Alumnus digitizes Nixon tapes from Watergate scandal for political figures

Campus Editor and Campus Editor

As a graduate student in 2007, University alumnus Luke Nichter began a project that to this day, not even the United States government has undertaken.

Nichter, an associate professor of history at Texas A&M University-Central Texas, runs the only website that digitizes and makes available the audio tapes and transcripts from former president Richard Nixon’s administration.

“There’s a Nixon for every occasion. Nixon has many different sides,” Nichter said. “[These tapes] help show the complexity of this person.”

Since its launch six years ago, nixontapes.org has half a million hits and approximately 2,300 hours spread over 2.5 terabytes of hard drives that contain more than 7,000 audio files, according to the site. Nixon secretly recorded 3,700 hours of his phone calls and meetings across the executive offices between 1971 and 1973, according to the site.

A native of Perrysburg Township and Weston, Nichter finished his undergraduate career at the University in 1999 with a degree in business administration. After doing fellowships at the London School of Economics and the University of Oxford, he then returned to the University from 2004-08 to receive his Ph.D in policy history.

Before taking his current position in Texas five years ago, Nichter worked in the US House of Representatives and the British House of Commons.

Besides digitizing the National Archives’ releases, his site, which began as a doctoral dissertation, adds context and references to other sources, he said.

“The archives makes them accessible,” he said. “I like to say that I make them visible.”

This undertaking attracted the attention of prominent political figures included in the tapes. Former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld, former National Security Adviser and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former president George H.W. Bush are some of those who have reached out to Nichter about his site.

He has even been an authority for Hollywood.

In “The Butler,” directed by Lee Daniels, John Cusack portrays Nixon. Both Daniels and Cusack sought Nichter’s advice for how to take on the role.

Nixon resigned after the Watergate scandal where he tried to cover up his involvement in a break-in at the Democratic National Committee Headquarters.

The latest tapes released by the National Archives and Records Administration in August are approximately 340 hours and 140,000 pages of documents covering April 9 through July 12, 1973— up to the Watergate period of the Nixon administration. Since it takes approximately 30 years for White House documents to be declassified, this information is new fodder for historians, Nichter said.

“There are a ton of unanswered questions, even today,” he said. “I’ll be learning from these tapes for months and years.”

As will other historians, or anyone, interested in Nixon’s presidency. Right now is the best time to access that info, since this was the last big release, said Benjamin Greene, assistant professor in the history department.

“We’re at the stage where we’re at the end of the Nixon era,” he said.

And while presidential recordings aren’t a new thing, Nixon was the only one with voice-activated recordings in seven different rooms, Greene said.

“That’s what makes his recordings so rich,” he said. “You get a sense of the individual that’s not always flattering.”

A prominent moment in the newly-released tapes for Nichter is when Nixon spoke with Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev on the eve of a week-long summit in Washington, D.C.

The two Cold War rivals are talking about family and vacations, he said.

“The only two leaders in the world capable of destroying the world … [and they’re] talking like old friends,” he said.

An additional 700 hours of further tapes have yet to be declassified, according to Nixontapes.org.

Up next for Nichter is a book on the Nixon tapes. Slated for Aug. 9, 2014, the 40th anniversary of Nixon’s resignation, it’s a collaboration with historian Doug Brinkley.

“Nixon had a lot of shortcomings and a lot of achievements,” Nichter said. “These new tapes capture both those shortcomings and those achievements.”