When Raleigh attorney Gene Boyce stumbled on one of the great secrets of American politics 40 years ago – that Richard Nixon had a secret audio taping system – he could not have gotten it more wrong.
“My reaction was, ‘that SOB,’ ” Boyce recalled. “There are tapes that can prove his innocence.”
As we now know, the Watergate tapes, as they became known, were the smoking gun that brought down the president.
Boyce has been retelling the story a lot recently, speaking to civic and legal groups about the four months he spent as assistant majority counsel on the Watergate Committee. The N.C. Museum of History begins an exhibit May 17 titled “Watergate: Political Scandal & the Presidency” that features some of Boyce’s papers and memorabilia.
The scandal had strong connections in North Carolina, because the congressional committee investigating Watergate was led by Democratic Sen. Sam J. Ervin Jr. and many of his staffers were fellow Tar Heels – people such as Rufus Edmisten, Michael Carpenter, Phillip Haire and Lacy M. Presnell III.
Nixon also had ties to the state, having graduated from Duke University law school.
Stumbling into history
Boyce said he just sort of stumbled into history. He was practicing law in Raleigh when Ike Andrews, a Democratic state lawmaker, asked him to manage his campaign for the 4th Congressional District in 1972. Andrews won and Boyce went to D.C. to help him set up his office.
In D.C., Boyce met Edmisten, a top aide to Ervin, at a cocktail party. Ervin needed a trial lawyer who knew about investigations, documentary evidence and chain of custody.
In May 1973, Boyce joined the investigation, doing legal spadework for the hearings that transfixed the nation.
The lawyers divided up the witnesses to be interviewed before they appeared before the committee. On Boyce’s list was Alex Butterfield, Nixon’s former deputy assistant, who was then administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration.
Questions about tapes
The investigators had received hints that Nixon may have been taping himself, so they were routinely asking witnesses about whether there was such a system.
In a small room on July 13, 1973, Butterfield was posed the question by a member of Boyce’s team. He replied: “Everything was taped ... as long as the president was in the room.”
Three days later, Butterfield testified before the committee. The tapes became part of a pitched battle between Congress and the special prosecutor’s office. Nixon turned them over only when ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court.
They proved that Nixon had been involved in a cover-up, leading to his impeachment and resignation.
At age 80, Boyce is still practicing law in Raleigh. He has had a successful career, winning several high-profile lawsuits.
Boyce still doesn’t know the answer to some questions. Why did Nixon feel compelled to order the Watergate break-in when he was on his way to a landslide victory over Democrat George McGovern? Why did he not destroy the tapes?
“I’m still fascinated it happened,” Boyce said.
Boyce said the answer must lie in Nixon’s complex character.
“For him to screw up, when all he had to do is tell the truth,” said Boyce, “there is a lack of human understanding of right and wrong.”