HISTORY, genuine history, hardly ever returns speaking in the voices of the people who made it. Yet that is about to happen: The government will soon begin the release of more than 3,000 hours of secretly made tape recordings from Richard Nixon's White House.
Nearly 22 years ago - on Aug. 9, 1974 - Nixon became the only American president to resign. He had been trapped at the center of a complex web of events, most of them instigated by himself. Like the progression from crime to coverup to betrayals in a Shakespeare history drama, Nixon stood alone at the end, MacBeth's crown and sword ripped from him. On that August afternoon he made a rambling speech, walked out of the White House to a helicopter, stood for a moment with his arms flung wide in a gesture of victory, and then flew off into the inclemencies of national memory.
After he resigned, Nixon launched a series of lawsuits trying to prevent the release of the secret recordings he had made in the Oval Office, in his hideaway in the old Executive Office Building, at Camp David, and on other various telephones. Sixty-three hours of tapes had already been released. They give damaging testimony to White House skullduggery. Archivists have spent years listening to and logging 4,000 more hours. Less than a quarter - 775 - were considered too personal to be released. They included Nixon family discussions. A court order this month or early in May will free the remaining 3,160 hours for public consumption.
The voices that will be speaking from the past discuss more than Watergate and the fall of a president. During the Nixon years, 1969-1974, the United States reduced its presence in Vietnam, made connection with The People's Republic of China, signed a spate of disarmament and arms-control agreements with the Soviet Union, saw an American become the first man to walk on the moon - among other momentous events.
Much of this was the work of a successful president. But Nixon was not a successful man. Subliminally or consciously we saw a human being profoundly ill at ease with himself as we watched Richard Nixon in public. As his final tragedy mounted, the presidential shell fell away, leaving the tormented man standing alone. His end was a personal, not a political, drama.
From today's perspective we can look back and be reminded of how Nixon's decline and fall obliterated almost all other Washington news. We became fascinated by the inevitability of it all. After the Senate and House Judiciary Committee hearings, the revelations of Deep Throat and other, relentless investigative reporting, perhaps we knew too much about a doomed man who had once found shelter from himself in the White House. It was a grim time.
Now it is coming back as echo, as history speaks to us in the voices of those who made it.