By James D. Robenalt
On the afternoon of October 1, 1973, President Richard M. Nixon and his chief of staff, Alexander M. Haig, Jr., slipped away from the White House and went for a rambling, nearly two-hour car ride through the Washington countryside.
Nixon and Haig left the White House because they did not want to risk anyone overhearing them talk about a sensitive matter. Or perhaps they feared that someone might use remnants of the White House recording system, though it was supposedly disconnected, to capture their words. Given all the leaks to the press, and the exposure of just about every administration secret up to and including the existence of the White House tapes, paranoia wasn’t entirely unjustified.
Just prior to this unscheduled outing, Nixon’s long-time personal secretary, Rose Mary Woods, had come to the president in a panic. She breathlessly told him she had accidentally caused a four to five minute buzz on a subpoenaed tape she had been transcribing. And the recording appeared to be a crucial one: it encompassed meetings on June 20, 1972 between the president and his top aides, H. R. “Bob” Haldeman and John D. Ehrlichman, on what was Nixon’s first day back in the White House since the Watergate break-in, which had occurred three days earlier.
Nixon told Woods not to worry, as he didn’t think the specific portion of the tape she accidentally altered had been subpoenaed. Still, he immediately called Haig, according to Nixon’s memoir RN, and told him what happened. The two men then left the White House for their impromptu car ride.
Two months after Woods’s private admission, the discovery of an 18½ minute gap on that tape caused a national furor, second only to the public’s reaction to the Saturday Night massacre. Public disclosure of a two-toned buzz or hum that caused the gap in conversation supercharged calls for impeachment and finally unraveled the landslide electoral victory Nixon had achieved just two years earlier. It left the political landscape scarred, even four decades later, and plagued by culture wars that persist to this day. Nixon’s term could not have ended in a more devastating way for the office of the presidency or the nation.
Yet more than 40 years later, the infamous gap remains one of Watergate’s most enduring and tantalizing mysteries. Technological efforts to recover what was erased (or obscured by the humming noise) have all failed, although on fleeting portions of the tapes faint, almost ghostly, human voices can be detected. In 2009, it was thought that a forensic examination of Haldeman’s handwritten notes might reveal the substance of the conversation. That experiment by the National Archives failed too.
Recently released testimony from Nixon himself just might hold the key to unscrambling what happened forty years ago. And it turns out that answering two of the three main questions about the gap—who caused it and why—not only solves most of a historical mystery, but is also critical to understanding Nixon’s downfall.