Introduction

Don [Fulsom’s] class has been most fortunate to have his personal experience to help the students toward a more perfect understanding of a chapter in American life that should have warned us of the vital purposes of politics and government.  The warning stands.
— Jim McManus

In 1975, Nixon became the first president to testify before a grand jury. The 297-page transcript of his eleven hour testimony had never before been released—until now.

Pre-eminent Watergate scholar Stanley Kutler, along with the American Historical Association, the American Society for Legal History, the Organization of American Historians, and the Society of American Archivists, supported by sixteen declarations by “persons knowledgeable about the historical significance of Watergate and Nixon’s testimony,” petitioned the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to request an order for the release of President Nixon’s 1975 grand jury testimony, sealed at the National Records Administration for over three decades. In July of 2011, Chief District Judge Roy Lamberth ordered President Richard Nixon’s Grand Jury testimony to be unsealed.

Lamberth stated that “the special circumstances presented here – namely, undisputed historical interest in the requested records – far outweigh the need to maintain the secrecy of the records. The Court is confident that disclosure will greatly benefit the public and its understanding of Watergate without compromising the tradition and objectives of grand jury secrecy.” Grand jury testimony is kept secret both to protect innocent people (since grand jury hearings occur prior to indictment) and to protect witnesses who might otherwise be reluctant to testify.

There are exceptions to grand jury secrecy. Federal courts have found that Rule 6(e), the Federal Rule that codifies the grand jury secrecy obligation, “does not mean eternal secrecy for historically-significant information.” The Public Citizen brief petitioning for Nixon’s testimony to be released cites a series of relevant factors noted in the 1997 ruling In re Petition of Craig used to determine whether grand jury testimony should be released. These factors are: (i) the parties seeking disclosure; (ii) the party opposing disclosure; (iii) the reason the disclosure is being requested; (iv) the specific information being sought; (v) how long ago the grand jury hearings took place; (vi) whether those involved are still living or are deceased; (vii) the extent to which the grand jury records have already been made public (legally or otherwise); (viii) whether witnesses who could be affected by disclosure are still living or are deceased; and (ix) any continuing need to maintain secrecy.

Prior to the court’s ruling on the Nixon testimony, John Dean wrote an article addressing these nine criteria. The parties requesting disclosure are “a ‘Who’s Who’ of Nixon historians, and their professional organizations… that have a professional interest in the historical Nixon.” At the time the article was written, no one had yet opposed the petition. The disclosure is sought based on possible content of the testimony, which was not at the time known but was suspected to include information on the infamous eighteen and a half minute gap in the White House tapes; Nixon’s role in altering transcripts that were submitted to the Judiciary Committee during the impeachment hearings; and Nixon’s use of the IRS to harass political foes; and illegal or suspect campaign contributions, such as that of Howard Hughes. (All of these topics, except the altered transcripts, were indeed discussed at length during the grand jury proceedings.)

Even if this information was not contained in the testimony, wrote Dean, there is still a compelling case to release the material due to the historical significance of Nixon being the first president to testify before a grand jury and to resign from office. The records are over thirty-five years old, and Public Citizen listed thirty-three of the persons who could be affected by the testimony as deceased. Dean himself (who is still alive, clearly, and quite likely to be affected by the release of the testimony) did not object, and he wrote that he could not think of anyone alive who would be negatively affected by the testimony’s release. Additionally, a significant portion of the testimony had already been released—much of it leaked to columnist Jack Anderson, as well as used in the indictments of H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and John Mitchell. Finally, Dean asserted that there were no additional reasons that might call for secrecy; in fact, traditional reasons for maintaining the secrecy of grand jury testimony simply did not exist in this case.

Prior to the testimony’s release, Stanley Kutler says that “I’m betting he told the truth,” since even Nixon knew that lying to a grand jury would make him vulnerable to perjury charges. But Nixon also knew that breaking and entering, warrantless wiretapping, criminal conspiracy, bribery, and obstruction of justice were illegal, and he had no qualms about committing those crimes. Furthermore, even if Nixon truly believed that the President of the United States was not subject to the same laws as the rest of the American public, presidential immunity from the law would logically extend to perjury—and perjury, after all, would have been the least of his crimes.

The testimony was released at noon on November 10, 2011. We, as students enrolled in American University’s course entitled Watergate: Constitutional Crisis, under the wise guidance of Professor Don Fulsom, former Washington Bureau Chief for United Press International and a White House correspondent during the Watergate scandal, took the release as a challenge, seeking to evaluate the testimony to determine whether Nixon told the truth, as Kutler believed he would, or followed his traditional path of evading questions and presenting fictionalized versions of events. This report contains our findings.

Nixon vs. The Truth

The Claim: LBJ bugged Nixon’s campaign plane in 1968

“The F.B.I. was at one point directed (by President Lyndon Johnson) to bug my plane.” FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover “once told me that they did.”

The Real Story: Nixon was not bugged.

Nixon authority John Hughes of the Miller Center writes: “After the election, Director J. Edgar Hoover told Nixon that Johnson had ordered the FBI not only to wiretap (Nixon operative Anna) Chennault, but also to bug the Republican candidate’s plane. Hoover was, as his deputy, Cartha “Deke” DeLoach, later wrote, ‘embellishing.’ The FBI never did bug Nixon’s plane.”

