Did the press railroad Nixon at the Watergate Hotel
The Kansas City Star
The Watergate break-in by President Richard Nixon took place 40 years ago this month, June 17, 1972 — a date that will live in infamy.
If that day was reminiscent of Pearl Harbor, the date of Friday, Aug. 9, 1974, was reminiscent of VJ Day. At least at the newspaper office where I worked. It was the day Nixon resigned.
Ah, yes. I remember it well. I walked into work that morning and it was a festival. “We got him!” exclaimed a co-worker, his fist in the air.
“We nailed him!” yelled a female worker, exchanging joyous congratulations with the crowd.
Then it was my turn. I did not want to dampen the enthusiasm; so I said, “Good has triumphed. The Constitution will not be shredded. The Republic will stand.” I recall it was something like that.
“Right on!” my friend said; even if another of my friends was beginning to look at me as if he were doubtful of my sincerity.
I sat down to start typing a story for the day, I thought somebody should, as the party continued. People were carrying in boxes of doughnuts, drinks were being served – actual carbonated beverages, this was not a time to worry about one’s health. It was an orgy. Some people were even eating grapes. But I actually wasn’t joyous. I didn’t feel that was the right tone for a time that somebody was getting kicked out of his job.
That was then, and after hearing decades of evidence, and getting more confused, I now wonder:
If Nixon had been found committing perjury after his sexual activity in the Oval Office, suborned perjury, had been disbarred and could not practice law in his home state, had on national television lied to his cabinet and then to the nation, how long would he have lasted? I think not more than a day.
If some members of President Bill Clinton’s staff been caught trying to plant a bug in a Republican party headquarters, had been caught and sentenced, would Clinton have survived? I think so.
Of course, it really wasn’t Nixon’s break-in of the Watergate in Washington. That June day he was taking a break in the Bahamas, and feeling very good. He had won election easily in 1968 and in 1972 was leading in the polls over Democrat candidate George McGovern with the election only five months away. Florida seemed solidly in his camp, especially since McGovern had announced that if elected he would seek to improve America’s relations with Castro’s Cuba. The Cubans in Florida then became solid backers of Nixon. They also weren’t happy with the Democrats’ handling of the Bay of Pigs and the missile crisis.
In his book, “Memoirs,” Nixon recalled the following morning, when he picked up the Miami Herald and glanced at the front page. There was a small story near the bottom of the page: “Miamians Held in D.C., Try to Bug Demo Headquarters.” Four were Cubans, another was a former employee of the CIA, James McCord.
Nixon then turned to his favorite section, sports, read that his friend Jack Nicklaus was winning the U.S. Open and thought he would call him with congratulations if he won, which he did.
“I dismissed it (Watergate) as sort of a prank,” Nixon wrote. In a following day he wrote in his dairy that he had news from aide Bob Haldeman that the break-in “involved someone (McCord) who is on the payroll of the Committee to Re-elect the President (CRP). (CRP leader John) Mitchell had told Bob on the phone enigmatically not to get involved in it, and told Bob that I simply hoped that none of our people were involved for two reasons – One, because it was stupid in the way it was handled; and two, because I could see no reason whatever for trying to bug the national committee.”
Nixon wrote he “could not muster moral outrage about a political bugging,” and recited a number of bugging cases involving Lyndon Johnson’s believing the “ruthless” Kennedys bugged him, that in 1968 he learned Johnson had ordered the Nixon campaign plane bugged, and that bugging experts had told the Washington Post that “political bugging is not uncommon and it is particularly common for candidates in the same party to bug one another.”
Nixon wrote that the McGovern high command had proposed a paid operative be planted aboard VP Ted Agnew’s campaign plane to report his activities as, Nixon added, Watergate Committee records indicate had been done successfully against his campaign in 1968. Nixon added his personal physician’s office was broken into and the Nixon’s medical records were taken from a locked chest and found strewn on the floor.
Even Walter Kronkite, the legendary CBS anchorman, called “the most trusted man in America,” secretly bugged a committee room at the 1952 Republican convention in Chicago, according to the new book on Kronkite by Doug Brinkley. Kronkite later found the Watergate bugging to be horrific and on the level of a constitutional crisis, pointed out the Media Research Center on its website.
The Watergate investigations might never have taken place expect that a security guard there that night noticed tape that held a door open for return access. He called police, who made the arrests.
