Reviews of Barry Sussman’s “The Great Cover-Up”
By Robert Kirsch, Times Book Critic
It might seem that Barry Sussman’s The Great Coverup: Nixon and the Scandal of Watergate could add little to that well-publicized story. But, astonishingly the book does, not only in detail, not only as a case study of investigative journalism as seen through an editor’s eyes, but also in its coherent, penetrating and sometimes surprising assessment of the characters of those involved and the practices of government.
Sussman, the Washington Post editor in charge of city news who helped supervise and direct his paper’s coverage of the Watergate story, lives up to the description of him by reporters Robert Woodward and Carl Bernstein as “a walking compendium of Watergate knowledge.”
It is, if anything, a careful, even understated narrative. There is little guesswork. Instead, there is a fastidiously documented revelation of the complex meld of event and character in which Watergate was launched and through which it unraveled.
Some part of it inevitably touches upon luck and happenstance: a guard’s alertness; the decision of a uniformed policeman, Dennis Stephenson, who was first assigned to check the suspected break-in. But Stephenson begged off the assignment, saying he was low on gas and had paper work to catch up on. “Had he answered the call, wearing his police uniform and driving a marked police car, there probably would have been no Watergate scandal. He would have been spotted by Baldwin from across the street, and Baldwin would have put out an alarm on his walkie-talkie. Even with Barker’s walkie-talkie turned off, Hunt and Liddy would have heard the alert and had time to rescue their cohorts.
The nearest police car available was unmarked and had three plainclothes members of the tactical squad. Baldwin observed them but did not realize that the long-haired unobtrusively dressed men were policemen.
There are incidents enough of this kind. But even more important were elements of character and personality: police reporters doing their job, listening, observing; editors developing a feel for a story; investigative reporters digging deep; a judge with a feel for the big cases, hanging tough on the need to reveal the truth; legislators smelling a rat; aides and assistants volunteering information.
And there was the President himself, for all this strategy directed to projecting the image of a man who was above the political fray. Those who know Nixon were aware of his preoccupation with minutiae, particularly in the area of politics and personal concerns. He could meet twice with the veterinarian when his dog had the mange, but found time only to meet privately once in a year with Elliot Richardson who held three Cabinet posts under him.
Yet, even this detail, even the chronicle of the crazy turns of the story, gripping as it certainly is, does not comprise the greatest value of the book. Over and over again we see the workings of press and political processes, sometimes effective, sometimes obscuring, which broke through the coverup. For an editor, the work of his reporters represents the press at its best.
“It seems quite possible that had there been no Dahlberg check story, there would have been no Ervin Committee, no revelation of the existence of the tapes, and little pressure exacted to force those who knew of the coverup to come forward.”
What is most frightening is not the inexorable revelation but the possibility at each link that the coverup might have held. And among the most telling points made by Sussman is not the discussion of dirty tricks or political blackmail, but the use by Nixon of routine lobbying methods through routine channels. Thus while John Dean was suggesting rough tactics to prevent an impending investigation by Wright Patman’s committee, the President did not deem it necessary. He had enough leverage with members of each party, key committee members, to block that probe.
Much has been made in the latter part of the Watergate scandal of the partisan effort against Nixon and the use of the federal machinery “to screw our enemies,” as John Dean put it. But Sussman reminds us and gives the hard evidence that “it would be a mistake to reason that Nixon considered Congress as loaded with his enemies. Exactly the opposite is true. Throughout the Watergate scandal Nixon sought assistance from more or less friendly members of both parties.” And he concludes that “Watergate may be first and foremost the scandal of Richard Nixon, but it is a scandal that might have been put to an end long, long ago if not for the help powerful men on Capitol Hill extended to their President.”
There is much more here. Sussman takes pains to nail down the whole tactical and propaganda aspect of the coverup, and he is as critical and objective about the performance of the press as he is about Congress and the judiciary.
This is not only the story of Watergate by one who helped to disclose it, not only the personal story of an editor, it is also an analysis of the way politics has worked in the context of Watergate.
By Paul Rilling
There are going to be hundreds of books on Watergate. Every figure on either side and most of the bit players will write versions. Even Mrs. John Dean is writing a book.
This one is by the man who was city editor of the Washington Post during the Watergate investigation. As such, Sussman was directly involved in the Post’s effort to dig out the facts in the face of determined White House pressures and general apathy by the public and most of the press.
