"Christ, impeach the president," Richard Nixon raged one April night in 1973, cursing his enemies, giving full voice for the first time to his worst fear.
"I'm the only one at the present time in this whole wide blinking world that can do a g--d--- thing, you know. Keep it from blowing up," he railed.
"Look, if we went in with sackcloth and ashes and fired the whole White House staff," Nixon told his press secretary, "that isn't going to satisfy these g--d--- cannibals. They'd still be after us."
"Who are they after?" he shouted. "They're after me, the president. They hate my guts."
Nearly a quarter-century after their existence was revealed, 201 hours of secretly recorded tapes from the Nixon White House have been transcribed for the first time. They show the darkest side of the former president, and they strongly suggest that Nixon's guilty knowledge of the Watergate scandal, crimes and consequences arose earlier and ran deeper than previously known.
These tapes, identified by an act of Congress as evidence of Nixon's abuse of power, were kept from the public by the former president through 22 years of litigation, from his resignation until after his death.
They now have been transcribed by Stanley Kutler, the University of Wisconsin historian who sued for and won their release last year. His work will be published next month as Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes (Free Press). An advance copy was provided to the New York Times.
"When I read it, and I read it cover to cover, what I saw was Richard Nixon imploding, and it's devastating, it's amazing to watch, and the implosion is created by his own deceptions," said John Dean III, the former White House counsel whose testimony helped bring down Nixon.
The tapes show one of the century's most skilled politicians in a prolonged act of self-destruction, lying to the public, to his political allies, to his closest aides and advisers, and finally to himself. They depict him as eloquent and profane, charming and chilling, brilliant and hapless, powerful and helpless.
They reveal many new details of dimly understood aspects of the scandal, which set a standard for political corruption never since equaled. For example, the president, in the Oval Office, thanked a businessman for supplying hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash used by the Nixon White House as hush money.
"I am aware of what you're doing to help out," Nixon told the businessman, Thomas Pappas, in March 1973. The cash went to try to buy the silence of the burglars who broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at Washington's Watergate hotel on June 17, 1972.
Much of the money supplied by Pappas came from members and supporters of the right-wing junta that ruled Greece from 1967 to 1974, a former congressional investigator said in an interview this week.
The transcripts depict a campaign finance scandal that dwarfs the current controversy in Washington. Nixon, the statesman who opened doors to China and the Soviet Union, also sold ambassadorships for $250,000. He and his aides shook down business executives and labor leaders for millions of dollars. The president also kept a large stash of diverted campaign cash as a political slush fund at the White House.
On July 25, 1972, he asked about its size. Told that $300,000 was on hand, Nixon seemed disappointed. "That isn't a hell of a lot," he said.
The transcripts show Nixon, weeks or months earlier in the crisis than was previously known, talking seriously about destroying the White House tapes, resigning the presidency, and facing the looming threat of impeachment. Some excerpts from the tapes, which are housed at the National Archives, were published this week by the Washington Post and Newsweek magazine, which jointly made their own transcriptions.
In recent weeks, historians have published books based on secret White House tapes recorded by Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Those presidents turned on their taping systems themselves. But Nixon's system, first installed in the Oval Office in February 1971, was automatically activated by voices. And the tapes suggest that Nixon sometimes seemed to forget that his words were being recorded.
For example, on Aug. 1, 1972, discussing the hush money for the Watergate burglars, the president said: "They have to be paid. That's all there is to that" _ clear evidence of obstruction of justice.
The genesis of Watergate lay in a front-page story published by the New York Times on June 13, 1971: the first installment of the Pentagon Papers, a secret history of the Vietnam war. Daniel J. Ellsberg, a former National Security Council adviser, said he had given the papers to the Times. This spurred Nixon and his aides to create a covert team, called the Plumbers, to stop such "leaks" of classified information.
"We're up against an enemy, a conspiracy," Nixon told his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, on July 1, 1971. "They're using any means. We are going to use any means. Is that clear?"
In Nixon's mind, the tapes make clear, this conspiracy came to include long-haired antiwar militants, former aides, the Kennedy family, "rich Jews" at the Internal Revenue Service, and Ford Foundation philanthropists, among many others.
The next day, the president said: "I want to go after everyone. I'm not so interested in Ellsberg, but we have got to go after everyone who's a member of this conspiracy."
"We're going to prosecute _ got to prosecute everybody," the president said. "Does that bother you as being repressive?"
Haldeman replied: "We've got to be repressive."
Three months later, the Plumbers broke into the Los Angeles office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist, seeking information that could destroy his reputation. That same team was arrested on June 17, 1972, in the break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate hotel.
Nixon and his aides began immediately to cover up their ties to the burglars. But four weeks after the break-in, on July 19, 1972, the president's chief domestic adviser, John Ehrlichman, warned him that "disloyal guys" _ federal investigators at the Justice Department and the FBI _ "are going to second-guess any story that you come up with."
"Right," said the president.
"Whatever we come up with has got to be water-tight," Ehrlichman said.
The president replied: "That's why the cover-up, the cover-up thing will be _ I wonder, I wonder."
That night, Nixon had an ominous vision. "I had a strange dream last night," he told Haldeman the next morning. "I can't believe that they can tie the thing to me. What's your feeling?"
Haldeman replied: "It'll be messy."
On Nov. 1, 1972, as election day approached, Nixon knew he would win by a landslide. He was confident he could fend off the scandal. People would never believe he was part of Watergate. The break-in was "so dumb" that "tying it to us is an insult to our intelligence," he told Ehrlichman.
"We don't mind being called crooks, but not stupid crooks," Ehrlichman replied, laughing.
"That's right," the president said. "We know we'll never convince them on our morality, but do they think we're that dumb?"
After the Plumbers were convicted, Nixon considered "a counter-attack" _ "a hell of an investigation" into the finances of senators planning to hold Watergate hearings. "The Senate is full of people who take money," he told a soon-to-be-implicated aide, Charles Colson, on Feb. 3, 1973. "Christ, I was one of the few who didn't."
As the scandal spread, Nixon was forced to oust his closest aides. In May 1973, he made Gen. Alexander Haig Jr. his chief of staff. He told his new inner circle he was blameless in the Watergate affair, ignorant of its details, innocent of any wrongdoing.
"Believe me, I knew nothing about it, no g--d--- thing," he told Haig on May 11, 1973. And he faulted his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, for starting the practice of wiretapping the administration's perceived enemies.
"Henry ordered the whole g--d--- thing," Nixon told his press secretary, Ronald Ziegler, on May 14. "He ordered it all, believe you me. He was the one who was in my office jumping up and down about, "This and that got out.'
"I said, all right, investigate the sons of bitches," the president said, his voice rising to a shout. "And he read every one of those taps. He reveled in it, he groveled in it, he wallowed in it."
As investigators closed in on the White House, Nixon raised his strongest shield, a claim of "national security."
"You and I both know that the main thing we've got to do is keep our iron hand on the presidential papers," he told Haig. "National security, national security, national security _ that's what the Times _ g--d---ed people stole those Pentagon papers, and now they want to get out there and the whole g--d---ed files and we're not going to allow that. You know that _ that, that's too hot. That's too hot, Al."
Senate investigators learned of the secret tapes on July 13, 1973. The battle to control the tapes which now have been transcribed by Kutler, continued for 22 years, long after Nixon's resignation in August 1974, even after his death.