February 2, 2009, 12:13 PM ET
What's News in The New York Times?
Has The New York Times lost it completely? Yesterday morning I was flying back from the West Coast, alternately reading Hobbes’ Leviathan and the Sunday Times, in which I found on the first page, under the fold, an article by Patricia Cohen (a very competent reporter) entitled “John Dean’s Role at Issue in Nixon Tapes Feud.” I was puzzled, since I was unaware that any new information on John Dean and Watergate had appeared. So I read the article, with increasing puzzlement, since I still could not see that there was any news about Dean.
So why is our newspaper of record publishing a front page story about a nonevent? Beats me. So far as I can tell, someone named Peter Klingman (identified only as “an historian” — but not an historian I have ever heard of before) has submitted an article to the American Historical Review alleging that (my friend) Stanley Kutler deliberately manipulated his published transcriptions of the Nixon tapes (in his 1997 Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes) so as to exonerate John Dean from complicity in the Watergate cover-up. Somehow a copy of Klingman’s article (or a description of it) reached Cohen, and this unpublished, un-peer-reviewed material appears to be the source of her story. It is hard to imagine that Klingman is not the source of the story — or one of his friends, since he appears to be one of a group of Nixon apologists (including the well-known historian Joan Hoff) who are attacking the Kutler book of transcriptions. The only description of Klingman I could find on the Web says that he worked as an archivist for the authors of a recent book claiming that Nixon was a victim of the Watergate scandal. The issue Klingman apparently raises is whether Kutler deliberately omitted material from his published transcription of portions of the Nixon tapes in order to protect Dean — and thus to implicate Nixon.
I am not sure this would be front-page news even if it were demonstrably true. After all, we know a great deal about what happened during Watergate, and there does not seem to be any new affirmative evidence about Nixon. The tapes are, after all, available to researchers at the Archives, and Kutler’s book was only an attempt to make some of the material quickly available in print for the use of the public. Despite Joan Hoff’s quoted statement that Abuse of Power is “used authoritatively,” Kutler has never claimed to have published the full and official record, and any trained historian would know that his book is not authoritative in that sense. His subject was Nixon’s complicity, not Dean’s, and there is no evidence that he consciously manipulated his transcriptions.
The Nixon apologists are entitled to make their own case for his innocence, but they need to make it on the basis of the official record. If conspiracy theorists think Nixon has been maligned by history (this also beats me), let them produce the evidence from the record. We’ll see whether the AHR thinks Klingman’s essay worth printing. If so, then it will be worth reading and evaluating. Until then, Cohen’s story does not appear to merit the prominence her editors have given it. Back to Hobbes.