Watergate questions in the time of Trump

By Posted in - Watergate scandal & Public Opinion & Donald Trump on December 20th, 2018 0 Comments

Recently a group sent me a dozen Watergate questions. Some are strictly about the old days, some about how Watergate is relevant today.

  1. Is it possible we’ll ever know what exactly was on the deleted part of the tapes? Is there anyone alive still who might know?
    This question refers to the famous 18-1/2-minute erasure in a taped conversation between Nixon and his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, on Tuesday, June 20, 1972, three days after the Watergate break-in. Nixon and Haldeman had returned to DC from Key Biscayne late the previous night, and it was their first day at the White House since the break-in. At 8 A.M. Haldeman met with John Ehrlichman, who had been doing a lot of Watergate fact-finding. At 8:15 the two were joined by John Mitchell, who later said that at meetings like this decisions were made on how to protect Nixon at all costs so that a Watergate investigation would not reveal other “White House horror stories.” At 9:40 A.M. John Dean joined the meeting, and at 9:55 so did attorney general Richard Kleindienst, who had been told about the break-in by burglar-leader Gordon Liddy. At 10:30 Ehrlichman met alone with Nixon and left an hour later when Haldeman entered. I doubt anyone alive knows what the deleted part contained but it must have been juicy, coming after so much Watergate discussion by so many key figures. The original tape still exists; perhaps some future technology will be able to decipher the missing part.
  2. Mr. Sussman, did you know the identity of Deep Throat at the time, and if so, what was it like keeping such a monumental secret for so long? 
    For many people Deep Throat seems to be the main figure in the story except for Nixon. I hope this doesn’t disappoint you, but… As an important source, Deep Throat fails every test. He is a movie myth, and that’s all. He contributed little or nothing to the Washington Post’s coverage. He didn’t give a lead to a single story, not even when we had a long, dry spell and really could have used some help. As for whether I knew his identity at the time, the answer is no. Neither did the other editors, including our chief, Ben Bradlee. Routinely editors know the identity of anonymous sources on important stories so as not to get burned by causists or people with grudges. So ask yourself: If Deep Throat fed us a lot, wouldn’t Bradlee, no shrinking violet, insist on knowing who he was? Especially when the Washington Post was under such constant, bitter attack by the White House, and was threatened financially? But Bradlee didn’t ask, and neither did the two other high-ranking editors above me who took part in Watergate coverage. If you want backup for this point of view, see for example this review of mine of a book about Mark Felt.
  3. How might the Watergate scandal have played out differently today – both in terms modern communications/technology and public response? Do you think this was a turning point in how Americans view the presidency and our level of entitlement to what goes on behind closed doors in a presidency/the government? 
    I think the questioner’s inferences are exactly correct; Watergate and the coverage were just such a turning point. Regarding communications, if it were happening today, Cable TV – CNN especially – would make it a little confusing by having Nixon supporters on most every panel, the way they do Trump people night after night. You know, people who are loyal to a person or their party, and not to the news or the facts. Nixon supporters did their best to discombobulate and were good at it – but we didn’t have a CNN back then to show them off the way we could today.
  4. Do you think the scandal has left any lasting change to how presidents/government (esp. elected) officials view their relationship with the public?
    Before Watergate, elected officials generally tried to keep the public uninformed and docile. Today Democrats encourage people to keep up with events, if only to see how badly the Republicans have governed. The Republicans stand alone when it comes to making trickery, greed, and lying the substance of their relationship to the public. They are totally blatant in playing to their donors and corporate interests and socking it to everyone else. As an example, think Mitch McConnell.
  5. I wasn’t born at the time of Watergate, and it’s always amused me that we’ve adopted “gate” as a suffix denoting scandal (some major, some insignificant). As someone with a front row seat to the event, do you have thoughts/reaction to this?
    I guess the point of adding “gate” as a suffix is to make something appear important, a real scandal. You are correct, it’s applied to insignificant events as well as major ones.
  6. What do you think is on the 18 minutes of missing tape?
