The Great Coverup: Excerpts
I began working on the Watergate story on June 17, 1972, only hours after the break-in at the National Committee headquarters. I was city editor of The Washington Post and had seen my share of crime stories. But from the start, I had never seen one as tantalizing as this. The five men captured wore business suits and surgical gloves, had thirteen brand-new hundred-dollar bills in their pockets, and carried sophisticated camera and electronic bugging equipment and a single walkie- talkie. Though they made no telephone calls after their arrests, two lawyers appeared at police headquarters to represent them.
The following day it was revealed that one of the five worked for Richard Nixon’s re-election committee. The day after that the mystery deepened when we at the Post learned and reported that the name and telephone number of a White House operative, E. Howard Hunt, Jr., formerly of the CIA, was listed in two address books belonging to the arrested men, and that a check for $6.36 from Hunt to a local country club had been left behind in one of their hotel rooms at the Watergate.
From those early moments on, I was part of a team that viewed from close-in the uncovering of what many have called the worst scandal in the nation’s history. Week by week, the Watergate disclosures led nearer to Nixon, engulfing his closest associates. On the first day in July, 1972, John N. Mitchell, who as attorney general had been the chief symbol of law and order in Nixon’s administration, resigned as chairman of the re-election committee because of the scandal. A month before the presidential election, the Post reported that the Watergate bugging was only one incident in a massive campaign of political spying and sabotage waged against the Democrats by the Nixon forces.
…By spring of the following year, the Watergate coverup had collapsed, largely through pressure exerted by an aggressive jurist, John Sirica, and stunning, inexplicable disclosures made by the temporary head of the FBI, L. Patrick Gray III, who destroyed his own career and reputation in the process. In April, 1973, Nixon dismissed his chief aides, H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, his counsel, John Dean, and Mitchell’s replacement as attorney general, Richard Kleindienst.
By going through the motions of cleaning house, the President tried to make it appear that he had no personal involvement in the scandal and that he was attempting to get to the bottom of it. By late May, 1973, people who studied the public record could see that Nixon was guilty of criminal conduct in the Watergate coverup and in more serious earlier crimes or perversions of the presidency. The Oval Office tapes were still secret then, but no tapes were needed. There was more than enough evidence, as this book shows, to persuade a jury that the President of the United States had engaged in criminal activity.
It was then that I began writing The Great Coverup. I did so with the conviction that Nixon’s guilt had been established but the concern that Congress would not move against him. And I wrote also with the knowledge that hardly any Americans knew what the word “Watergate” stood for, beyond a botched burglary and bugging attempt.
…In this edition I have omitted some of the details of the case against Nixon that were in the original 1974 version, since proof of his involvement in the coverup has long been established. I have tried instead to focus on the spectacle and drama from the break-in arrests until Nixon’s resignation, to spell out just what the Watergate scandal encompassed, and to give a feel for life in Washington and the politics of the time. It is a story of how a great nation watched its President try to subvert the political and justice system, while powerful leaders did little to block him until circumstances and public opinion forced their hand.
The President found time to meet twice with a veterinarian when his dog, King Timahoe, had mange. But he never met more than once a year privately with Elliot Richardson, who held three Cabinet positions under him. It was not that Nixon was too busy to meet; it was a matter of personality and style. The President was deeply involved with endless details of the most meaningless sort—he would, for example, pore over guest lists for social functions at the White House, noting the names of the few people with whom he wished to mingle, issuing orders that all others be kept away from him.
Haldeman and Ehrlichman came to be called the “Berlin Wall,” as though they always shared the same White House relationship to the President. They didn’t. Their roles were quite different. Haldeman played no part in establishing government policy. He was an implementer, not a policy maker. He was the President’s personal public relations firm, guarding Nixon’s every move, controlling access to him, seeing that the entire White House staff realized immediately in 1969 that the foremost goal of the first Nixon Administration was to win re-election in 1972. Haldeman did his best to make a Boy Scout camp of the White House, with himself scoutmaster and all second-rank aides subservient to him, selflessly and absolutely devoted to the re- election of Nixon.
Ehrlichman, on the other hand, dealt with substantive policy issues in the field of domestic affairs. Efficient and calm, Ehrlichman inspired confidence in aides below him and among Cabinet members and their assistants who could never get to Nixon. But from the beginning, he did other work as well. In May, 1969, according to later testimony, he met at a New York airport with a retired New York City detective, Anthony Ulasewicz, who had been recommended as a prospective snooper for Nixon, a White House private eye. Ehrlichman approved his hiring and occasionally filtered orders down to him to satisfy Nixon’s demands. Still, Ehrlichman never stood as close to Nixon as Haldeman did; the public could infer this when it was revealed that Haldeman but not Ehrlichman knew of the President’s practice of taping his conversations.
The public seldom heard of either man at all in the first Nixon years. In a capital that lionized power, Haldeman and Ehrlichman could walk into a department store without being recognized…
When the time came, it was managing editor Howard Simons—not Ben Bradlee or other ranking editors—who made the crucial early decisions that led to the Washington Post’s extraordinary coverage of the Watergate scandal, especially the decision to allow the metropolitan staff, which did not normally report on national politics, to pursue the story…
Bob Woodward, a registered Republican, was the son of a judge in Wheaton, Illinois. Both his parents had divorced and remarried. Woodward had graduated from Yale and entered the Navy as an officer. He got married, and when his four-year hitch was up, his wife was in school in California, where he had been stationed. The Navy asked him to stay on a fifth year, on assignment in Washington. He went east while his wife stayed in school on the West Coast. When he finally left the Navy, he told me, he returned to her but it was as if they hadn’t known each other, and they got a divorce.
