Even Abraham Lincoln’s papers were not opened until 1949. They were considered private property, a legal condition that Richard Nixon changed—by accident.

The biggest problems for Presidents and their administrations are not just the chance of political embarrassment and such; the fact is these are valuable commodities. American officials, paid very little in relation to their power, generally depend on an informal system—scandalous, really—of deferred compensation. It is said that former President Clinton made $15 million last year—almost as much as George Stephanopoulos. The documents, as private property, are valuable in the first instance as the second rough draft of history (if journalism is the first), the raw material for memoirs. Since Eisenhower, American Presidents have copied Winston Churchill, whose credo was: Make the history and then write it yourself before anyone else can. Henry Kissinger was an apt pupil, and one of the amusements of Nixon tapes now being released is that they show just how very good the good doctor could be in obscuring the truth. Because I had early access to the transcripts of the Kissinger-Zhou Enlai-Nixon conversations, I knew the deceptive meaning of Kissinger’s statement that the future of Taiwan was a minor item in those talks, barely mentioned, he said, and only at the beginning. So it was. The early and only mention was “Taiwan is part of China.” So much for American protection of Chiang Kai-shek and his boys. Okay, said Zhou, then we can have a summit. For me, at least, it was a sunny morning when that hidden truth was confirmed by tapes and transcripts released this March, and Kissinger had to start publicly backtracking on his artful dodging.

The Nixon-Kissinger emphasis on secrecy combined with the Churchillian impulse of both men really led to their destruction. Nixon, whose role model was another anti-democratic democratic leader, Charles de Gaulle of France, was determined to govern by surprise, which he did with brilliant maneuvers to circumvent the checks and balances written into the Constitution. Remember that his most important initiatives—the opening to China changing the geo-politics of the world and the removal of the United States from the gold standard, changing the economics of the world—were both taken without a word of public debate or consideration. In each case he came on television one night and announced what had already happened. Only Kissinger, in the first instance, and Treasury Secretary John Connally, in the second, were involved in the process—no Congress, no press, no We the People. Nixon’s real intent (and abuse of power) was a coup, almost successful, against his own government. He wanted to govern by secret decree—and damned near did.

But that kind of surprise requires great secrecy, and the secrecy requires level upon level of lies. In the end no one, including Nixon himself, knew the truth. He had built a house of lies that came tumbling down when the first few were revealed. Everyone was spying on everyone else to try to figure out what Nixon was actually doing. The military, under Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, was tapping White House phones, collecting the garbage in wastebaskets, and photographing the papers in Kissinger’s briefcase each night. The papers and film were delivered to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Thomas Moorer, who had installed a spy in Kissinger’s office. It was that stolen material that the Department of Defense used to thwart Nixon’s orders—lying to him, for instance, in September 1970 about weather conditions in the Persian Gulf to avoid implementing his orders for air strikes against Syria and other countries after the simultaneous hijacking by Palestinians of five airliners, all headed for the United States. Nixon grumbled, the military stalled and lied, and the crisis passed.

Scholars, operating on the premise that those who can’t find history are prone to repeat it, now know such things because of a great irony: The Nixon Papers were so well collected and filed by his chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, who was a kind of pre-computer organizational genius. He required a written report within 48 hours from anyone who spoke to the President. That Rashomon picture of Nixon, along with national security documents and devastating political records, were collected in 1972 as the White House Special File. Those were the papers that Nixon wanted moved out or destroyed if he lost the election. Then, when Watergate escalated and the FBI seized White House records, what the federal agents grabbed was that Special File; they got the real stuff. Cabinets were full of the double books of the Cambodian bombing, and the financial records on Nixon’s illegal contributions, including hundreds of thousands of dollars to George Wallace to discourage him from running as an independent in 1972: the lies, the lies, the lies, all filed alphabetically. It was the shock of such revelations that led to the laws Bush would like now to reverse. Post-Nixon, presidential papers were no longer personal property. They belonged to the American people.