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Nixon tapes span Watergate, Soviet summit

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. The Associated Press
Wednesday, August 21, 2013 - 8:13 am

YORBA LINDA, Calif. — In the hours after President Richard Nixon delivered his first major national address about Watergate, two future presidents called him to express their private support, according to audio recordings released Wednesday.

The April 30, 1973, calls with Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush were captured on a secret recording system that Nixon used to tape 3,700 hours of conversations between February 1971 and July 1973.

The final chronological installment of those tapes — 340 hours — were made public by the National Archives and Records Administration, along with more than 140,000 pages of text documents. Seven hundred hours remain sealed for national security and privacy reasons.

Reagan, governor of California at the time, called late in the evening of April 30 to support Nixon after the 37th president delivered a landmark speech about the Watergate scandal, which was rapidly ensnaring him.

Two top White House staffers and close Nixon confidants, H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, had resigned earlier in the day, as well as Attorney General Richard Kleindienst as the scandal picked up speed. White House counsel John W. Dean III was also fired that day.

In the speech, Nixon defended the integrity of the White House and said he was not aware of or connected to the Watergate break-in. He stressed that he supported punishment for those involved in possible criminal actions and said he accepted responsibility for ceding the authority of his campaign to others whose "zeal exceeded their judgment and who may have done wrong in a cause they deeply believed to be right."

Reagan told Nixon the speech was the right one to make and sympathized with the staff exodus.

"I just want you to know, we watched and my heart was with you. I know what this must have been and what this must have been in all these days and what you've been through," Reagan said.

"You can count on us, we're still behind you out here and I wanted you to know that you're in our prayers."

That same evening, Bush, who had recently been appointed chairman of the Republican National Committee, called to say he had watched the speech with "great pride."

This time, however, an angry and exhausted-sounding Nixon complained to Bush about the reaction from TV commentators.

"The folks may understand," Nixon said, before adding later: "To hell with the commentators."

The following year, Bush would privately write Nixon a letter urging him to resign.

Tapes released Wednesday also included a lengthy recording of Nixon and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev chatting warmly in the Oval Office before a historic summit in June 1973.

Nixon and Brezhnev met one-on-one with only an interpreter present for an hour on June 18 and chatted about personal topics, including their families.

The conversation happened before the start of a historic seven-day summit that was part of Nixon's larger strategy of detente with the Soviet Union.

"We must recognize, the two of us, that ... we head the two most powerful nations and, while we will naturally in negotiations have some differences, it is essential that those two nations, where possible, work together," Nixon told Brezhnev.

"If we decide to work together, we can change the world. That's what — that's my attitude as we enter these talks."

The conversation is remarkable because of the camaraderie that is evident, said Luke Nichter of Texas A&M University-Central Texas in Killeen, who runs a website cataloging Nixon's secret recordings. Both men discuss their children and Brezhnev even talks about his grandson's attempts to pass college entrance exams.

"These are Cold War archenemies who are talking like old friends," he said. "This is very unusual."

The recordings were released at the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda and cover April 9, 1973, to July 12, 1973, the day before the existence of the covert recording system was revealed to a Senate committee probing Watergate.

Previous tape releases show the president as a paranoid man who was not afraid to use bare-knuckle tactics to crush the enemies he saw all around him.

Tapes released in 2009 show, in particular, Nixon's obsession with the Kennedy family. He considered Ted Kennedy such a political threat, for example, that he ordered surveillance in hopes of catching him in an affair.

Nixon's second term was quickly overrun by the Watergate scandal, which began in 1972 when burglars tied to his re-election committee broke into the Democratic headquarters to get dirt on his political adversaries.

Faced with impeachment and a possible criminal indictment, Nixon resigned on Aug. 9, 1974 — a little more than a year after the tapes end — and retreated to his native California, where he was pardoned a month later by his successor, Gerald Ford.