Watergate @ 50

Today is the 50th anniversary of the infamous Watergate break-in that toppled Richard Nixon and transformed American politics for the worse ever after. The Watergate saga, and especially the media’s role in it, remains large a heroic tale for liberalism, though second thoughts about the whole matter are starting to emerge.

To this day no one can say for sure what the Watergate burglars were after when they were discovered on that fateful June night in 1972. Strangely, accounts differ as to whether electronic listening devices (“bugs”) were found in their possession; this turned out to be the second time the team had been inside the DNC Watergate offices, and this second trip was ostensibly to fix a previously planted bug that wasn’t working. One reason the bug wasn’t working is that someone had already removed it days or weeks before the burglars came back (it is possible that the DNC had been tipped off, according to one recent review of the matter)—one of the many anomalies of the Watergate story.

When it emerged a few days after the “burglary” that the burglars had connections to the CIA, the White House, and the Committee to Re-Elect the President, it was evident that a scandal of some dimension might unfold.  The conspiratorial food chain led eventually up through President Nixon’s senior staff to the Oval Office and Nixon himself. Nixon might never have been driven from office without the taped evidence indicating his early knowledge of the Watergate cover up, and the tapes provided the so-called “smoking gun” that was the final blow to his presidency.  The infamous tape of June 23, 1972 captured Nixon, Haldeman, and John Dean discussing how to use the CIA to try to head off the FBI’s investigation into Watergate. The attempt failed, and the investigation went ahead.  Yet the conversation alone was thought sufficient evidence of conspiracy to obstruct justice.

The final irony of this Tale of the Tape is that Nixon was appalled when President Johnson explained the Oval Office taping system to him before he took office in 1969.  Nixon ordered the taping system removed, but reinstalled another taping system in February 1971, after his concern for leaks and the accuracy of notes of decisions taken in innumerable Oval Office meetings, along with his desire to use the tapes as an aide memoire for his inevitable post-presidency writings, got the better of him. Nixon’s taping system differed in one significant way from Johnson’s: while Johnson had to turn his taping system on manually (which means he could be selective about what was taped), Nixon’s was voice-activated. It vacuumed up everything that took place in Nixon’s offices. Haldeman decided to install a voice-activated system because Nixon was notoriously inept with mechanical devices. Just over 4,000 hours of conversation were taped by the time the system was shut off following its inadvertent public disclosure during the Senate Watergate hearings in 1973.

The culpability of Nixon in the Watergate cover-up is a supposedly well-established fact of the Watergate affair. What might be called the “Standard Heroic Account” of Watergate finds its wellsprings in Nixon’s much-exaggerated “paranoia,” i.e., Nixon’s fixation that his enemies were out to get him. The operation to plug leaks through the “Plumbers,” along with the wiretapping and intelligence gathering efforts against the Left and other targets, is said to have melded with an overzealous effort at opposition research against Nixon’s Democratic opponents in the 1972 campaign season that culminated in the Watergate break-in. Because earlier operations of the Plumbers—such as the break-in at the office of Dr. Lewis Fielding, Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist—had been illegal, it was feared that any probe of the Watergate affair would expose the entire underside of White House activities, which is exactly what happened over the next two years.

The Standard Heroic Account of the Watergate saga played out over two years as an epic struggle between the truth-seeking crusaders in Congress, the Justice Department, and the media against the villains in the White House trying to cover it all up, complete with a “Saturday Night Massacre” (when Nixon fired special prosecutor Archibald Cox and attempted to close down the investigation), missing or tampered evidence (the unexplained 18 1/2 minute gap in a key Oval Office tape), hush money (cash payoffs to Howard Hunt and others), mystery figures like “Deep Throat,” and betrayals (White House counsel John Dean, whose 1973 Senate testimony first implicated Nixon in the cover up).  With Nixon’s resignation in August, 1974, the outcome of Watergate is regarded as a triumph of American constitutional democracy.  The combination of a vigilant media and an aroused Congress supposedly showed that “the system works.”

