20 Years Ago: The Buglary and Cover-up that Forced a President from office


Washington. Few people now recall that one of Richard M. Nixon's first jobs was a barker for a wheel of chance at the Slippery Gulch Rodeo in Prescott, Arizona.

This seems altogether fitting because for forty years Mr. Nixon has been the consummate pitchman of American politics. Mr. Nixon's most artful piece of legerdemain is his resurrection from the political grave since the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex on the night of June 17, 1972 impelled his resignation from the presidency. Although his enemies thought he had been buried at the crossroads with a stake through his heart, he has risen once again as an elder statesman and political sage.

A key part of Nixon's strategy has been an effort to detach himself from any responsibility for Watergate. The nation's most famous unindicted co-conspirator has refused to even acknowledge any wrongdoing and regards himself as a wronged party. Thus, two decades after the event, several questions about Watergate still remain unresolved:

* Why was it deemed necessary to burglarize the offices of the DNC?

* Who actually ordered it?

* Why didn't Nixon, once the cover-up began to unravel, just admit that some of his people had, in mistaken zeal, tried to bug the DNC, apologize and then get on with the campaign?

* Why didn't he destroy the tapes of the Oval Office conversations in which the cover-up was organized -- tapes that were instrumental in forcing him from office?

In the narrowest sense, Mr. Nixon's presidency foundered on the bungled "third-rate burglary" of the DNC, but in reality he was the victim of his own character. Mr. Nixon's ambitions, his insecurities, his aloofness, his resentments, his inability to inspire popular confidence, his penchant for secrecy -- these were the things that forced him from the presidency. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus observed many centuries ago, "A man's character is his fate."

When Mr. Nixon was elected president in 1968, few men had came to the White House better prepared. Intelligent, tenacious and self-disciplined, he had a capacity for hard work and grasp of the complexity of domestic and international affairs. Moreover, he had earned the grudging respect of even his most unrelenting enemies, who had previously regarded him as devious and reckless with the truth. He was less strident, less accusatory than the wolfishly ambitious young politician of previous incarnations.

By the end of his first term in 1972, the war in Vietnam was winding down and the cities were comparatively peaceful. Most hopeful of all was the prospect of real peace throughout the world. Mr. Nixon's initiatives toward China and the Soviet Union were universally acclaimed, and he appeared certain of re-election by a landslide.

And then he tossed it all away.

In spite of all his successes, Mr. Nixon saw himself as an outsider and hid a visceral resentment toward those he believed had slighted him. He saw plots and conspiracies everywhere; in the liberal press, in the wealthy Eastern establishment that dominated the Republican party and in the top level of the Washington bureaucracy.

Out of this grew the "Enemies List," the use of the CIA, the FBI, the IRS and the White House "plumbers" to harass and strike out at opponents and critics; intimidation of the press; "dirty tricks;" and the invocation of national security and the police state to cloak criminal action.

In August 1971, John Dean III, the White House counsel, circulated a memo to the White House staff with Mr. Nixon's approval that set the tone: "How can we maximize the fact of our incumbency in dealing with persons known to be active in their opposition to our Administration?" he asked. "Stated a bit more bluntly--how can we use the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies?"


Obsessed by the steady leakage of policy initiatives to the press, Mr. Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry A. Kissinger, ordered wiretaps on the telephones of National Security Council staffers, White House aides and journalists. The publication in 1971 by the New York Times of the Pentagon Papers, a highly classified history of the American involvement in Vietnam, was the last straw. John Ehrlichman, a presidential assistant, organized a special investigative unit -- the "plumbers" -- to plug the leaks. On the recommendation of Charles Colson, he hired G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt to supervise the operation.

If a computer search had been made for the two most absurdly dangerous men in Washington, it would have come up with Mr. Liddy and Mr. Hunt. Both had histories of flamboyance -- and trouble.

Mr. Hunt, a one-time CIA officer and writer of paperback thrillers, had a reputation for off-the-wall "cowboy" antics. Mr. Liddy was a former Bureau of Narcotics official whose major claim to fame was that he had devised Operation Intercept, a program designed to halt the flow of drugs from Mexico that had succeeded only in angering thousands of American tourists by creating miles-long tie-ups at border crossing points.

Mr. Liddy and Mr. Hunt hired James W. McCord Jr, a one-time CIA security man, and four Cuban exiles known to Mr. Hunt from the Bay of Pigs operation. Their first task was the burglary of the office of the Los Angeles psychiatrist treating Daniel Ellsberg, the NSC staffer charged with leaking the Pentagon Papers, with the hope of finding information that would discredit him. Under White House pressure, the CIA provided the "plumbers" with spy paraphernalia and a psychiatric profile of Mr. Ellsberg.

