In May 1974, Tribune delivered 2 Watergate bombshells

Forty years ago this Thursday, Tribune readers found an extraordinary special section in their morning paper — a 44-page transcript of taped Oval Office conversations, the long-sought smoking gun of Watergate, perhaps the greatest political crisis in American history. The special section was a lightning bolt from the heartland; the thunderclap would come eight days later.

An embattled Richard Nixon had reluctantly released the transcripts in a Hail Mary attempt to save his presidency. He had been dueling with Congress, the courts and a special prosecutor over a 1972 break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate office complex that had been traced to the White House's doorstep. Ever since the existence of the tapes was revealed, it was assumed they'd show what role Nixon played in the original crime or its ham-handed cover-up.

Tribune Publisher Stanton Cook said of the release: "It certainly ranks as one of the most historic events affecting government in this century."

Cook and Tribune Editor Clayton Kirkpatrick realized how important it was for the transcripts to get into as many hands as possible, and they hatched an audacious plan: Print the transcripts in the next day's newspaper.

To pull off a coup matched by no other American newspaper, the Tribune's corporate jet flew a team of editors and production workers to Dulles International Airport, where Washington-based Tribune staffers handed them two copies of the transcripts rushed over from the Government Printing Office.

"We spent five minutes looking at the documents on the ground and then took off," said Richard Leslie, one of the editors involved. "We started working before we were airborne." Dozens of editors pored over different sections, marking them up for typesetters. It was a Herculean task, the equivalent of two or three daily newspapers, but the next morning — eight hours before the government put the transcripts on sale for $12.25 — Tribune readers for 15 cents could tackle a question posed by Tennessee Sen. Howard Baker: "What did the president know, and when did he know it?"

To judge by letters to the editor, Trib readers were divided over what the tapes proved. Lillian and David Nelson, of Chicago, wrote: "We are heartsick at the way President Nixon is being crucified." But Evelyn Lovdjieff, of Mount Prospect, asked: "If President Nixon is innocent, why should he hide the evidence?"

The Tribune characterized the transcript as "a startling historical document that reads like a scene in a thriller." Its publication certainly sped up the plotline. Eight days afterward, the Republican Tribune rattled Washington and Main Street when it called for Nixon to resign or be impeached under a headline: "Listen Mr. Nixon ..."

"We saw the public man in his first administration and we were impressed," said the editorial, a collaboration of Kirkpatrick and John McCutcheon Jr., chief of the Editorials page. "Now in about 300,000 words we have seen the private man, and we are appalled."

Nixon was already isolated. "Nobody is a friend of ours. Lets face it," he was heard to say on one tape.

His resignation was less than three months away.

The route to that unprecedented act began with a little noticed entry on a police blotter: On June 1972, five men were arrested while trying to bug the Democratic Party's headquarters. While documents connected them with a covert White House operation dubbed the "plumbers" (set up to stop "leaks"), Nixon's spokesman dismissed it as "a third-rate burglary attempt." The five were convicted on ordinary criminal charges, which might have ended the affair. Yet Nixon worried that the burglars might spill the beans.

One taped conversation involved a demand for hush money made by a key player in the Watergate caper. "You have no choice but to come up with the $120,000 or whatever it is, right?" Nixon told an adviser.

Meanwhile, The Washington Post's Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward began reporting juicy tidbits leaked by FBI official Mark Felt, then only known as the anonymous source called "Deep Throat." Belatedly realizing the scandal wasn't going away, Nixon appointed a special prosecutor, only to fire him when he subpoenaed the tapes. The top two officials of the Justice Department also lost their jobs for refusing to ax the special prosecutor, which went down in history as the Saturday Night Massacre.

Yet the pressure continued to build, compelling the president to release the tapes' transcripts — which revealed an decidedly unpresidential side of Nixon. It was a personality he'd managed to conceal during a political career that took him from Congress to the vice presidency under Dwight Eisenhower and to the White House on his second try.

Of the self-portrait Nixon left on the tapes, the Tribune observed: "He is humorless to the point of being inhumane. He is devious. He is vacillating. He is profane." Indeed, the transcripts are regularly dotted with excisions marked "expletive deleted."

He agreed to an aide's suggestion that Attorney General John Mitchell was the "Big Enchilada" and thus should be the fall guy for Watergate, despite being an old friend. Nixon was revealed as an equal-opportunity bigot. He reportedly called Judge John Sirica, who tried the Watergate burglars, a "wop." On one tape, Nixon laid out plans for his re-election campaign, saying: "For example — now the worst thing (unintelligible) is to go to anything that has to do with the arts. ... The arts you know — they're Jews, they're left-wing — in other words, stay away."

The remarkable nine-day stretch in early May 1974 was not just a tumultuous time in the nation's history but also marked a sea change for the Tribune. In rushing to print the transcript and then calling for Nixon to resign, Cook and Kirkpatrick continued the paper's ongoing break with the partisan excesses of the late Col. Robert McCormick's reign and the still rigidly conservative Tribune of the 1960s. Those two acts dramatically emphasized that the Tribune was turning a page.

The part this newspaper played in Nixon's downfall required a choice between statesmanship and partisanship. The Tribune regarded the Republican Party much as a parent does a child, having been present at its birth in the mid-1800s. It had played a key role in helping Abraham Lincoln become the first Republican to win the presidency and had backed Nixon in many election seasons.

So when writing an editorial saying Nixon had to go, Tribune editors knew Americans would take notice, that it would likely seal his fate. Yet there are historic moments when the nation's well-being has to take precedent over political loyalties — and the spring and summer of 1974 was one. From that perspective, the issue of Watergate could be simply put:

The presidency must "be separated from the man who now holds it," the Tribune said. "We must return to the day when people can shiver with pride instead of shudder with embarrassment when they see the flag or hear 'Hail to the Chief.'"

rgrossman@tribune.com