Reflections on the Watergate Tragedy                                                                                                   By Jeff Lukens

To understand 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 him.

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 Watergate

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 formed.

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 nothing.

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 standard.

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 that followed.

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 conjecture.

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 was planned.

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.

The Tapes

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 sentences later.

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. 

Revenge Politics

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 occurred."

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.

 

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Copyright 2009, Jeff Lukens