Woodward came back to Washington and tried to land a job at the Post, but he wasn’t hired for lack of journalism experience. He went to work at a suburban Washington weekly, kept inquiring at the Post, and was hired by Harry Rosenfeld (the metropolitan editor) a year later, in the late summer of 1971, at the age of twenty-eight.
He had offered to come to work at the Post for nothing. As it was, at the time of the Watergate break-in, he was the lowest paid full-fledged reporter. He quickly distinguished himself as an excellent investigative reporter, bright, aggressive, hard working. If he had a shortcoming, it was that his writing was awkward.
Carl Bernstein, a year younger than Woodward, had grown up in Washington and suburban Maryland. He dropped out of college, worked at a newspaper in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and at the Washington Evening Star before joining the Post. Freckle-faced, impetuous, he was a gifted writer with a penchant for getting in on big stories. He sometimes found universal truths in ordinary fires or auto accidents, a characteristic that rankled editors whose first principle was no vivid writing, please. He was persistent with news sources, which was good, but also persistent with editors and that was considered nagging.
Bernstein smoked but seldom had his own cigarettes and never any matches. He often borrowed a dollar or two from friends and was forgetful about it. At the same time, he appeared to be more genuinely considerate of other people than were most reporters. Bernstein also had been married, to a woman who had been a reporter at the Post. But they separated and she left the newspaper for a government job. At the time of the Watergate arrests their divorce was pending.
Like Woodward, Bernstein was intelligent, dedicated, and in the habit of working long hours. For both, their work was the major interest in their lives; they were young and energetic and enterprising, and they had plenty of time to devote to it…[On July 31, 1972, the Washington Post reported that a $25,000 check given to the Nixon re-election committee by a fund-raiser, Kenneth Dahlberg, had ended up in the Miami bank account of Bernard Barker, one of the Watergate burglars.] That story immediately set in motion an inquiry by the General Accounting Office of Congress, the first body to cite illegalities in the Nixon campaign. It also sparked the Wright Patman investigation, which was eventually blocked after White House intervention in October, 1972, but which apparently led Senator Edward M. Kennedy to conduct a quiet, three-month investigation of his own as chairman of the Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on Administrative Practices and Procedure. On the basis of Kennedy’s findings, the Democratic leadership of the Senate decided to hold hearings on Watergate. The result was the creation of the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, the Ervin Committee, through which the nation learned of the White House tapes the specific cause of the drive to impeach Nixon.
In the most significant ways, the Dahlberg article represents the chief contribution of The Washington Post in the course of the Watergate scandal. 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 exerted to force those who knew of the coverup to come forward.
In the summer of 1973, when John Dean made public the enemies list with the names of 21 organizations and more than 200 people on it, it became natural to think of Nixon politics as the politics of revenge. The enemies list was part of a plan to “use the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies,” as Dean explained it. The concept, involving fundamental abuse of government power for the basest ends, was obviously repugnant and offended many Americans. But it would be a mistake to reason that Nixon considered Congress as loaded with his enemies. Exactly the opposite is true.
Very few senators and congressmen were considered enemies. The list included mainly representatives of the media, civil rights or citizens group activists, labor leaders, celebrities, academics, businessmen, and antiwar leaders. There were only ten U.S. senators on the list, and, aside from the black members of the House only six representatives. Those whose names were not on the enemies list were not necessarily considered friends. But most assuredly, with few exceptions they were considered politicians who could be reasoned with in a normal manner. So one implication of the list was that, by their absence on it, 90 senators and 417 representatives were not thought of as enemies by Richard Nixon.
Perhaps nothing better illustrates the relationship between Nixon and those supposedly partisan politicians, the Democrats on Capitol Hill, than the public testimony of White House aide Gordon Strachan at the Senate Watergate hearings on July 23, 1973. Strachan said that the White House had a list of one hundred Democratic members of the House and Senate who were running 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.”
In 1972, a total of 10 Democratic senators and 235 Democrats in the House ran for re-election nationwide. If Strachan’s figure was correct—and he was questioned about it repeatedly by Senator Lowell Weicker of the Watergate Committee—then Nixon was lending encouragement or support to 42.5 percent of the opposition party’s incumbent candidates. The Democrats favored, Strachan said, were selected for having supported Nixon’s Indochina policies or because they had won the backing of labor interests that also were aiding Nixon.
Weicker was so upset at Strachan’s testimony that he reflected on “Republicans doing in Republicans” and asked rhetorically, “Did we have any sort of an election contest…was there a contest in 1972 for the House or Senate?” Throughout the Watergate scandal, Nixon sought assistance from more or less friendly members of both parties. And from the moment Wright Patman announced his plans to investigate Watergate, through the most intensive states of the Senate Watergate Committee hearings and the later drive for his impeachment, the President time after time was rescued by leaders of both political parties.
Watergate was first and foremost the scandal of Richard Nixon, but it was a scandal that could have ended quickly if not for the help powerful men on Capitol Hill extended to their president.
By the end of September, 1972, Woodward and Bernstein took the trail of Watergate funding all the way up to John Mitchell. Bernstein called the former campaign director at home late on the night of September 29 to ask his comments on a report that he controlled the “secret fund” while he was Attorney General. Bernstein read aloud the first several paragraphs.
