Watergate Revelations: The Coup Against Nixon, Part 2 Of 3
Nixon was actually suggesting not just a setup, but one intended to harm him. Perhaps because anything he might say would seem transparently self- serving, this claim received little attention and has been largely forgotten. Notwithstanding Nixon’s initial reaction to the news of the break-in, less than a week later he suddenly learned more—and this gave him much to ponder. On June 23, Nixon’s chief of staff, H. R. “Bob” Haldeman, came into the Oval Office to give the president an update on a variety of topics, including the investigation of the break-in. Haldeman had just been briefed by John Dean, who had gotten his information from FBI investigators.
It sounded preposterous. Cubans in surgical gloves bugging the DNC! I dismissed it as some sort of prank . . . The whole thing made so little sense. Why, I wondered. Why then? Why in such a blundering way . . . Anyone who knew anything about politics would know that a national committee headquarters was a useless place to go for inside information on a presidential campaign. The whole thing was so senseless and bungled that it almost looked like some kind of a setup.
Nixon’s response would show that he had already realized this:
HALDEMAN: . . . The FBI agents who are working the case, at this point, feel that’s what it is. This is CIA….
Of course, it is important to remember that Nixon knew every word he uttered was being recorded. Like his predecessors Kennedy and Johnson, he had decided to install a taping system so that he could maintain a record of his administration. He was, in a way, dictating a file memo for future historians. But that doesn’t make everything he said untrue. While Nixon undoubtedly spun some things, he still had to communicate with his subordinates, and the tape was rolling while he was trying to run the country. Those were actual meetings and real conversations, tape or no tape. And though the result was 3,700 hours of White House tape recordings, Nixon evinced merely sporadic consciousness of the fact that the tape was rolling. Only after his counsel John Dean defected to the prosecutors did Nixon appear to be tailoring his words. Nixon’s memoirs, combined with the tape of June 23, make clear that Nixon recognized certain things about the implementation of the burglary. The caper was carried out by pros, yet paradoxically was amateurish, easily detected—an instigation of the crime more easily pinned on someone else. A break-in at Democratic Party headquarters: On whom would that be blamed? Well, who was running against a Democrat for reelection that fall? Why, Richard Nixon of course. Nixon, who frequently exhibited a grim and self-pitying awareness of how he generally was portrayed, might have grasped how this would play out publicly. Dick Nixon: ruthless, paranoid, vengeful—Tricky Dick. Wouldn’t this burglary be just the kind of thing that that Dick Nixon—the “liberal media’s” version of him—would do? Nixon’s opponent, George McGovern, made this charge repeatedly during the 1972 campaign. Though Nixon would sweep the election, it would become increasingly apparent to him that, where Watergate was concerned, the jury was stacked. The path was set. Someone had him in a corner. But who? Many people, including those within Nixon’s own base of support, were not happy with him—even from early in his administration. As Haldeman noted in his diary, one month after the inauguration in 1969:
NIXON: Of course, this is a, this is a [E. Howard] Hunt [operation, and exposure of it] will uncover a lot of things. You open that scab there’s a hell of a lot of things and that we just feel that it would be very detrimental to have this thing go any further. This involves these Cubans, Hunt, and a lot of hanky-panky that we have nothing to do with ourselves… This will open the whole Bay of Pigs thing…
There would be growing anger in the Pentagon about Nixon and Kissinger’s secret attempts to secure agreements with China and the Soviet Union without consulting the military. And there were the oilmen, who found Nixon wasn’t solid enough on their most basic concerns, such as the oil depletion allowance and oil import quotas. As for the burglary crew, Nixon recognized them instantly, because he knew what they represented. While serving as vice president, Nixon had overseen some covert operations and served as the “action officer” for the planning of the Bay of Pigs, of which these men were hard-boiled veterans. They had been out to overthrow Fidel Castro, and if possible, to kill him. Nixon had another problem. These pros were connected to the CIA, and as we shall see, Nixon was not getting along well with the agency. One of the main reasons we fundamentally misunderstand Watergate is that the guardians of the historical record focused only on selected parts of Nixon’s taped conversations, out of context. Consider a widely cited portion of a June 23 meeting tape, which would become known forever as the “smoking gun” conversation:
Also got cranking on the political problem. [President’s] obviously concerned about reports (especially Buchanan’s) that conservatives and the South are unhappy. Also he’s annoyed by constant right- wing bitching, with never a positive alternative. Ordered me to assemble a political group and really hit them to start defending us, including Buchanan . . . [and political specialist Harry] Dent.
Short excerpts like this seem especially damning. This one sounds right off the bat like a cover-up—Nixon using the CIA to suppress an FBI investigation into the break-in. But these utterances take on a different meaning when considered with other, less publicized parts of the same conversation. A prime example: Haldeman went on to tell Nixon that Pat Gray, the acting FBI director, had called CIA director Richard Helms and said, “I think we’ve run right into the middle of a CIA covert operation.” Although the first excerpt above sounds like a discussion of a cover-up, when we consider the information about the CIA involvement, it begins to seem as if Nixon is not colluding. He may well have been refusing to take the rap for something he had not authorized—and certainly not for something that smelled so blatantly like a trap. Nixon would have understood that if the FBI were to conduct a full investigation and conclude that the break-in was indeed an illegal operation of the CIA, it would all be blamed squarely on the man who supposedly had ultimate authority over both agencies—him. And doubly so, since the burglars and their supervisors were tied not just to the CIA but also directly back to Nixon’s reelection committee and the White House itself. Yet, however concerned Nixon certainly must have been at this moment, he played it cool. He concurred with the advice that his chief of staff was passing along from the counsel John Dean, which was to press the CIA to clean up its own mess. If the CIA was involved, then the agency would have to ask the FBI to back off. The CIA itself would have to invoke its perennial escape clause— say that national security was at stake. This must have sounded to Nixon like the best way to deal with a vexing and shadowy situation. He had no way of knowing that, two years later, his conversation with Haldeman would be publicly revealed and construed as that of a man in control of a plot, rather than the target of one. Sniffing Around the Bay of Pigs How could Nixon have so quickly gotten a fix on the Watergate crew? He might have recognized that the involvement of this particular group of Cubans, together with E. Howard Hunt—and the evidence tying them back to the White House—was in part a message to him. One of the group leaders, G. Gordon Liddy, would even refer to the team as a bunch of “professional killers.” Indeed, several of this Bay of Pigs circle had gone to Vietnam to participate in the assassination-oriented Phoenix Program; as noted in chapter 7, Poppy Bush and his colleague, CIA operative Thomas Devine, had been in Vietnam at the peak of Phoenix, and Bush had ties to at least some from this émigré group. So Nixon recognized this tough gang, but this time, they weren’t focused