WASHINGTON - Richard Nixon's grand jury testimony about the Watergate scandal that destroyed his presidency is finally coming to light.
Four months after a judge ordered the June 1975 records unsealed, the government's Nixon Presidential Library was making them available online and at the California facility Thursday. Historians dared hope that the testimony would form Nixon's most truthful and thorough account of the circumstances that led to his extraordinary resignation 10 months earlier under threat of impeachment.
"This is Nixon unplugged," said historian Stanley Kutler, a principal figure in the lawsuit that pried open the records. Still, he said, "I have no illusions. Richard Nixon knew how to dodge questions with the best of them. I am sure that he danced, skipped, around a number of things."
Nixon was interviewed near his California home for 11 hours over two days, when a pardon granted by his successor, Gerald Ford, protected him from prosecution for any past crimes. Despite that shield, he risked consequences for perjury if he lied under oath.
It was the first time an ex-president had testified before a grand jury and it is rare for any grand jury testimony to be made public. Historians won public access to the transcript over the objections of the Obama administration, which argued in part that too many officials from that era are still alive for secret testimony involving them to be made public.
The library is also releasing thousands of pages of other Watergate-era documents, several oral histories from that time and 45 minutes of recordings made by Nixon with a dictating machine.
The recordings include his dictated recollections of an odd episode late one night in May 1970 when Nixon impulsively had the Secret Service take him to the Lincoln Memorial so he could meet anti-war protesters there. He lingered with the astonished crowd and, according to accounts of that time, asked the protesters to "keep it peaceful. Have a good time in Washington, and don't go away bitter."
On the grand jury testimony, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth sided with the historians in his ruling in July. He decided that with the investigation long over, Nixon dead for 17 years and most of the surviving Watergate figures having written or talked about the scandal at length, the historical importance of the transcript outweighed arguments for secrecy. "The court is confident that disclosure will greatly benefit the public and its understanding of Watergate without compromising the tradition and objectives of grand jury secrecy," he wrote.
Even so, certain portions of the testimony that deal with people still living or that are considered still relevant to national security will remain classified for now, possibly to come out after further review, said the National Archives, which operates the Nixon library and 12 other presidential libraries.
One of the topics covered with Nixon in the grand jury probe was the famous 18 ½-minute gap in a tape recording of a June 20, 1972, meeting between the president and his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman. The meeting came three days after the break-in at Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate complex by burglars linked to Nixon's re-election committee.
The questions of what Nixon knew and when were at the core of the investigation of the Watergate cover-up that ultimately implicated the president and brought him down.
Kutler expressed doubt Wednesday that people will learn much more about Watergate from the new records. "The grand jury after that testimony had a chance to sit and indict but they did not," he said, "so I don't expect it to be that important." But he said the opening of grand jury records is a milestone by itself, "another precedent for opening up secretiveness in public life."