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We can’t let summer 2022 pass without marking the 50th anniversary of Watergate. Or, of “Watergate.” Watergate itself was a Keystone Cops burglary of the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate complex in Washington D.C., early in the morning of June 17, 1972. The operation hoped to steal files and plant wiretaps and was planned and paid for by the perfectly named CREEP—the Committee to Re-Elect the President, Richard Nixon.

“Watergate” came to designate a complex of no fewer than 24 indictable crimes pursued by three federal judicatories. Most immediately, it involved attempts to cover up the burglary. Nixon’s top aides were on the job three days after the event, and the president himself joined in by the end of the week. But “Watergate’s” tendrils trailed back to the very first months of Nixon’s presidency—indeed, back to the treason he committed in the last weeks of the 1968 presidential campaign—and forward into the summer of 1974, when he finally resigned under threat of conviction by the Senate on three counts of impeachment.

The crimes accumulating along the way included obstruction of justice via payments of hush money, said monies accrued via massive illegal campaign contributions; “dirty tricks” played against Democratic opponents on the campaign trail; the illegal wiretapping not only of the opposition but of White House aides, journalists, student leaders, and civil rights activists; Nixon’s own income tax evasion and his sale of ambassadorships for gain; and the evasion as well of constitutional prescriptions for the conduct of the war in Vietnam. For dessert there was the conviction and eviction from office of Vice President Spiro Agnew for graft and corruption, a fit end for Mr. Law-and-Order.

For the semi-centennial there’s a new encyclopedic account of the scandal by journalist Garrett M. Graff—Watergate: A New History (Simon & Schuster 2022). If you want to know when, what, where, and by whom, these 828 pages do the job. And, oh, the names! The Germans: Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Kissinger at the top; Richard Kleindienst and Ron Ziegler one level down. The now obscure: remember Dita Beard and the ITT memo? Fred LaRue and Dwight Chapin and Herbert Kalmbach? Alexander Butterfield? Surely Rosemary Wood’s preternatural yoga stretch, demonstrating how 18.5 minutes of a White House tape recording were “inadvertently” erased, is seared in the mind of anyone who has seen the picture.

Can’t forget the nicknames: Bernard “Macho” Barker of the break-in team, Egil “Bud” Krogh back at the White House, C. G. “Bebe” Rebozo always ready with dirty money and a Florida estate for the president’s relaxation. Then there’s the guys with the initials: E. Howard Hunt, G. Gordon Liddy, J. Frank Buzhardt. The mighty ones reduced to shame, none more than John Mitchell. The hapless L. Patrick Gray, sometime director of the FBI, and the embittered Mark Felt who, denied that post, turned into “Deep Throat,” a main source of the Washington Post’s explosive coverage. The squirrely Jeb Magruder and the slippery John Dean. The reprehensible Charles Colson.

“Watergate” was the moment when the myth of the crusading journalist was re-born in Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward and Seymour Hersch. When folksy Senator Sam Ervin and Jersey pol Peter Rodino rose to their moment of destiny. Then there are the lawyers—so many lawyers: Sam Dash and John Doar (aided by Hillary Rodham), Henry Petersen and James St. Clair, special prosecutors Archibald Cox and Leon Jaworski. And one incorruptible judge, “Maximum John” Sirica, so dubbed for his harsh sentencing record. Sirica’s unwillingness to take the original burglars’ (suborned) guilty plea as conclusive tripped the first domino until the king’s was also finally toppled.

As I said, 800+ pages of details on who, what, when, and where. But all of it, in my reading, leaving the why obscure. For that we can turn to Tim Weiner’s One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon (Henry Holt, 2015), which cuts open the ruthless egotist at the heart of the matter. The Vietnam war on the outside and painful defects of character on the inside brought Nixon to self-destruction, Weiner shows, undoing a man of truly global vision and rare political intelligence.

Vietnam is the red thread running through these pages. Nixon had opened a back channel to South Vietnam president Nguyen Van Thieu late in the 1968 campaign to block a peace deal Lyndon Johnson was negotiating with North Vietnam. That would have tilted a razor-thin election to Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey, and Nixon was determined to thwart it. Macbeth-like, he was haunted ever after by the prospect of his treason coming to light. Incriminating evidence to that effect was a putative target of the Watergate burglars.

Nixon also boasted that he would wrap up the war within six months, and when North Vietnam refused to do so on his terms, he—to use the King James—waxed exceeding wroth. Two months after his inauguration he unleashed a horrific bombing across the Cambodian border, beginning a four-year stretch in which America would drop nearly three million tons of bombs on that land, five times the total it unleashed in all of World War II. The operation was entirely illegal and to be kept secret by having the Air Force falsify its records. Except that the secret was out in ten days, throwing Nixon into another rage. That began another four-year stretch, this one of wire-tapping, initiated ironically upon his own staff by Henry Kissinger, the one major figure to emerge unscathed from “Watergate.”