Sussman was the primary editor involved in the investigative reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (who have written their own Watergate book).
Sussman does provide some useful evaluative insight: He notes that Asst. Atty. Gen. Henry Petersen and the regular Justice Department personnel again and again acted to limit their initial investigation as narrowly as possible, that they continually bowed to executive pressures and handled “important” witnesses with kid gloves.
He emphasizes that the press generally was just not much interested in Watergate until late in the game, that the Post followed a lonely trail in its persistence in unearthing the scandal.
Congress, he says, consistently tried to ignore Watergate, hoping it would go away. Rep. Wright Patman’s effort to investigate the situation in the fall of 1972 was suppressed through the efforts of the White House, aided by Mr. Petersen. Even after the “Saturday Night Massacre,” most congressmen hoped that the President would somehow spare them from any action or decision.
“The overwhelming number of congressmen had consistently turned their backs on Watergate until it surrounded them. They were still reluctant to deal with it, hoping Nixon would solve what was becoming their dilemma,” he writes.
One comes away from this book with two disquieting thoughts. Why did it take Congress, the national press, and the people so long to realize the serious nature of the Watergate scandal? And, rather than demonstrating that the system is bound to work, the Watergate experience shows us how possible it would have been for the President and his men to get away with a successful cover-up. It was a very near thing.
“Nixon Not Only One to Blame?” Politics of Cooperation Cited
By William Hershey
The doctor tells us he is a sick man. Richard M. Nixon even feared entering the hospital, we were told.
Shed a tear for old presidents, if you must. But first give Barry Sussman a chance to turn on your skepticism.
“The Great Coverup: Nixon and the Scandal of Watergate” is his well-focused but unemotional account of the cowardly and devious path not only Nixon, but the United States took from the Watergate break-in of June 17, 1972, to Nixon’s Aug. 8 resignation speech.
Sussman, the Washington Post editor who supervised Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, repeats much we already know.
But, he subtly tells us, we all share the blame for letting Nixon hoodwink us. We elected the senators and representatives who let Nixon use what Sussman calls the “politics of cooperation.”
Nixon portrayed Congress as his enemy but Sussman makes it perfectly clear that he played its members like the strings on a fine guitar. Congress had plenty of opportunities to get tough and get the truth before even the Ervin hearings but chose not to, Sussman shows.
The Senators and Representatives instead remembered the cardinal rule of the politics of cooperation—you do a favor for me and I’ll do a favor for you.
The House of Representatives almost impeached Nixon because it had to, not because it wanted to. A few people like John Sirica and a few tapes left the noble solons no choice, Sussman says.
He says it well and it’s too bad he doesn’t talk a little more about the “journalism of cooperation.” He notes that his paper alone carried the Watergate story through the early days. But he doesn’t offer much on whether the press’ desire to get a few newsy crumbs from Ronald Ziegler made reporters an unwitting part of the coverup.
Sussman’s book is good, though, for other reasons. It tells us of the “might have beens.” What might have happened, for example, if former Attorney General Richard Kleindienst or Assistant Attorney General Henry Petersen had acted early on what they knew—and Sussman overwhelms us with the documentation that they had enough—instead of deferring to Nixon’s office.
Sussman, not a bad writer for an editor, also gives us cogent glimpses of the quintessential Nixon. John Mitchell’s first statement after the break-in contains elements of three cardinal rules—deplore the incident, disassociate key Nixon aides from it and point out that both parties face similar problems.
A re-reading of the Mitchell statement also shows how blatant were some of the early Watergate lies. Referring to James W. McCord Jr., Martha’s ex-husband said: “We want to emphasize that this man and the other people weren’t operating on our behalf or with our consent.”
Sussman’s book may not become a best seller. More than two years of Watergate have been enough for most of us. Also, his tale lacks the first hand immediacy of “All the President’s Men” when Woodward meets clandestinely with “Deep Throat” and Bernstein rousts Mitchell with a late-night phone call.
But Sussman deserves a reading from at least his colleagues in the press. After all, he knew a good story when he saw one.
By Jane Ely
Barry Sussman’s book may lack some of the personal pizazz of the other volumes turned out about Watergate, but if you are only going to read one of those already rushed into print—this is the one.
Probably for just that reason. For, on the whole, his is a readable, reasonably dispassionate overview of Watergate and the men who were its perpetrators and its victims.