“All that crap you’re putting in the paper!” Mitchell said. “It’s all been denied. Katie Graham’s gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that’s published. Good Christ! That’s the most sickening thing I’ve ever heard.”
Bernstein said he wanted to ask Mitchell a few questions.
“What time is it?” Mitchell asked.
“Eleven-thirty. I’m sorry to call so late,” Bernstein said.
“Eleven thirty? Eleven-thirty when?”
“Eleven-thirty at night.”
…Monday, January 8, 1973, some 250 potential jurors were gathered in the U.S. District Courthouse in Washington. The Watergate trial was about to get under way. On the first day Judge John J. Sirica excused more than 150 people who said that a lengthy trial would cause them personal hardship. On the second morning Sirica asked those remaining to stand if they had heard, read, or seen anything about the Watergate case, and eight people remained seated. The judge asked one of them, “You didn’t hear about the Watergate case?” She said, “No.”
“Incredible,” Sirica said.
He then proceeded to select twelve jurors and six alternates before the day was out, and had marshals accompany them home for some belongings and return them to the courthouse. They were sequestered on upper floors in modest rooms with windows they could not see through for the following three weeks, the length of the trial.
Two defense attorneys charged that Sirica had ignored standard procedures in selecting a jury so rapidly, without giving them an adequate chance to ask questions. They said his actions would be grounds for appeal if their clients were convicted. But Sirica did things his own way and refused to be disturbed by such criticism; he had established quite a record for receiving criticism long before the trial began.
Sirica’s reputation was that of a very tough sentencer, something of a publicity hound. In a court noted for its thoughtful and progressive jurists, he was regarded near the bottom in depth of legal knowledge, more a Sancho Panza than a Solomon. The son of an Italian immigrant, Sirica had the looks, manner, and speech mannerisms of a bus driver.
By 1972, Sirica’s court had begun following new guidelines recommended by Chief Justice Warren Burger on the handling of major cases. Included was a procedure through which the chief judge was to assign the best available jurist, replacing the previous practice of selecting a judge at random. Sirica proceeded to assign himself to Watergate, saying it would be a time-consuming case and that while other judges had a backlog to contend with, he didn’t. He had appointed himself to the last sensational case in his court, a bizarre murder that captured the attention of a blasé city. So it was not a total surprise that Sirica chose to try he liked the big ones. Nevertheless, because of the political overtones, one of the first questions asked about Sirica’s conduct had to do with why he took the Watergate case.
On October 4, 1972, Sirica issued a broad, possibly unprecedented order prohibiting all law enforcement agencies, the defendants, witnesses, potential witnesses “including complaining witnesses and alleged victims, their attorneys and all persons acting for or with them in connection with this case” from making statements about the matter to anyone outside the court. The motion requesting the order had been filed by defense attorneys and approved by prosecutor Earl Silbert, with both sides doing their best to end all Watergate publicity at the time. Sirica, who was ill when the order was prepared, signed it at home. It was so sweeping yet so vague that the judge couldn’t explain exactly who was restricted by it and was himself uncertain of its legality.
Lawrence Meyer of the Post called the judge to ask whether the order meant that George McGovern could no longer discuss Watergate in campaign speeches. “That’s a good question,” Sirica said. “I tried to make it as broad as I could. I hadn’t thought about it. I frankly hadn’t given that a thought. I’ll have to deal with that at some time, I suppose, but I’d rather not answer that question now.”
Sirica agreed that the order might create problems where “we get into free speech and all that business,” but he said that “was something we have to meet at the proper time. I have no comment. It may be raised, it may never be raised.”
Compliance with Sirica’s order would have forced the Post and other news agencies to stop reporting all Watergate developments except those that took place in court. By not talking to investigators, witnesses, or potential witnesses, reporters would be left to talk only to themselves. They could write columns of opinion, but they couldn’t investigate.
Two days later, under widespread criticism, Sirica modified his order, striking the restrictions on witnesses, potential witnesses, and alleged victims. This action was proper, but it made the judge subject to the charge that he was erratic and hadn’t really know what he was doing in the first place.
In December, 1972, Sirica jailed the Washington bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times when that newspaper refused to turn over to the court the tapes of an interview two of its reporters had conducted with Alfred Baldwin, the man who had monitored the Democrats’ telephones form the Howard Johnson’s across from the Watergate. The editor, John Lawrence, was the second person Sirica had jailed for contempt, the first being attorney Douglas Caddy, who had refused to testify before the grand jury.
Both the newspaperman and the attorney had noted an appeal of Sirica’s ruling to a higher court before he ordered them incarcerated, and there were many who felt that Sirica had acted with improper haste. Neither man was detained more than a few hours, but, especially in the case of Lawrence, there was a sense that Sirica was unnecessarily exacerbating tension, felt highly at the time, over the rights of a free press.
The courtroom was Sirica’s bus, and he did what he wanted with the passengers. His conduct of the Watergate trial in January, 1973, was every bit as arbitrary as his handling of pretrial activities. Had the trial of the Watergate Seven been a sensational civil rights case instead, Sirica probably would have been criticized as much as was Chicago federal judge Julius Hoffman for his handling of the Chicago Eight, which involved nationally known antiwar and civil rights leaders.
But the Watergate was not such a trial, and many who otherwise would have lashed out at Sirica for his bluster on the bench or his disregard for normal courtroom procedures were hushed by his obvious sincerity, his disgust at the coverup, and his incontrovertible leading role in bringing to light the enormity of the Watergate scandal.
