Charles Tasnadi, File, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Feisty and cagey, ex-President Richard Nixon defended his shredded legacy and shady Watergate-era actions in grand jury testimony that he thought would never come out.
On Thursday, it did.
Offering a rare look into confidential grand jury proceedings, and the first ever to have a former president testifying, the National Archives and its Nixon Presidential Library released a transcript of the testimony after a judge ordered the government to do so.
In it, Nixon, 10 months after he resigned under threat of impeachment, describes the burglary by political operatives at Democratic headquarters as "this silly, incredible Watergate break-in" and claims "I practically blew my stack" when he learned that 18 1/2 minutes of a post-Watergate White House meeting were erased from a tape.
The gap was considered key in determining what Nixon knew about the burglary and what he did to cover up the exploding scandal.
Nixon's main legal risk during 11 hours of questioning near his California home in June 1975 was being caught in a lie. Short of committing perjury, or implicating anyone in his much-diminished cadre of loyalists, he could testify with impunity because a pardon by his successor, Gerald Ford, protected him from prosecution for any past Watergate crimes.
At one confrontational moment, he bristled when pressed for details of a conversation that he said he could not remember. "I don't recall that those specific names were in the discussion," he snapped. "I mean, if you want me to lie about it, I will be glad to."
He added: "Better strike that last."
Nixon indignantly defended his record.
His admission of wrongdoing came with a hefty dose of sarcasm, as when he mentioned the burglars tied to his re-election committee — known as plumbers — and other heavy-handed operations to get dirt on political foes and claw for campaign advantage.
"I want the jury and the special prosecutors to kick the hell out of us for wiretapping and for the plumbers and the rest," he said, "because obviously you may have concluded it is wrong."
Historians successfully sued for access to the records. They expected few revelations but were determined to bring to light all facets of that extraordinary episode of presidential disgrace.
The fact 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.
"It's Nixon being Nixon," historian Stanley Kutler said after his initial review found no bombshells. "It's a virtuoso performance. How about $10 for every time he says, I don't recall?"
A leading figure in the lawsuit that opened the records, Kutler said Nixon is by turns petulant, self-pitying and biting. "There's a lot of that in there. And a lot of snide remarks. ... It's fun reading — for me, at any rate."
Historians certainly did not expect the transcript to solve the mystery of the 18 1/2 minute gap. Investigators suspected the portion of the June 20, 1972, subpoenaed tape was erased to hide incriminating talk between Nixon and his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, three days after the break-in at the Watergate complex.
Nixon stuck to secretary Rose Mary Woods' story that she erased it by mistake, and professed anger when learning how much was missing. Although he said he could not remember what was said during the gap, he had a clear recollection of his aide Alexander Haig telling him that much more was erased than originally thought.
"Rose had thought it was four minutes, or something like that," he testified. "Now the counsel have found that it is 18 1/2 minutes, and I practically blew my stack."
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