While he could hardly be described as a fan of Richard Nixon, Sussman seems to work hard at trying to present him in a fair and realistic light.
Also, he does not hesitate to place responsibility on others when he feels it is due, and Congress comes in for its fair share of raps.
As a Washington Post editor greatly involved in directing the paper’s Watergate coverage, Sussman has a large amount of personal involvement in the story.
To some extent, the reader wishes he could have resisted immediacy and done the whole thing from a more distant vantage—more as a historian than as a newsperson—but, on the whole, he brings a reasoned and reasonable perspective to a news event whose tremors are still being felt.
As a matter of fact, the book’s greatest weakness probably lies in its timeliness—a fact he acknowledges.
“In many ways only the broad outline of the Watergate scandals are discernible even today; the full picture is not yet in focus…Those who undertake to describe what led to Watergate, as I have here, run the risk of seeing other incidents come to light that alter the relationships between people and events.
Though this is undoubtedly so—the book includes only hasty mention of Nixon’s resignation and none of his pardon—Sussman has done the best job yet of putting Watergate into the perspective of this country.
The person who reads this book just has to be grateful for the enlightenment Sussman sheds on Watergate and how it figured in the life and administration of Richard Nixon and the United States.
Someway, you feel you can trust him.
This is important when reading a book like this.
It also is important—very important—that the people of this country understand Watergate.
Barry Sussman’s book is an important step toward that understanding.
By Brit Hume
If Richard Nixon were not out of office in disgrace and failing health, this would be among the most important books published about the Watergate scandal. It sets forth with clarity the compelling case for Nixon’s complicity in the Watergate cover-up that can be made without the enormously—ultimately fatally—damaging evidence contained in the White House tapes released last summer. The book thus makes all the more disturbing the prospect that without the “smoking pistol” that the tapes finally revealed, Nixon would still be in power today despite an awesome amount of evidence against him.
The author was District of Columbia editor of The Washington Post at the time of the Watergate break-in in June, 1972. He directed the paper’s early coverage and ultimately was made part of an investigative team. He supervised much of the reporting on the Watergate case, which won The Post a Pulitzer Prize and made two of its young reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the most celebrated journalists of the day.
Sussman reaches his thesis early in the book, after detailing meticulously the meetings Nixon held in the Oval Office on his first day back in Washington following the break-in. There were, Sussman notes, 10 meetings or telephone calls lasting more than five and a half hours with H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, Charles Colson and John Mitchell, all of whom, by then, knew a great deal about the fiasco at Democratic headquarters and all of whom, except Colson, have acknowledged that they discussed Watergate with Nixon that day. Sussman finds it “inconceivable that a man as shrewd politically and as concerned over detail, as Nixon was, would be satisfied to hear only a little bit” on the subject. And he adds, “It was immediately after these meetings that aides to the President, especially John Dean, began interfering with the F.B.I.’s Watergate investigation.
“It is here,” writes Sussman, “that the pattern of a President deeply involved in the obstruction of justice begins.” In a narrative crammed with facts drawn from the public record, the author traces this pattern through a number of incidents that span the rest of the Watergate period. In all of them, he finds three common elements which strongly suggest the involvement of Nixon in the coverup:
“1. Nixon had the opportunity to plan and order the obstruction of justice (as indicated in this first instance by his many meetings with men who have since been indicted in the Watergate conspiracy).
“2. Such plans were indeed put into effect.
“3. Despite persistent appeals that he do so, Nixon never produced evidence to clear himself and, in fact, resisted releasing evidence or allowed evidence to be destroyed.”
There is special emphasis on the White House efforts to use the C.I.A. in blocking the F.B.I.’s investigation of the origins of the $114,000 found in the possession of Bernard Barker, one of the Watergate burglars. That sum, of course, turned out to have originated as donations to the Nixon campaign and provided the first clear link between the break-in and the Nixon re-election drive.
Sussman makes a persuasive argument that, in tracing the source of this money, the press made its most significant and possibly indispensable contribution to the unraveling of the cover-up. He also makes it clear that the reporters who did the job could not have done it without the help of Martin Dardis, an investigator for Richard Gerstein, Dade County, Fla., State’s Attorney. (Gerstein is known to investigative reporters across the nation as one of the most readily cooperative of all law enforcement officials.) It was the revelation that $89,000 of the Barker money had been channeled through Mexico to disguise its origins and that $25,000 came from Nixon fund-raiser Kenneth Dahlberg, Sussman contends, that set in motion the official investigations that finally trapped Nixon. He includes among those investigations the Ervin Committee hearings which laid the groundwork for the more momentous later proceedings in the House of Representatives.
