WASHINGTON Former President Richard Nixon told a U.S. grand jury "I practically blew my stack" when he learned of the long gap on a White House tape sought in the Watergate scandal investigation, according to transcripts released Thursday.
In one of the biggest political scandals in U.S. history, much has been made of the 18 1/2-minute gap on tapes of Nixon's White House conversations. The key question -- did it include incriminating information about the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters by his campaign operatives?
Nixon spent hours before the grand jury on June 23 and 24, 1975, almost a year after he resigned due to the involvement of his aides and campaign in the attempt to bug his political opponents' offices at the Watergate complex and the subsequent cover-up.
In office from 1969 to 1974, Nixon stepped down in the face of almost certain impeachment over a scandal that damaged national trust in the White House and government.
Nixon, who died on April 22, 1994, was pardoned a month after he left the White House by his successor, President Gerald Ford. He was interviewed by the Watergate Special Prosecution Force before two grand jury members in California.
Questions were raised over whether his assistant, Rose Mary Woods, had erased the conversation when she was transcribing the tapes, although Nixon told the grand jury the tape initially had not been covered by subpoenas.
"Rose had thought it was four minutes ... and now the counsel have found that it is eighteen and a half minutes, and I practically blew my stack," Nixon told the grand jury.
At another point, he said he wished they could recover the tape, to which one of the prosecutors, Richard Davis replied, "I think we all do." There have been recent efforts to recover the audiotape with modern technology but those have failed.
Nixon described the erasure as an accident, although he was unable to offer any explanation for what happened.
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Nixon's testimony was released after historian Stanley Kutler, who has written extensively on the scandal and the former president, sued with others to get it released. Grand jury testimony is typically kept secret.
"Nixon was a master of dancing around and skirting questions," Kutler told Reuters. "The most common line here is 'I don't recall.'"
Throughout his testimony, Nixon frequently told prosecutors he had little or no recollection when they asked him about conversations or events. But at one point, when Nixon talked about meeting a friend to discuss firing aides, he noted how he remembered his friend was wearing sneakers.
The Richard Nixon Foundation, the private arm of his presidential library, issued a statement noting the former president appeared before the grand jury voluntarily and urged that his testimony be read in its entirety.
The scandal caused the only resignation of a U.S. president and was the first time a former president was questioned by a secret grand jury. It set the precedent for others to be interviewed, including Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, who was the first sitting president to appear before such a panel.
The Watergate break-in, the subject of scores of books and movies, also set the path for future Washington political scandals, which politicians and reporters alike often now end with the suffix "gate."
The gap in the tape covered a meeting between Nixon and his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, just days after the break-in. The content of their conversation has never been revealed.
Nixon told the grand jury he had the "most intensive investigation" undertaken to see who else may have been responsible for the erasure, including the Secret Service, but it came up empty.
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At one point, Nixon seemed to try to restrain himself from using curse words since he was known to swear frequently. But when he said, "Let's find out how this damn thing happened," referring to the tape erasure, he quipped: "I am sorry, I wasn't supposed to use profanity. You have enough on the tapes."
Besides grilling Nixon about the gap, prosecutors asked him about hiding a wiretap program by the National Security Council, cash payments to his aides and rewarding big campaign donors with plum jobs as ambassadors to foreign countries.
"Pearl Mesta wasn't sent to Luxembourg because she had big bosoms. Pearl Mesta went to Luxembourg because she made a good contribution. But may I say she was a very good ambassador in Luxembourg," Nixon said.
He also said that at one point he believed the FBI had been ordered to bug his plane and that there was a dispute over whether it happened. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover told him it had occurred, Nixon told the grand jury, but added, "Others had indicated that this was not carried out."
In the midst of his deposition, Nixon took a brief break to receive a dose of anti-coagulants. His doctor had said Nixon was unable to travel to Washington for the questioning because of health reasons.
Some material was deleted from the testimony released on Thursday because it was deemed classified.
(Editing by Ross Colvin and Peter Cooney)