Reflections on the Watergate Tragedy
By Jeff Lukens
Watergate, we need to understand the times in which Richard Nixon was
president. Nixon was the only president of the 20th Century to face an
unyielding and organized resistance to a war. LBJ had handed him a war
without end in Vietnam, and consequently, great unrest at home.
Washington was regularly filled with thousands, even hundreds of
thousands, of protesters. The counterculture movement, born in those
days, was bent on overturning the very foundations of American life.
A skillful old-time
politician, Nixon was ill equipped to oppose the guerilla war being
waged against him. Wiretaps and IRS audits were no match for a force
whose foot soldiers worshiped sex, drugs and rock and roll. Many called
Nixon paranoid because he saw himself surrounded by enemies. His enemies
were real, however, and they were waiting for the opportunity to ruin
He had been a target
for the Left ever since the Alger Hiss case in 1948. The worst thing
that anyone can do to the press and the liberal establishment in
Washington is to prove that they were wrong, and that was exactly what
Nixon, as a young congressman, had done. Hiss was a sophisticated career
State Department diplomat, but he was also a communist spy. The case
also begged the question of whether there was a communist influence in
Washington. With the help of Whittaker Chambers, Nixon exposed Hiss. But
Hiss was a part of the liberal establishment, and they never forgot it.
Consequently, the rules
of discretion and respect the media and Congress applied to previous
presidents did not apply to Nixon. In his position, he knew he should
have been careful not to do anything wrong. Instead of accepting the
double standard and holding himself to a higher level, he took for
granted he would be treated in the same way as they treated Kennedy and
Johnson. That was his first mistake.
The Origins of
The road to Watergate
began in 1971 with the Pentagon Papers case. Nixon was outraged by
Daniel Ellsberg's leaks of classified information on the Vietnam War to
The New York Times. When Nixon tried to block the press from publishing
any more of the story, the liberal Burger Court ignored the law and
ruled against him. One senator even went as far as to enter the
documents into the Congressional Record. It was truly outrageous.
Nixon's anger at the reckless disregard of national security by many
people was quite understandable, but his response to it was not.
Leaks threatened to
blow the confidentiality of the secret diplomacy of Henry Kissinger. But
there was more to it than that. Like so much else in Washington in those
days, emotions overruled rationality. Nixon viewed Ellsberg through the
prism of Alger Hiss, and pressed his staff to the boundaries of the law
to do whatever was necessary to stop Ellsberg and the Left.
Nixon requested that
the FBI peruse and investigation, but J. Edger Hoover’s showed little
interest in the matter. Though constitutionally questionable, up to that
time, a matter of national security could be cause for a covert FBI
break-in. And the president was the one who had the final say on what
was a matter of national security.
Nixon continued to push
the issue of leaks with his staffers. He pushed them so hard, in fact,
that he effectively forced them to act outside the law. On the failure
of Hoover to act on what Nixon considered a national security violation,
the White House took matters into their own hands, and the Plumbers were
Having loose cannons
like Howard Hunt and Gordon Liddy around with little oversight was
trouble waiting to happen. Before long, they broke into in the office of
Ellsberg's psychiatrist, Dr. Lewis Fielding, hoping to gain embarrassing
personal information on Ellsberg in which to discredit him. They found
The break-in was over
the line. All involved should have known that warrantless break-ins were
an unacceptable violation of the Constitution. And in retrospect,
breaking into Fielding’s office could hardly be considered necessary as
a matter of national security. We halfway expect is sort of behavior
from the agents of the Left. Republicans must answer to a higher
In spite of his
repeated denials of not knowing about the Fielding break-in until 1973,
recently released Watergate tapes reveal that John Ehrlichman briefed
Nixon on the Fielding break-in a few days after it occurred. He morally
compromised himself and set an irreversible precedent that eventually
lead to his political destruction. Had Nixon publicly condemned the
over-zealousness of his subordinates at this time, there would have been
far less need for him to obstruct justice with a cover-up in the events
Break-in at the DNC
Even now, we can only
speculate on the possible motives for the Watergate break-in. So let’s
try to fill in some of the blanks. Yes, much of what follows is
It has been alleged
that Nixon's wanted to know what the Democrats knew about a $100,000
donation from Howard Hughes to Bebe Rebozo, who passed the money through
his Florida bank to the Nixon reelection campaign. Hughes Aircraft
Company had many government contracts, and it was good business to have
the president on your side.
Nixon’s staff may have
initially been worried that the Chairman of the DNC, Larry O'Brien,
would pull an October Surprise by revealing the payoffs from Hughes.
Nixon's ties to Hughes had hurt him in his losing 1960 and 1962
campaigns, and he did not want it to happen again. There were two
break-ins at the DNC Headquarters at the Watergate complex. The first
break-in occurred on May 28, 1972 was likely for the purpose of finding
out what information the DNC had on Howard Hughes.
At this point, the
narrative starts to play like a cross between a soap opera and Greek
tragedy. John Mitchell had always been Nixon’s strong man. As Attorney
General, he was point man prosecuting the lawlessness sweeping the
nation. By 1972, he left the administration to lead the Committee to
Re-elect the President (CRP). But Mitchell had a problem with his wife
Martha. While he was distracted with Martha’s mental illness and
alcoholism in the early months of 1972, comprehensive management of the
reelection campaign escaped his oversight.
