What was Watergate?

James Rosen is the FOX News Washington correspondent and author of a new book on Nixon administration Attorney General John Mitchell, The Strongman: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate. The new issue of the Weekly Standard has an interesting review of the book by Robert Novak (accessible to subscribers only). Today’s New York Post carries a column by Rosen drawn from the book. Rosen’s column reminds us that we still don’t know what Watergate was all about:

[T]he major investigative bodies and the first generation of reporters and historians all accepted as an article of faith that the target of the doomed covert mission at Democratic National Committee headquarters – a wiretapping operation that spanned roughly three weeks, from late May through the fateful arrests of June 17, 1972 – was DNC chairman Lawrence F. O’Brien, the shrewd Kennedy loyalist who excited Nixon’s fury like few other partisan foes.

In fact, the wiretap installed on the telephone of O’Brien’s secretary, Fay Abel, never worked, and was, consequently, never monitored. This was because the devices used by the burglars’ wireman, CIA veteran James McCord, relied, as McCord well knew, on line-of-sight transmission for reception at the listening post he set up, in the Howard Johnson motel, directly across Virginia Avenue. Chairman O’Brien’s office was so far removed from the DNC’s exterior façade that the wiretap placed inside it never could have worked. What’s more, O’Brien was well known in those weeks to be spending most of his time in Miami, preparing for his party’s convention.

By contrast, the device planted in the telephone of R. Spencer Oliver, Jr. – an obscure DNC official whose office directly overlooked Virginia Avenue, and on whose line the wiretap monitor, Alfred Baldwin, later reported hearing conversations so sexually graphic that, as Baldwin testified, eight of ten lay people would believe them to be associated with a call-girl ring – did work and was monitored. For these and other reasons, more recent scholars have concluded that Oliver, not O’Brien, was the true target of the Watergate surveillance operation. To believe the opposite is, at best, counterintuitive. And to be unaware of Oliver is unexceptional, since in “All the President’s Men” and “The Final Days,” the official canon of Woodward-Bernstein literature, Oliver’s name appears – nowhere.

Rosen’s column is followed by a brief list of “other recent books from the world of Nixon.” Among these is In Nixon’s Web: A Year in the Crosshairs of Watergate, by former FBI Director Patrick Gray, completed by Gray’s son Ed Gray after his father’s death. In the final two chapters of the book, Ed Gray writes of his review of the Woodward/Bernstein Watergate papers at the University of Texas. Based on his review of the papers, Ed Gray argues that Deep Throat was at best a composite character. Gray’s argument renews an issue raised originally by Edward Jay Epstein in 1974 that we recalled at the time of Mark Felt’s death in “Deep Epstein” and “Deep Epstein, part 2.”.

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