6 Year Project Editing
'Personal Talk' Out Of
Nixon Tapes Underway

WASHINGTON (AP) -- For two decades, President Richard Nixon's White House tapes have been preserved and protected in a cold storage vault at the National Archives. Now, technicians are slicing them up with a razor blade. Not that they want to. A judge ordered the archives to cut out personal, private and some political conversations from the 3,280 hours of conversations the public still hasn't heard. Nixon discusses his daughter Tricia's Rose Garden wedding. Snip. Nixon plans a political campaign trip. Snip. Family members talk about their health, or one another. Snip. Snip. Altogether 820 hours of tape are being cut -- about a quarter of the total. "After all these years of protecting the tapes, it was really a traumatic moment to actually begin cutting them," said Sharon Fawcett, deputy assistant archivist for presidential libraries. It's delicate, tedious work that will cost $600,000 and take at least six years. "This tape has the consistency of thick Saran Wrap," says Dick McNeill, supervisory audio visual specialist for the Nixon presidential materials project. "Your audio cassette is twice the thickness of what we're dealing with." McNeill and three white-gloved technicians work in a secure, windowless room on the ground floor of the archives. They listen, cut and splice for three or four hours at a time -- that's about as long as anyone can keep at it. Some days, they hear a Nixon tirade or National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger's low-toned drones on foreign policy. Other days, they get an earful of someone vacuuming the Oval Office. There are no transcripts, only conversation logs cued with the first and last words of talk to edit out. A stopwatch and calculator are used to fast forward the tape on reel-to-reel recorders like those used in the Nixon White House in the early 1970s. The tape experts mark the beginning and end of each edit with a special archival pen. Then they slide the tape off the machine, thread it into a splicing block and cut it with a razor blade. "You have to hold it firmly and make a really fast, firm cut," Fawcett says. Nixon secretly tape recorded conversations for 2 1/2 years. In the Oval Office, five microphones were installed in the president's desk and two in wall lamps by the fireplace. They were stowed under the table in the Cabinet Room, at the Camp David presidential retreat and in Nixon's hideaway office at the Old Executive Office Building. Recorders also were wired to various phones, including one in the Lincoln Sitting Room, where Nixon liked to make calls in the evening and listen to classical music. The government seized all the tapes when Nixon resigned in 1974. In all, there are 3,700 hours of conversation. That's enough tape to stretch 521 kilometres, or farther than Washington to New York. To hear them all, a person would have to listen to them eight hours a day, five days a week for nearly two years. Over the years, about 420 hours of tape related to Nixon's resignation have been released. The most famous snippet is the "smoking gun" conversation recorded six days after the Watergate break-in, in which Nixon instructs chief of staff H.R. Haldeman to tell the FBI: "Don't go any further into this case, period." All along, Nixon's estate has been trying to gain custody of the personal and private conversations, as the U.S. Supreme Court ordered in the 1970s. And last spring, the U.S. Court of Appeals ordered the archives to comply. A full copy of the tapes, including the personal and private sections, has been offered to the Nixon estate. The archives also will offer the estate any cuttings from the original tape, but those flimsy wisps likely will be destroyed, Fawcett says.