on Fidel Castro; they were focused on Dick Nixon. Hunt was a familiar figure from the CIA old guard. A near contemporary of Poppy Bush’s at Yale, Hunt had, as noted in earlier chapters, gone on to star in numerous agency foreign coup operations, including in Guatemala. He had worked closely with Cuban émigrés and had been in sensitive positions at the time John F. Kennedy was murdered and Lee Harvey Oswald named the lone assassin. Moreover, Hunt had been a staunch loyalist of Allen Dulles, whom Kennedy had ousted over the failed Bay of Pigs invasion; he allegedly even collaborated on Dulles’s 1963 book, The Craft of Intelligence. Hunt was one connected fellow, and his presence in an operation of this sort, particularly with veterans of the Cuba invasion, was not something to pass over lightly. Nixon had further basis for viewing the events of Watergate with special trepidation. From the moment he entered office until the day, five and a half years later, when he was forced to resign, Nixon and the CIA had been at war. Over what? Over records dating back to the Kennedy administration and even earlier. Nixon had many reasons to be interested in the events of the early 1960s. As noted, he had been the “action officer” for the planning of the Bay of Pigs and the attempt to overthrow Castro. But even more interestingly, Nixon had, by coincidence, been in Dallas on November 22, 1963, and had left the city just hours before the man he barely lost to in 1960 had been gunned down. Five years after the Kennedy assassination, as Richard Nixon himself assumed the presidency, one of his first and keenest instincts was to try to learn more about these monumental events of the past decade. Both of Nixon’s chief aides, Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, noted in their memoirs that the president seemed obsessed with what he called the “Bay of Pigs thing.” Both were convinced that when Nixon used the phrase, it was shorthand for something bigger and more disturbing. Nixon did not tell even those closest to him what he meant. When Nixon referred to the Bay of Pigs, he could certainly have been using it as a euphemism, because any way one thought about it, it spelled trouble. The Bay of Pigs invasion itself had been a kind of setup of another president. JFK had made clear that he would not allow U.S. military forces to be used against Castro. When the invasion by U.S.-backed Cuban exiles failed, the CIA and the U.S. military hoped this would force Kennedy to launch an all-out invasion. Instead, he balked, and blamed Dulles and his associates for the botched enterprise, and, to their astonishment, forced them out of the agency. As noted in chapter 4, these were the roots of the hatred felt by Hunt, Dulles, and the Bush family toward Kennedy. Nixon was keenly aware that Kennedy’s battle with powerful internal elements had preceded JFK’s demise. After all, governments everywhere have historically faced the reality that the apparatus of state security might have the chief of state in its gun sights—and that it certainly possesses the ability to act. Moreover, Richard Nixon was a curious fellow. Within days of taking office in 1969, Nixon had begun conducting an investigation of his own regarding the turbulent and little-understood days leading up to the end of the Kennedy administration. He had ordered Ehrlichman, the White House counsel, to instruct CIA director Helms to hand over the relevant files, which surely amounted to thousands and thousands of documents. Six months later, Ehrlichman confided to Haldeman that the agency had failed to produce any of the files. “Those bastards in Langley are holding back something,” a frustrated Ehrlichman told Haldeman. “They just dig their heels in and say the President can’t have it. Period. Imagine that. The Commander-in-Chief wants to see a document and the spooks say he can’t have it . . . From the way they’re protecting it, it must be pure dynamite.” Nixon himself then summoned Helms, who also refused to help. Helms would later recall that Nixon “asked me for some information about the Bay of Pigs and I think about the Diem episode in Vietnam and maybe something about Trujillo in the Dominican Republic”—all events involving the violent removal of foreign heads of state. Fidel Castro had managed to survive not only the Bay of Pigs but also multiple later assassination attempts. Diem and Trujillo were not so fortunate. And President Kennedy, who made a lot of Cuban enemies after the botched Bay of Pigs operations, had also succumbed to an assassin’s bullet. This was a legacy that might well seize the attention of one of Kennedy’s successors. The explosiveness of the mysterious “Bay of Pigs thing” became abundantly apparent on June 23, 1972, the day Nixon instructed Haldeman to tell CIA director Helms to rein in the FBI’s Watergate investigation. Recalled Haldeman:
HALDEMAN: The way to handle this now is for us to have [CIA deputy director Vernon] Walters call [FBI interim director] Pat Gray and just say, “Stay the hell out of this… this is ah, business here we don’t want you to go any further on it.” NIXON: Um hum.
Nixon made clear to his top aides that he was not only obsessed with the CIA’s murky past, but also its present. He seemed downright paranoid about the agency, periodically suggesting to his aides that covert operatives lurked everywhere. And indeed, as we shall see, they did. In all likelihood, the practice of filling the White House with intelligence operatives was not limited to the Nixon administration, but an ongoing effort. To the intelligence community, the White House was no different than other civil institutions it actively penetrated. Presidents were viewed less as elected leaders to be served than as temporary occupants to be closely monitored, subtly guided, and where necessary, given a shove. If the CIA was in fact trying to implicate Nixon in Watergate (and, as we shall see, in other illegal and troubling covert operations), the goal might have been to create the impression that the agency was joined at the hip with Nixon in all things. Then, if Nixon were to pursue the CIA’s possible role in the assassination of Kennedy, the agency could simply claim that Nixon himself knew about these illegal acts, or was somehow complicit in them. A Little Exposure Never Hurts Something had been gnawing at Nixon since November 22, 1963. Why had he ended up in Dallas the very day the man who he believed had stolen the presidency from him was shot? Nixon had been asked to go there just a few weeks before, for the rather banal purpose of an appearance at a Pepsi-Cola corporate meeting—coinciding with a national soda pop bottlers’ convention. The potential implications could not have been lost on this most shrewd and suspicious man. Nixon was no shrinking violet in Dallas. He called a press conference in his hotel suite on November 21, the day before Kennedy’s murder, criticizing Kennedy’s policies on civil rights and foreign relations but also urging Texans to show courtesy to the president during his visit. More significantly, he declared his belief that Kennedy was going to replace Vice President Johnson with a new running mate in 1964. This was an especially incendiary thing to say, since the whole reason for Kennedy’s visit was to cement his links to Texas Democrats, help bridge a gap between the populist and conservative wings of the state party, and highlight his partnership with Johnson. Nixon’s comment was hot enough that it gained a place in the early edition of the November 22 Dallas Morning News, under the headline “Nixon Predicts JFK May Drop Johnson.” This was likely to get the attention of Johnson, who would be in the motorcade that day—and of conservatives generally, the bottlers included, whom Johnson had addressed as keynote speaker at their convention earlier in the week. Nixon had finished his business and left the city by 9:05 on the morning of the twenty-second, several hours before Kennedy was shot. He learned of the event on his arrival back in New York City. Like most people, he no doubt was shocked and perhaps a bit alarmed. Many people, Nixon included, believed that Kennedy had stolen the presidential election in 1960 by fixing vote counts in Texas and Illinois. At the very least, the appearance of Nixon’s November 21 press conference remarks in the newspaper just hours before Kennedy’s death was a stark reminder of the large and diverse group of enemies, in and out of politics, that JFK had accumulated. Certainly, Nixon himself was sensitive to the notion that his appearance in Dallas had somehow contributed to Kennedy’s bloody fate. According to one account, Nixon learned of the assassination while in a taxi cab en route from the airport. He claimed at the time and in his memoirs that he was calm, but his adviser Stephen Hess remembered it differently. Hess was the first person in Nixon’s circle to see him that day in New York, and he recalled that “his reaction appeared to me to be, ‘There but for the Grace of God go I.’ He was very shaken.” As Hess later told political reporter Jules Witcover: “He had the morning paper, which he made a great effort to show me, reporting he had held a press conference in Dallas and made a statement that you can disagree with a person without being discourteous to him or interfering with him. He tried to make the point that he had tried to prevent it . . . It was his way of saying, ‘Look, I didn’t fuel this thing.’ ” Nixon’s presence in Dallas on November 22, 1963, along with LBJ’s— and Poppy Bush’s quieter presence on the periphery—created a rather remarkable situation. Three future presidents of the United States were all present in a single American city on the day when their predecessor was assassinated there. Within days, a fourth—Gerald Ford—would be asked by LBJ to join the Warren Commission investigating the event. Bottled Up Nixon’s unfortunate timing resulted from a series of events that seem, in retrospect, almost to have benefited from a guiding hand. In mid-1963, friends had persuaded him that his long-term prospects required a move from California, where he had lost the 1962 race for the governorship. Now that he was a two-time loser, Nixon’s best hope, they counseled, was to find a position in New York that would pay him handsomely, and let him politick and keep himself in the public eye. His friend Donald Kendall, the longtime head of Pepsi’s international operations, offered to make him chairman of the international division. But the consensus was that a law firm job would suit him better, so he joined the firm of Mudge, Stern, Baldwin, and Todd. Kendall sweetened the deal by throwing the law firm Pepsi’s lucrative legal business. In September, Kendall himself was promoted to head the entire Pepsi company. On November 1, President Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam, a corrupt anti-Communist, was overthrown and assassinated. On November 7, Nixon wrote to GOP strategist Robert Humphreys, expressing outrage over Diem’s death and blaming the Kennedy administration. “Our heavy-handed complicity in his murder can only have the effect of striking terror in the hearts of leaders of other nations who presumably are our friends.” Historians disagree on what exactly Kennedy knew about Diem’s death, though Kennedy registered shock at the news—just as he had when Patrice Lumumba, the Congolese independence leader, was assassinated in 1961. Kennedy realized that he could be blamed. Later on, it would be established by the Senate Intelligence Committee that the CIA had been attempting to kill Lumumba. Also of interest is a little-noticed comment made by President Lyndon Johnson in 1966, caught by his own recording equipment, in which he declared about Diem: “We killed him. We all got together and got a god- damn bunch of thugs and assassinated him.” It is not clear whom he meant by “we.” Kendall asked Nixon to accompany him to Dallas for the Pepsi corporate gathering coinciding with the bottlers’ convention in late November. The convention was an important annual event for Pepsi, and so would have been on Kendall’s schedule for a while, though the necessity of Nixon’s presence is less apparent. And with LBJ as keynote speaker, and appearances by Miss USA, Yogi Berra, and Joan Crawford, Nixon, the two-time loser, did not even appear at the convention. For his part, Nixon seems to have agreed to go because it was an opportunity to share the limelight surrounding Kennedy’s visit. And since Nixon was traveling as a representative of Pepsi, and flying on its corporate plane— something noted in the news coverage—Kendall was getting double duty out of Nixon’s play for media attention. That was something Kendall understood well. Donald Kendall was, like Nixon and Poppy Bush, a World War II Navy vet who had served in the Pacific. But instead of politics, he had gone into the business world, joining the Pepsi-Cola company and rising quickly through the ranks. Like Nixon and Bush, he was enormously ambitious. And in his oversight of Pepsi operations abroad, he also shared something else with them: a deep concern about Communist encroachment—which was just about everywhere. Plus Kendall had a passion for covert operations. Kendall’s particular reason for being interested in Cuba was sugar, for many years a key ingredient of Pepsi-Cola. Cuba was the world’s leading supplier; and Castro’s expropriations, and the resulting U.S. embargo, had caused chaos in the soft drink industry. (It also had affected the fortunes of Wall Street firms such as Brown Brothers Harriman, which, as noted in chapter 3, had extensive sugar holdings on the island.) Indeed, articles from the Dallas papers anticipating the bottlers’ convention talked openly about all these problems with Cuba. One of the articles, titled “Little Relief Seen for Sugar Problem,” explains the pressure felt by soft drink bottlers in light of a crisis concerning high sugar prices. The president of a major New York-based sugar company is quoted explaining why the crisis had not yet been averted: “The government probably thought the Castro regime might be eliminated.” It is in this context that we consider a June 1963 letter from Nixon to Kendall, then still running Pepsi’s foreign operations. A researcher working for me found it in Nixon’s presidential library archives; it appears to be previously unpublished.
Then I played Nixon’s trump card. “The President asked me to tell you this entire affair may be connected to the Bay of Pigs, and if it opens up, the Bay of Pigs might be blown . . .”
Turmoil in the room, Helms gripping the arms of his chair, leaning forward and shouting, “The Bay of Pigs had nothing to do with this. I have no concern about the Bay of Pigs.” . . . I was absolutely shocked by Helms’ violent reaction. Again I wondered, what was such dynamite in the Bay of Pigs story?
The letter rings a little odd. Nixon and Kendall were close, and more than two years had passed since the Bay of Pigs; it was unlikely that this would be the first chance Nixon got to discuss the subject with his friend. Furthermore, Kendall is not known to have had any “experiences” in relation to the invasion. In a 2008 interview, Kendall, by then eighty-seven years old but still maintaining an office at Pepsi and seeming vigorous, said that he could not recall the letter nor provide an explanation for it. Given this, the use of the phrase in the letter appears to be some form of euphemism between friends, a sort of discreet wink. Nixon, the former coordinator of covert operations under Ike, clearly knew that Kendall was more than a soda pop man. Nixon’s experiences representing Pepsi instilled in him a lasting—and not altogether favorable—impression of what he acidly termed “the sugar lobby.” Haldeman got the message that treading carefully was wise. Some of his notes are intriguing in this respect. He urges special counsel Charles Colson:
Dear Don: In view of our discussion yesterday morning with regard to Cuba, I thought you might like to see a copy of the speech I made before the American Society of Newspaper Editors in which I directed remarks toward this problem. When I return from Europe I am looking forward to having a chance to get a further fill-in with regard to your experiences on the Bay of Pigs incident.