Central to Sussman’s case against Nixon is his analysis of the President’s celebrated telephone conversation with acting F.B.I. chief L. Patrick Gray at the height of the White House efforts to keep the F.B.I. from digging into the source of the Mexican money that had been found in Barker’s possession.
According to Gray’s sworn testimony, it was during this conversation that he warned Nixon that some of his aides might be trying to “mortally wound” him. Nixon maintained that he called Gray to congratulate him on the handling of a hijacking, a claim that is supported by none of the evidence, least of all the substance of their conversation. Instead, using both the Nixon and Gray accounts of the conversation, Sussman shows the call was placed by the President “in alarm that Gray had spoken to Vernon Walters (the deputy C.I.A. chief) and now knew that F.B.I. agents could investigate the source of the Barker Mexican money without the jeopardy to C.I.A. operations that Nixon’s aides had claimed would result.
“Both Nixon and Gray agree,” writes Sussman, “that the only question Nixon asked was whether Gray had talked to Walters. When Gray said he had, Nixon did not even ask which of his aides Gray suspected, a question the President would be expected to ask if he were learning for the first time that people close to him might be involved in wrongdoing.”
Later, Sussman dissects the public statement released by Nixon on May 22, 1973, in which he acknowledged ordering H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman to summon C.I.A. leaders to the White House. This order was later proved to be the beginning of Nixon’s initiative in dampening the F.B.I.’s Watergate investigation. In the same statement, Nixon acknowledged that he had ordered the activities of the White House “plumbers” unit be kept secret, supposedly for national security reasons. The President also denied awareness that offers of hush money had been made to the Watergate suspects. This was a denial which Sussman finds not necessarily exculpatory. For even if it were true, he writes, “Nixon could have been morally and legally responsible for such offers….In conspiracy cases, prosecutors have occasionally held that a leader is responsible for any logical means used by aides to carry out an order. Payments to Hunt and other Watergate conspirators were so logical that arrangements to make them were one of John Dean’s first undertakings in the days following the Watergate arrests.”
The above are only highlights of the case against Nixon which Sussman presents in his account of the Watergate scandal. The book, though written in a clear, professional style, lacks the suspense of Carl Bernstein’s and Bob Woodward’s personal account of their role in the affair, “All the President’s Men.” At times the pace of Sussman’s story is slowed by the density of the factual material he packs into it. But, for all that, it is a readable book.
In addition to its worth as a sort of brief for the prosecution that might have been, the book also contains valuable insights into the way Nixon exploited the natural instinct of most officials in Washington to cooperate with the White House — or with whoever is in power. This phenomenon is especially well illustrated by the cases of the Democratic members of the House Banking Committee who joined Republicans to kill an early probe of Watergate and of Henry Petersen, the supposedly tough and independent chief of the Justice Department’s criminal division, who repeatedly played along with the White House, shielding top Nixon men from grand jury questioning and passing on to them information from the prosecutors. Were it not for this skillful use by Nixon of the “politics of cooperation,” Sussman argues convincingly, the scandal, based upon readily available evidence, might have been brought to an early and just ending.
Mastermind at News Desk/In Post’s Watergate Probe
By Robert I. Pack
Numerous books have already been written about Watergate, and dozens more will be published in the next few months. Obviously, even the most dedicated Watergate buff will not be able to read all of them; the question becomes how to select which of the multitude of books to read.
One criterion for making the choice may be the author. From this view, readers interested in an in-depth look at how the press helped solve the Watergate detective story should want to include in their reading this book by Barry Sussman, the Washington Post editor to whom reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward answered directly.
Sussman’s main concern—which seems to have been the correct one, in view of Richard Nixon’s forced resignation from the Presidency—was not whether or not Nixon was involved in the Watergate coverup and possibly in the planning of the break-in at Democratic headquarters as well, but how to prove Nixon’s involvement in the affair.
On the one hand, as Sussman points out, Nixon aide Jeb Stuart Magruder once stated, “We never considered that there wouldn’t be a coverup.” Determined to unravel this coverup were members of the staff at the Post, who, according to Sussman, “had never been ‘out to get’ Nixon or anyone else…we were simply to take a story to its natural resolution.”
