull----. There’s no accident with what happened there.’ ”
Some 18½ minutes may have been missing, but what remained was pretty bad: “What I meant is, you could get a million dollars,” Nixon had said. “And you could get it in cash. I know where it could be gotten.”
When Fred was subpoenaed in 1974, he supplied all the business records he was asked for. Investigators were especially interested in whether Nixon friend Bebe Rebozo had bought anything. (He hadn’t.)
“I always felt privileged to be part of whatever I did,” said Fred, who retired to Florida in 2000. “I was just very proud — based on my upbringing and so forth — that I had the opportunity to do that.”
And Fred played his small part in America’s history.
“Once he turned over the tapes, it was all over.”