The CIA also knew the soft drink industry well. The agency used bottling plants, including those run by Pepsi, Coca-Cola, and other companies, for both cover and intelligence. Moreover, the local bottling franchises tended to be given to crucial figures in each country, with ties to the military and the ruling elites. It was not just bottlers that played such a role; there were marketing monopolies for all kinds of products, from cars to sewing machines, given out on recommendations of the CIA. Kendall was a close friend of the Bush family and a fellow resident of Greenwich, Connecticut. In 1988, he would serve in the crucial position of finance chairman for Poppy Bush’s successful run for the presidency. His support for the Bushes included donating to George W. Bush’s 1978 Midland congressional campaign. And as noted by the New York Times, Kendall was identified with the successful effort to overthrow the elected democratic socialist president of Chile, Salvador Allende. As the Times would report in July 1976:
0900 Cols[on]—re idea of getting pol. Commitments— Sugar people are richest & most ruthless before we commit—shld put screws on & get quid pro quo ie Fl[anigan]—always go to Sugar lobby or oil etc. before we give them anything
Like many on the right, quite a few bottlers regarded the Kennedy administration’s policy toward Castro’s Cuba as dangerously soft. Declassified FBI files show that, after Kennedy’s death, one man contacted the FBI regarding threatening remarks that his brother, a bottler, had made in reference to the president. Another convention attendee was identified in FBI reports as having had a drink with Jack Ruby, the assassin of Lee Harvey Oswald, on the night of November 21. Though unhappy with Kennedy, these independent businessmen clearly wanted to hear what Johnson had to say, which is why the Texas-born vice president was the convention’s keynote speaker. By some estimates, the convention included close to eight thousand bottlers—so many, in fact, that it had taken over Dallas’s largest venue, the new Market Hall. This meant that when Kennedy’s trip planners determined where he would speak on November 22, one of the very few sufficiently large and central venues had long since been taken. The Dallas Trade Mart thereby became the most likely location for Kennedy’s speech, with the route through downtown to the Trade Mart, past the Texas School Book Depository, as the most likely for the presidential motorcade. In fact, the Trade Mart was secured by that most unlikely group of “friends” of JFK, the Dallas Citizens Council, whose members’ views were described by the New York Times as “very conservative and range rightward.” The council had cosponsored the luncheon as a putative peace offering to JFK. Indeed, it seems that JFK’s itinerary in Dallas was circumscribed by the bottlers and the Citizens Council. The mere fact that eight thousand strangers had poured into Dallas in the days before JFK’s arrival should presumably have been of interest, yet the Warren Commission ignored the event altogether. Another interesting thing about the bottlers’ convention is that the Army Reserves volunteered to help facilitate an unusual extracurricular activity. As noted in chapters 6 and 7, Poppy Bush’s friend Jack Crichton was head of a local Army Intelligence unit. Associates of Crichton’s who were involved with the Army Reserves had managed to get into the pilot car of Kennedy’s procession, with one as the driver. Crichton would also provide the interpreter for Marina Oswald after her husband’s arrest as the prime suspect in Kennedy’s murder. According to a short item in the Dallas Morning News the day before Kennedy was shot, members of the Dallas unit of the 90th Artillery Division of the Army Reserve would be providing trucks and drivers to transport two hundred orphans to a livestock arena for a rodeo sponsored by the bottlers’ group. This was to take place at nine P.M. on the night before Kennedy’s arrival. The arena was at Fair Park, near the site under which Crichton’s Dallas Civil Defense maintained its underground emergency bunker and communications facility. Putting aside the Dickensian aspect of moving orphans in Army trucks within an affluent American city, this raises some questions about the reason for this odd maneuver. Whatever the true purpose of a small platoon of Army vehicles being permitted to move about Dallas on purportedly unrelated civilian business as the president’s arrival was imminent, it appears investigators never considered this incident worthy of a closer look. Cumulatively, the bottlers’ convention was responsible for a number of curious circumstances that may be said to have some relevance to the events surrounding Kennedy’s death: • The convention brought Nixon to Dallas. • It brought eight thousand strangers to Dallas. • It sent army vehicles into action on city streets the night before the assassination. • Its early reservation of one large venue helped determine Kennedy’s ultimate destination and thus the motorcade route. In any event, as Nixon’s adviser Stephen Hess has recounted, the former vice president emerged deeply shaken about the timing of his Dallas visit. It served to remind him that if he ever occupied the Oval Office, he too could be vulnerable and targeted—by the very same players. And his presence in this incriminating spot was suggestive of wheels within wheels, to which he of all people would have been alert. Were these intrigues what fueled President Nixon’s obsession with the CIA and its cloak-and-dagger activities in the Kennedy era? This little-noted tug-of-war, a struggle over both current policy and past history, would become an ongoing theme throughout Nixon’s term in office. The Loyalist in Chief At one time, Poppy Bush had worked hard to position himself as Richard Nixon’s most loyal servant. An example appeared in a 1971 profile of Poppy in his role as Nixon’s United Nations ambassador. Under the banner headline “Bush Working Overtime,” the Dallas Morning News of September 19, 1971, portrayed the ambassador as poised at the center of world affairs. Leaning forward at his desk, a large globe next to him, his lean face bearing a look of calm intensity, George H. W. Bush looked almost presidential. The reporter for the Texas paper picked up on that. But he was equally struck by Poppy’s devotion to the sitting president. Ambassador Bush, he noted, “is loyal—some say to a fault—to President Nixon, and frequently quotes him in conversation.” It was the image Poppy wanted to convey. Even when the reporter asked for his own views, he quickly deferred. “I like to think of myself as a pragmatist, but I have learned to defy being labeled,” Bush said. “What I can say is that I am a strong supporter of the President.” Of course, when someone defies being labeled, it gives him extraordinary flexibility to move in different circles, to collect information, to spin on a dime—in short, to behave a lot like a covert intelligence officer. The image of Poppy as the ultimate loyalist was one he would project for three more years—right up to the final days of the Nixon presidency. Not even Nixon, who was famously distrustful, seemed to doubt it. After winning the 1972 election in the midst of the Watergate scandal, Nixon decided to hedge his bets and clean house. Planning to fire all but his most trusted aides, Nixon instructed Ehrlichman to “eliminate everyone except George Bush. Bush will do anything for our cause.” This trust endured to the end of Nixon’s presidency. If indeed Bush was ever a Nixon loyalist, he certainly flipped the moment the tide turned. This new stance emerged with the 1974 public release of the transcript of Nixon’s smoking gun conversation with Haldeman. As Bush would record in his diary after Nixon’s final cabinet meeting, the taped conversation was irrefutable proof that “Nixon lied about his knowledge of the cover-up of the Watergate scandal . . . I felt betrayed by his lie . . . I want to make damn clear the lie is something we can’t support.” Added Poppy: “This era of tawdry, shabby lack of morality has got to end.” This purported diary entry was most likely part of Poppy’s perennial alibi trail. It could have been Bush family tradecraft, something like Barbara’s Tyler, Texas, hair salon letter from November 22, 1963—always intended for public view. Perhaps the most revealing part is the point at which Bush summarizes the content of the smoking gun conversation. Poppy selectively paraphrases a tiny part of that session, making it look as if Nixon had ordered Haldeman (as Bush put it) to “block the FBI’s investigation of the Watergate break-in.” This, Poppy asserted, “was proof [that] the President had been involved, at least in the cover-up.” What Poppy omitted were two key things: that it was actually John Dean’s suggestion, not Nixon’s, to block the investigation—and that the CIA was at the center of the intrigue to begin with. Watergate’s Unknown Prelude The series of scandals that undid Richard Nixon’s presidency are principally identified with the 1972 burglary at the Democratic party offices in the Watergate complex. But one could argue that Watergate—and Nixon’s downfall—really began in late 1969, during Nixon’s first year in office, with a phone call from a man almost no one today has heard of. An independent oilman named John M. King dialed in to offer ideas for improving Nixon’s hold over Congress. Former White House staffer Jack Gleason remembered the episode: “[King] called one day in ‘69 and said, ‘You know, we have to start planning for 1970.’ ” King’s call suggested he was principally concerned about helping Nixon, but in retrospect, there may have been more at stake. For one thing, King was a member of the fraternity of independent oilmen who were growing increasingly unhappy with Nixon. As we saw in the last chapter, the oil barons were up in arms over threats to the oil depletion allowance, convinced that Nixon was not solidly enough in their corner. But they had other gripes. As Haldeman noted in a diary entry in December 1969: “Big problem persists on oil import quotas. Have to make some decision, and can’t win. If we do what we should, and what the task force recommends, we’d apparently end up losing at least a couple of senate seats, including George Bush in Texas. Trying to figure out a way to duck the whole thing and shift it to Congress.” On a more personal level, King was mired in problems. The Denver-based King had assembled a global empire with oil drilling and mining operations in a hundred countries; he was known for a high-flying lifestyle and a gift for leveraging connections. He even had two Apollo astronauts on his board. In 1968, King had donated $750,000 to Nixon, and as a big donor, his calls always got attention. But King was, according to a Time magazine article of the period, something of a huckster. By late 1969, his empire was on the verge of collapse. In the end, he would face jail and ruin. Perhaps he was looking to secure intervention from the White House. Perhaps it was just general business insurance. Or perhaps he was speaking on behalf of his fellow in dependent oilmen. In any event, King’s pitch sounded like a good idea. He was proposing that the Nixon White House funnel money from big GOP donors directly to Senate and House candidates of its choice, rather than following the customary method: letting the Republican Party determine the recipients. To do this without provoking the wrath of the GOP establishment, King suggested it be kept under wraps. This idea appealed to the White House brass, and soon, a special operation was being convened. ”As it matured, we had a couple of meetings with Ehrlichman and Haldeman and went over some of the ground rules,” said Gleason. Haldeman brought the bare bones of the idea to Nixon, who thought it sounded fine. Anything that involved secrecy and centralized White House control was likely to find a receptive ear. Gleason’s recollection is confirmed by a notation in Haldeman’s diary of December 11: “I had meeting with [Maurice] Stans, Dent, and Gleason about setting up our own funding for backing the good candidates in hot races. A little tricky to handle outside the RNC but looks pretty good.” The White House political unit assigned the job of organizing and running the new fund to its operative Gleason, an experienced GOP fundraiser. Gleason was instructed by his boss, Harry Dent, to find an office for the operation. When he suggested renting space in one of those prefurnished office suites that come with secretarial and other services, he was told that this would be too expensive. That struck Gleason as odd, since it would not have cost much more and would have been a pittance in relation to the large sums that would be raised. But he followed his orders and rented something cheaper and more discreet. Dent directed him to a townhouse on Nineteenth Street, in a residential area near Dupont Circle. The space was not just in a townhouse but in the basement of a townhouse. And not only that, it was in the back of the basement. Reporters would later describe it as a “townhouse basement back room”—an arrangement guaranteed to raise eyebrows if ever discovered. The way in which the funds were to be handled also struck Gleason as unnecessarily complicated, and even furtive. While donors could simply— and legally—have written a single check to each candidate’s campaign committee, they were instructed instead to break up their donations into a number of smaller checks. The checks were then routed through the townhouse, where Gleason would pick them up and deposit them in a “Jack Gleason, Agent” account at American Security and Trust Bank. Gleason then would convert the amounts into cashier’s checks and send them on to the respective campaign committees, often further breaking each donation up into smaller ones and spreading them over more than one campaign committee of each candidate. The ostensible reason for these complex arrangements was to enable the White House to control the money. The actual effect, however, was to create the impression of something illicit, such as a money-laundering operation aimed at hiding the identities of the donors. Somewhere along the way Gleason began to detect an odor stronger than that of quotidian campaign operations. What seemed suspect to him was not that Nixon would help Republican candidates—that was how things worked. What bothered him were the operational details. Many seemed positively harebrained, the kind of things with which no president should be associated. But Gleason just figured that Richard Nixon, or his subordinates, had a blind spot when it came to appearances of impropriety. Deep-Sixing Nixon Late in the election season, Gleason’s superiors told him to add a new component to the Townhouse Operation. Gleason found this new development particularly disturbing. It was called the “Sixes Project.” Launched in October 1970, when the midterm elections were almost over, it provided an extra personal donation of six thousand dollars to each of thirteen Senate candidates—in cash. Gleason’s job was simple enough: get on a plane, fly out to meet each of the candidates, and personally hand over an envelope of cash. He was to add a personal message: “Here’s a gift from Dick and Pat.” And he was to keep meticulous receipts, noting who received the cash and the date of the transaction. Gleason was not happy about his role as dispenser of envelopes full of cash. As he told me in a 2008 interview,
One of Mr. Kendall’s great passions is international trade, and his interest in foreign affairs won him a footnote in a 1975 interim report of a Senate Select Committee. The report was called “Alleged Assassination Plots Involving Foreign Leaders,” and discussed in part the assassination of Salvador Allende Gossens, the Marxist Chilean president who was killed in 1973. The report stated that Mr. Kendall had requested in 1970 that Augustin Edwards, who was publisher of the Chilean newspaper El Mercurio, as well as a Pepsi bottler in Chile, meet with high Nixon Administration officials to report on the political situation in Chile. (Pepsi bottling operations were later expropriated by the regime.) That meeting, which included Mr. Kendall, Mr. Edwards, Henry Kissinger and John N. Mitchell, was indeed held, and later the same day, Mr. Nixon met with Dr. Kissinger and Richard Helms, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Mr. Helms later testified that President Nixon had ordered at the follow-up meeting that Chile was to be saved from Allende “and he didn’t care much how.” Mr. Kendall says he sees nothing sinister, or for that matter even controversial, in his action.