Enter John Dean,
Chief White House Counsel.
It has been posited that Dean compelled a weak and ineffectual Jeb
Magruder, Mitchell’s assistant at the CRP, to okay the break-in. Both Dean and
Magruder later tried to pin the break-in approval on Mitchell.
When a story broke
about a Capitol Hill call-girl ring in early June, Dean was worried
about the exposure of his fiancée’s, possible connection to it. The DNC
was allegedly big clients of the call-girl ring, so Dean again pressed
Magruder to find out what knowledge the DNC had about it. When the
original wiretaps failed to provide useful information, another break-in
On June 17, Hunt and
Liddy’s gang reentered the Watergate complex to plant new listening
devices. It was this break-in that made history. DNC operatives may have
suspected it was coming and were ready for it. Nixon knew nothing about
the plan. In the days and weeks that followed, John Dean advised the
president of the need for a cover-up, while hiding his duplicitous
personal interests for a cover-up.
At that time, wiretaps
were legal, so we can justifiably take no issue with them now. After
news of the story broke, Nixon’s concern was to contain the political
damage. One falsehood led to another, however, and soon it became a
cover-up. When faced with jail time, many of Nixon’s aides decided to
save themselves no matter the cost to anyone else. This was especially
the case with John Dean.
Nixon meant the tapes
to be a private record of his presidency that he could later use for his
memoirs. Many hours of the tape involve Nixon with his aides
brainstorming and searching for ideas, both good and bad, to solve the
problems they faced.
Years later, Nixon
privately admitted it was a mistake not to destroy the tapes. Without
the tapes, the evidence on Nixon would have been circumstantial and gone
nowhere. Rather than serving as personal recollections, his own words
become the source of his undoing.
Nixon also admitted
later that he shouldn't have discussed, or even thought about, cover-ups
or hush money. While his opponents were quick to point out that he had
discussed such things, they ignored that he rejected them as wrong a few
Although he discussed
possible obstruction of the FBI investigation by the CIA in the "smoking
gun" tape, no obstruction actually occurred. The tape did reveal,
however, that his stated intention not to cover-up any wrongdoing had
been a lie.
As a political force
against communism, and resolute in his convictions, to the liberal
establishment, Nixon had to be brought down. The political firestorm
that resulted was a coming together of many political factions.
Congress, the press, the intelligence community and the federal
bureaucracy all had reasons to see that Nixon fell. With the tapes
available as evidence, Nixon gave his opponents the sword they needed to
take him down, and they did.
Those who were after
Nixon for Watergate had been after him for a long time. Watergate was
just the pretext. They sought to prosecute him as aggressively as he had
prosecuted Hiss and the Vietnam War. The relentless deluge of
accusations hurled at Nixon day after day, both true and false,
ultimately undercut his ability to govern. While the Ervin Senate Select
Committee on Watergate held center stage, cuts in South Vietnamese aid,
and limitations on what our military response could be, were being
quietly slipped through Congress.
In his 1990 book, "In
the Arena," Nixon writes:
"We remember as the
Watergate period was also a concerted political vendetta by my
opponents. Anyone who knows the workings of hardball politics knows that
the smoke screen of false accusations - the myths of Watergate - were
not at all accidental. In this respect, Watergate was not a morality
play - a battle between good guys in white and bad guys in black - but
rather a political struggle. The baseless and highly sensationalistic
charges, blatant double standards, the party-line votes in congressional
investigating committees, and the unwillingness of my adversaries and
the media to look into parallel wrongdoing within Democratic campaigns,
all should tip off the causal observer that the opposition was pursuing
not only justice but also political advantage . . . When a balanced
historical appraisal emerges, the partisan political dimension of the
investigation and prosecution will stand out as the feature of the
period . . . The smoke screen of false accusations magnified tenfold the
public's perception and outrage over the wrongdoing that actually
A National Tragedy
After two years of
Watergate paralysis, the nation braced for months of impeachment in the
House and trial before the Senate. Maybe he could have survived in the
Senate, maybe not. But they had marginalized Nixon, and the nation
needed a full-time President. His final service as president was to
resign rather than put the nation through more anguish.
Nixon, once a brilliant
politician, would always be seen as a man shattered by his own
determination to succeed. He could have been one of the great presidents
of all time. Instead, he is remembered for Watergate, one of the great
tragedies in American history. Watergate portrayed him as an invalid
force in American politics, which was not true. Needless to say, the
scandal severely disappointed his supporters. I was one of them.
He had been correct in
his opposition to communism. He had been correct about Alger Hiss and
how to end the Vietnam War. But what did that matter to the Left?
Watergate was the result of Vietnam, and the collapse of South Vietnam
was the result of Watergate. The upheaval that followed his presidency
in Southeast Asia, Nicaragua, Afghanistan and elsewhere proved that his
policies had been correct all along.
Nixon was ravaged in
this calamity partly of his own making, and partly from a liberal
assault on traditional American values that continues to this day.
Conservative politicians might earn the animosity of those who oppose
them, but their methods and politics must always be above reproach to
avoid a fate similar to that of Richard Nixon.