Perhaps the key story in the entire Watergate investigation, in Sussman’s opinion, was one that appeared in the Post Aug. 1, 1972, and traced $25,000 used by the Watergate burglars to Kenneth H. Dahlberg, a Minnesota businessman and Nixon fund raiser.
The fact that Dahlberg’s campaign contribution wound up being used for illegal purposes, as reported by the Post, helped bring about the creation of the Senate Watergate Committee, according to Sussman. And, he notes, had there been no Senate Watergate Committee, the existence of the evidence that ultimately caused Nixon’s downfall—the White House tapes—might never have been known.
Among the fascinating bits of irony that help make history, as cited by Sussman:
Most of the questioning of Alexander P. Butterfield, the former White House aide who disclosed the existence of the tapes, was conducted by Scott Armstrong, a young Watergate Committee investigator who was recommended to the committee by reporter Woodward after Woodward turned down a job offered him by Chief Counsel Sam Dash.
Senate hearings on confirmation of FBI nominee L. Patrick Gray were “the beginning of the end for Nixon,” according to Sussman.
By Robert Roth
This is a good book for those, if there are any such left, who want to know more about Watergate than they already do. It is no book for those, of whom there may be many, who would like nothing better than to forget the whole thing.
Written by Barry Sussman, the Washington Post sub-editor who was in charge of the Watergate story from start to finish, it contains more hard fact, more detail, and more background material on the Nixon scandal than has previously been available in a single volume. It probably will not sell as well as “All the President’s Men,” the Watergate book written by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the two reporters who, working under Sussman’s supervision, dug out the story of the Watergate cover-up.
But Sussman covers a lot of ground that Woodward and Bernstein dealt with only superficially or neglected altogether. There is less drama in Sussman’s work than in that of his two reporters, but there is a lot more information.
When the Watergate controversy has cooled and the time comes for a definitive, dispassionate history of Watergate, historians will find that Sussman has done a good deal of their work for them.
“Watergate from behind the scenes”
By Linda Vachata
And here’s another one from a member of that same gang that brought us “All the President’s Men” and “The Fall of a President”…the staff of the Washington Post.
Barry Sussman, city editor appointed to the Post’s Watergate investigative team, worked behind the scenes as the story unfolded through the myriad of articles. Initial coverage of the Watergate burglary and other political misfortunes at first appeared unrelated, but Sussman traces how the pieces to the puzzle began to fall into place and how the arrow that it pictured pointed to the White House doors.
Sussman plays the role of a storyteller more than an analyst. Unlike the reporters who became bogged down in multifarious information, the author was able to view the overall picture.
Sussman’s book may lack the intrigue of All the President’s Men, but it also dispenses with the monotonous compilation of facts that tended to bore readers in The Fall of a President. The Coverup has the facts, but Sussman’s writing style is free and easy, not formal and rigid.
Up to now, most authors have treated the Watergate scandal as a somber, sacred event. Sussman occasionally deviates from sobriety and adds touches of humor.
It is no Art Buchwald or Phillip Roth type humor; it won’t make the reader slap his knee or laugh out loud. Whether intended or not, it offers comic relief from a depressing subject.
For example, Sussman writes: “The President found time to personally meet twice with a veterinarian when his dog, King Timahoe, had mange. But he never met more than once a year with Elliot Richardson, who had three Cabinet positions under him.”
Generous footnotes offer detailed explanations of how people and events were related. For the well-read Watergate readers, these footnotes may become burdensome, but they are indispensable for the neophyte.
The author completed this book several weeks before President Nixon resigned in August, but a supplemental chapter sums up the events immediately prior to Nixon’s descent from power — the articles of impeachment and the disclosure of the tapes that proved the most incriminating.
Even though Sussman’s speculation that criminal charges might be brought against Nixon is already outdated, in true journalistic style the author has still been able to cover a historical happening with eloquence and candor.
Barry Sussman is one of the unsung heroes of the Watergate affair. Everyone has heard of—and read—Woodward and Bernstein; Sussman was the editor with whom they worked most closely at The Washington Post, and he deserves no small part of the credit for their prodigious performance. His book is not redundant to their best-selling All The President’s Men. It provides less “color” and more hard information, carries the story through Richard M. Nixon’s resignation, and is a recommended addition to anyone’s Watergate library.
letter to T.Y. Crowell
“It looks to me like a solid, straightforward account of the tangled events leading to President Nixon’s resignation.”
