Watergate revisited

For those of us who lived through the days of Watergate, the Mueller Switch Project makes us feel young again. It is easy to forget, however, how little we know even to this day about the facts underlying the Watergate scandal.

Nixon press secretary Ron Ziegler characterized Watergate as a “third-rate burglary.” The Democrats, by contrast, characterized Watergate as something vastly greater than the crime on the surface. According to Senate Watergate Committee Chairman Sam Ervin, this was Watergate: “To destroy, insofar as the presidential election of 1972 was concerned, the integrity of the process by which the President of the United States is nominated and elected.”

That sounds familiar.

Democrats held Watergate to be an assault on the American political system. The target of the operation, after all, was the Democratic National Committee. The treasure sought by the burglars, whatever it was, wasn’t filthy lucre.

But what was Watergate? We don’t know who ordered the bungled second break-in of the Democratic National Committee on June 17, 1972. We don’t know the motive for the break-in. We don’t know what the burglars looking for. James Rosen noted more mysteries of Watergate in the 2008 New York Post column “He was not a crook.”

Forty years after the break-in Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward looked back. They purported to bring the perspective of time and the accumulation of knowledge to the judgment that Nixon was far worse than we thought.

I’m quite sure they always thought he was as bad as they portrayed him. Did they really need forty years to render their verdict? Anthony Lukas arrived at the same verdict on much the same evidence in Nightmare: The Underside of the Nixon Years in 1976, as did Stanley Kutler in The Wars of Watergate in 1990. Their books give us the received version of Watergate.

Kutler tactfully notes and discounts the mysteries of Watergate in chapter 8 of his book. What is really important, he says, were “the special crimes of cover-up and obstruction by high Administration officials–up to and including the President of the United States.” Still, it would be nice to know what it was all about.

You have to slog through nearly to the end of the 2012 Woodward/Bernstein remix to find this:

Even now, there are old Nixon hands and defenders who dismiss the importance of Watergate or claim that key questions remain unanswered. This year, Thomas Mallon, director of the creative writing program at George Washington University, published a novel called “Watergate,” a sometimes witty and entirely fictional story featuring many of the real players. Frank Gannon, a former Nixon White House aide who now works for the Nixon Foundation, reviewed the book for the Wall Street Journal.

“What emerges from ‘Watergate’ is an acute sense of how much we still don’t know about the events of June 17, 1972,” Gannon wrote. “Who ordered the break-in? . . . What was its real purpose? Was it purposely botched? How much was the CIA involved? . . . And how did a politician as tough and canny as Richard Nixon allow himself to be brought down by a ‘third rate burglary?’

“Your guess is as good as mine.”

Of course, Gannon is correct in noting that there are some unanswered questions — but not the big ones. By focusing on the supposed paucity of details concerning the burglary of June 17, 1972, he would divert us from the larger story.

Thanks for nothing, gentlemen.

The video below gives us former Nixon White House attorney Geoff Shepard recent lecture at Hillsdale on the Watergate special prosecutor operation. Shepard is the author of two Watergate books: The Plot to Make Ted Kennedy President: Inside the Real Watergate Conspiracy (2008) and The Real Watergate Scandal: Collusion, Conspiracy, and the Plot That Brought Nixon Down (2015).

At the outset of his remarks Shepard invoked Moby Dick. His remarks have the flavor of Melville’s quotation of Job in the epilogue: “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.”

Shepard does not touch on the mysteries of Watergate. Indeed, his remarks do not even acknowledge their existence. Rather, he focuses on the nature of the special prosecution team arrayed against Nixon and their alleged misconduct. Shepard’s depiction of the team of special prosecutor team has an amazingly contemporary ring.

Shepard makes much of ex parte communications among the special prosecutor lawyers, Judge Sirica et al. Shepard doesn’t know what transpired in the meetings he discusses and doesn’t cite the rules of professional conduct that would have applied at the time. The current ABA Code of Model Judicial Conduct rule against ex parte communications is posted here.

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