“What did the president know and when did he stop knowing it.”
(National Lampoon; Missing White House Tapes [LP record album]; 1974.) (Sen. Howard Baker Jr., R-Tenn., as paraphrased and channeled by a National Lampoon actor)
Sen. Howard Baker
We’re all familiar with Sen. Howard Baker’s (R-Tenn.) famous declarative question from the early 1970s Watergate hearings: “What did the president know and when did he know it.” Baker, originally a Nixon ally on the Senate committee investigating the matter, was questioning then-recently fired White House counsel John Dean. This was after Dean had decided to come clean but before deputy assistant to the president Alexander Butterfield had revealed the existence of a White House taping system. With his now-iconic question, Baker was trying to impugn Dean’s credibility, trying to get Dean to back down on his assertion that President Richard M. Nixon had had foreknowledge of the Watergate break-ins and taken part in the cover-up.
Of course, we now know Mr. Nixon was guilty of a slew of crimes related to the Watergate saga and the cover-up of those crimes. We know that, beyond a reasonable doubt, he had prior knowledge of, and signed off on, the break-ins by his campaign’s team of illegal operatives, the “Plumbers,” who — wait for it — fixed leaks (of information). But true to form, Nixon never admitted anything, from the day he became the first person to resign the U.S. presidency, August 9, 1974, through the day he died, April 22, 1994, at 81.
The National Lampoon twist on Sen. Baker’s famous question is an allusion to the presumption that Nixon knew of the crimes, gave prior approval, then later lied and said he didn’t know of the crimes. At some point, per National Lampoon, he “stopped knowing.”
The 1974 Missing White House Tapes album has two formats. Side B is a series of sketch comedy routines with a Watergate theme. The cast comprised several members of comedy royalty in the making including Chevy Chase, John Belushi, and others.
Side A is a collection of Nixon speeches and press conferences produced and edited by Irving Kirsch and Vic Dinnerstein to make the president appear to say things he never said — though in many instances the edited versions amount to truisms that he could’ve or should’ve said. The best one of these and most telling is “Admissions Speech,” the denouement to Watergate that should have been. In this under 3-minute recording, Mr. Nixon’s words are manipulated to have him admit to everything he was accused of and ultimately resigned over. It’s given added drama by the musical backdrop of “Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1” — you know: the song they play at graduations.
Since buying the record in the mid-’70s, I’ve played this track for hundreds of friends, acquaintances, and unwilling family members. It is a classic that lives on in my world because it’s everything people wanted from Nixon but never got. You might call it the exposé of that era’s “big lie,” comparable to Donald Trump saying today: “I admit I lost the election fair and square. But psychologically I cannot accept loss, and I needed the continuing presidential immunity to avoid prosecution and incarceration. Yes, I did try to subvert American democracy to stay in power.”
“Admissions Speech” Origins
Imagine my surprise in March 2022 when I get a comment on my YouTube page post of “Admissions Speech.”
“That’s Nixon’s actual voice. My friend Vic Dinnerstein and I made that recording in 1974, first as a single and then as part of the album, which was nominated for a Grammy for best comedy recording of that year.” (— Irving Kirsch)
I commented back:
[ME:] “Irving, it is my true pleasure to meet you. This album has been legendary among my friends ever since I brought it home in the 1970s. I still quote it today. I was a recording professional in a prior life, all digital, and I always marveled at the skill this editing project must have taken in an analog studio. I hope you earned a good income from that work.”
And Irving commented back:
[IRVING:] “Actually, after the expenses for the studio, etc., we just broke even. But we didn’t do it for the money. We had a lot of fun doing it and are proud of it. Record companies we queried were very sympathetic but afraid of consequences from on high if they were to put it out. It never would have seen the light of day had it not been for Rob Reiner. We brought the tape over to his house and played it for him. He then got in touch with Tony Hendra at the Lampoon who called us and made arrangements, first for the single and then for expanding it into the album.”
Rest of the Story
I was intrigued and excited to make this contact with Irving. I wanted more backstory. So I did what any good “Woodstein”-inspired investigative journalist would do: I got on the phone to all my contacts at FBI and CIA, hit the streets, and knocked on doors to track down my subject. I’m kidding. I looked him up on Facebook and we chatted on Messenger.
[ME:] “Is this the Irving Kirsch who made the Missing White House Tapes Nixon concession speech recording?”
[ME:] “Great. I’m the YouTube channel owner you recently commented to. Once again, it’s great to meet you.”
[IRVING:] “Actually, Vic [Dinnerstein] and I did all of the Side A tape doctoring.”
[ME:] “Very cool. I know some people didn’t listen to that side as much, favoring the TV-themed sketch comedy side. But I did. If I recall, the Nixon admission piece was the finale at the end of that side. Do you remember much about the editing equipment you used?”
[IRVING:] “Yes, ‘Admissions Speech’ was at the end of Side A. When we made the album, we added doctored versions of Nixon’s early “Checkers” speech, a press conference, and some other dialogue. We were novices. We rented a recording studio and enlisted an engineer to help. We had a runner to put the audiotape on, a razor blade to cut it, and some special tape to connect the pieces back together.”