In the meantime, the "dirty tricks" division of the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP) was at work smearing the various candidates for the Democratic nomination. Sen. Henry Jackson was rumored to be a closet homosexual, and press leaks accused former Vice President Hubert Humphrey of consorting with call girls.

In January 1972, Mr. Liddy, who along with Mr. Hunt had been transferred to CREEP, unveiled a program -- to be called Gemstone -- to spy on radicals and anti-war activists and disrupt their activities. The price tag; a cool $1 million. Attorney General John Mitchell, soon to resign and take over CREEP, rejected the proposal and told Mr. Liddy to come up with something more realistic. At the end of March, a $250,000 operation was approved. Checks totaling $89,000 in illegal corporate contributions to the Nixon campaign were laundered through a Mexican bank and earmarked for the project. This was augmented by a $25,000 check, direct from CREEP funds.

George McGovern, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, was Gemstone's first target, but an attempt to bug his headquarters failed. The team turned its attention to the Watergate office of Lawrence F. O'Brien, the Democratic national chairman.

Mr. Nixon, himself, has always claimed that he knew nothing about the break-in and could not understand the reason for it. He and some of his supporters have claimed that the operation was really the work of the CIA or the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which they charge were eager to undercut the architect of detente with China and the Soviet Union.

Yet Mr. Nixon had been obsessed with Larry O'Brien since the 1960 campaign, in which Mr. O'Brien managed the campaign of John F. Kennedy to a narrow win over Mr. Nixon. He feared Mr. O'Brien might have evidence concerning secret contributions said to have been made by Howard Hughes to the Nixon campaign.

No one ever assumed ultimate responsibility for actually ordering the break-in, and no one was convicted of ordering it, although several men went to jail for participating in it or taking part in the cover-up. The evidence indicates the orders came from John Mitchell, in response to unrelenting pressure from Mr. Nixon to discover whatever Larry O'Brien knew.

After two botched attempts, the burglars got into the DNC office on May 27, 1972, and Mr. McCord placed taps on Mr. O'Brien's phone and that of an assistant. The bug on Mr. O'Brien's phone failed to work and on the evening of June 17, Mr. McCord and the four Cubans returned to the Watergate.

A security guard spotted a garage door taped open and called the police. The burglars were arrested at gunpoint. They had bugging equipment and $3,200 in consecutively-numbered hundred-dollar bills in their possession. Mr. Hunt and Mr. Liddy, who were monitoring the operation from a nearby motel, fled in panic.

Mr. Nixon was at his vacation home at Key Biscayne in Florida when he learned of the arrests the following day. "It sounded preposterous" and he dismissed the affair as "some sort of prank," he later wrote in his memoirs. "It had to be some of the crazies" at CREEP, he told H.R. Haldeman, his chief of staff, and instructed him to "get it as confused as possible."

And so the cover-up began.


The basic pattern of lies, deceit and deception was quickly put in place. Worried that the trail might lead to John Mitchell and the White House aides who had organized the "plumbers" unit, the president involved himself in the cover-up from the very beginning. He looked for a way to channel hush money to the burglars to ensure their silence, and attempted obstruct an FBI investigation of the break-in.

Mr. Nixon was concerned that the FBI might stumble over the trail of the secret funds that had been laundered in Mexico and funneled to the burglars by CREEP. At a meeting with Mr. Haldeman and Mr. Ehrlichman on June 23, he decided to use the CIA to get the FBI to call off its Mexican inquiries, on grounds that it involved national security. The CIA, however, refused to tell the FBI to drop the Mexican investigation and also rejected a White House proposal that it put up bail and pay the legal and family expenses of the burglars.

Mr. Nixon apparently felt he could not come clean on the break-in and apologize --even if he wanted -- because the break-in was merely the tip of the iceberg. Even a cursory inquiry would lead to what Mr. Mitchell called the "White House horrors" -- all the other crimes committed by the "plumbers" and the "dirty tricks" division of CREEP. Mr. Nixon, in an attempt to deal with public reaction to the burglary, directed John Dean, the White House counsel, to launch an inquiry into the affair. Mr. Dean's real role was to keep the lid on until after the November presidential election.

Meanwhile, as a result of leaks, two young reporters for the Washington Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, dredged up enough material to keep the Watergate story on the front page. Nevertheless, a Gallup Poll reported that 48 percent of American people had never heard of the break-in, and Mr. Nixon defeated Mr. McGovern by a landslide. But Mr. Nixon's elation was tempered by the fact that the Democrats had maintained control of Congress -- and with it the power to instigate investigations and to issue subpoenas and swear witnesses.


Within a few months after the election, the cover-up began to unravel. The key figure was Chief Judge John J. Sirica of the U.S. District Court in Washington. He had an aversion to being lied to. Gordon Liddy's swaggering soldier-of-fortune decision to protect the higher-ups by assuming full responsibility for the break-in, plus the stonewalling of Mr. Hunt, Mr. McCord and the four Cubans, angered him. Once they had pleaded guilty, Judge Sirica made it plain that he intended to impose heavy sentences in an effort to ferret out the truth.

