R.I.P. Stanley I. Kutler

Posted in: Other Commentary

Stanley Kutler taught American history at the University of Wisconsin for 32 years, retiring in 1996. He was an extremely popular professor on the Madison campus, a fact I learned from a number of his former students who have introduced themselves to me when I have been out lecturing. I once asked one why Kutler was so popular, and she told me that he made history seem like “really memorable gossip.” I knew exactly what she was talking about.

I came to really know Stanley as he was finishing his second Nixon book, Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes, which he published in 1997. At that time my wife and I were involved in litigation against a small group of bogus Watergate revisionists who had created a conspiracy account of Watergate that had little to do with reality. Because I had read that Kutler settled a lawsuit against the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and forced the release of Nixon’s secret White House tapes, and was writing a book based on those tapes, I sought him out. I knew the tapes could put the lie to this phony Watergate revisionism.

Stanley was very aware of this effort to rewrite the history of Watergate. He told me journalists had sought him out based on his earlier book, The Wars of Watergate, and that he had publicly said the revisionism was not only bogus, but some of shabbiest history he had ever seen published. As for his publishing the Nixon tapes, he reported he was working under a very tight schedule using court reporters at NARA to transcribe what were called the “abuse of power” tapes under the terms of his settlement agreement with NARA and the Nixon estate. These were agreed upon portions of Nixon’s secretly recorded conversations that related to Watergate, and Nixon’s earlier abuses of power, like ordering a break-in at the Brookings Institute to recover the so-called Pentagon Papers (a study prepared during the Johnson Administration of the origins of the Vietnam War), and the abusive efforts to prosecute (read: persecute) Daniel Ellsberg for leaking this material to the New York Times in 1971, which pre-dated Watergate. Stanley explained the recordings were difficult to transcribe, and there was way too much material for a book, so he and his editor, Bruce Nichols at Free Press, were trimming the transcripts to present their essence.

Stanley said his new book would include only “new Nixon tapes,” so those that had been released earlier by the Watergate Special Prosecutor, which included most of my conversations with Nixon on Watergate, would not be included, although for the sake of continuity in the story they planned to put a few edited portions of my conversations in the book. Stanley thought his book might help our litigation. He said the galley pages of his book would soon be available and it would help him if I would be (along with others) one of his readers. I agreed to do so and did. Reading the edited transcripts I was able to point out several occasions where the wrong person was identified as speaking words I knew they would never have spoken. Stanley checked and I was correct. (His transcribers often confused the voice of Nixon’s top domestic policy adviser, John Ehrlichman, with that of his press secretary, Ron Ziegler.) That was the extent of my relationship with Stanley before he published Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes, although during the years that followed we became good friends.

Abuse of Power was a real problem for Nixon’s apologists, folks like the bogus Watergate revisionists who want to rewrite the history of the Nixon presidency, making Nixon a victim. Not surprisingly, this crew can be vicious, and Stanley Kutler incurred their wrath. It took them a while but by 2009, over a decade after he had published Abuse of Power, they were peddling false charges about the book to scholarly historical journals. A proposed article, written by a former junior college administrator and sometimes adjunct history instructor, claimed that Stanley had distorted his presentation of tapes in Abuse of Power to somehow protect me.

The claim was, in effect, that Kutler should have included in his book tapes of my conversations that were not new and that were publicly available. Not surprisingly, legitimate historical organizations turned down the attack article. Not only were the charges baseless, but the article focused on totally meaningless minutia—unimportant and uninteresting information.

Nonetheless these phony Watergate revisionists managed to hoodwink no less than the New York Times into believing there was some new Watergate cover-up underway, so the Times reported and repeated their charge. Understandably, Stanley was upset at this absolutely absurd attack on his reputation, and the Times was caught off guard when legitimate historians came to Stanley’s defense. Unfortunately, the Times’s ombudsman only partially straightened out the facts, and failed to recognize how they had been snookered.

With this incident, however, I realized the New York Times did not understand Watergate. They did not get it when it happened, nor afterward. It seems the Times fell off track at the outset, when Nixon’s national security adviser Henry Kissinger assured their Washington bureau chief, Scotty Reston, in June 1972, that there was nothing to the Watergate story. That was shortly after the arrests of the burglars in the Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters at the Watergate. Other than a few isolated stories, the Times largely ignored Watergate until they hired investigative journalist Seymour Hersch in January 1973, just before the trial of the men arrested in the DNC, and their confederates. Hersch got the Times back into actually reporting news about Watergate.

I have followed the reporting of the Times for forty-some years, and while this is not the time or place, suffice it to say there is a striking institutional confusion at the Times about Watergate. I raise all this now because I was saddened to see the Times get it wrong again by gratuitously repeating the false charge about Stanley’s book Abuse of Power in their obituary on him. He deserved better.