In those days, the campaign finance laws, most of which were at the state level, were limited and rarely enforced. Reporting requirements were thin, but those candidates who wanted to abide by the law made sure to report any cash they received to their respective campaign committees. That posed a challenge for a candidate caught in a grueling nonstop schedule, who was handed an envelope of cash. It would be easy enough to forget to report it, whether deliberately or accidentally. Even back in 1973, Gleason could come to only one conclusion. When special prosecutors in the Watergate investigation later grilled him about the Townhouse Operation, he told them as much. “The purpose of these contributions was to set up possible blackmail for these candidates later on.” However, at that point Gleason assumed that the sponsors of the blackmail were Nixon loyalists—perhaps even authorized by the president himself. Alarmed at this arrangement, and cognizant that he might be generating myriad campaign law violations, Gleason asked the White House for a legal analysis. But despite multiple requests, he never got it. Finally, he asked for a letter stating that nothing he was being asked to do was illegal. (That letter, Gleason later explained, would somehow disappear before it could arrive at the offices of the Watergate prosecutors.) Since the six-thousand-dollar donations were ostensibly generated by “Dick and Pat,” one could easily surmise that Richard Nixon, or those under his authority, were indeed out to get something on Republican candidates. Once they took the cash, the recipients would have to do as he wanted, or else risk exposure. As Assistant Special Prosecutor Charles Ruff wrote to his boss: “It has been our guess that [the Nixon White House] hoped to gain some leverage over these candidates by placing cash in their hands which they might not report.” Had this become known, Nixon would have had trouble explaining it. Few would have believed that such a scheme could have been run under White House auspices without Nixon’s approval. And yet that seems to have been the case. In fact, Nixon’s name rarely appears in the Townhouse files of Watergate prosecutors—for whom the evidence of Nixon’s wrongdoing would have been the ultimate prize. Even the complex and calculating Charles Colson, who served as special counsel to the president in 1970, admitted to prosecutors that Nixon was not involved. Colson said that he had sat in on a Townhouse planning meeting and later briefed the president about “political prospects in that race” - but “did not recall that the fundraising aspects were discussed with the President.” John Mitchell, who was attorney general before he resigned in 1972 to head up Nixon’s reelection campaign, attended a meeting for “substantial contributors” and later told prosecutors that “the President stopped by, but was not present during discussions of campaign finances.” Mitchell himself denied participation in or knowledge of the Town house plan. Even Herb Kalmbach, Nixon’s personal lawyer, seems to have been involved only in the most benign part of the operation: the legal solicitation of funds from wealthy donors. Of course, all this could be about denials and deniability - but as we shall see, it apparently was not. Meet John Dean At the time Town house was becoming operational, the position of counsel to the president opened up. John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s trusted aide, was moving to head up domestic affairs, and Ehrlichman was looking for someone to replace him—a smart lawyer and good detail man who was also loyal to the president. The man who came on board on July 27, 1970, was John Wesley Dean III. Dean arrived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue just as President Nixon was trying to figure out how to deal with massive street demonstrations against the Vietnam War. A month before, a White House staffer named Tom Huston had drawn up a plan to spy on the demonstrators through electronic surveillance, recruitment of campus informants, and surreptitious entry into offices and meeting places. In hindsight, this sounds especially odious, and it was, but at the time, and from the vantage point of the administration and its supporters in the “silent majority,” America was besieged. The general atmosphere in the country and the domestic violence, actual and hinted, surrounding the Vietnam War debate, felt like chaos was descending. Even so, Attorney General John Mitchell shot down the notorious “Huston Plan.” John Dean, however, took an immediate interest in some of the proposals. Although his official duties centered on giving the president legal advice— often on arcane technical matters—Dean was considered a junior staffer and had virtually no contact with Nixon. Nevertheless, the White House neophyte quickly began taking on for himself the far edgier and dubious mantle of political intelligence guru. Among the bits of intelligence Dean collected were the details of the Townhouse Operation. In November 1970, following the midterm elections, Jack Gleason turned over all his files to the White House, where Haldeman had them delivered to Dean. Watergate investigators would later discover that “Haldeman also gave Dean several little notebooks which pertained to the 1970 fundraising.” Those little notebooks would have told Dean who the donors were, how much they gave, and the identity of the recipients. Shortly after the files ended up in Dean’s hands, the media began receiving—perhaps coincidentally—leaks about the Townhouse Operation. One of the first reports was an AP article with no byline that appeared in the New York Times on December 27, 1970. It said that seven ambassadors had received their positions as rewards for their contributions to the Townhouse Operation: “Mr. Jack Gleason left the staff of a White House political operative, Harry Dent, this fall to run the fund- raising campaign from a basement back office in a Washington townhouse.” And there it was: Gleason caught up in something that sounded sinister, complete with the townhouse basement back office, all purportedly on behalf of Richard Nixon. In February 1972, someone cranked Townhouse back up again. Jim Polk, an investigative reporter at the Washington Star with an impressive track record on campaign finance matters, got more information about the fund from “inside sources.” Polk published an article headlined “Obscure Lawyer Raises Millions for Nixon.” It sounded even more disturbing than the previous one. Polk’s article did two things: it introduced the public to Nixon’s personal lawyer Kalmbach and it provided many new details about the Townhouse fund.
Of all the silly things I’ve ever been asked to do in this life, traveling around with six thousand dollars to give the guy and say, “This is from Dick and Pat,” was colossally bad . . . Now you crank me up, leave a paper trail a mile long and a mile wide of flight tickets, hotel reservations, rental cars, everything, and have me traipsing all over the country giving these guys six thousand dollars in cash, [and besides], the six thousand doesn’t matter, doesn’t get you anywhere. If we give you a quarter of a million, what’s another six thousand? . . . The six thousand dollars itself was a disconnect, because everything else was largely done to keep the whole thing under wraps.