Weiner’s pages show this pattern repeating again and again for the duration of Nixon’s presidency. The publication of The Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg? Break into the office of his psychiatrist to get dirt on him—a trial run for Watergate and productive of no better information. The massive “incursion” into Cambodia in May 1970? Also unproductive militarily but expressive of Nixon’s passion to bomb, bomb, bomb. “Bomb the bejeezus out of them,” he says more than once in these pages. (There’s a lot of potty-mouth profanity not to be quoted on a religious site like the Reformed Journal.) Pound them with everything! Total obliteration!! Scream at Air Force command when the 30,000,000 pounds of bombs dropped on Hanoi during the twelve days of Christmas 1972 accomplished nothing. Threaten ever more vengeful destruction, vent ever more seething rage. And in the end, agree to much the same terms as Johnson had negotiated in 1968. The hundreds of thousands of deaths accruing in the meantime, Nixon insisted, secured American “honor.”

The personal was indeed the political. Weiner’s other red thread is wound of the character defects that twined around and through what was Nixon’s “undeniable greatness,” eventually strangling it. Whence all this bile and contempt, the debilitating distrust and profound insecurity, all the brooding in isolation, the incessant violence of speech spilling over into violence abroad? I would say from sheer megalomania. Nixon was convinced of his potential as a great statesman, a world leader, “the world leader.” (5) Upon American strength and determination depended world peace, and he alone had the vision to make it. Indeed, lasting peace—the desire of the nations, the yearning of the ages—was finally at hand, if only entrusted to his hands. Thus, in his administration the Pentagon, the State Department, and the CIA were sidelined and all power gathered to himself. Any opposition was personal. It was Communist inspired, too, whether at home or abroad, warranting suppression by any means necessary.

Megalomania requires deception. Richard Nixon was an inveterate liar and turned the faucet wide open on Watergate. He lied every time he opened his mouth about it. In a 4000-word white paper meant to be definitive about his personal involvement, he “categorically” laid out seven claims of which six were lies.(270) In a similar TV address to the nation, he spilled out seventeen more.

Megalomania also requires self-deception. No one captured that more bluntly than Le Duc Tho, the canny North Vietnamese diplomat who handed Henry Kissinger his lunch: “President Nixon … you talk peace, but you make war.” (76) But finally the truth wound out of Nixon himself, in his words to the nation on the day he resigned the presidency: “Always remember, others may hate you. But those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them. And then you destroy yourself.” (4)

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

16 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    And back then it was all so close we couldn’t see it.

  • Sharon says:

    Thanks for this. I didn’t have time to pay attention to what was going on in those days. I love your writing.

  • Jan Heerspink says:

    Jim, thanks for the horrible reminders of a deceptive president twice elected. Those names are etched deep in my memory as are the daily reports of body counts.

  • As someone who has lived through those dark days in American history, this fine essay reminds me again of how close we came to losing the values that uphold our democracy. I fear we are at that same intersection today. I hope and pray we have the tenacity to root out the lies and demand that corruption will not prevail. Thank you, Professor Bratt.

  • John Kleinheksel says:

    I shudder to think of what will be reported about DT 50 years from now.

    • Scott Hoezee says:

      Probably the same that is being reported right now. Nixon’s character was well known long before Watergate. His 1948 Senate campaign was dirty. His butt-saving Checkers speech was a master class in sly duplicity and unctuous insincerity. “Tricky Dick” was a label long affixed to Nixon. And a lot of what Jim writes here was also in the open by 1972. The difference, of course, was that back then you actually had morally courageous Republicans in Congress who believed that being in positions of power was about more than keeping your position of power even if it meant selling out your soul. Today you don’t need all 10 of your fingers to count up Republican leaders in Congress who believe that enough to cross Trump even a little. Then again, the public is radically different too. My parents voted x2 for Nixon and when they at long last discovered who he was, they were shocked and angered and supported his ouster. Today it’s all fake news and if Nixon had had a Sean Hannity in 1973, he would have been just fine.

  • Jack Ridl says:

    Deepest gratitude. He maimed my dear friend, which speaks in many layers for many a dear loved one.

  • Scott VanderStoep says:

    The Nixon campaign connecting with the Thieu government to thwart the peace agreement was unspeakable. Then he called LBJ to tell him that he didn’t do it. Did LBJ not go public because his own lies about the war might come out?
    —-
    President Johnson
    Hello?

    Richard M. “Dick” Nixon
    Mr. President?

    President Johnson
    Yes.

    Nixon
    This is Dick Nixon.

    President Johnson
    Yes, Dick.

    Nixon
    I just wanted you to know that I got a report from Everett [M.] Dirksen [R–Illinois] with regard to your call. And I just went on Meet the Press. And I said that—on Meet the Press—that I had given you my personal assurance that I would do everything possible to cooperate both before the election, and if elected, after the election. And that if you felt, the Secretary of State felt, that anything would be useful that I could do, that I would do it. That I felt Hanoi—I felt Saigon should come to the conference table. That I would—if you felt it was necessary—go there, or go to Paris. Anything you wanted. I just wanted you to know that I feel very, very strongly about this, and any rumblings around about [scoffs] somebody trying to sabotage the Saigon government’s attitude there certainly have no—absolutely no credibility as far as I’m concerned.

