Exposing the tapes of Watergate

Don Sanders set aside his interests to do what was right — and played a pivotal role in bringing down Nixon
Sunday, June 12, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:51 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

The revelation that former FBI second-in-command W. Mark Felt was “Deep Throat” has brought new attention to the role reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein played in unraveling the Watergate conspiracy.

But Michael Sanders says another man, who was just as responsible for bringing down Richard Nixon, has been mostly forgotten by history. That man was his father, Don Sanders, who was a lawyer, an FBI agent, Boone County commissioner, and the man who, during the Watergate hearings, discovered there was a tape recorder in the Nixon White House.

“It’s always been a little bit frustrating to me that the Woodward and Bernstein team got all of the attention,” Michael Sanders said. “Uncovering the White House tapes was the key. That’s what my dad did, and nobody even knows his name.”

Don Sanders had a habit of keeping documents and taking meticulous notes about his daily activities. In November, his widow, Delores Mead, donated an archive of 35 various containers, including cardboard boxes, apple crates and Rubbermaid containers to MU’s University Archives. Among the documents is a planner in which Sanders wrote down most everything he accomplished in a given day.

An entry from July 13, 1973, includes this notation: “P.M. interview with Alex Butterfield. Disclosure of W.H. Tapes.”

That afternoon interview with Alexander Butterfield — buried in the middle of the day’s planner entry and written in a manner no different than a July 3 entry about working on the carport ceiling and a July 5 entry on routine paperwork — was one of the most important developments in the Senate investigation of the Watergate break-in.

Sanders, a Republican, was chosen to be the deputy minority counsel to the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, better known as the Watergate committee. He worked under Fred Thompson, who would later become a senator and an actor.

Two documents in the archive illuminate Sanders’ role in the Watergate proceedings: a handwritten account of his interview with Butterfield, who was the former deputy assistant to Nixon, written just three days after the interview and a draft of “Watergate Reminiscences,” dated March 1987. The article about his work on the Watergate committee was first published in the Journal of American History in 1989.

In “Reminiscences,” Sanders wrote that he noticed something odd about a White House document containing a list of conversation summaries between Nixon and former White House counsel John Dean. He felt that they were almost too precise, a fact that he mulled over as he waited for his turn to question Butterfield.

“As the minutes passed, I felt a growing certainty that the summaries had been made from a verbatim recording,” Don Sanders wrote. “I wondered whether Butterfield would be truthful if asked about a hidden recording system.”

This led to his decision to ask Butterfield a question he hoped would reveal the existence of a taping system. The handwritten account relates that before Sanders asked his question, he considered what the implications could be to both national and international security.

“I also took into consideration the political impact on the president and the party, and admittedly, the effect it would have on my future,” Sanders wrote. “I decided that this was a matter too important for personal considerations, that the people were entitled to the facts and that the tapes, if made, might even exonerate the president. I could not conceive that the president would utter incriminating statements knowing he was being recorded for history.”

Sanders then asked the question that contributed to Nixon’s demise.

“I asked Butterfield if he knew any reason why the president would take John Dean to a corner of a room and speak to him in a quiet voice, as Dean had testified,” Sanders wrote in “Reminiscences.”

Butterfield admitted that there was a recording system in the White House.

What followed was a yearlong battle in which the Watergate committee tried to gain access to Nixon’s tapes. On Aug. 5, 1974, Nixon finally released tapes that showed he had called for a cover-up of the Watergate burglary. He resigned three days later.

Early Years

By the time he joined the Watergate Committee in 1973, Sanders had already spent almost 20 years in public service.

He was born in Sappington in 1930. After receiving a law degree from MU in 1954, he served two years in the Marine Corps. He returned to Columbia in 1956, where he worked as city attorney. In 1959, he left Columbia to become a special agent in the FBI.

Boone County Circuit Court Judge Frank Conley, who knew Sanders from their days together at law school, said he can still recall the circumstances that led to Sanders being hired in 1969 as a counsel to the House Committee on Internal Security, which had formerly been known as the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Conley said that after the riots at the Democratic National Convention in 1968, Congressman Dick Ichord, who was chair of the committee, asked him to serve as counsel on a commission formed to investigate the riot. Afterward, Ichord asked Conley what kind of person his committee needed.