The arraignment of the men was not seen as a major event, even by The Washington Post. A young former Navy officer who had recently joined the staff, Bob Woodward, was sent to cover it, according to Ben Bradlee, Post executive editor, in his book, “A Good Life.”
According to Bradlee, Woodward “was sitting in the front row (where else) where he heard James McCord Jr., whisper ‘CIA,’ when the arraigning officer asked him what kind of ‘a retired government worker’ he was.
“Bingo!” wrote Bradlee. “No three letters in the English language, arranged in that particular order, and spoken in similar circumstance, tighten a good reporter’s sphincter faster than C-I-A.”
By day’s end, Bradlee said, ten reporters were working on 10 different parts of the story. Carl Bernstein “worked the phones” all day Saturday. Bradlee, with Bernstein and Woodward (Bradlee said in the paper their byline order was alternated) became national heroes and were featured in the movie “All the President’s Men.” Katharine Graham, the Post owner who led the Watergate operation as well as the newspaper itself, didn’t get a movie star to play her role. She had hoped for Lauren Bacall. Woodward fared best, being played by Robert Redford.
Another star made famous by Watergate was “Deep Throat,” whose advice “follow the money,” referring to the use of the Nixon campaign funds, seemed to be vital. His identity was one of the nation’s greatest mysteries, the answer to all the questions, until it was finally revealed. He turned out to be, as TV’s Jon Stewart put it, “some guy nobody ever heard of.” He was Mark Felt, an FBI agent who retired after he was passed over by Nixon for the director’s post.
It was hard to follow some of the money. CRP member G. Gordon Liddy admitted in his book, “Will,” that he had put 13 $100 bills that he considered traceable into a shredder while shredding so many other papers that he almost broke the machine..
Liddy, a James Bond-type FBI man who became attorney to the White House, was the man who led the break-in. He always used “G. Gordon Liddy,” except the time he first met his director at the FBI, who said, “I’m J.Edgar Hoover.” Liddy said he introduced himself only as “Gordon Liddy,” in fear Hoover would think he was mocking him.
Liddy in his book pointed out there were some wrong impressions of Watergate. He wrote there were three break-ins, not one, and that another one was to take place the next day at another Watergate Democratic office. The third break-in, he wrote, was not to plant a bug, but to get information from a desk drawer that had been identified to him by Jeb Magruder, a former Kansas City, Mo., resident who was serving under CRP leader John Mitchell. Liddy, now 81 and a talk-show host, still wonders what was in the drawer.
Magruder asked Liddy, Liddy wrote, “Do you think you could break into the Watergate?”
Liddy answered, “Yes.”
The first break-in failed and problems with an alarm arose that caused former CIA agent Howard Hunt to spend the night hiding in a liquor closet after being locked into the Democrat office. After spending the night, Hunt advised Liddy, “I know you like Scotch, but don’t ever drink drink it at the Watergate Hotel. I had to take a leak in the worst way. I was desperate. Finally I found a nearly empty bottle of Johnny Walker Red. It’s now quite full.”
The second break-in resulted in their planting a bug, but it was defective. The third try, not to plant a bug but to find information from the mystery desk, resulted in the arrests. Liddy was waiting outside the hotel awaiting word of success. Instead, after his men were arrested, he returned home to his wife.
She noticed he didn’t look good. “Anything wrong?” she asked.
He answered, “I’ll probably be going to jail.”
Liddy was linked with the group and sentenced by Judge John (Maximum John was a nickname) Sirica to a maximum of 20 years in prison and a minimum of six years and was fined $40,000. President Carter in 1977 commuted his sentence to eight years, and he was released in September of that year after serving just over 52 months. It was reported that his spy stories from his FBI days were a hit with other inmates.
Hunt was sentenced to 35 years in jail and fined $40,000. He served just over 31 months. The four Cubans got 40 years and $50,000 fines, but none served more than 14 months. One of the Cubans was a former Batista security officer and another was a survivor of the Bay of Pigs.
McCord served two months of a one-to-five-year sentence.
Liddy said the Cubans refused to accept payments from the CRP and they had told him they were working for future American assistance in freeing Cuba. Bob Dole, GOP chairman, indicated shock about the strict sentences of the CIA men, noting they were doing secret activities of a type that once brought department praise.
The public then lost interes in Watergate – until McCord sent a letter to Sirica saying perjury might have been involved in the trail. That touched off a congressional investigations and a press frenzy, with the Vietnam Nam war’s coming to an end and the presidential election banished to the back pages.
