Believe it or not, listening to the Nixon tapes is fun. But if you don’t have that kind of time on your hands, how about a quick jaunt through some of the best parts?

Ken Hughes is an expert on presidential recordings at University of Virginia’s Miller Center. He pointed us in the direction of some of his favorite selections – including one not by Nixon but about Nixon (juicy).

Some of the tape is hard to understand, but full transcripts of these conversations (and others) are available on the Miller Center’s website.

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Nixon learns of the Pentagon Papers

Date: June 13, 1971
Time: Sometime between 12:18 p.m. and 12:42 p.m.
Location: White House telephone

On June 13, 1971, the front page of The New York Times had two stories of interest to President Richard Nixon. One was about his daughter Tricia’s wedding – the first to be held in the White House Rose Garden. The other, “Vietnam Archive: Pentagon Study Traces 3 Decades of Growing U.S. Involvement,” was the first story of a series on what the Times called the Pentagon Papers.

The top-secret Defense Department history of the Vietnam War represented the largest unauthorized disclosure of classified material in American history at that time. At first, the leak didn’t worry the president much. However, in this telephone call, Deputy National Security Adviser Alexander M. Haig aroused the president’s suspicion that the leak might have been the work of three former officials of the Johnson administration: former Defense Secretary Clark M. Clifford, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Morton H. Halperin, and Director of Policy Planning and Arms Control for International Security Affairs Leslie H. Gelb.

Haig was wrong – Daniel Ellsberg leaked the papers. But as you’ll hear, Nixon was quickly convinced that Clifford, Halperin and Gelb were part of a conspiracy against him.

Best bit: Right at the top – Nixon didn’t even read the NYT piece when it first came out!

Nixon: Nothing else of interest in the world?
Haig: Yes, sir, very significant, this goddamn New York Times exposé of the most highly classified documents of the war.
Nixon: Oh, that! I see. I didn’t read the story, but you mean that was leaked out of the Pentagon?

Nixon agrees to fight The New York Times

Date: June 14, 1971
Time: 7:13-7:15 p.m.
Location: White House telephone

It took no time for Nixon to decide to embark on a freedom-of-the-press fight with The New York Times. What he didn’t realize was that doing so was unprecedented – no administration had ever attempted to engage in “prior restraint.” That is, to use the power of the federal courts to block the publication of a newspaper story.

Nixon’s chief domestic adviser, John Ehrlichman, and Attorney General John Mitchell didn’t inform the president of this. From first hearing the idea to agreeing to it, the president deliberated for less than 10 minutes.

Best bit: Nixon’s deliberation came across as superficial in this recording. He was very much depending on his advisers to advise him.

Nixon: Hell, I wouldn’t prosecute the Times. My view is to prosecute the goddamn pricks that gave it to them.
Ehrlichman: Yeah, if you can find out who that is.
Nixon: Yeah, I know. I mean, could the Times be prosecuted?

Nixon orders a break-in

Date:  June 17, 1971
Time: 5:15-6:10 p.m.
Location: Oval Office

There is only one break-in that Nixon can be heard ordering on his secret White House tapes. It wasn’t the famous one at Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate complex that led to his impeachment. Nor was it the equally famous break-in at the office of the psychiatrist who had treated Daniel Ellsberg, the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers (in case you forgot).

On more than one occasion, however, the president ordered aides to break into the Brookings Institution, the venerable Washington think tank. The president had been informed – once again, mistakenly – by White House aide Tom Charles Huston that Brookings possessed a top-secret report on all the events leading up to the 1968 bombing halt. This was during the Vietnam War, when President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered a stop to American bombing of North Vietnam less than a week before the presidential election and announced that the North was willing to take part in peace talks with South Vietnam. It had nearly cost Nixon the presidential election.

Huston is best-known for the Huston Plan, a secret 1970 proposal to increase the use of break-ins, wiretaps, mail opening and more to fight domestic terrorism. In this conversation, Nixon orders that the Huston Plan be implemented – not against suspected terrorists, but against the Brookings Institution.