“I told him that you need somebody who has some background in investi-gation,” Conley said. “You need to get someone from the FBI.”

Don Sanders was that man.

During his time serving the committee, Sanders was a voice of reason in an organization perhaps best remembered for its witch hunts, said Michael Holland, director of the University Archives and the person who cataloged the Sanders documents.

One of the documents details how a lawyer working under Sanders wanted to bring a case against Playboy publisher Hugh Hefneras a communist and a pornographer, Holland said.

“In a memo, Sanders writes, ‘We should stay away from this before we become a laughingstock,’” Holland said.

After Watergate

Though Sanders left his mark on the nation as a member of the Watergate committee, he left his mark on Columbia as a public servant.

After Watergate, Sanders returned to Columbia to open a private practice.

In 1989, he was elected Boone County commissioner for the Southern District.

Though he only served one term, he accomplished much, Conley said, such as helping to develop and design additions to the Boone County Courthouse and improving the county’s roads. He also played a role in changing the commission office.

“Don and a couple of other people, turned it into a businesslike organization,” Conley said. “Before that, it was more like a part-time job.”

After his one term as commissioner, Sanders kept himself busy. In 1990, he went back to MU to earn a master’s degree in history. He served as the president of the Boone County Historical Society and, in 1997, teamed up with MU political science professor Rick Hardy in a campaign to elect then-Sen. Fred Thompson president.

He also gave speeches and wrote about his work on the Watergate committee, though he didn’t speak about it much in private, retired Columbia lawyer Scott Orr said.

“He didn’t talk about it because it would have seemed like bragging,” Orr said. “He avoided the limelight and any personal recognition.”

Orr said that this quiet demeanor was one of Sanders’ most admirable qualities. “He was very understated and under spoken,” Orr said. “He was a workhorse, not a show horse. You could always rely on Don to do the right thing at the right time without any desire for recognition or credit.”

Mead, who has recently remarried, said her late husband was driven by principle.

“He was a very strong person and had very strong beliefs,” Mead said. “He was very patriotic and was very loyal to the principles of whatever profession he was working at the time.”

Sanders died of renal (kidney) cancer in September of 1999.

Preparing the archives

The Sanders collection sits in the MU Archives in Lewis Hall, many of them still waiting to be taken out of their original containers, freed of rusty staples and paper clips, cataloged and placed in new, acid-free file folders.

This process hasn’t gone as quickly as planned. When Mead gave the documents to MU in November, Holland predicted that it would be six months before they were available to researchers. Seven months later, Holland said it will probably be another five months before they’re ready.

He said much of the delay has to do with staff shortages and that he has had to take on additional duties.

The scope of the documents is immense, ranging from Sanders’ time as a city lawyer, to his work at the FBI and the House Committee on Internal Security, to his pivotal role on the Watergate committee, to his work as a Boone County commissioner.

Sanders’ work on the Internal Security Committee takes up four boxes and contains documents on groups and people who were investigated during his time there. For example, actress Jane Fonda has three folders, some containing documents addressed to Sanders that suggest she should be tried for treason for her 1972 trip to Hanoi, Vietnam.

Though extensive, the Watergate files only constitute a small portion of the Sanders collection. Holland said the files will be categorized like a filing cabinet into 15 to 20 series,the Watergate documents will only make up one or two of them. Among the documents are photos of Sanders during the Watergate hearings, a typed account of what Butterfield said and critiques of newspaper articles about the Butterfield interview.

Taken together, Holland said, the documents paint a portrait of a man of extreme integrity and loyalty. “I think I would have liked him.”

Like what you see here? Become a member.

Show Me the Errors (What's this?)

Report corrections or additions here. Leave comments below here.

You must be logged in to participate in the Show Me the Errors contest.


Leave a comment

Speak up and join the conversation! Make sure to follow the guidelines outlined below and register with our site. You must be logged in to comment. (Our full comment policy is here.)

  • Don't use obscene, profane or vulgar language.
  • Don't use language that makes personal attacks on fellow commenters or discriminates based on race, religion, gender or ethnicity.
  • Use your real first and last name when registering on the website. It will be published with every comment. (Read why we ask for that here.)
  • Don’t solicit or promote businesses.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through. If you see something objectionable, please click the "Report comment" link.

You must be logged in to comment.

Forget your password?

Don't have an account? Register here.