Woodward/Bernstein tell the hectic story of how they got the Dahlberg check story, which put a CREEP cashiers’ check for $25,000 in the bank account of Bernard Barker, one of the Watergate burglars. Sussman analyzes how the Dahlberg article set the machinery in motion and says, had there been no Dahlberg check story, “it seems quite possible” there would have been no Ervin Committee, no revelation of the tapes, little pressure to force McCord and others to come forward. The best and most lucid unraveling of Watergate.
By Marvin Gelfand
First, a confession: I am one (expletive deleted) Watergate-Impeachment-Resignation-Pardon nut. Name it: PBS during the day and reruns at night; Stephen Hess, John Kramer, Bill Greenalgh, Alan Barth, et al are electronic buddies. Jeb Magruder’s An American Life, the clips of Woodward and Bernstein’s daily stories, The Washington Post paperback version of the transcripts, the New York Times paperback of same, volumes of the Ervin Committee’s hearings, All The President’s men. Ah! I have foxed copies of all the books and probably would have videotaped the news, too, but even so noble a mania must have limits. Now Barry Sussman’s The Great Coverup: Nixon and the Scandal of Watergate has arrived and it is a notable addition to the Watergate canon. As up-to-date as any single book could be, though even Sussman had to add a resignation chapter in August, 1974, for the paperback edition, the book is even more: it really explains the break-in and its historic aftermath.
Sussman was “special Watergate editor” at the Washington Post and worked more closely with Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein than anyone. The Post won a Pulitzer in April, 1973 (announced, ironically enough, the weekend of the 14th when the entire coverup was coming undone and Sussman was named “Editor of the Year” by the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild). In All The President’s Men, W&B, who beat Sussman into print and into the big money with a very readable “this is how we done it, folks,” story describe their editor:
“Sussman was 38, gentle in his manner, slightly overweight, curly-haired, scholarly demeanor….Sussman had the ability to seize facts and lock them in his memory, where they remained poised for instant recall. More than any other editor at the Post, or Bernstein and Woodward, Sussman became a walking compendium of Watergate knowledge, a reference source to be summoned when even the library failed. On deadline, he would pump these facts into a story in a constant infusion, working up a body of significant information to support what otherwise seemed like the weakest of revelations. In Sussman’s mind, everything fitted. Watergate was a puzzle and he was a collector of the pieces….At heart, Sussman was a theoretician.
“In another age, he might have a been a Talmudic scholar. He had cultivated a Socratic method, zinging question after question at the reporters: Who moved over from Commerce to CRP with Stans? What about Mitchell’s secretary? Why won’t anybody say when Liddy went to the White House or who worked with him there? Mitchell and Stans both ran the budget committee, right? What does that tell you?
Sussman had inspired legmen and the courageous backing of Post executive editor Ben Bradlee and owner Katharine Graham, so his questions were answered and published; now he tries to make sense of it all. No short review of the book, or even an outline, could convincingly say how well his book succeeds.
Sussman has read every document—the transcripts, the Ervin hearings, civil depositions, the Gray hearings, the Nedzi Committee’s investigation of CIA involvement in Watergate—and he supplements his informed analysis of what they show with personal gems from men like Sam Dash (on Pat Gray and his motives: ‘I don’t know: He is an enigma.’), Alexander Butterfield (on meeting Nixon: “Butterfield said the President stood up, shuffled his feet and dug them into the carpet, had his chin into his chest, looked down at the floor, and didn’t seem to know what to do with his hands—making Butterfield so uncomfortable that he didn’t know what to do with his hands. Haldeman was seated on a couch, and he shrugged as Butterfield looked at him, as if to explain that this was why the introduction had been so delayed”).