Buckling under Judge Sirica's judicial blackmail, Mr. McCord wrote the judge a letter, which was read in court. It alleged that "political pressures" had been brought to bear upon the defendants to plead guilty, that perjury had been committed, and more exalted figures than Liddy were involved.

Meanwhile, the Senate had established a Watergate investigating committee to be headed by Sen. Sam Ervin, a crusty North Carolina Democrat and one-time judge. Mr. McCord was immediately interviewed by Senate Watergate investigators, and he implicated Mr. Dean and Jeb Magruder, Mr. Mitchell's deputy at CREEP, in the cover-up.

A wave of fear swept through the White House, and it was everyone for himself. Nixon aides scurried about and obtained lawyers, went to the prosecutors, testified before the grand jury, were interviewed by Senate investigators and leaked to the press. Like a striptease, the various elements of the cover-up were peeled away.

On April 30, 1973, in an effort to save himself, Mr. Nixon began throwing friends and aides overboard. Mr. Haldeman, Mr. Ehrlichman and Mr. Dean were fired; Attorney General Richard Kleindienst and FBI director Patrick L. Gray resigned. But the scandal just grew. At least six separate probes were looking into its various aspects and Boston attorney Archibald Cox had been named special prosecutor. An on May 17, 1973, the Senate Watergate Committee began its hearings.


Over the next 37 days, the ornate old Senate Caucus Room was the scene of a combination morality play, mystery story, soap opera and psychodrama. If Richard Nixon was the unseen villain of the piece, Sam Ervin was the hero. A slow drawl, white hair, quivering jowls, eyebrows that seemed permanently atwitch along with his eloquence in defense of the Constitution made him a cult figure.

The hearings began with the small fry -- the diligent but lowly members of CREEP -- and built up to the star performers. John Dean appeared on June 25, and for four days he accused the president of the United States of grave crimes. Hunched over the witness table with his mouth only inches away from the microphone, he outlined the progress of the cover-up in startling detail.

But the central questions of Watergate -- what did the president know, and when did he know it? -- seemed unlikely to be unresolved. Mr. Dean had incriminated Mr. Nixon, but there was no one to support his testimony. And then, on July 16, Alexander Butterfield, who was in charge of White House security, revealed that there had been an Oval Office taping system. Every word spoken there had been taken down, making it possible to verify Mr. Dean's charges.

With the net tightening inexorably about him, Mr. Nixon attempted to head off Archibald Cox's demands for the tapes by firing him. Attorney General Elliott Richardson resigned rather than do it. This "Saturday Night Massacre" convinced doubters that Mr. Nixon had something to hide and created a firestorm of protest.

House Democratic leaders ordered an inquiry into the possibility of impeaching the president, and a new special prosecutor was named: Leon Jaworski, a Texas attorney.

Several top presidential aides, Mr. Haldeman, Mr. Ehrlichman, Mr. Mitchell, Mr. Kleindienst and Mr. Colson, among others, either pleaded guilty or were convicted of various Watergate-related crimes. Mr. Nixon, himself, was named in a secret grand jury report as an "unindicted co-conspirator."

On July 24, 1974, the Supreme Court rejected the president's argument of executive privilege and ordered him to turn the tapes over to Mr. Jaworski. Three days later, the House Judiciary Committee voted articles of impeachment against Nixon on grounds that he had acted "in a manner contrary to his trust as President and subversive of constitutional government."

Under duress, Mr. Nixon, on August 5, released tape of the June 23, 1972 meeting -- known as "the smoking gun" -- in which he had instructed Mr. Haldeman and Mr. Ehrlichman to use the CIA to block the FBI investigation. Americans heard their leader talking as if he were a Mafia don organizing the rackets in Brooklyn.

"I should have destroyed [the tapes]," Nixon later told a television interviewer. He claimed he had not done so because he was suffering from pneumonia and "I just couldn't make tough decisions like that." Lawyers also told him he would be destroying evidence, he said.

Following these thunderbolts, Mr. Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974. True to character, he resorted to sleight of hand. He claimed his resignation was prompted not by the threat of impeachment but because he no longer had "a strong enough political base" in Congress.

Basking in the fall-out of Watergate, many analysts took comfort in the fact Mr. Nixon had been brought down because "the system worked." A president, like any other American citizen, was subject to the Constitution and the rule of law. Perhaps so. But little more than a dozen years later, in the Iran-contra affair, another president used the national security argument to end-run the Constitution.

Nathan Miller is the author of "Stealing from America: A History of Corruption from Jamestown to Reagan," to be published in August.

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