[The Watergate coverup began to collapse with testimony of L. Patrick Gray at Senate Judiciary Committee hearings in February, 1973, on his nomination to succeed J. Edgar Hoover as director of the FBI. Gray had been acting director since Hoover’s death.]
Gray expressed the hope that the Judiciary Committee “not get into the Watergate substantively,” leaving that responsibility to the Senate Watergate Committee. Sam Ervin, chairman of the Watergate Committee, was also a member of the Judiciary Committee, and he told Gray that the timing of the nomination compelled him to ask questions he would rather have held off on.
Then, armed with an old Washington Post clipping of October 15, 1972, Ervin asked Gray what he knew about the assertion that a White House aide had shown Donald Sagretti copies of FBI interviews.
Gray’s answer was unresponsive. He said, “I think we only interviewed Segretti once, but I have to check that. Let me just check this record here. I know we interviewed him on the 26th of June and I am just trying to see whether there was another date on which we interviewed him.
“My recollection, first, is that we only interviewed him on the 26th of June. I don’t know whether we interviewed him a second time. We didn’t look into that allegation at all as to whether or not he was shown any FBI interview statements.”
Sam Ervin had a lot of questions on his mind; other senators wanted to ask Gray about issues far removed from Watergate, such as the safekeeping of FBI records, allegations that the FBI kept files on congressmen, the infiltration of FBI agents in radical groups, fingerprinting records, the motivation behind the recent FBI arrest of writer Leslie Whitten, an assistant to columnist Jack Anderson.
“Then you can’t give me any information on that question,” Ervin said, apparently ready to go on to his next line of inquiry.
It would have been easy for Gray to say, “No, sir, I can’t.” But he didn’t. He would not let Ervin change the subject. Gray said, “I can give you information on it but I can’t tell you whether or not he was shown those statements—that is what I cannot tell you. To give you that information I am going to have to take time to tell you how we progressed on this investigation.”
Ervin did not push for any lengthy explanation. He simply asked Gray to confirm that showing someone the account of his FBI interview “wouldn’t be a likely procedure to be permitted by the FBI, would it?”
“Of course not,” Gray said.
“So you, at the present time, can neither affirm nor deny that statement,” Ervin said. “I take it that you give the committee your reassurance that if any such event happened, that is, if any copy of the FBI interview was given to Mr. Segretti, it was not given by you or with your knowledge or consent.
“It was not done with my knowledge or consent, that is true,” Gray said.
Again, he could have concluded his answer there. “But I can go into it further if you want me to explain how it possibly could.” On such slender threads, such unexpected and largely unnoticed moments in the actions of marginal figures, bit players of the world, does history ride.
“Yes, I would like to have that,” Ervin said.
And at this point, on the very first day of his confirmation hearings, Patrick Gray effectively put to an end his own future in Washington and began to spin out, without being asked or pressured, FBI findings that for the first time confirmed the most damaging assertions that had been printed in The Washington Post and elsewhere the previous summer and fall, adding details that had never been made public. For openers, Gray revealed that in mid-July, 1972, John Dean had asked him to provide “a letterhead memorandum because he wanted to have what we had to date because the President specifically charged him with looking into any involvement on the part of White House staff members.” Gray said he began forwarding material to Attorney General Kleindienst to be given to Dean on July 21, 1972.
“So you see the possibility here, Senator, and I think what is being driven at is this: the allegation is really being directed toward Mr. Dean having one of these interview reports and showing it to Mr. Segretti.”
No one other than Gray had brought up Dean’s name. Until February 28, 1973, Dean had lived publicly at the periphery of Watergate—a White House aide who had reportedly investigated the bugging incident for the President, never seen, seldom if ever in mind.
Gray said that after reading The Washington Post article of the past October, he asked Dean whether he had shown the FBI report to Segretti and Dean said he hadn’t. At that point, Gray said, he let the matter drop.
The role of John Dean began to intrigue other senators on the Judiciary Committee. Philip Hart of Michigan, a former prosecutor in Detroit, asked, “When Mr. Dean said to you, ‘No, I did not do it, I didn’t have the FBI reports with me,’ did you ask him if he knew who might have had them with him?”
“No,” Gray responded, “because the thought never entered—”
“Did you ask him whether anybody had done it?”
“You know, when you are dealing closely with the office of the presidency,” Gray said, “the presumption is one of regularity on the conduct of the nation’s business, and I didn’t even engage in the thought process that I would set up a presumption here of illegality and I didn’t consider it.”
Gray said, however, again volunteering information that had not been sought, that after the Post story, he asked whether Segretti’s political actions should be investigated, and “that opinion came back, no.”
Hearing that, Robert C. Byrd, the Senate Majority Whip and one of the most powerful Democrats in the nation, questioned who it was that determined the scope of the Watergate investigation. Gray said the decision to limit the inquiry to the interception of oral communications, and to refrain from getting into more sensitive political areas, had been made by him “in conjunction with the Assistant Attorney General of the Criminal Division, and U.S. Attorney.”
“Were you required to clear the scope of the investigation through the Justice Department?” Byrd asked.
“Yes, sir, we work very closely with them on that.”
“But were you required to clear the scope of the investigation through the Justice Department, or was this a determination that you would make yourself?”
“No, I do not think it was a determination at all,” Gray responded. “I could make a determination, but I would have to investigate what the Department of Justice told me to investigate.”
