UW Today

October 31, 2012

Documents that Changed the World: An 18 1/2-minute presidential mystery

News and Information

Rose Mary Woods, Richard Nixon's secretary, demonstrating what came to be called the Rose Mary Stretch.

Rose Mary Woods, Richard Nixon’s faithful personal secretary, shows what came to be known as the “Rose Mary Stretch,” where she claimed that working controls several feet apart led to the erasure of about five minutes of the famous 18 1/2 –minute gap. The press and public, however, remained skeptical.Gerald R. Ford library and museum

For the latest installment of his Documents that Changed the World podcast series, Joe Janes chose a topic familiar to Americans of a certain age: the 18 ½-minute gap in President Richard Nixon’s White House tapes.

Documents that Changed the World is a series in which Janes, professor in the UW Information School, explores the origin and often evolving meaning of historical documents both famous and less known.

Janes helps things along by applying the definition of “document” loosely. In this case, it’s a document known for, well, not existing.

“It’s an example of something that isn’t, that nonetheless grabbed the imagination,” Janes said.

The Watergate scandal had by then sparked growing disenchantment with government and political leaders, he noted, and the silence — actually, some buzzing here and there — fed that imagination almost better than anything Nixon and his cronies might have said.

“Silence isn’t always golden,” Janes said. “And in this case it deepened the mystery and thus the mystique and the mistrust, which is still with us, fed by more recent goings-on in the Oval Office and beyond.

“It also — and I didn’t know this — gave rise to entirely new techniques in forensic audio investigation that became state of the art and even standards for future work.”

Janes said he was in high school when Watergate happened and was surprised at “how vividly all of this came back, the names and events of that few years.”

It says something about the durability of the mystery. “There are still people trying to figure out what happened to the tape itself and what may have been on there, hence the most recent investigative stuff in the last year or two.  Just like the Grassy Knoll and Amelia Earhart — we just can’t let it go.”

This is the seventh podcast in the Documents that Changed the World series. Janes continues to research and record new installments.

UW Today offers the podcasts as an occasional series, and they are also available at the iSchool website and on iTunes, where the series is nearing its 15,000th download.