Sunday, October 11, 2015

“When I finally asked him if maybe these logs had been transcribed from tapes,” said the investigator, “he sort of slumped back in his chair and said, ‘I wish you hadn’t asked me that.’ And then he told us the whole thing.

So Alexander Butterfield has a few boxes of additional material he'd like to share. Twenty boxes, to be precise.

Butterfield, of course, was the Nixon aide who gave an honest answer to the question, "Mr. Butterfield, are you aware of the installation of any listening devices in the Oval Office of the president?"

Bob Woodward is telling the story in a new book, The Last of the President's Men. But here is a more paranoid version of the Butterfield story, as Hunter Thompson remembered it.

The axis of Nixon’s new and perhaps final strategy began to surface with the first mention of “the tapes,” and it has developed with the inevitability of either desperation or inspired strategy ever since. The key question is whether the “constitutional crisis” Nixon seems determined to bring down on himself by forcing the Tape Issue all the way to the Supreme Court is a crisis that was genuinely forced on him by accident—or whether it is a masterpiece of legal cynicism that bubbled up at some midnight hour many weeks ago from the depths of attorney John Wilson’s legendary legal mind.

The conventional press wisdom—backed up by what would normally be considered “good evidence,” or at least reliable leaks from the Ervin committee—holds that the existence of the presidential tapes & the fact that Nixon has been systematically bugging every conversation he’s ever had with anybody, in any of his offices, ever since he got elected, was a secret that was only unearthed by luck, shrewdness, and high-powered sleuth-work. According to unofficial but consistently reliable sources, Alex Butterfield—current head of the Federal Aviation Administration and former “chief for internal security” at the White House—was privately interviewed “more or less on a hunch” by Ervin committee investigators, and during the course of this interview talked himself into such an untenable position while trying to explain the verbatim-accuracy of some Oval Office logs that he finally caved in and spilled the whole story about Nixon’s taping apparatus.

According to one of the investigators who conducted the private interview—in the ground-floor bowels of the Ervin committee’s “boiler room” in the Old Senate Office Building—Butterfield couldn’t explain why the logs of Nixon’s conversations in his own office were so precise that they included pauses, digressions, half sentences, and even personal speech patterns.

“When I finally asked him if maybe these logs had been transcribed from tapes,” said the investigator, “he sort of slumped back in his chair and said, ‘I wish you hadn’t asked me that.’ And then he told us the whole thing.”

I was sitting in the hearing room about twenty-four hours later when word began buzzing around the press tables, just before lunch, that the next person to face the committee would be an unscheduled “mystery witness”—instead of Nixon’s personal attorney, Herbert Kalmbach, who was officially scheduled to appear when Ervin and his cohorts came back from lunch. I walked across the street to the air-conditioned bar in the Capitol Hill Hotel and heard some of the press people speculating about a man named Alex Butterfield who was going to tell the committee that Nixon had made tape recordings of all the disputed conversations referred to in John Dean’s testimony.

“Well, that should just about wrap it up,” somebody said.

“Bullshit,” said another voice. “He’ll burn those tapes before he gives them to Ervin.”


“Shit, if he thought they’d be any good to him, the committee would have had them a long time ago. [J. Fred] Buzhardt would have turned them over personally to Sam Dash five minutes after Dean finished reading his opening statement.”

The conversation rambled on, punctuated by the arrival of beer and sandwiches. The only other comment that sticks in my head from that lunch break before Butterfield came on was a rumor that the “mystery witness” had been “dug up” by staffers on the Republican side of the Ervin committee. It hardly seemed worth wondering about at the time . . . but that was before either Butterfield or Haldeman had testified about the tapes, and also before Nixon’s carefully considered announcement that he couldn’t release the tapes to anybody—despite subpoenas from both the Ervin committee and the special prosecutor—for fear of undermining the whole foundation of American government.

The president has made it absolutely clear that he has no intention of releasing those tapes—not even to an elite panel of judges who would hear them in strict privacy to determine their relevance—unless the U.S. Supreme Court compels him to do so, with a “definitive order.”

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