What Sussman sees, and this is most important of all, is that Nixon all along could depend on help from the leaders of the so-called partisan opposition. Democratic votes denied Wright Patman subpoena powers to investigate the break-in in October, 1972. Senator Ervin agreed that FBI reports be limited to himself, Senator Baker, Dash and Thompson in the Watergate Committee hearings. Robert Strauss negotiated with a thoroughly discredited, though not yet indicted John Mitchell, to settle the Democratic Party’s civil suit for $500,000, at a time when no other forum but The Washington Post was looking into the scandal. Mike Mansfield announced in September, 1973, that the people were bored with Watergate and that he, for one, would go on to more important things. And, as the final startling example, of what Sussman calls the “politics of cooperation and rescue,” Gordon Strachan testified at the Senate Watergate hearings on July 23, 1973, that the White House had a list of one hundred Democrats in the House and Senate up for re-election in 1972 ‘who would not receive very strong opposition from Republicans….The goal was not to give a tremendous amount of support to Republicans that would oppose these congressmen.’ Since ten Democratic senators and 235 Democrats in the House were running for re-election, Strachan meant that Nixon gave succor to 42.5 percent of the opposition’s incumbents. As Sussman comments:
“Watergate was a scandal that might have been ended much more quickly “if not for the help powerful men on Capitol Hill extended to their President.” In such case the Press/Media became willy-nilly the only opposition party, but that’s another and longer chapter of recent political history. Sussman should write that, too, for with The Great Coverup he has written a classic in American journalism.
“Excellent Watergate View”
By Richard Allen Paul
When conservative columnist William F. Buckley Jr. was nominated for membership in the U.S. Delegation to the United Nations, the FBI did the usual background check.
In so doing, they called his editor at the National Review, William Rusher, and asked him whether Buckley had done anything since 1969 that might embarrass the Nixon administration. Rusher mused for a moment and then replied: “No, but since 1969 the Nixon administration has done a great deal that has embarrassed Buckley.”
Barry Sussman, an editor of the Washington Post who was in charge of the reporting of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, adds to the growing literature of Watergate with his terse although slightly flawed account of the scandal.
Sussman puts it all together. Starting with the call he received June 17, 1972, reporting the break-in at Democratic National Headquarters, he carries the story through (Nixon’s resignation)…The latter chapters dealing with the impeachment proceedings through to the end give every evidence, as doubtless was the case, of being written under the gun with a deadline in mind.
However, the bulk of the work is excellent. Watergate wasn’t so much an event as a series of explosions. One tends to remember vividly the explosions but forgets the interstices. Sussman makes it all quite clear. Watergate was the ultimate in political crimes. There is already abundant evidence that under Nixon the CIA had been in violation of law, dragged into domestic affairs; the investigation and findings of the FBI had been fed directly to the suspects, Nixon included, the Justice Department had engaged in malicious prosecution of some high minded individuals and had ignored blatant crimes committed by others; the good old friendly Internal Revenue Service was used to savage Nixon enemies; the court system had been subjected to blackmail, subordination of perjury and direct interventions with certain malleable judges; congressmen on both sides of the aisle were seduced in order to prevent investigations; illegal campaign funds had been solicited and very likely the president and his highest advisers had accepted money to influence legislation.
Sussman has the reporter’s eye for interesting detail which adds a tone of freshness and originality to an already well-mined subject. His description of Sam Ervin as “a palsy-tongued orator” sputtering with indignation is well stated and not at all uncomplimentary to that distinguished senator. With such sharply etched portraits, it is a book well worth the time.
“Before anyone else at the Post, Sussman saw Watergate as a larger story, saw that the individual events were part of a larger pattern, the result of hidden decisions from somewhere in the top of government which sent smaller men to run dirty errands…
“From the start, the Post was thus unusually lucky. It had the perfect working editor at exactly the right level. Sussman was not simply encouraging, he brainstormed the story, trying to put the pieces together, fitting them and refitting them until finally, slowly, there was the beginning of a pattern. More, he believed in the story, he was sure there was something there.
“Given prime responsibility for directing the Post’s Watergate coverage…Sussman had the ability to seize facts and lock them in his memory. On deadline he would pump these facts into a story in a constant infusion, working up a body of significant information to support what otherwise seemed like the weakest of revelations. In Sussman’s mind, everything fitted. Watergate was a puzzle and he was the collector of the pieces.”
“Barry Sussman was there observing it all from the beginning—he knows what happened and why—and he tells it all in a highly readable style. The best book to read on Watergate…”
“When people ask me which book they should read to understand what really happened during Watergate, I recommend this one. Barry Sussman was one of the first to perceive the full dimensions of Watergate, and he records it all in a fair, fast-paced, literate manner…Serious Watergate students report this is the best overview of the subject. I heartily agree. Anyone who wants to understand Watergate, and not make a career out of it, should read The Great Coverup.”
Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein having told the Watergate story from their point of view in “All the President’s Men,” one of their editors at the Post, Barry Sussman, now follows with his version.
Sussman’s book is billed as “the first complete account from break-in to resignation,” and while one could quibble about the word “complete,” it is still probably true that this is the most thorough discussion of the subject to date.
The book was actually finished two weeks before Nixon’s resignation, but fortunately not too late for a quick final chapter on this development and a last-minute revision to put references to the Nixon Presidency in past tense. (One they missed: “…near the White House, where the barber who cuts Nixon’s hair…”)
The Post got a jump on the Watergate story immediately following the break-in in June, 1972, and stayed ahead of the nation’s other media throughout. Sussman tells how the early advantage came about thanks to a Post police reporter who had been on his beat so long that many people, including some policemen, thought he was a cop. So when other reporters were barred from the Democratic National Committee headquarters during the initial investigation, he was allowed inside.
In general, however, it wasn’t so much luck as it was the fact that no one else was willing to take Watergate seriously for so many months. Even at the Post, where Woodward and Bernstein were assigned full-time to the story, Watergate ran a distant second to the 1972 presidential campaign.
“To the political staff of the Post, then,” writes Sussman, “Watergate was in a way like a leaky faucet—something to think about when you stood near the sink, easy to forget when you were out covering the election campaign.”
Conservatives and diehard Nixon supporters will never believe it, but the motivation at the Post, according to Sussman, was not a desire to “get Nixon.” Right up to the election, he says, “we had no idea how big the story was, or how much trouble we had been causing Nixon.”
Watergate finally became the nation’s number-one story in March, 1973, after James McCord broke his silence and the White House began to be implicated in the scandal.
Sussman effectively pieces together the complex Watergate story, creating order out of disorder. By contracting the scandal’s diverse ingredients and examining them with the advantages of hindsight and the perspective offered by the Nixon tapes, he is able to put the overall picture into much sharper focus than was possible from reading about day-to-day developments in the newspaper.
It has been popular, since Nixon’s resignation, to talk about how well the American system works. Sussman’s book makes clear that the nation owes its gratitude as much to plain good luck as it does to the system.
For one thing, there is the matter of the tapes. Had Nixon not been so foolish as to install that taping system in his office or if Alexander Butterfield had not made that historic revelation of its existence to the Senate Watergate committee, Richard Nixon would undoubtedly still be President of the United States. There would still have been much incriminating evidence (Dean’s testimony, for example), but there would not have been the solid, indisputable proof that was needed to turn most Republicans against one of their own.
It is sobering to realize just how reluctant Congress, including Democrats as well as Republicans, was to take action against the President. Congress acted only when an outraged public demanded it.
Sussman points out that Nixon was counting on the “politics of cooperation” to get him out of the mess he was in. The game of “you do something for me and I’ll do something for you” was responsible for much of his political success, and to the end he tried to make it work this time, too. Fortunately, it didn’t.
“The Great Coverup” is good reading, recommended even for those who think they are sick and tired of Watergate.
- Robert Kirsch: Los Angeles Times
“…a fastidiously documented revelation of the complex meld of event and character in which Watergate was launched and through which it unraveled.”
- Paul Rilling: Anniston Star
- William Hershey: Dayton Daily News
- Jane Ely: Houston Post
“…Sussman has done the best job yet of putting Watergate into the perspective of this country. The person who reads this book just has to be grateful for the enlightenment Sussman sheds on Watergate and how it figured in the life and administration of Richard Nixon and the United States.”
- Brit Hume: NY Times
- Robert I. Pack: Palo Alto Times
- Robert Roth: Philadelphia Bulletin
“…When the Watergate controversy has cooled and the time comes for a definitive, dispassionate history of Watergate, historians will find that Sussman has done a good deal of their work for them.”
- Linda Vachata: Phoenix Republic
- The Progressive
- Elliot Richardson
- San Francisco Bay Guardian
- Marvin Gelfand: West Side Literary Review
“… a classic in American journalism.”
- Richard Allen Paul: Wilmington News
- David Halberstam: From The Powers That Be
“…Before anyone else at the Post, Sussman saw Watergate as a larger story, saw that the individual events were part of a larger pattern, the result of hidden decisions from somewhere in the top of government which sent smaller men to run dirty errands.”
- Woodward & Bernstein: From All the President’s Men
- A statement by John Dean, 10 years after the break-in
- Mansfield News Journal