Byrd asked whether Gray had ever discussed the investigation with anyone at CRP (the Committee for the Re-election of the President).
“With Mr. John Mitchell?”
“Or with anyone from the White House?”
“John Wesley Dean, counsel to the President, and I think on maybe half a dozen occasions with John Erhlichman.”
There was always a certain rumbling, earthquake nature to the forces that pushed breaks in the Watergate coverup into view, compelling investigators to deal with them. One cannot ignore an earthquake.
…In less than three weeks, the Watergate coverup was to be exposed to the public and a coverup of the coverup begun in the Oval Office. Patrick Gray’s testimony was not the only rumble that warned of the earthquake but it was the first. One day, while still testifying, Gray endorsed a contention by Senator Byrd that John Dean had “probably lied” to FBI agents. There was no way of predicting what Gray might say next, and on the following afternoon Nixon himself phoned Gray, possibly in fear that Gray, having exhausted the subject of John Dean, might launch into a discussion of the President.
On the 21st of March, 1973, John Dean attempted to explain to Richard Nixon that the Watergate coverup had become more dangerous to the President than the crime itself, that some way had to be found to bring the affair to a close, not because of its illegality and immorality but because it was about to collapse under its own weight.
The edited transcript of that conversation, made public on April 30, 1974, shows that Nixon time and again turned his back on Dean’s pleas to stop the payment of blackmail to Howard Hunt. But it was not until later that several congressmen on the House Judiciary Committee, angered by Nixon’s editing of those transcripts, revealed the final frantic order issued by Nixon to Dean and H.R. Haldeman on the need to pay Hunt: “For Christ’s sakes, get the money!”
…Gordon Liddy was a strange, awesome man who had long since settled into a stance of silence. His constant grin made it appear that his mind was somewhere else, always pondering a happy secret. After the trial and before the sentencing he began to get into fights with black inmates at the District of Columbia jail. He feared no man, always held his own, and in a short time had gained great respect for his courage and for the fact that he had put his legal training to use, becoming the chief jailhouse lawyer.
One uneducated inmate astounded a prosecutor when he explained to a grand jury that no case could be pressed against him because he had “transactional immunity.”
“Where did you hear that?” the prosecutor asked.
“My lawyer told me,” the inmate said.
“Who’s your lawyer?”
Liddy’s wife, a schoolteacher in the District of Columbia, said she regarded Liddy as a prisoner of war, that what he had done was in the service of his country. But there was a darker side to Liddy. One of the Watergate prosecutors despised him, seeing in him the mentality and nature of a man who sends people into gas ovens…
[On April 15, 1973, John Dean told prosecutors about a White House campaign against Daniel Ellsberg, who had given over the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times in 1971.]
The Ellsberg disclosures had the effect of linking Watergate to secret, repugnant White House activities, most of which were aimed at weakening the antiwar movement. When Richard Nixon first took the oath of office on January 20, 1969, he understood very well that antiwar protest had destroyed the political career of his predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, and he was determined not to fall victim to the same fate. Talking publicly about bringing “peace with honor,” Nixon embarked on a wide-ranging campaign aimed at discrediting leaders of the movement and finding what his speech writers called the “silent American majority,” all those good citizens who were humble, hardworking, law-abiding, and unquestioning of the motives of their government.
Through Vice-President Agnew, Nixon vilified the so-called Eastern establishment press and the TV networks, the main disseminators of news and pictures that challenged U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia and brought home the horrors of the war.
The public effort was buttressed by the infiltration of FBI agents into the more extreme antiwar groups, clandestine intelligence-gathering on particular individuals who were opposed to the war, and wiretapping of government officials and newsmen. These activities, initiated by Nixon and undertaken in the name of national security, eventually led to the creation of the White House secret agents called “the plumbers,” whose projects included some that conceivably could be considered national security matters but others that seemed pure political dirty work, aimed ultimately at insuring Nixon’s re-election. When the time came, two of these plumbers, Howard Hunt and Gordon Liddy, were shifted to the re-election committee. For them, the Watergate bugging and other illegal campaign activities were perfectly natural things to do, no different from activities they had been engaged in at the White House. The bugging was simply the carrying out to an absurd extreme the principle that the ends—in this case Nixon’s re-election—justified the means. One of the most perplexing questions about Watergate has always been, why did these men raid Democratic headquarters? Given their background and previous work history for Nixon, an answer that makes as much sense as any is, why not raid Democratic headquarters? Breaking and entering was their line of work.
…It seems certain that if not for Nixon’s appetite for political gain out of Ellsberg, there never would have been a Watergate affair, for Nixon’s prompting led Charles Colson to telephone his good friend, Howard Hunt, and ask about the possibilities of “nailing” Ellsberg. Colson taped the call, and on July 2, 1971, he gave a transcript of it to John Ehrlichman with the recommendation that Hunt be hired to work at the White House.
The transcript shows the nature of the attack planned:
“Let me ask you this, Howard, this question: Do you think with the right resources employed that this thing could be turned into a major public case against Ellsberg and co-conspirators?” Hunt said yes.
Colson said, “It also has to be this case won’t be tried in court, it will be tried in the newspapers. So it’s going to take some resourceful engineering.”
[Hunt was hired to work at the White House. One of his main efforts, conducted in September, 1971, had the code name Hunt- Liddy Special Project #1. It was the break-in at the Los Angeles office of Lewis Fielding, Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist. To assist, Hunt called on old associates with ties to Cuba, two of whom were later to be used in the Watergate break-in. The Fielding break-in failed, as no material that could be used against Ellsberg was found. But it served pretty much as a dress rehearsal for the Watergate break-in nine months later.]
