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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)