Best bit: You can hear Nixon get progressively agitated and aggressive in this recording and it culminates here →

President Nixon: Bob, now you remember Huston’s plan? Implement it … get in and get those files. Blow the safe and get it.

Nixon defends the break-in

Date: June 17, 1971
Time: 5:15-6:10 p.m.
Location: Oval Office

When Nixon ordered an illegal break-in at the Brookings Institution because he thought it might have a file of top-secret documents about the 1968 bombing halt, only one of his aides asked the obvious question: Why commit a felony to learn more about an issue in an election you won?

The answer Nixon and White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman gave did not satisfy National Security Adviser Henry A. Kissinger. They said President Johnson had ordered the halt to the bombing of North Vietnam to swing the election to his vice president, Hubert H. Humphrey. But Kissinger knew better.

At the time, Kissinger had seen the classified instructions from the White House to LBJ’s lead negotiator, Ambassador W. Averell Harriman. They said nothing about timing the bombing halt to the election.

Best bit: The part where Kissinger just wasn’t buying it.

Nixon: Because he used the bombing halt for political purposes.
Haldeman: The bombing halt file would really kill Johnson.
Kissinger: Why, why do you think that?

LBJ dishes on Nixon

Date: Oct. 30, 1968
Time: 10:25 a.m.
Place: LBJ Ranch

When Richard Nixon ordered the Brookings burglary in hopes that it had a file of top-secret documents on the 1968 bombing halt, his intent may have been different from the one he told his aides. While he said he wanted the material to blackmail Johnson, he may have been trying to find out what the Johnson administration had learned about Republican efforts to sabotage the Paris peace talks – which would establish peace and end the Vietnam War – before the 1968 election.

It turns out that Johnson knew quite a bit.

The Central Intelligence Agency had bugged the office of South Vietnam President Nguyen Van Thieu and reported to the president on Thieu’s discussions of the peace talks. The National Security Agency intercepted diplomatic cables from South Vietnam Ambassador Bui Diem to his home government. And on Oct. 29, 1968, the day before this telephone call, LBJ had heard that Nixon was trying to block progress on the peace talks by encouraging both North Vietnam and South Vietnam to be difficult.

While some of the diplomatic intelligence LBJ received from the CIA and the NSA remains off-limits to the public, this conversation indicates that he believed Nixon was using GOP fundraiser Anna Chennault as a go-between with the South Vietnamese government. Chennault was a legendary figure in her own right. Widow of General Claire Lee Chennault, leader of the Flying Tigers air group that defended China from the Japanese in World War II, Anna Chennault was Nixon’s top female fundraiser in his 1968 presidential campaign.

In this conversation, LBJ discusses his problems with his mentor, Sen. Richard B. Russell Jr., D-Ga.

Best bit: LBJ sounds even-keeled throughout this recording. But it’s interesting to hear how he uses coded language when first referring to Nixon and his alleged shady dealings.

President Johnson: We have found that our friend, the Republican nominee, our California friend, has been playing on the outskirts with our enemies and our friends both, our allies and the others. He’s been doing it through rather subterranean sources here …”

For more history, check out our episode all about the Pentagon Papers.

Julia B. Chan worked at The Center for Investigative Reporting until June, 2017. Julia B. Chan is a producer and the digital editor for Reveal's national public radio program. She’s the voice of Reveal online and manages the production and curation of digital story assets that are sent to more than 200 stations across the country. Previously, Chan helped The Center for Investigative Reporting launch YouTube’s first investigative news channel, The I Files, and led engagement strategies – online and off – for multimedia projects. She oversaw communications, worked to better connect CIR’s work with a bigger audience and developed creative content and collaborations to garner conversation and impact.

Before joining CIR, Chan worked as a Web editor and reporter at the San Francisco Examiner. She managed the newspaper’s digital strategy and orchestrated its first foray into social media and online engagement. A rare San Francisco native, she studied broadcasting at San Francisco State University, focusing on audio production and recording. Chan is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.