After publishing White House tapes, the Tribune told Nixon his time was up

On April 30, 1974, the Tribune’s jet landed at Meigs Field on the lakefront instead of Midway Airport on the Southwest Side so its cargo could be delivered to Tribune Tower more quickly.

The Tribune was going for a big scoop. The airplane carried transcripts of secret tape recordings of White House conversations that President Richard M. Nixon had announced would be released on May 1.

Those tapes proved to be Nixon’s undoing. The Golden Rule of public relations is if you have something to hide, don’t. Get it out there before an opponent does. Congress was considering articles of impeachment and had subpoenaed the tapes.

The recordings would prove crucial to the investigation of the Watergate scandal, which began on June 17, 1972, when burglars were caught in the Democratic National Headquarters in Washington, D.C. One had an address book with a White House phone number.

Immediately after Nixon’s 1974 speech on the pending release of the tapes, the Tribune’s publisher, Stanton Cook, phoned Editor-in-Chief Clayton Kirkpatrick.

“While we were talking, we agreed that the full text would be a fascinating document,” Kirkpatrick recalled. “We decided to find out if we could publish the whole thing quickly.”

He got up on a desk to tell the newsroom staff of the plan. The logistics were daunting. The transcript would be released at the Government Printing Office in Washington. It contained two to three times the words the Tribune published daily. In an age before computers, setting text into type was laborious, and the project’s gears had to perfectly mesh.

They did. The plane took off at 5 a.m. Onboard were a flock of copy editors and the superintendents of the composing room and the engraving department.

The moment the Government Printing Office opened, Frank Starr, the Washington bureau chief, bought two copies of the 50 volumes of transcripts and rushed them to Dulles International Airport.

“We spent five minutes on the ground looking at the documents and then we took off,” recalled Assistant News Editor Richard Leslie. “We started working before we were airborne.”

As the objective was to put a verbatim copy of the report into readers’ hands, Leslie and the others didn’t put the text through a standard copy-editing routine: trimming and alternative phrasings.

“All we did actually was mark the copy for the typesetters — capitalizations, paragraphs, that sort of thing,” Leslie added. “We didn’t change anything, additions or deletions.”

When they arrived at Tribune Tower, Leslie recalled: “We chopped the bindings with paper cutters and made three more copies.”

Those were initially distributed to 18 typesetters — and subsequently to additional typesetters, as more and more pages became available.

The next morning, Tribune buyers paid 50 cents for the paper with the special section containing the 300,000 words of Nixon’s tapes. A bargain, considering the price of the transcript at the Government Printing Office was $12.25.

Television spread the word of the Tribune’s coup, and the paper was swamped with requests for the 44-page special section.

“A special air shipment of 2,500 copies of the transcript was being flown yesterday from the Tribune to a news dealer in Los Angeles who has been deluged with requests for the supplement,” the Tribune reported on May 3. “One news dealer in Pittsburgh, where a newspaper strike is in progress, sent a truck to Chicago to pick up 1,500 copies to be sold at newsstands there.”

The Hawk Eye, in Burlington, Iowa, was given permission to copy the Tribune’s special section and distribute it to the newspaper’s 20,000 subscribers. Librarians at Lake Superior College in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, taped 44 pages of the Tribune to a long wall.

“It brought crowds of students whose comments caused librarian Charles Nair to dub the display the ‘Wailing Wall.’” In the bewailing of Nixon’s perfidy, the librarian heard echoes of Jews mourning their Jerusalem Temple.

Ever cognizant of its own place in history, the Tribune in one story compared its triumph with the transcripts to “the newspaper’s publication of the Versailles Treaty in 1919 and the Yalta Papers in 1955.”

The pump had been primed for the Tribune’s scoop, with leaks on Nixon’s White House conversations appearing in the months leading up to the release of the tapes. The more juicy episodes made readers eager to see if the transcript rendered them fact or fiction.

“President Nixon made disparaging remarks about Jews and called Judge J. Sirica a ‘wop,’” The New York Times reported in 1973, attributing those quotations to “sources with direct knowledge of the president’s comments.” Sirica was presiding over the Watergate burglars’ trial.

“Report Nixon threatened to ‘fix’ Democrats’ lawyer,” an Associated Press headline proclaimed. “I wouldn’t want to be in Edward Bennett Williams’ position after the election,” was attributed to Nixon in the accompanying story.

“He referred to the ‘moral attitude’ of some of his Republican critics as if morality was somehow embarrassing,” the Tribune noted Nixon as saying on the tapes.

Such was only the titillating tip of the iceberg. The full transcript contained more than one smoking gun, and the administration panicked when its existence was revealed in July 1973, when former White House staffer Alexander Butterfield testified before a Senate Select Committee investigating Watergate.

“Mr. Butterfield, are you aware of the instillation of any listening devices in the Oval Office of the president?” he was asked.

“I was aware of listening devices, yes, sir,” he replied, instantly making the investigation more than a disputed debate.

Nixon claimed executive privilege entitled him to the advice of aides who didn’t fear their words coming back to haunt them. He made Attorney General John Mitchell a sacrificial scapegoat, saying the “Big Tuna,” as he dubbed him, was at fault.

Saying he took full responsibility for the misdeeds of his subordinates, Nixon dramatically accepted the resignations of his top aides, H. R. Halderman and John Erlichman, and Attorney General Richard G. Kleindienst.

He fired his counsel, John W. Dean, who alerted him to the impending scandal and was entrusted with keeping a lid on it.

“There can be no whitewash at the White House,” Nixon said in a televised appeal to the public.

On what was known as the Saturday Night Massacre, Nixon ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire the special prosecutor, Archibald Cox. Richardson refused and resigned. Nixon ordered Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus to fire Cox, and Ruckelshaus resigned.

Nixon appointed another special prosecutor who got a court order in April 1974 requiring Nixon to turn over various documents to a grand jury. Nixon produced edited versions of some of the recordings. His lawyer struggled to explain why there were “inaudible and unintelligible gaps.” An audio expert said an 18½-minute gap resulted from “numerous erasures and rerecordings.”

But by then, the Tribune had published the full-length transcript. Readers learned that Nixon ordered Dean to spy on the president’s opponents.

”We have not used the (Federal Bureau of Investigation) and we have not used the Justice Department, but things are going to change, and they are going to do it right or go,” Nixon said. “We have been (adjective deleted) fools.”

Readers of those copies of the Tribune trucked to Pittsburgh and flown to Los Angeles read how Nixon took the heat off himself by having one aide persuade another to plead guilty:

“Just start here by (telling) how the president has great affection for you and your family. I was just thinking … last night, poor little kid, lovely wife and all the rest. It just breaks your heart.”

Throughout his career, Nixon rebuffed criticism by besmirching critics. But that wouldn’t work with the Tribune — a solidly Republican newspaper that more than 100 years earlier had stage-managed Abraham Lincoln’s presidential nomination.

The game was up when the Tribune published an editorial headlined: ”Listen, Mr. Nixon.”

“We saw the public man in his first administration and we were impressed,” the Tribune Editorial Board wrote on May 9, 1974. “Now in about 300,000 words we have seen the private man and we are appalled.”

“His country needs a swift and merciful termination of this agony,” the editorial concluded.

On Aug. 9, Nixon resigned. He climbed aboard the presidential helicopter and turned around to face the White House. He smiled gamely, gave a final flash of V for victory, and was gone.