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Nixon testimony sheds little light on missing tape mystery

November 10, 2011|By Bob Drogin | Washington Bureau
(AP Photo/File )

The 18.5-minute gap was one of the last great mysteries of the Watergate scandal.

For years, historians – and at least one of his former aides – had speculated that President Nixon may have been responsible for deleting 18.5 minutes from a potentially incriminating Oval Office tape recording that had been subpoenaed by Watergate prosecutors.

Nixon’s longtime secretary, Rose Mary Woods, couldn’t explain the long buzz on the recording from June 20, 1972. She told investigators she might have hit the wrong button on a tape player while taking a 5-minute phone call. But she also said that she once saw Nixon “pushing the buttons back and forth” on the machine.

PHOTOS: Nixon and Watergate

Nixon’s former chief of staff, Alexander Haig, similarly suggested Nixon might be the culprit. He said Nixon was famously ham-fisted with machinery, and that the president might have inadvertently – or perhaps deliberately - caused the erasures while he was listening to the tape.

For his part, Nixon claimed he “practically blew my stack” when he heard about the missing portion of his conversation with his longtime aide, H.R. “Bob” Haldeman.  Testifying to a grand jury in June 1975, Nixon said he could not recall what they had discussed.

Haldeman’s notes indicated they had talked about the arrests three days earlier  of five men with ties to Nixon’s re-election campaign who were caught bugging phones inside the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate complex. The resulting investigations ultimately led to Nixon’s resignation.

Nixon told the grand jury that he didn’t have any idea who might have erased the tape or why. But he acknowledged that he was inept with tape recorders. “I know very little about such machinery,” he said.

He also said that when he listened to the rest of the tape and heard his voice, “I wonder what I had had to drink that day.”

He appeared to blame his underlings.  As president, he said, “I did the big things and did them reasonably well and screwed up on the little things, partly because the staff didn’t bring them to me.”

When he learned of the gap, Nixon said he ordered Haig to “find out how this damn thing happened.” But no one confessed, and the mystery remains unsolved.

“If you are interested in my view as to what happened, it is very simple,” Nixon said. “It is that it was an accident.”

DOCUMENTS: Read Nixon's grand jury testimony

bob.drogin@latimes.com

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