The Washington Post dubbed it “the smoking gun tape.” It was the recording that doomed the presidency of Richard Nixon. The transcript of a conversation that took place on June 23, 1972, when made public by Supreme Court order in July 1974, became the climactic revelation of the Watergate affair, proving beyond all doubt that Nixon used CIA director Richard Helms to suborn the FBI’s investigation of the Watergate burglars.
Fifty years after the botched break-in that transformed American politics, the gangsterly dialogue of the smoking gun tape is less shocking than Trumpian. Blackmail as a mode of White House politics? President 45 had nothing on President 37.
“We protected Helms from one hell of a lot of things,” Nixon growled on the tape. “You open that scab there’s a hell of a lot of things, and we just feel that it would be very detrimental to have this thing go any further. This involves these Cubans, [ex-CIA man and Watergate burglar Howard] Hunt, and a lot of hanky-panky that we have nothing to do with ourselves.”
Nixon advised chief of staff H.R. Haldeman on how to get the CIA director to kill the FBI’s probe.
“Say, ‘Look, the problem is that this will open the whole, the whole Bay of Pigs thing, and the President just feels that, ah, without going into the details … don’t, don’t lie to them to the extent to say there is no involvement, but just say this is sort of a comedy of errors, bizarre, without getting into it, the President believes that it is going to open the whole Bay of Pigs thing up again.’”
The June 23 tape was incontrovertible evidence that Nixon had obstructed justice. The last vestige of support for Nixon on Capitol Hill evaporated. Two weeks later, on Aug. 8, 1974, Nixon resigned.
But the “smoking gun tape” was not only the denouement of the Watergate affair. It was — and is — an unsettling glimpse into the dark heart of the Watergate scandal, and the workings of American power in the mid-20th century. The commander in chief voiced ominous threats that reeked of unspoken crimes to his intelligence chief, whose agency had employed four of the seven burglars. For the next 50 years, Nixon’s entourage, JFK conspiracy theorists, journalists and historians pondered the June 23 tape as a Rosetta Stone of Nixon’s psyche. What “hanky panky” was Nixon referring to? What did he mean by “the whole Bay of Pigs thing?” What story was going to “blow” if the CIA didn’t cooperate?
A long-overlooked White House tape provides the answers. The “hanky panky” referred to CIA assassination operations in the early 1960s. The “whole Bay of Pigs thing” was the Agency’s reaction to its most humiliating defeat. And the story that might blow was the connection between those events and the murder of JFK.