…From the moment Sam Ervin, the chairman of the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities of 1972, first banged his gavel, the Senate Watergate hearings, through television, were imbued with the exciting sense of the hunt, and with long spells of deepening mystery broken by rich comic relief.
Ervin, a palsy-tongued orator, set the tone himself in an eloquent opening statement in which he spoke of the “atmosphere of utmost gravity” that had befallen the nation, of questions that “strike at the very undergirding of our democracy.” If many of the allegations already made proved to be true, the North Carolinian said, then what the Watergate burglars “were seeking to steal was not the jewels, money, or other property of American citizens, but something much more valuable—their precious heritage, the right to vote in a free election. Since that day, a mood of incredulity has prevailed among our populace.”
As he spoke these fine phrases, the Senator began stumbling over the word “incredulity.” Six or seven times he attacked it, bumbling, his whole head involved in the act of speech, eyebrows lifting high and descending, ears twitching, his mouth sometimes moving without a sound coming out. Millions of people held their breath as Ervin’s whole body and mind did battle with his tongue until finally the Senator gave up on the word and continued.
No scriptwriter could have created a Sam Ervin. He was a throwback, the twentieth-century American equivalent of Samuel Johnson, who shared the same type of physical affliction and the same ability to regale an audience with grand incontrovertible statements of principle while lesser men haggled over what they had heard. It was Dr. Johnson who 210 years earlier had maintained, according to his diarist, Boswell, that the King can do no wrong, that “it is better in general that a nation should have a supreme legislative power, although it may at times be abused.” But, added Dr. Johnson, “there is this consideration, that if the abuse be enormous, Nature will rise up, and claiming her original rights, overturn a corrupt political system.”
Such was Ervin’s philosophy exactly. He was never the one to favor revolution or expect perfection from government institutions; he was quite at home with the politics of cooperation and accommodation, for he had practiced them all his life. At seventy-six years of age, he had no further political ambition and was from the outset probably less inclined than any man to strike at the President. But in his homey way he began to savage Nixon, as when he asked Maurice Stans, “Do you not think that men who have been honored by the American people as you have, ought to have their course of action guided by ethical principles which are superior to the minimum requirements of the criminal laws?” Ervin, with clarity and conviction, would tolerate no quibbling from Stans, who pointed to earlier transgressions in American politics. “You know,” Ervin said, “there has been murder and larceny in every generation, but that hasn’t made murder meritorious or larceny legal.”
With Ervin at the helm and a galaxy of Nixon aides as witnesses, the Watergate hearings became a spectacle unlike any other political event in the history of this or any other country. A nation became riveted to its TV screens. Some people would watch the hearings all day on the commercial TV networks and then again at night on public broadcasting stations. Television made Ervin an immediate folk hero, Senator Howard Baker a possible presidential candidate, and Watergate the central experience of an entire population.
[Alexander Butterfield, a career military officer, was called to work in the White House by H.R. Haldeman, a college classmate at UCLA after World War II. His job was to be Haldeman’s backup, the man closest to Nixon, when Haldeman was elsewhere.]
Since he was to work so closely with the President, Butterfield expected to be introduced to Nixon right away, but Haldeman kept putting it off. Finally, after about ten days, just before Haldeman was to go to California while the President stayed in Washington, Haldeman ushered Butterfield into the Oval Office. Butterfield’s recollection of this meeting was similar to that described by Jeb Magruder, who said that in his own “great-to-have-you-aboard chat” with Nixon, he had been “struck by how ill at ease the President seemed.”
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.
…One day Haldeman’s aide Lawrence Higby told Butterfield that Nixon wanted to keep an oral record of his conversations, and that Haldeman wanted Butterfield to have a taping system installed. Butterfield passed the message along to the Secret Service, whose technical division installed the system. The only ones who knew of its existence, according to Butterfield, were Nixon, Haldeman, Higby, Butterfield, Butterfield’s secretary, and two or possibly three Secret Service men.
Butterfield monitored the tapes several times to ascertain that the system was adequate, and in his own judgment, the sound was clear. He started to show the President how the system had been installed, he said, but Nixon didn’t seem interested. Butterfield felt Nixon was oblivious to the tapes.
…Shortly after 2 p.m., Monday, July 16, 1973, Alexander P. Butterfield, one of the few surprise witnesses before the Ervin Committee, was asked by minority counsel Fred Thompson, “Mr. Butterfield, are you aware of the installation of any listening devices in the Oval Office of the President?”
“I was aware of listening devices; yes, sir.”
…In September, 1973, as Congress returned from its midyear recess, the first thing the leadership made clear was that it had no intention of impeaching Nixon. Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield spoke about the need to bring the Watergate hearings to a speedy conclusion, and several of his Republican counterparts insisted the public was bored with Watergate and, as Nixon had said, anxious to get on with the nation’s more important business, such as the battle to stop inflation.
Senator Howard Baker, who on the basis of the Watergate hearings had arranged perhaps the most extensive lecture tour ever undertaken by a member of Congress, had the audacity to say that Watergate was taking so much of his time that his other work was suffering.
It was not the behavior of a leadership that was intent on rooting out the worst corruption in the nation’s history; it seemed more the old politics of rescue at play.