  • Tom says:

    Hillary must have taken good notes and learned a few lessons on how to cover your tracks :).

    • S.L. says:

      Classic whataboutism.

      • Tom says:

        Really???. Where in that comment did you read that Nixon did not deserve the condemnation that he received?

        Unless by ‘whataboutism’ you mean that all of humanity is born into sin so both sides do it, then, yeah, I suppose you’re right. But I assume you think I’m saying that because Hillary is corrupt then it doesn’t matter that Nixon was corrupt. That’s actually the opposite of what I mean – Nixon deserved everything he got; Trump deserves the condemnation that he gets on this blog; my point is that Hillary has earned the same condemnation but gets none.

        We’ve had a lot of morally questionable politicians in both the distant and recent past, and they’ve been both Republicans and Democrats. The writers here freely take shots at Trump for his dishonesty and flagrant disregard for our country’s constitution and laws, and then are perfectly comfortable lumping all Republicans and Evangelicals into one big lump of people that are not “morally courageous” enough to do anything but support him. But where is the ‘moral courage’ lamenting the long history of dishonesty and corruption that is the Clinton legacy?

        And now that we know that ‘Russia-gate’ was a lie fabricated by the Clinton campaign to smear Trump, kept alive by the combination of the Democratic party and the left-leaning press, where is the condemnation of that? Especially considering that the unfortunate result was that, in the end, surprise, surprise, it was Trump that was speaking the truth – and that only made the rest of his lies more believable to his base.

        And I read here about how good it is that Joe Biden has brought dignity back to the presidency and admiring his committed faith when in reality he is nearly as serially dishonest as Trump and seems to hold little to no regard to constitutional limits on presidential power now that he’s president.

        I’m wondering right now what I might be reading from this blog’s writers and commenters if Donald Trump had a crack-smoking son who, while Trump held high office was cutting multi-million dollar consulting deals for little to no work with gigantic Chinese and Ukrainian energy conglomerates that have a strong interest in currying favor with the father? Please don’t tell me that the condemnation would not be flowing freely (because it did).

        So, no, my comment is not ‘whataboutism’. I’m all for calling a spade a spade. I’d just appreciate treating all the spades the same regardless of party affiliation and whether or not they’re advancing your preferred policy agenda.

        • S.L. says:

          what·a·bout·ism
          /ˌ(h)wədəˈboudizəm/
          nounBRITISH
          the technique or practice of responding to an accusation or difficult question by making a counteraccusation or raising a different issue.

        • S.L. says:

          Your posts on this blog have a similar theme. I sense some deep personal hurt and anger for how you feel you have been characterized. I am sorry for that and hope you can come to some peace.

          • Tom says:

            Nah, I’m not suffering from deep personal hurt and anger (I can refer you to a few people who can verify that😊 – checked with a lefty friend of mine after church this morning, just to be sure, and he confirmed). Just trying to encourage a little more seeing of the plank in one’s own eye, so to speak. As one more example this morning, Trey Tirpak’s essay is excellent, true, and thought provoking, but even there it’s always the conservatives who zealously stoke the fires. Meanwhile, progressives (who, it should be noted, are the ones generally advocating for change – that roughly being the definition of ‘progressive’) are only seeking justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with their God.

            I get that this is a progressive blog, so it’s going to lean that way. But if, as Mark Hiskes pointed out in his essay on teaching, we’re concerned about a more divided and less trusting community of believers, then we’d best open our eyes and realize that the gap is growing not because one side is pulling away – the two sides are both moving away from the other, leaving a bunch of us out in the middle wondering how to deal with what’s left. I don’t know the solution to that, but I do know that lofting bombs of disparaging comments from ‘our’ trenches into ‘theirs’ is not the answer.

    • S.L. says:

      Okay. So you say you have no hurt or pain. But you do say you feel “in the middle” on things without a space. On the other hand I hear you say you have to “inform” and “educate” the progressives on where they are missing the mark. A couple thoughts and questions for you…

      1) You said you know this is a blog that leans progressive. And that is why you post your comments to provide “correction.” But you made a lot of claims that you assume the authors of this blog, such as Professor Bratt, have no criticisms of people and politicians on the left. You are assuming they agree with everything a left politician says and does. That is a big assumption. Just because they choose at this point in time, because it is quite relevant, to write about the things the GOP is doing does not mean they have no criticisms of Democrats. That is an unfair assumption on your part.
      2) If you are really trying to be that middle person, I would take you much more seriously if you could confirm for me what Right Leaning blogs you also follow closely. I would need you to tell me you spend all your posts on those blogs criticizing their failings. Because that is what you do on this blog all the time.

  • I graduated from high school in 1968. Yeah.
    Thank you.
    Steve

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