    See the answer to Q1. Whatever was deleted, Nixon sure did not want it to get out, as it was erased manually at least five times. My guess is that Nixon did it personally, or watched as he had someone do it. Keep in mind that this conversation was only three days before the “smoking gun” conversation (“smocking gun,” in a Trump tweet) in which Nixon laid out plans for the cover-up. (See Q11.)
  7. Mr. Sussman, were you surprised that Mark Felt exposed himself as Deep Throat in 2005? How many times did Felt meet with Woodward and Bernstein? Did Felt give them any documents or just leads to follow?
    By 2005 Felt was suffering from dementia; I don’t know if it was his decision or someone else’s to say he was Deep Throat. Felt, the No. 2 official at the FBI, was Woodward’s source, not Bernstein’s. Sometimes I knew when they were meeting but not always, so I don’t know how many times they met although I believe it was infrequent. Bernstein has given different accounts as to whether he knew at the time that Felt was Deep Throat. As late as 1979 he told a colleague that he had not known; later on he said that he had. Felt did not give documents or leads to stories; of all the sources the Post had he was one of the least important. He gave encouragement to Woodward and that’s about it. The movie made him an American myth but he was of just about no use in the Post’s reporting.
  8. What is it like witnessing it happen again today with Trump’s mounting scandals about leaks to Russia and interference with the FBI?
    Today is worse, in my view. Not because of Trump alone but because Republicans controlled the House and the Senate until January 2019 and have been protecting Trump as they, together, started tearing down democracy. Had Republicans been in charge in the 70s, they might well have done the same for Nixon. Impeachment became possible only when public opinion totally came down against Nixon, making members of Congress feel it was safer politically to vote for impeachment than against it.
  9. Are you surprised with how everything played out with Nixon?
    By October 1972, four months into the Watergate story, while we had not implicated Nixon personally in any way it was clear that our coverage was very punishing to him. The White House was attacking the Washington Post endlessly. Then, shortly after his re-election, I came to the conclusion that Nixon would not make it through a second term. So as things developed, I was not surprised.
  10. What was it like to find out Nixon never got prosecuted for his role in the scandal and got away without impeachment when he resigned?
    This is a very good question. One lesson of Watergate, unfortunately, is that Presidents are above the law. I think we are all much worse off because of the failure to indict and possibly prosecute Nixon. I think that had Nixon been indicted, Reagan would have thought twice before getting into Iran-Contra, Bush and Cheney might not have got us into a war the way they did or condoned torture. But these are what-if pipe dreams.
  11. How long did it take for the Supreme Court to issue a subpoena against the president to force the release of the smoking gun recording? What forced McCord to turn back on his co-conspirators? Exactly how many tapes are out there?
    A subpoena for 64 Nixon tapes was issued by Judge John Sirica at the end of April, 1974. The “smoking gun” turned out to be one of them. It was a June 23, 1972, tape of Nixon instructing Haldeman to have the leaders of the CIA tell the FBI chief, falsely, that looking into certain Watergate leads would endanger national security. The tape thus showed Nixon to be in charge of the cover-up from the outset. Nixon refused to turn over the tapes and the matter went to the Supreme Court. On July 24 the Court voted 8-0 that he had to. When he did, almost everyone turned against him and on August 9 he resigned. As for McCord being the one to crack, I wrote this in my book, The Great Coverup: “McCord was a member of the community…a family man (who) had made a simple decision: he didn’t want to leave his family and go to prison.” He had married his sweetheart from Texas, had three children, was church-going and rooted in suburban Maryland.
  12. How many times did Nixon and the WH prevent/obstruct the investigations just to throw them off from getting the tapes?
    Let’s go beyond obstructing the tapes from coming out, and talk about obstruction more widely. How many times? How about multiple times every day for two years? Obstruction of justice is Article One in the three-article impeachment of Nixon. Looking at it today makes it easy to see how impeachment of Trump could be drawn up. The bigger questions now are whether the Democrats will try to do that after they take over the House in January, or if it is even worth doing.


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