The Nixon Tapes: Eavesdropping On History

Bill Plante is a White House correspondent for CBS News.
It's hard to deny the guilty pleasure inherent in listening to other peoples' private conversations, particularly when you know most of them had no clue they'd be overheard for history.

On one hand, we profess to believe in privacy and the laws which protect it -- statutes forbidding wiretapping and eavesdropping.

On the other, the historical value of a real-time conversational record is priceless -- and listening in is fascinating.

The Nixon Library, as part of its transfer from the former President's estate to the National Archives, has just released 11 and one half hours of taped conversations and 78,000 documents. It's all available on the web right here.

The tapes are from the period November 3 - 19, 1972 - just before and after the Presidential election of November 7th.

On election night, President Nixon - who had just won a landslide victory over Senator George McGovern - was nonetheless still annoyed at McGovern for claiming that Nixon wasn't doing enough to end the Vietnam war.

In a telephone conversation early the next morning with political aide Harry Dent, the President, referring to McGovern, says, "The son-of-a-bitch - didn't you think we about the worst candidate?"

The raw material of history is sometimes VERY raw.

Taking a congratulatory call from Henry Kissinger, then the National Security Adviser, Nixon says, "You know, this fellow (McGovern) to the last was a prick. Did you see his concession statement?"

Kissinger, already adept at courting his political patrons, responded: "he was ungenerous, he was petulant, unworthy."

Nixon, who did most of the talking, came right back.

"Right. As you probably know, I responded in a very decent way to him."

Kissinger could only agree: "I thought it was a great statement."

Preparing a story for The Evening News, we played some of the tapes for Senator George McGovern. He was in Washington to celebrate his 85th birthday this weekend in a reunion with friends and former staff members.

"I do think it's kind of sad that the president of the United States in the moment of his greatest triumph was so angry, so peevish about the whole situation," he said. "I have no malice towards him. I didn't then, and I don't today."

The newly released documents don't seem to contain any headlines, but they add new details to the already-rich trove of material on the 37th President.

  • Bill Plante

    Bill Plante is a CBS News Senior White House Correspondent