When I spoke to Polk in 2008, not surprisingly, he no longer recalled the identity of his source. But whoever had leaked this story to him was no friend of Nixon’s. Yet if it was intended to provoke further interest, it failed. Someone had attempted to light a fuse with Townhouse, but it did not ignite. Just four months later, however, another fuse was lit. And this one would burn on and on. The Brazen Burglary If Townhouse was engineered to discredit Nixon, it had one potential flaw. The wrongdoing involved technical financial matters that reporters might find daunting. Watergate, on the other hand, was inherently sexy; it had all the elements of the crime drama it became. The break-in was brazen and easily grasped, and carried out in such a manner as to just about guarantee both failure and discovery. It also involved a cast of characters that neither reporters nor television cameras could resist (as the Watergate hearings later would demonstrate). It was like a made-for-TV movie: burglars in business suits, living in a fancy suite near the scene of the crime; Cuban expatriates; documents in pockets leading to the White House. Even Nixon had to interrupt his reelection campaign to confront it. But the burglars didn’t appear to take anything, so what was the intended crime? Breaking and entering—for what purpose? As with the JFK assassination, theories abound. The burglars were found with bugging equipment. But that made little sense; Nixon didn’t have much to worry about from his presumed Democratic opponent, George McGovern. The risks of a bugging operation far outweighed any conceivable gains. And if Nixon had really wanted inside dope on the McGovern campaign, which he hardly needed, he could have sent teams into McGovern’s headquarters up on Capitol Hill, or to Miami, where the Democrats would hold their convention. If, on the other hand, the intent was to fire the public imagination, the Watergate complex was far better—and Washington itself a necessary locale if the national press was to stay with the story week after week. With all this in mind, Nixon’s observation in his memoirs that “the whole thing was so senseless and bungled that it almost looked like some kind of a setup” seems on the mark. If the Cubans were really trying to do the job, their supervisors were guilty of malpractice. They might as well have called the D.C. police to reserve an interrogation room. The flubs were so obvious it was as if they were the work of amateurs— which it was not. Burglary team member James McCord left tape horizontally over a lock, so that it could be spotted, as it was, by a security guard when the door was closed. If he had taped the lock vertically, it would have been invisible to a passerby. And if the intent was to pull off a real burglary, there was no need for tape anyway—as the burglars were already inside. Even so, after the security guard discovered and removed the tape, McCord put it right back. The entire operation reflected poor judgment. An experienced burglar would have known not to carry any sort of identification, and certainly not identification that led back to the boss. How elementary is that? Among the incriminating materials found on the Watergate burglars was a check with White House consultant E. Howard Hunt’s signature on it—and Hunt’s phone number at the White House, in addition to checks drawn on Mexican bank accounts. Despite the obvious risks, the burglars were also instructed by Hunt to register at the Watergate Hotel, and to keep their room keys in their pockets during the mission. These keys led investigators straight back to an array of incriminating evidence, not the least damaging of which was a suitcase containing the burglars’ ID cards. Everything pointed back to CREEP and the White House. The most interesting thing was that the materials identified the burglars as connected not just to the White House, but to the CIA as well. And not just to the CIA, but to a group within the CIA that had been active during the controversial period that included the Bay of Pigs invasion and the assassination of JFK. Hunt, whose status in the CIA was described earlier, was a high-ranking (GS-15) officer and a member of the “Plumbers,” a White House special investigations unit ostensibly dedicated to stopping government leaks to the media. As discussed in chapter 6, Hunt had been a key player in the coup in Guatemala and the Bay of Pigs invasion, in addition to working very closely with Allen Dulles himself. As noted previously, Dulles was in Dallas shortly before November 22. And Hunt had been there on the very day of the assassination, according to an account confirmed in 1978 by James Angleton, the longtime CIA counterintelligence chief. Angleton, clearly concerned that investigations would uncover Hunt’s presence in Dallas anyway, went so far as to alert a reporter and a House Committee to Hunt’s being in the city that day, and then opined that Hunt had been involved in unauthorized activities while there; ‘Some very odd things were going on that were out of our control.” Watergate burglar and electronic surveillance expert James McCord, like Hunt, had also been a GS-15 agent, serving for over a decade in the CIA’s Office of Security. Around the time of the Kennedy assassination, he began working with anti-Castro Cubans on a possible future invasion of the island. Allen Dulles once introduced McCord to an Air Force colonel, saying, “This man is the best man we have.” Regarding Nixon, McCord dismissed him to a colleague as not a team player, not “one of us.” In a long-standing tradition, both Hunt and McCord had officially “resigned” from the agency prior to the Watergate time frame. But their continued involvement in CIA-related cover operations suggested otherwise. Indeed, as noted earlier in the book, many figures, including Poppy Bush’s oil business colleague Thomas J. Devine, officially took retirement prior to participating in seemingly independent operations in which deniability was crucial. Though Hunt claimed to have cut his CIA ties, he actually went out of his way to draw attention to those ties while working in the Nixon White House. He ostentatiously ordered a limousine to drive him from the White House out to CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. It was as though he was trying to broadcast the notion that Nixon was working closely with the agency—with which, as we now know, the president was in reality battling. After Hunt’s alleged retirement, he was employed at the Mullen Company, a public relations firm that served as a CIA cover. In a 1973 memo, Charles Colson recounted a meeting he’d just had with Senate Republican minority leader Howard Baker. Charles Colson wrote, “Baker said that the Mullen Company was a CIA front, that [Hunt’s] job with the Mullen Company was arranged by [CIA director] Helms personally.” Baker also informed Colson that, during Hunt’s time at the Mullen Company, his pay had been adjusted to the exact salary he would have been making had he stayed at the spy agency. Eugenio Martinez, one of the anti-Castro Cuban burglars, was another CIA operative in the break-in crew. Indeed, he was the one member of the team who remained actively on the CIA payroll, filing regular reports on the activities of the team to his Miami case officer. Then there was Bernard L. Barker, who first worked as an FBI in formant before being turned over to the CIA during the run-up to the Bay of Pigs. Frank Sturgis, too, had CIA connections. Martinez, Barker, and Sturgis had worked with Hunt and Mc- Cord on the Second Naval Guerrilla operation. So Nixon, who had been trying to see the CIA’s file on the Bay of Pigs, was now staring at a burglary purportedly carried out in his name by veterans of the same “Bay of Pigs thing” with strong CIA ties. It was like a flashing billboard warning. CIA professionals, Cuban exiles, all tied to the events of 1961 through 1963, suddenly appearing in the limelight and tying themselves and their criminal activity to the president. Layers and Layers If most of us ever knew, we have probably long since forgotten that before the June 1972 Watergate break-in, there was another Watergate break-in by the same crew. With this earlier one, though, they were careful to avoid detection and were not caught. At that time, they installed listening devices. The second burglary, the one that seemingly was designed for detection, and designed to be traced back to the Nixon White House, ostensibly revolved around removing listening devices installed earlier—and therefore drawing attention to the devices and the surveillance. The conclusion one would likely draw from their being caught red-handed is that Dick Nixon is up to yet another manifestation of his twisted and illegal inclinations. And what were they listening to? Purportedly, DNC personnel were arranging for “dates” for distinguished visitors with a call-girl ring. The ring was operating from down the street, not far from where the bugs were being monitored. The conclusion is that Nixon was perhaps trying to sexually blackmail the Democrats. It got more and more objectionable. But the fact is that no evidence shows Nixon wanting to sexually blackmail Democrats, nor wanting to install bugs at the DNC, nor wanting to order a burglary to remove the bugs. Yet somebody else clearly had a good imagination, and a talent for executing a script that was magnificently inculpatory of someone who would appear to deserve removal from the highest office in the land. Eventually, Americans would learn that the Watergate break-ins were not the first such operation that made Nixon look bad, and not the first coordinated by Hunt and featuring Cuban veterans of the Bay of Pigs invasion. Back in September 1971, the team hit the Beverly Hills office of Dr. Lewis Fielding, the psychiatrist of Daniel Ellsberg, the whistle-blower who leaked the explosive Pentagon Papers to the New York Times. First, though, Nixon, who was initially indifferent over the leak, was persuaded to take on the Times for publishing the documents, a posture that would position him as a foe of public disclosure. It also escalated his already adversarial relationship with the news media—a relationship that would become a severe disadvantage to Nixon as the Watergate “revelations” began to emerge. Nixon was also persuaded to authorize the formation of a leak-busting White House group, which was soon dubbed “the Plumbers.” Soon, purportedly operating on Nixon’s behalf—but without his actual approval—the Hunt team broke into Dr. Fieldingís office, having been told to photograph Ellsberg’s patient files. However, as with Watergate, the burglary appears to have had an ulterior motive. Senator Baker, ranking Republican on the Senate Watergate Committee, learned of this, according to White House special counsel Charles Colson, when Baker interviewed the Cuban émigré Eugenio Martinez, who participated in the burglaries of both Fielding’s office and the DNC office in Watergate:
A little-known lawyer in Newport Beach, Calif., has raised millions of dollars in campaign contributions as an unpublicized fund- raiser . . . [and] as Nixon’s personal agent . . . to collect campaign checks from Republican donors… Kalmbach helped to raise nearly $3 million in covert campaign money . . . The checks were sent through a townhouse basement used by former Nixon political aide Jack A. Gleason. But the operation was run from inside the White House by presidential assistant H.R. (Bob) Haldeman . . . Only a portion of this money has shown up on public records. The rest of the campaign checks have been funneled through dummy committees.
