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25 years after Watergate, the fight over its residue roars to life

May 8, 1997

WASHINGTON (AP) _ He resigned in disgrace, escaped trial only through a presidential pardon and spent the rest of his life fighting to keep the public from hearing the tapes that brought him down.

The fight continues years after Richard Nixon’s death, and so far, Nixon has largely won.

Twenty-five years ago, Congress passed a law that seized Nixon’s 3,700 hours of secretly recorded tapes and 42 million pages of documents and ordered that all of it be opened to the public.

Most of it remains secret.

Only 17 percent of the documents and 7 percent of the tapes, all stored at the National Archives in suburban College Park, Md., have been made available for public reading and listening.

In another potential Nixon victory, the government faces the prospect of having to pay Nixon’s estate millions of dollars in compensation for taking his tapes and papers.

In the latest legal skirmish, U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson ruled last month that the archives must turn over to Nixon’s estate about 820 hours of the tapes. The estate would be free to do what it wants with them _ even destroy them.

These are taped snippets that contain personal, nonhistorical conversations _ plans for Tricia Nixon’s White House wedding, for example, or Nixon’s discussions with his doctor. The law said, and the court ruled, that purely personal materials were to go back to Nixon.

But the tapes are old and fragile. They are poor recordings, extremely hard to decipher. Cutting them could damage them.

Christopher Beam, an archivist who spent four years in a windowless room reviewing tapes, said it will be dangerous to snip out the private conversations. Nixon and his aides ``jumped around like grasshoppers from topic to topic to topic,″ he said.

``Playing these tapes again to cut out the private segments runs the risk of stretching them, breaking them, damaging them,″ he said. ``And I’m sure Nixon’s representatives are aware of that.″

The archives made that argument to the judge _ and said the task could take 10,000 hours, further delaying when the public and historians can hear the tapes.

Too bad, Johnson ruled; the archives should have thought of that in 1974 when the Supreme Court ordered the return of private segments.

Meantime, negotiators have tried to reach an out-of-court settlement in the Nixon estate’s suit for compensation.

Siding with Nixon in 1992, an appeals court noted that even George Washington was paid for his papers.

Under a tentative agreement, the government would pay the Nixon estate $26 million and take over the privately run Nixon Library & Birthplace, which will make it part of the network of presidential libraries. The archives’ collection of Nixon papers and tapes would be moved to California, and some of the payment would go to build a repository for them.

Nixon estate lawyer R. Stan Mortenson and archives spokesman Susan Cooper will not confirm that a deal is in the works, although both say negotiations have been held.

But Nixon biographer Stanley Kutler, who has taken the archives to court to force faster release of the tapes and documents, and presidential historian Douglas Brinkley said they have heard from people close to the talks that a deal is being worked out.

``My information is that the White House has played a very active role in promoting a financial settlement,″ said Kutler. ``That is quite obvious, because the incumbent president has an interest in this matter for his own future.″

Brinkley predicts a public outcry if anything approaching $26 million is finally agreed upon.

``Having taxpayers pay all this money when (Nixon and his heirs) have been so uncooperative for nearly 20 years borders on a kind of outrageous ransom,″ he said.

Even though the tapes and papers would remain under the archives’ control, historians are uneasy about moving them to California, into the sphere of the Nixon facility, which Brinkley characterizes as ``more of a shrine than a library.″

Presidential libraries _ nine exist, housing papers of every president from Herbert Hoover to Jimmy Carter _ tend to become image-polishing institutions that bend to the wishes of the former presidents’ families and associates, historians say.

Brinkley sees a move to California as a final victory for Richard Nixon.

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