While the Standard Heroic Account as plain narrative will doubtless remain in place, many key aspects of Watergate remain mysterious or controversial, and what Hollywood calls “the back story” has never been widely understood.  Who in the White House actually authorized the break-ins?  Nixon’s Attorney General and re-election campaign manager John Mitchell received the blame, but denied to his dying day that he ordered or approved either the burglary or the cover up. Did Nixon know about the break-in beforehand?  Most historians think not, yet Nixon speechwriter Bryce Harlow once remarked that Watergate happened because “Some damn fool got into the Oval Office and did what he was told,” meaning that Watergate occurred because of the “paranoid” atmosphere Nixon generated around him.  What were they hoping to learn by bugging the Democratic National Committee? National committee offices are bureaucratic institutions, far removed from the inner circle of key decisions of presidential campaigns. The quadrennial campaign chronicler Theodore White wrote that the DNC “might more aptly be described as the central stationery supply closet of the party. . .  A good clipping service would have provided the Committee to Re-Elect with more information than any number of wiretaps.” By the time of the first Watergate break in, it was known that Sen. George McGovern would be the Democratic nominee against Nixon, and there was little significant information that could be learned about his campaign at the DNC offices. G. Gordon Liddy is reported to have wanted to bug McGovern’s campaign office, but McGovern had retained 24-hour security after the office had been burglarized by someone else (apparently a routine burglar after valuables, and not a political operation). Most fundamentally, what factors gave rise to the bugging operation in the first place? The number of conflicting accounts, strange anomalies, and conspiracy theories now rivals the Kennedy assassination.

A leading explanation of Watergate, which was given by, among others, G. Gordon Liddy, who headed the burglary team, is that the Nixon campaign wanted to see what information Democratic National Committee chairman Lawrence O’Brien might have had about Nixon, and particularly Nixon’s connections to eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes or to a Greek tycoon, Thomas Pappas, whose secret contributions to Nixon’s campaign would have been embarrassing if publicly revealed. This is the explanation that was generally accepted for most of the decade following Watergate. There may be an anomaly to this claim, however: According to some accounts, O’Brien’s office was never bugged (other accounts say a bug was planted, but didn’t work), and the burglars were caught far from O’Brien’s office on that fateful night. The original bug the burglars thought had malfunctioned—but which had in fact been removed—had been placed in the office of a low-level subordinate employee who was seldom at the office.

A more outlandish explanation that reappears from time to time holds that at the root of the Watergate break in was an attempt to gain embarrassing information about a call girl ring that had ties to someone working at the DNC. From this supposition, which rests on a web of circumstantial evidence, the threads of the story go in several directions. According to some accounts, the burglary team was after information about potentially prominent Democratic clients of the call girl ring, which information the Nixon campaign could use for public embarrassment or private blackmail.  (The White House may also have worried about Republicans who might have been clients of the ring.)

Another variation of the story, propounded by author Jim Hougan in 1984, holds that the CIA was clandestinely involved the burglary and deliberately botched the effort so as to avoid exposing the call girl ring.  Why else, skeptics have asked, would veteran CIA agent James McCord do something as stupid as tape a door open a second time, which would be an obvious tip off to Watergate security?  Why the CIA would wish to do this is murky, but is said to have involved agency suspicions that Nixon was trying to exert too much control over the agency, which Nixon disliked. A faction of the military is also alleged to have helped exploit Watergate as a means to derail Nixon’s arms control efforts.  (This was, coincidentally, the line the Soviet press adopted.)  “If we didn’t know better,” Nixon remarked on one of the famous tapes, “[we] would have thought it was deliberately botched.”

More on Watergate and its legacy over the weekend. I’ve got Week in Pictures to get done!

Notice: All comments are subject to moderation. Our comments are intended to be a forum for civil discourse bearing on the subject under discussion. Commenters who stray beyond the bounds of civility or employ what we deem gratuitous vulgarity in a comment — including, but not limited to, “s***,” “f***,” “a*******,” or one of their many variants — will be banned without further notice in the sole discretion of the site moderator.