NIXON, Richard M. Typed letter signed ("Richard Nixon") as President, retained draft, to Judge Gerhard Gesell, Washington, D.C., [6 February 1974]. 2 pages, 4to (10½ x 7 in.), White House stationary, in very fine condition.
"EXPLETIVE DELETED": NIXON, "THE CHIEF LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICER OF THIS NATION," WITHHOLDS HIS SECRET TAPES DURING THE WATERGATE INVESTIGATION, CITING "MY CONSTITUTIONAL MANDATE TO SEE THAT THE LAWS ARE FAITHFULLY EXECUTED"
A most remarkable letter in which Nixon spells out his rationale for refusing to surrender five key White House tapes to the judge presiding over the Watergate investigation. The present letter was signed and despatched but intercepted at the last minute so that the wording of a key sentence could be altered. On 25 January 1974, Judge Gesell had ordered the President's counsel to solicit Nixon's "personal response with reference to five specified taped conversations." Nixon replies: "As indicated in the various briefs, pleadings and other papers filed in this proceeding, it is my belief that the issue before this Court constitutes a non-justiciable political question. Nevertheless, out of respect for this Court, but without in any way departing from my view that the issues presented here are inappropriate for resolution by the Judicial Branch, I have made a determination that the entirety of the five recordings of Presidential conversations described on the subpoena issued by the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities contain privileged communications, the disclosure of which would not be in the national interest. I am taking this position for two primary reasons. First, the Senate Select Committee has made known its intention to make these materials public. Unlike the secret use of four out of five of these conversations before the grand jury, the publication of all of these tapes to the world at large would seriously infringe upon the principle of confidentiality, which is vital to the performance of my Constitutional responsibilities as President. Second, as the chief law enforcement officer of this nation, it is incumbent upon me to be sensitive to the possible adverse effects upon ongoing and forthcoming criminal proceedings should the contents of these subpoenaed conversations be made public at an inappropriate time. The dangers connected with excessive pre-trial publicity are as well-known to this Court as they are to me. Consequently, my Constitutional mandate to see that the laws are faithfully executed requires my prohibiting the disclosure of any of these materials at this time and in this forum."
The existence of Nixon's secret recording system, which allowed him to record private conversations in the Oval Office, had been revealed on 16 July 1973 during Senate testimony by aide Alexander P. Butterfield. Upon the disclosure, and the White House's confirmation of the story, a flurry of legal activity erupted pressuring for the release of Nixon's tapes. Sen. Sam J. Ervin, Jr., chairman of the Senate's investigation committee, requested access to the tapes. Nixon had already denied access to presidential papers, citing executive privilege, and was no more willing to reveal the details hidden on his secret tapes. He commented that they were to remain in the White House "under his complete control." On 23 July, the committee subpoenaed four of the five recordings made with his former counsel John Dean and received a prompt letter of refusal from Nixon. Nixon remained adamant until October, when he agreed furnishing a "summary" of the taped conversations. Nixon continued to stonewall on the tapes until July 1974 when the Supreme Court unanimously ordered him to surrender the secret tapes; these seriously discredited the President, fueled the House Judiciary committee's impeachment proceedings and led to Nixon's abrupt resignation on 9 August 1974.
A letter from Ruth E. Begin details how she came to possess this historic alternate letter. Begin, secretary to the President's personal lawyer for Watergate defense, James D. St. Clair, writes: "When the letter was on its way to the Courthouse, it was decided by one of President Nixon's advisers that a portion of one sentence should be deleted. A messenger was dispatched and retrieved this draft on the courthouse steps. I retyped the letter and eliminated the bracketed portion shown on the letter in question. We were extremely busy that day and there was a great deal of furore when we were attempting to retrieve the first draft. At the end of the day when I was clearing my desk I discovered that I still had this draft... I asked Mr. St. Clair if he thought anyone would mind [if I kept it] and he saw no reason why they would." The crucial last-minute revision is a significant one: in the sentence beginning, "Second, as the chief law enforcement officer of this nation..." the revised version omits this initial clause, reading, "Second, it is incumbent upon me to be sensitive..." As Begin notes, the clause is here faintly bracketed in blue ink.
Provenance: Ruth E. Begin (sold Phillips New York, 30 September 1982, lot 719, for $6,000 to John F. Fleming).