On July 16 ,1973—a little more than a year after the break-in at the Watergate Hotel led to a widening scandal—explosive news is revealed during a live broadcast of the Watergate hearings in the Senate: A secret taping system inside the White House had recorded all of President Richard Nixon’s telephone calls and in-person conversations.
Alexander Butterfield, deputy assistant to the president during Nixon’s first term, had informed Senate investigators about the existence of these White House recordings a few days earlier and explained how the secret system worked. Butterfield then shared the shocking revelation during live testimony before a Senate committee.
Butterfield, who said he felt conflicted about the reveal, later faced serious consequences. He lost his job as head of the Federal Aviation Administration, where he worked after Nixon’s re-election, and couldn’t find work for two years. He lost many friends who considered him a traitor for outing the president.
“I hated to be the guy who had to tell about the tapes,” Butterfield said in a conversation for StoryCorps on April 27, 2016. . “But I saw these guys I really liked and admired going off to jail. And I realized Nixon exploited their loyalty.”
In the following weeks, Nixon reportedly ordered the White House staff to disconnect the White House taping system, and he refused to turn over the tapes to Senate investigators. The president filed appeals to several subpoenas ordering him to turn over the tapes. He proposed to special prosecutor Archibald Cox that U.S. Sen. John Stennis summarize the tapes for investigators, but Cox refused. On October 20, 1973, Nixon ordered the firing of Cox in an infamous episode known as the Saturday Night Massacre.
It wasn’t until April 29, 1974 that Nixon said that he would release transcripts of 46 taped conversations in response to the subpoena the previous year. The presidency continued to unravel as the investigation continued, and Nixon announced his resignation on August 8, 1974.
Although the recordings implicated Nixon and members of his administration in the Watergate cover-up, it was the president who decided to install the taping system in the Oval Office in 1971. Nixon put Butterfield in charge of the project, carried out with Secret Service agents. The president said he wanted the tapes available as a way to correct the record if necessary, and to document policy decisions discussed in the office.
Nixon said he wanted the tapes to be a well-kept secret. Later, in his memoir RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, the former president wrote that he thought the existence of the tapes would never be revealed.
The National Archives digitized and re-released the Nixon White House Tapes, available online through the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. The last tapes, which recorded more than 3,000 hours, were released in 2013.
Butterfield is the subject of the 2015 book The Last of the President’s Men by Bob Woodward, one of the two Washington Post journalists whose investigative reporting broke the news of the Watergate cover-up.