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The Words Of Watergate
AN ANNIVERSARY LOOK BACK AT THE BIGGEST PRESIDENTIAL SCANDAL EVER, THROUGH THE CHANGES IT WROUGHT IN THE LANGUAGE
October 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 6
The White House conversations were cleaned up in transcript form with many a parenthetical “expletive deleted.” Usually this was done simply for decency’s sake, as in, from an Oval Office meeting on September 15, 1972, Nixon’s “Yes [expletive deleted]. Goldwater put it in context when he said, ‘[Expletive deleted] everybody bugs everybody else.’“
Occasionally the parenthetical comment blurred the meaning of a statement to the President’s advantage. Thus, referring to E. Howard Hunt’s demand for some $120,000 in hush money, the transcript of Dean’s morning meeting with Nixon on March 21, 1973 (see cancer on the Presidency ), has the President saying: “[Expletive deleted] get it. … In a way that—who’s going to talk to him?” The President’s defenders managed to interpret this passage as a hypothetical discussion. When the actual tape was played for the special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, however, what he heard the President say, was “Well, for Christ’s sake, get it.…”—a direct order to get the money to buy off Mr. Hunt. It was one of the items on the tapes, Jaworski said, that “particularly stuck in my craw.“
The “eighteen-and-a-half minute gap” was a real bombshell, especially because it came just after Nixon had made assurances that there would be no more “bombshells.”
Expletive deleted has been adopted widely.
See also stonewall .
An erasure .
Gap was the discreet term used by President Nixon’s secretary, Rose Mary Woods, when testifying on November 26, 1973, before U.S. District Court Judge John J. Sirica, to describe an eighteen-and-a-half-minute erasure in a tape recording of a meeting on the morning of June 20, 1972, between Nixon and his chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman.
This tape was one of a group of nine that Archibald Cox, the first Watergate special prosecutor, subpoenaed on July 23, 1973, just days after Alexander P. Butterfield, a former presidential aide, revealed to staffers of the Senate Watergate committee that the President had a voice-activated system for recording conversations and telephone calls. This news dramatically changed the course of the investigation by raising the possibility that John Dean’s Watergate testimony could be verified by the tapes.
The June 20, 1972, tape was high on Cox’s list because this was the first working day in the White House after the break-in at the DNC offices on June 17. Notes that Haldeman made at the time indicated that he had briefed the President about the break-in but gave no details of the discussion. Hence the prosecutor’s need for the tape.
After resisting the subpoena for three months, the White House was forced by court decisions and public pressure to agree to surrender the tapes. Embarrassing disclosures followed immediately. First, the White House announced on October 31, 1973, that two of the nine tapes did not exist. Then, three weeks later, the mysterious gap was discovered. This last was a real bombshell, especially because it came just after Nixon had assured a meeting of Republican governors that there would be no more Watergate “bombshells.”
Woods testified that while transcribing the tape, she had accidentally erased perhaps five minutes when interrupted by a phone call. She said she had pressed the “record” button instead of the “stop” button and then kept her foot on the machine’s control pedal while speaking into the phone. Not everyone accepted this explanation; the maneuver would have been difficult to perform because of the distance between the recording machine and the telephone in her office.
A panel of electronics experts convened by Judge Sirica concluded that the gap was not accidental but the result of anywhere from five to nine separate erasures. The identity of the responsible party was never determined; too many people, including the President, had had access to the tape. Haldeman’s successor as chief of staff, Gen. Alexander Haig, suggested that the gap was caused by a “sinister force.” The guilty party, whoever it was, probably bought Mr. Nixon an extra nine months in the White House, as noted in at variance with .
A scandal or cover-up; a pejorative suffix, inspired by Watergate. Most -gate terms are ephemeral, fading from use as the events that inspired them recede in time. The suffix itself lives on .
Almost every administration since Mr. Nixon’s has had one or more - gates . A random sampling: the Ford administration’s Koreagate , Carter’s Billygate and Lancegate , Reagan and Bush’s Irangate (‘also called armsgate and contragate ). Bill Clinton has survived, so far, travelgate , White-watergate , and, most recently, Indogate (‘involving campaign contributions from Indonesia).