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Published: Thursday, 5/29/2003

The gap that endures

It's hard to find a better example of the old saw, “Where there's life there's hope” than the frustrated efforts to recover material erased from President Nixon's Oval Office tapes 31 years ago.

The 181/2-minute gap, big news back then, was subjected recently to more examinations by audio experts at the National Archives. They wanted to see if taped voices, once erased, could be recovered. Considering the portion that wasn't erased from the Nixon tapes - including the president's scatological language, the expletives, and the racism - what's missing is presumed to be as bad or worse.

Now the government pros think they have done all they can to discern what was once recorded of a conversation between President Nixon and his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman in the old Executive Office Building on June 29, 1972. And what they can discern is a lot of nothingness.

All anyone could lift off the erased tapes were buzzes and hums. Rose Mary Woods, the president's secretary, always maintained that she must have accidentally erased 18 minutes of tape when a phone call interrupted her transcription.

However, a panel of experts appointed by federal Judge John Sirica, who oversaw the Watergate trials, found the erasures were done in from five to nine separate and contiguous segments. That doesn't sound like the “erase” button was hit just once.

At the same time, was the new panel of experts really expected to make a breakthrough?

Maybe yes, maybe no. They weren't allowed to test the original tape, just copies. They were challenged to retrieve voices erased from test recordings without damaging the tapes. In two separate tests they could not recover spoken words.

Maybe this is a part of the Watergate mystery that will never be resolved. At least Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the reporters who broke the Watergate story, promise to identify “Deep Throat,” their mysterious source, when that individual passes away.

With each passing year, however, one wonders if anybody will care other than journalists and historians.



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