Watergate by then was clearly the ultimate in political crimes. There had been abundant testimony that under Nixon the CIA had been dragged into domestic affairs; the investigation and findings of the FBI had been subverted; the Justice Department had engaged in malicious prosecutions of some people and failed to act in instances where it should have; the Internal Revenue Service had been used to punish the President’s alleged enemies while ignoring transgressions by his friends and by the President himself; the purity of the court system had been violated; congressmen had been seduced to prevent an inquiry into campaign activities before the election; extortion on a massive scale had been practiced in the soliciting of illegal contributions from the nation’s great corporations; the President had secretly engaged in acts of war against a foreign country despite the wording of the Constitution that give Congress the sole power to declare war; and agents of the President were known to have engaged in continued illegal activities for base political ends.
…On Friday night, October 19, 1973, President Nixon began what many people have since come to regard as the most reckless step of his political career. Plagued by the Watergate and related scandals, and ordered by the courts to relinquish the tapes of nine of his private conversations, Nixon announced that he had effected a “compromise” that would both allow him to maintain the confidentiality his office required and give Special Prosecutor Archibald V. Cox the material he needed to conduct his investigation at the same time.
Under the plan, Nixon would submit summaries of the relevant portions of the tapes to Judge John J. Sirica, and an independent verifier, Senator John Stennis of Mississippi, would be allowed to listen to the tapes to authenticate the version given the judge. It would be Nixon’s last bow to Cox—the Special Prosecutor would have to agree not to use the judicial process to seek further tapes or other records of Nixon’s conversations in the future.
Because of this shortcoming and others in the plan, Nixon’s aides knew that Cox would not accept it. On Saturday, as he refused, White House chief of staff Alexander Haig ordered Attorney General Richardson to fire Cox. Richardson resigned instead. Haig then ordered Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus to fire him, and Ruckelshaus also resigned. Finally, the number-three man in the Justice Department, Solicitor General Robert Bork, was named acting attorney general, and he fired Cox. White House press secretary Ronald Ziegler announced that the Office of Special Prosecutor had been abolished, and FBI agents were dispatched to prevent Cox’s staff members, whose status was in limbo, from taking their files out of their offices.
What came to be known as the “Saturday Night Massacre” then unleashed the torrent of public anger at Nixon that had been building across the nation. In a period of ten days more than a million letters and telegrams descended on members of Congress, almost all of them demanding Nixon’s impeachment. Before long, according to some, there were three million letters and telegrams, and an impeachment inquiry was begun.
All this was the result of what seemed at first to have been an impetuous action by the President. But Nixon’s firing of Cox was by no means a rash, sudden action. The President, who knew how dangerous a special prosecutor could be, agreed to the appointment of one in the spring of 1973 only after severe pressure had been placed on him. By the middle of June, 1973, Nixon’s aides were complaining about Cox. Nixon himself voiced extreme displeasure in the first days of July, and by early October—at least twelve days before the Saturday Night Massacre—he announced privately that Cox would be fired.
…At 2:20 p.m., Saturday, Haig called Richardson and told him to fire Cox. Richardson said he couldn’t do that, that he would come to the White House at Nixon’s convenience and resign. An hour later, Haig invited the Attorney General to see Nixon and, on his arrival, ushered him into the Oval Office. Richardson said he would have to resign. Nixon brought up the problems in the Middle East, Richardson said later, suggesting that resignation right then might have a bad effect. The President asked Richardson to think less of his pledge to the Senate—his personal commitment—and more in terms of the national interest. Richardson said that, in his view, he was thinking of the national interest.
“It is fair to say,” Richardson said later, “that I have never had a harder moment than when the President put it on me in terms of the potential repercussion of my resignation on the Middle East situation. I remember a long moment when the President looked me in the eye and I said: “‘Mr. President, I feel that I have no choice but to go forward with this.’ I had the feeling, God, maybe the bombs are going to drop.”
Haig then called William Ruckelshaus and asked him to fire Cox, again issuing a warning that a decision not to could have bearing on the Middle East situation. Ruckelshaus, who had already told Richardson he would also resign rather than fire Cox, has been quoted as telling Haig that if the situation in the Middle East were that ticklish, “Why don’t you put off firing Cox?”
Haig responded, “Your commander-in-chief has given you an order.” Ruckelshaus then resigned.
Both Richardson and Ruckelshaus had spoken to the third in command at the Justice Department, Solicitor General Bork, who had told them that someone would certainly eventually be found to fire Cox, so he would do it and then resign. Richardson suggested that Bork fire Cox and stay on, as someone was needed to run the shop.
At 8:25 p.m., Ronald Ziegler announced the developments of the afternoon to the press…At least six FBI agents were sent by the White House to the office of special prosecutor, where some twenty or more attorneys who worked under Cox were gathering in their moment of crisis. The agents refused to allow staff members to remove any files—”They won’t even let me take a pencil out,” one lawyer complained. FBI agents sealed off Richardson’s and Ruckelshaus’s offices at the Justice Department as well. In a brief statement, Cox said, “Whether ours shall continue to be a government of laws and not of men is now for the Congress and ultimately the American people to decide.”
Almost until the end, Nixon fought to dodge impeachment or resignation. His last tactic was to have members of Congress judge him not on evidence of his complicity in one or more aspects of scandal, but on the question of whether the nation could afford to lose him as president. Nixon, the theme went, was needed. The position was formally articulated on July 22, 1974, when the assistant minority counsel to the House Judiciary Committee told committee members, “The question is, did the President do it, and if so, what are the implications of that for the nation in light of all competing interests?”