It was the second time Watergate had been revived. After interest had been low in the early days after Watergate broke, “My great fear was that it would just peter out,” Bradlee wrote. The Watergate stories were not made for television. Bradlee said some stories consisted “simply of Dan Rather and Nixon shouting at each other in press conferences.” Many stories were so complex they were hard to follow in the written press. Nixon, instead of losing votes, was increasing his campaign lead. And the public was tuning out on the press.
That changed, Bradlee wrote, when “In the middle of October, my old Newsweek buddy, Gordon Manning, VP and director at CBS, called with good news.
“’You’ve never been able to do anything without me, Bradlee,’ he started, ‘and now I’m going to save your ass in this Watergate thing. Cronkite and I have gotten CBS to agree to do two back-to-back pieces on the ‘Evening News’ about Watergate. We’re going to make you famous.”
When the lengthy stories ran on Oct. 27-28, they had great impact, Bradlee wrote. “Somehow the Great White Father, Walter Cronkite, the most trusted man in television, had blessed the story by spending so much time on it.”
Bradlee said there was a lack of documents in the programs, but overall, “We were thrilled.”
It seemed to be the first of a new tactic for CBS. Just before the 2000 election, anchor Rather pointed out a George Bush drunken drive charge in his youth. But just before the election of 2004, when Rather broadcast that he had documents showing Bush had dodged the Vietnam war, times had changed. There was now a Fox News, a Rush Limbaugh and clones, and the internet. Bloggers within hours of the CBS broadcast pointed out Rather’s documents were written on Microsoft Word, which didn’t exist in the time period of his documents. Whether there will be a late October 2012 thrilling feature story by CBS is now drawing curiosity.
The CBS stories did not hurt Nixon, who won with his historic margin every state but Massachusetts. The nation turned its attention to Nixon’s attempt to end the Vietnam War. But it was a story that drew little press coverage. Congress continued its investigation, with one committee staffer, Hillary Clinton, drawing national attention by pushing hard for Nixon’s impeachment. And the press was working harder than ever.
“The Washington Press was falling all over each other like a pack of beagles,” wrote columnist Stewart Alsop.
“It was as if a convulsion had seized Washington,” Nixon wrote. “Restraints…were abandoned…It seemed anything could be leaked and anything could be indulged, under the guise of righteous indignation over Watergate.”
Nixon noted that The New York Times carried at least one Watergate story on its front page every day but one from May through July 1973.
“Often the same stories were repeated from day to day with only minor changes, and sometimes with no changes at all, and then rehashed again on the weekends in “updates” and “analyses,” Nixon wrote.
Nixon’s tapes also were discovered, and played a key role in the case. A missing 18 ½ minutes of intrigue might never be learned, it was feared. Nixon said, no, one of his staff took notes during that taping, and the notes showed routine planning, which he reported.
Tension increased. Post reporters operated sometimes in special areas after Deep Throat warned “Everyone’s life is in danger.” A “smoking gun” to prove Nixon’s guilt was sought by every reporter.
It came “in spades,” Bradlee wrote, in a 95-minute tape of Nixon and aide H.R. Haldeman. Bradley said the tape proved Nixon lied when he claimed he didn’t know until nine months later that any of his staff had been involved in Watergate; that he lied when he said questions of national security were involved in this conversation, that Nixon had approved the plan for the CIA to call off the FBI’s Watergate investigation, and that he lied when he said he hadn’t.
So Nixon lost and Bradlee won. Bradlee is famous and happy, but he himself admits to still being bugged by Republicans. He sets it all straight at his end of the Watergate chapter:
“Nothing has bugged me more during and right after Watergate than the know-nothing charge that the press has gone after Nixon because he was a Republican and the press consisted of a bunch of liberal Democrats. ‘You guys would have never gone after Kennedy’ was the dreary charge, “if he had been involved in Watergate. Truth is, at the Post anyway, we were always praying for good Democratic scandals.”
A powerful statement. It should not be a reflection on the Post’s reporting that it has reported so few Democratic scandals in the past 40 years, but points out that Democrats have been behaving well knowing the press and especially the Post is out to get them. The Post may have known about Clinton’s intern, Edwards’ girl friend, and Kenndy’s girl friends and not broken the stories, but surely its prayers some day will be answered.
In the meantime, impeachment proceedings have been so entertaining that I feel safe to say the public is looking forward to another show as much as the press is.