In Peter Morgan’s play Frost/Nixon (now a movie), television interviewer David Frost’s first question, “Why didn’t you burn the tapes?”, serves as a dramatic turning point, a demonstration that former President Richard Nixon∇, out of power and in disgrace, was still master of the situation. “So much for our ‘surprise opening,’” says a character on Frost’s interview preparation team. “Nixon, the battle-hardened trial lawyer, flicked it away as though it had been no more than a fly.” Actually, the answer Frost got was quite revealing, newsworthy, and historically important: Nixon in fact had told his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman∇, to destroy most of the tapes in April of 1973, months before Watergate investigators learned of their existence. If Haldeman had done so, Nixon would probably not have had to resign--and Haldeman probably would have gone down in history as the highest-ranking official to be proved guilty of the Watergate cover-up. Haldeman, needless to say, didn’t carry out this directive.
An April 18, 1973, Oval Office tape transcribed by the Miller Center’s Presidential Recordings Program shows how close Nixon came to getting off scot free. Nixon had just learned three days earlier that his point man for the Watergate cover-up, White House Counsel John W. Dean, had turned state’s evidence. This was the crucial turning point in the investigation, because Dean had first-hand knowledge of the wrongdoing of Haldeman, Chief Domestic Policy Adviser John D. Ehrlichman∇--and the President himself.
April 18, 1973
President Nixon: I'd like for you to take all these tapes, if you wouldn't mind. In other words . . .
President Nixon: I'd like to--there's some material in there that's probably worth keeping.
President Nixon: Most of it is worth destroying. Would you like--would you do that?
Extracted from The Nixon Interviews with David Frost, volume 5, (University City, California, MCA Home Videos, Inc., 1992)
Frost: Why didn’t you burn the tapes?
Nixon: Now as a matter of fact, curiously enough, I did not only consider, but I even suggested and, I believe, directed that [White House Chief of Staff] Mr. [H.R. “Bob”] Haldeman take the taping system out--not take it out, but go through the tapes and, as I put it to him, to make the search that would be necessary to retain all those that had historical value and to destroy those that had no historical values--those that involved the family, those that involved political or other friends and so forth and so on, those that really shouldn’t be in the public domain. I pointed out that if we waited until after I left office to do it that either only he or I would be able to listen to all of it, it would be a monumental task and that we should do it now, and I suggested then that the taping system be changed because I found out then for the first time that it was one that recorded everything--changed so that I could turn it on and off with a switch. This was in April, early April, early April  before we were considering, for example, the situation with regard to the possibility of Haldeman or [Chief Domestic Policy Adviser John D.] Ehrlichman resigning and that sort of thing. But I said let’s have a system whereby we can only record and will only record those that really have historical significance. Now, his recollection, I understand, is that while we discussed it, he didn’t feel that he had been ordered to take it out. And so that time passed. But on June the 4th, 1973, after [White House Counsel] Mr. [John W.] Dean had made some charges that I knew were untrue, certainly in part and probably substantially in many other respects, it was suggested by [Deputy National Security Adviser] Al Haig∇, who was then the chief of staff in 1973, after Haldeman and Ehrlichman resigned, that I listen to the tapes, and so I did. And it was a very tough experience.
Frost: June was the first time, in fact.
Nixon: Yeah, that was the time I listened all day to the tapes with John Dean [i.e., the conversations between Nixon and Dean]. And after going through that period, I then felt, after listening to the tapes, that perhaps Haldeman not having taken the system out, that it was probably a good idea, because the tapes in many respects contradicted charges that had been made by Mr. Dean. And Mr. Haldeman was to say--talk to me later, when we talked about this matter, that he agreed that one of the reasons that perhaps he didn’t move on the instruction to destroy only those, except for the important national security matters that I have mentioned and domestic issues of importance that I mentioned, was because, he said, after all, he said, you’ve got to have a record in the event that somebody says something and it proves to be untrue. Now I’ll conclude on this point. I didn’t destroy the tapes because, first, I didn’t believe that there was a reason to destroy them. I didn’t believe that there was anything on them that would be detrimental to me. I also, I must admit in all--
Frost: Do you still feel--
Nixon: --candor I don’t believe that they were going to come out. The second point was that I didn’t destroy them because I felt that if at a later time, that had I done so, it would have been an open admission, or at least appeared to be an admission, well, I’m trying to cover something up.
Frost: But looking back on it now, don’t you wish you’d destroyed them?
Nixon: Well, as a matter of fact if the tapes had been destroyed, I believe that it is likely that I would not have had to go through the agony of the resignation, and consequently, I wish that Mr. Haldeman perhaps had either taken my instruction if it was an instruction or suggestion and gone further on it and done what I had suggested: destroyed those except those that had major significance from a policy standpoint. No, it’s true, at the time I didn’t think that the tapes might--I thought the tapes might not come out. At the time I thought that as far as the tapes are concerned, if they did come out, that possibly they would contradict some of the worst statements that were being made at the other time--other side. On the other hand, if I had thought that on those tapes--with the possibility, which there always was that they would come out--that there was conversation that was criminal, I sure as the Dickens--I could use stronger expletives, but not before this home audience--I sure as the Dickens would’ve destroyed them.