[ME:] “Amazing. You mentioned Rob Reiner — I already love that guy, but now I really love him. Tell me: Did you have “Pomp and Circumstance” already edited in as background music when you played it for Rob? That really sets off the piece. I get goosebumps every time I hear it (it pops up on my workout playlist about once a month).”
[IRVING:] “So here’s the story on that. When we got a copy of the speech [of Nixon explaining why he would not release the redactions of his taped telephone conversations] from our local public radio station, we didn’t mention what we wanted it for. It turned out they had used old tape with variations in background noise. To cover that up, we added the music. We used an orchestral version, then brought in a pianist friend to add the piano part.
“Rob was really great! We had never met him before, but Vic had a friend who was in an acting class with his wife (Penny Marshall) and gave us his phone number and address. We went to a Denny’s restaurant about 10 blocks from his place and called from a pay phone. We told him we had a tape we wanted him to hear. He asked what it was about, and Vic said, ‘Watergate.’ Then Vic added, ‘I’d rather not tell you anything more about it until you hear it.’
“Amazingly, he invited us to bring it over. We played it for him. He didn’t crack a smile. But as soon as it was over, he picked up his phone and dialed. Here’s what we heard next: ‘Hi Norman [Lear]. Could you bring a cassette tape recorder to the [“All in the Family”] rehearsal tomorrow? … Well, it’s about Watergate … Well, I’d rather not tell you anything more about it until you hear it.’
“Tom, thank you so much for posting these tracks on YouTube!”
Missing White House Tapes went on to be nominated for 1974’s best comedy album. It was beaten out at the 17th Annual Grammy Awards by Richard Pryor’s That N*****’s Crazy. (In a sign of the times, the Pryor album title was not asterisked out. Raised consciousness would not condone that today. Hell, raised consciousness wouldn’t condone that album being made today.)
History (and Comedy) Repeats Itself
In Washington today, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders issued a list of the president’s movements for the week:
- Monday: Nothing.
- Tuesday: Nothing.
- Wednesday: Good one, some blood.
(— writer’s embellishment; thanks to National Lampoon; “Missing White House Tapes”; 1974)
In an August 2017 chapter of my book Trump’s Presidency: A Real-time Commentative History, I thought some comic relief was needed after devastating floods in Texas, an obscene presidential pardon, more Trump-Russia collusion evidence, and the fear that our country’s chief executive might provoke a North Korean nuclear attack. I paraphrased this bit from another MWHT Side B sketch. Of course, at that time it was deputy press secretary Gerald Warren. (His boss, press secretary Ron Ziegler, apparently was out to lunch.)
Late August 2017 marked tremendous sadness. Houston and other parts of Texas experienced untold destruction and many lives lost. Hurricane Harvey set an all-time record for rainfall in the contiguous United States (50-plus inches over several days). It was one of the most costly U.S. natural disasters.
Deaths mounted, thousands of people needed rescuing, and tens of thousands were displaced. As with most American disasters, the spirit of humanity and neighbor helping neighbor was awesome. Then there was President Trump.
Congratulations Donald, you hit No. 1 — none of those piss-ant, second-rate Obama natural disasters like Hurricanes Irene or Sandy on your watch. Yours was the biggest, the best. You were keeping score and you were positively giddy.
POTUS and FLOTUS
The president and first lady visited Texas that week (clearly too soon) ostensibly to survey the damage. Though they didn’t go to Houston proper, they still diverted precious resources away from continuing rescue efforts. POTUS and FLOTUS looked like fashion models for the GQ/Cosmopolitan line of casual-but-stylish disasterwear, notwithstanding Melania’s caricaturistic high snakeskin stiletto pumps and Hollywood Wayfarers (though it was overcast).
The Donald sported brand new bright brown hiking boots and khakis with nary a scuff or wrinkle to be seen. Mr. Trump, ever concerned with his audience size, addressed a few hundred spectators at an impromptu speech in Corpus Christi with, “What a crowd, what a turnout.” During his speech and news conference, he did not mention the dead, the suffering, the displaced, or the first responders. But he and Melania looked great.
It’s distasteful to mix politics with natural disasters. But I thought, “Why stop now?” It was stomach-churning to see Donald Trump bring his toxic aura of self-fullness, soul-lessness, and ineptitude to a situation that, though tragic, brought out the best in Americans. Trump and humanity don’t go together.
Did I mention his hat? The $40 “USA” Trump-branded baseball cap he modeled at several Hurricane Harvey photo ops that was for sale on his campaign website? An astute member of the fake news press corps suggested sending that $40 to the Red Cross instead.
President Richard Nixon never hawked merchandise at a natural disaster. There has been, however, much discussion about strong parallels between Donald Trump’s administration and Nixon’s Watergate depravity (though it took six years for Nixon’s troubles to metastasize compared to Trump’s six months). But more important, consider the parallels between the Missing White House Tapes satiric masterpiece and the comic potential of the Trump presidency.
