Meet Fred Burke, who provided the Oval Office tapes that helped sink Nixon
” I began by kennedy“, said Fred. “When Johnson took over, we did a lot for him.
And Nixon? We will join him.
Fred was born in Washington. His father worked in a poultry market on M Street. The family was very poor.
“I never had a bed until I was almost 13,” Fred said over the phone from Palm Beach Gardens, where he lives with his wife, Iris. “I slept on the couch.”
But Fred had a few things going for him.
“The thing my dad said to me when I was growing up was, ‘We don’t have anything, but there’s one thing you have that no one can ever take away from you.’ It was my word.
Fred was honest and a good salesman. In 1958 he co-founded a consumer stereo store called Audio Center. From his store on Fairmount Avenue in Bethesda, he would eventually count among his customers Jack Kent Cooke, Abe Pollin and various politicians.
Audio Center was half of Fred’s working life. His other half was Professional Products, the company he founded in the late 60s with partners Charles Faulkner and Carter Kaufman focus on government customers. Professional Products became a preferred supplier to the Secret Service technical department, headed by a man named Al Wong.
Fred sold the Secret Service cassette recorders that could fit in briefcases. He sold them penny-sized Sennheiser microphones. He sold the White House three television sets installed side by side in a console so that Lyndon B. Johnson could watch various newscasts simultaneously.
“He wanted to see it all happen at once,” Fred said. “He had a switch to be able to change the audio.”
Fred’s company sold the eight-track cassette player installed on Air Force One to the White House. And when LBJ wanted to listen to some country on a flight to his Texas ranch, it was Fred who the Secret Service woke up with a 2 a.m. phone call asking where they could get the albums. Fred told them to contact the record distributor at 7 a.m., provide the list of albums, then send someone to pick them up.
By the time the eight crawlers were delivered to Andrews Air Force Base, Air Force One had taken off. Fred said they were flown to Texas on Air Force Two.
“For me, it was the biggest waste of money ever,” he said.
At the same time that Fred was selling equipment to the Secret Service, he was selling stereo equipment to clients of the Soviet Embassy. The CIA asked him to report what they had purchased.
As for that reel-to-reel audio tape, what Nixon’s White House wanted was the tape in blank white boxes, with no maker’s name on the outside. And they wanted it in massive quantities, 200 to 300 spools per order. “For the records,” Fred said, he was told.
“I knew they were recording everything, but obviously that’s none of my business,” he said. “Then I get a call: ‘Rose Mary Woods needs a tape recorder. They want a real good one, not a normal tape recorder. They order an Uher tape recorder.
This was so that Woods, Nixon’s secretary, could transcribe all recorded conversations in the Oval Office.
As you will have heard, Republican agents were caught breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters. What did Nixon know and when did he know it? Well, one tape had 18 and a half minutes of silence, a gap that Woods described as “accidental”. The Secret Service asked Fred if it was possible.
“My answer to the Secret Service was ‘bull—-. There’s no accident with what happened there. ”
Some 18 and a half minutes may have missed, but what was left was pretty bad: “What I meant was you could win a million dollars,” Nixon had said. “And you could get it in cash. I know where it could be obtained.
When Fred was subpoenaed in 1974, he provided all the business documents he was asked for. Investigators were particularly interested in whether Nixon’s friend Baby Rebozo had bought anything. (He hadn’t.)
“I’ve always felt privileged to be a part of everything I’ve done,” said Fred, who retired to Florida in 2000. “I was just very proud – from my upbringing and so continued – to have had the opportunity to do so.”
And Fred played his small part in America’s history.
“Once he returned the tapes, it was all over.”