In the last week of July, 1974, as the Judiciary Committee held its final deliberations in lengthy and spellbinding televised sessions, it was apparent that this strategy had failed to move all but a few members of the committee. Nixon had given little in the way of assistance to the Judiciary Committee, generally defying their counsel’s requests and subpoenas for evidence. Nevertheless, the committee, working largely from material gathered in earlier investigations by other bodies, presented an overwhelming case against him in the form of three articles of impeachment.
Each article stated that Nixon had violated “his constitutional oath faithfully to execute the office of the President of the United States” and “his constitutional duty to take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”
Article One charged that Nixon, “using the powers of his high office, engaged personally and through his subordinates and agents in a course of conduct or plan designed to delay, impede, and obstruct the investigation of such unlawful entry (the Watergate break-in); to cover up, conceal and protect those responsible; and to conceal the existence and scope of other unlawful covert activities.”
The article charged that one or more of nine means had been used to implement such conduct, including making or causing false or misleading statements to investigators; withholding evidence; “approving, condoning, acquiescing in, and counseling witnesses” to make false or misleading statements; interfering or attempting to interfere with investigations of the Justice Department, the FBI, the office of the Watergate Special Prosecutor and congressional committees; approving payment of “substantial sums” of money to buy silence or influence the testimony of witnesses or others involved in illegal entry or other illegal activities; attempting to misuse the Central Intelligence Agency; disseminating Justice Department information to subjects of investigations to help them avoid criminal liability; making false and misleading statements to deceive the American people into believing that a thorough and complete investigation had been held, and endeavoring to cause prospective defendants and convicted individuals to expect favored treatment in return for their silence or false testimony.
Article Two charged that Nixon “has repeatedly engaged in conduct violating the constitutional right of citizens, impairing due and proper administration of justice in the conduct of lawful inquiries, of contravening the law of governing agencies to the executive branch and the purposes of these agencies.” The second article dealt with Watergate and also with Nixon’s role in other matters that had been uncovered as the great coverup collapsed. Included were charges dealing with abuse of the Internal Revenue Service, the FBI, the Secret Service and “other executive personnel;” the practice of unlawful electronic wiretapping; the creation and continuance of the White House special investigative unit (the plumbers); the failure to act when he knew that aides had behaved illegally, and the misuse of executive power by interfering with agencies of the executive branch.
Article Three held that the President should be impeached for his refusal to comply with Judiciary Committee subpoenas. “In refusing to produce these papers and things,” the article stated, “Richard M. Nixon, substituting his judgment as to what materials were necessary for the inquiry, interposed the powers of the Presidency against the lawful subpoenas of the House of Representatives, thereby assuming for himself functions and judgments necessary to the exercise of the sole power of impeachment vested by the Constitution in the House of Representatives.”
During the months of closed deliberations of the Judiciary Committee, most members refrained publicly from drawing any conclusions on the evidence the committee staff had assembled. That changed dramatically in the televised sessions as the proposed bill of particulars was drawn, and at the end of each impeachment article, this language appeared: “In all of this, Richard M. Nixon has acted in a manner contrary to his trust as President and subversive of constitutional government, to the great prejudice of the cause of law and justice, and to the manifest injury of the people of the United States.
“Wherefore, Richard M. Nixon, by such conduct, warrants impeachment and trial and removal from office.”
…On Thursday, August 8, 1974, a drizzly and gloomy day in Washington, D.C., Richard Milhous Nixon, the thirty-seventh President of the United States, announced his resignation from office. The man who for five and a half years had held the highest position in the world’s mightiest nation had been driven out of power.
That evening, in his last televised address as President to the American people, Nixon referred only briefly to the scandal that had destroyed his career. “I regret deeply any injuries that may have been done in the course of events that led to this decision,” he said. “I would say only that if some of my judgments were wrong—and some were wrong—they were made in the best interests of the nation.”
Four times in his sixteen-minute talk Nixon referred to “the good of the nation” as his sole motivation in twenty-eight years of making decisions in public life. With an estimated one hundred thirty million citizens watching—the greatest number ever to see a single televised event—Nixon said he hoped his legacy would be that he had made the world “a safer place today, not only for the people of America, but for the people of all nations … that all of our children have a better chance than before of living in peace, rather than dying in war.”
With the knowledge of the President’s private thoughts rubbed in their consciousness through transcripts of the most revealing conversations, there could be but few Americans who accepted those words at face value. They had come to learn that the public and the private Nixon were two very different men.
Outside the White House, as Nixon spoke, two thousand or more people gathered. Some were solemn and sad but others, the majority, cheered the news of his departure. One placard waved in front of the television cameras was inscribed, “Jail to the Chief.” It was a strange, perhaps inevitable climax to the Watergate saga, to more than two years of what many have come to regard as the most bizarre and tragic scandal of modern times.
The following morning, on August 9, Nixon assembled his White House staff and members of the Cabinet for an emotional parting in which the President, at times in tears, said, in effect, that life must go on despite the greatest of setbacks. Shortly after that he left Washington on Air Force One, “The Spirit of ’76,” for his estate at San Clemente.
While he was in flight, somewhere over the great heartland of the United States, Gerald Ford was sworn in as his successor…In California there were crowds to see the Nixons arrive, and truckloads of flowers were sent to the Nixon family there. A sign at the outskirts of San Clemente that proclaimed the city as “the home of the Western White House” was taken down.