In 1974 there were only three or four TV channels, remote controls were in their infancy, and the internet was just a gleam in ARPANET’s eye. This National Lampoon album follows a typical channel surfer manually rotating the mechanical selector, skipping through (parodies of) the popular shows and well-known commercials of the day, with a sardonic Watergate theme applied to each.
In this day in the life, the Impeachment Day Parade in progress on Pennsylvania Avenue also is being broadcast. As the viewer turns the knob flipping through channels, she lands on the parade for a minute but gets bored with the early floats: Strangling of the Bald Eagle; Effigy Burning; and Alaska’s entry, “A gigantic oil sludge with dead caribou scattered around in it: Quite a personal tribute to Mr. Nixon.” The viewer switches over to Big Dick learning how to spell L-Y-I-N-G on “Sesame Street.” Big Dick also learns to count up to “only” seven: “1-2-3-4-5-6-7.” (District Court Judge John Sirica had ordered Nixon to turn over nine secretly recorded Oval Office tapes, but the White House said it had made “misspoke,” that now “there are only seven.”)
Switching to the next channel, the viewer takes in the Lady Plumber “Ring Around the Collar (in this case, Dollar)” commercial. (Remember that the Plumbers were members of the Nixon White House dirty tricks team commissioned to stop information leaks; they were responsible for the Watergate burglaries.) Overly cheery Lady Plumber demonstrates to the animated, amazed househusband (National Lampoon actor John Belushi) the benefits of new MexCabbage, which helps to avoid dirty money:
[SING-SONGY KIDS (SUNG TO TUNE OF “RING AROUND THE ROSY”):] “Ring around the dollar! Ring around the dollar!”
[HOUSEHUSBAND:] “Holy Maloney! My money’s dirty!”
[LADY PLUMBER:] “Sure is. You see, many kinds of improperly laundered funds leave embarrassing telltale traces in bank records and can cause permanent stains on reputations.”
[HOUSEHUSBAND:] “No kiddin’?!”
[LADY PLUMBER:] “But Mexican funds, with secret ingredient ITT, keep the White House clean while they prevent the dirt from getting out.”
[LADY PLUMBER:] “All it takes is just a few hundred thousand dollars a month and you can cover up even the worst mess. And thanks to its illegal political action, Mexican money goes to work where it counts, removing all evidence of crimes, greased palms, and dirty tricks in those hard to get at, high places.”
[HOUSEHUSBAND:] “Boy, that MexCabbage sure sounds terrific!”
[LADY PLUMBER:] “Use laundered Mexican money — It really pays off!”
(Ibid.; National Lampoon; 1974.)
Substitute the word Russian for Mexican, and VEB (Russian state bank) for ITT, and this skit is as vibrant and relevant as it was in Nixon’s day.
Many of the other MWHT skits are just as applicable to the incompetence and corruption of the Trump White House. The short-attention-span television viewer goes on to flip through other parodies of classic commercials and TV shows of the ’70s:
- “The Constitution Game” (which follows the presidential line of succession down to deputy assistant undersecretaries, trying to find an officeholder “clean” enough to assume the presidency)
- “Mission: Impeachable” (self-explanatory)
- Crest commercial (“Daddy! Daddy! I only got three cavities!” | “Well, that’s swell, Debbie, but I’m in the middle of a press conference.” | “Mr. Ziegler, uh, The Washington Post reports that your daughter had, in fact, 14 cavities. Care to comment?”)
- Televised Senate Watergate hearings (“What did the president know, and when did he STOP knowing it?”)
- Closing moments of the Impeachment Day Parade, wrapped up by an enthusiastic commentator (“Well that’s about it for America’s day of shame!”)
- Finally, the Right Reverend Billy Graham performing the swearing-out ceremony (“God-dam you, Richard Nixon! You son of a b*tch! You lied your a** off! Get the hell out of here! … F*** OFF!”)
(Ibid.; National Lampoon; 1974.)
Sounds like a fitting end for Donald Trump’s legacy to me.■
(Many thanks to Irving Kirsch for his participation in and fact-checking of this article.)
“Checkers” Speech Excerpt
“One other thing I probably should tell you because if we don’t they’ll probably be saying this about me, too. We did get something — a gift — after [my Senate] election. A man down in Texas heard Pat on the radio mention the fact that our two youngsters would like to have a dog. And believe it or not, the day before we left on this [1952 presidential] campaign trip we got a message from Union Station in Baltimore saying they had a package for us. We went down to get it. You know what it was? It was a little cocker spaniel dog in a crate that he’d sent all the way from Texas. Black and white spotted. And our little girl — Tricia, the 6-year-old — named it Checkers. And you know, the kids, like all kids, love the dog, and I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we’re gonna keep it.”
(Nixon, Richard M., Sen., R-Calif., 1952 [Eisenhower] vice presidential candidate; national television address; 9/23/1952.) (this was Nixon’s successful attempt to save his spot on the presidential election Republican ticket after accusations of financial improprieties)