David Greenberg

DavidGreenbergProfessor at Rutger’s University 

“I guess the way I would put it is there’s a certain grandiosity to Nixon.  He always had this enormous ego that was paired with enormous insecurity—which is often in the case with people in great power.

This irony with Nixon is that as much thought and energy he puts into the performance, he’s actually pretty bad at it and people can seethrough it. He comes across as transparent and phony. He’s trying to be so smart with these prosecutors. Who’s he fooling really?”  (International Business Times)

Stanley Kutler

31kutler2-190Watergate Historian, author of “The Wars of Watergate,” and guest lecturer at our Watergate class

“If you know the voice of Richard Nixon, it’s a virtuoso performance—from the awkward attempts at humor to the moments of self-pity.  It’s just terrific stuff.” (New York Times)

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“Judge Lamberth is a very conservative man; he’s a Republican but you won’t know what he’s going to do … He points out grand jury minutes are secret, but there are exceptions and he discusses them in terms of the law … It turns out he’s a Watergate buff.”  (International Business Times)

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“This doesn’t reverse or change or undermine anything that we’ve already known about Richard Nixon.  This was a blow against official secrecy.”  (International Business Times)

Tim Naftali

 220px-Timothy_Naftali_2012_04Director of the Nixon Library from 2007-2011

“The grand jury testimony sheds more light on President Nixon’s personality and character than it does on the remaining puzzles of Watergate.  Even under the protections of grand jury secrecy, which was inviolate at that point, the president, it appears, was unwilling to be more forthright about his role in what the House Judiciary Committee determined were abuses of government power.”  (New York Times)

Associated Press

“(Historians) were determined to bring to light all facets of that extraordinary episode of presidential disgrace. The fact that the testimony was released counted for more than its contents, they said, because it helps establish a precedent for lifting the veil of secrecy over grand jury proceedings when matters of great historical significance are involved.”

More Commentary

Below are links to articles we recommend about Nixon’s grand jury testimony, Watergate and Nixon in general.

Newly Released Transcripts Show a Bitter and Cynical Nixon in ’75,” New York Times, Nov. 10, 2011:

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Nixon’s testimony: The grand jury prosecutor recalls a tormented president on the stand,” Washington Post blog; Nov. 11, 2011:

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Nixon testimony: 18 1/2-minute gap an accident,” Politico, Nov. 10, 2011:

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Nixon shed no light on tape gap to grand jury,” Associated Press (USA Today) Nov. 10, 2011:

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The Center for Public Integrity:  The White House:  Profiles in Patronage:

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New York Times, Times Topics:  Richard Milhous Nixon:

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The Washington Post, “The Watergate Story.

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Watergate:  The Mary Ferrell Foundation:

Alex Kreger

Nixon Grand Jury Testimony

Many assumed that the former President Nixon would tell the truth in his Grand Jury Testimony, and take the opportunity to attempt to regain some of the honor he had lost in the drawn out Watergate Saga. However, I believe that these people misread Nixon and assumed that he wanted the Grand Jury, and eventually the general public, to know the truth when Nixon really wanted to continue to cover his tracks. From his antics we can learn important lessons about the limits of power and the power of the Constitution to punish those in power that act unethically.

What I found to be most interesting in the reports on the Grand Jury Testimony was the contradiction between the quote that began the page, that Watergate “should have warned us of the vital purposes of politics and government… the warning stands,” and Avi McClelland’s note that “reporting on the release of the Grand Jury testimony, Fox News stated that ‘On Watergate, Nixon reaffirmed what historians now generally believe: that he did not order the infamous break-in that triggered his fall from power, and did not have any advance knowledge that it would be carried out.’” The hope of many historians and Nixon scholars is that people will recall the Watergate Saga as a lesson on both the effectiveness of the Constitution and as a reminder to other politicians that may want to subvert the law as President Nixon did. We hope that the warning does actually stand. However, as McClelland’s note demonstrates, Nixon’s claims do still have some power in society, despite that they have been proven false over and over again. In fact, major news networks such as Fox have carried stories that completely miss the important lessons of the Nixon testimony.

As multiple accounts of the testimony from nixondetached.org demonstrate, the President didn’t really clear up anything in his testimony. On the contrary, for the majority of the tape, “he wandered and filibustered all over the map.” I don’t believe that this was because Nixon couldn’t keep track of his thoughts or was accidentally wandering in his speech. Instead, it seems that Nixon used wandering speech as simply another tact to hide the truth from the members of the Grand Jury. As Joel Antwi points out, Nixon wasted time as a way to obstruct the truth further, and so he could control the conversation and the subject of discussion. Nixon also effectively “claims not to remember anything that happened during his administration.” By simply asserting that he could not recall any information, the President continued to cheat the Grand Jury and the American People of the truth.

This makes it even harder to understand how Fox News’s major take away from the release of the Nixon Grand Jury Testimony was that it vindicated President Nixon. However, they weren’t the only news agency that did not cover the story the way I think it should have been. In fact, other news agencies, including The Washington Post, failed to cover the story of the release of the tapes in any depth, as Palak Gosar and Julianne Martin point out. This highlights just how important it is for historians and Nixon scholars to continue to teach about the wrongdoings of the Nixon Administration. There are very important lessons on the limits of power that should be learned from the Watergate Saga that every American should know and remember. Only by truly understanding the Nixon Testimony, and the actions Nixon took as President, can we effectively stop such actions from taking place again.