In fact, though the burglars were ostensibly seeking records while on a covert mission, they did not act like people who wished to avoid discovery. In addition to smashing the windows and prying open the front door with a crowbar, the burglars proceeded to vandalize the office, scattering papers, pills, and files across the floor. The result was to ensure the generation of a crime report, establishing a record of the burglary. The break-in would not become public knowledge until John Dean dramatically revealed it two years later— and implicitly tied Nixon to it by citing the involvement of Egil Krogh, the man in charge of Nixon’s so-called Plumbers unit. Dean and his lawyers showed far greater enthusiasm for pursuing the Beverly Hills break-in than even the prosecutors. As Renata Adler wrote in the New Yorker: “Dean’s attorney, Charles Shaffer, practically had to spell it out to [the prosecutors] that they would be taking part in an obstruction of justice themselves if they did not pass the information on.” Like Watergate, the Fielding office break-in was on its face a very bad idea that was not approved by Nixon but certain to deeply embarrass him and damage his public standing when it was disclosed. The principal accomplishment of the break-in was to portray Nixon as a man who had no decency at all—purportedly even stooping to obtain private psychiatric records of a supposed foe. This was almost guaranteed to provoke public revulsion. The notion that a group surrounding the president could be working to do him in might sound preposterous to most of us. But not to veterans of America’s clandestine operations, where the goal abroad has often been to do just that. And Nixon was a perfect target: solitary, taciturn, with few friends, and not many more people he trusted. Because of this, he had to hire virtual strangers in the White House, and as a result, the place was teeming with schemers. Nixon was too distrustful, and yet not distrustful enough. It was supremely ironic. Nixon, ridiculed for his irrational hatred and “paranoia” toward the Eastern Establishment, may in the end have been done in by forces controlled by that very establishment. Of course, it was nothing less than that level of power to remove presidents, plural, one after the other if necessary. Among the myriad plots was the so-called Moorer-Radford affair, cited in chapter 9, in which the military actually was spying on Nixon and stealing classified documents in an attempt to gain inside information, influence policy, and perhaps even unseat the president. That Nixon could actually have been the victim of Watergate, and not the perpetrator, will not sit well with many, especially those with a professional stake in Nixon’s guilt. Yet three of the most thoroughly reported books on Watergate from the past three decades have come to the same conclusion: that Nixon and/or his top aides were indeed set up. Each of these books takes a completely different approach, focuses on different aspects, and relies on essentially different sets of facts and sources. These are 1984’s Secret Agenda, by former Harper’s magazine Washington editor Jim Hougan; 1991’s Silent Coup, by Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin; and 2008’s The Strong Man, by James Rosen. Rosen’s The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate is a biography of Nixon’s close friend, attorney general, and campaign chief, the highest-ranking official ever to be sentenced to prison. The book, on which Rosen labored for seventeen years, is based on sources not previously interviewed and also on unprecedented access to documents generated by the Senate Watergate Committee and Watergate special prosecutors. Rosen asserts that the Watergate operation was authorized behind Mitchell’s back by his subordinate Jeb Magruder and by John Dean and was deliberately sabotaged in its execution by burglar and former CIA officer James McCord. As Rosen puts it:
Baker told me of his interview with Martinez who said that there were no patient records in Dr. Fielding’s office, that he, Martinez, was very disappointed when they found nothing there, but Hunt on the other hand seemed very pleased and as a matter of fact broke out a bottle of champagne when the three men returned from the job. Martinez says that he has participated in three hundred or four hundred similar CIA operations, that this was clearly a ‘cover’ operation with no intention of ever finding anything.
Rosen also writes:
Mitchell knew he had been set up. In later years, his mind reeled at the singular confluence of amazing characters that produced Watergate—Dean, Magruder, Liddy, Helms, Hunt, McCord, Martinez—and reckoned himself and the president, neither of whom enjoyed foreknowledge of the Watergate break-in, victims in the affair. “The more I got into this,” Mitchell said in June 1987, “the more I see how these sons of bitches have not only done Nixon in but they’ve done me in.”
My independent research takes the argument one step further, and the facts in a completely new direction. It leads to an even more disturbing conclusion as to what was really going on, and why. Woodward at His Post The accepted narrative of Nixon as the villain of Watergate is based largely on the work of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. They both were young reporters on the Washington Post’s Metro desk when the story fell into their laps. When it was over, they were household names. Woodward in particular would go on to become the nation’s most visible investigative journalist, and indeed the iconic representation of that genre. The work of “Woodstein” would play a key role in enhancing the franchise of the Post itself. Yet this oeuvre—in particular the role of Woodward—has become somewhat suspect among those who have taken a second and third look—including Columbia Journalism Review contributing editor Steve Weinberg, in a November/December 1991 article. Woodward did not fit the profile of the typical daily print reporter. Young, midwestern, Republican, he attended Yale on an ROTC scholarship and then spent five years in the Navy. He had begun with a top-secret security clearance on board the USS Wright, specializing in communications, including with the White House. His commanding officer was Rear Admiral Robert O. Welander, who would later be implicated in the military spy ring in the Nixon White House, mentioned in chapter 9. According to Silent Coup, an exhaustive study of the military espionage scandal, Woodward then arrived in Washington, where he worked on the staff of Admiral Thomas Moorer, chief of naval operations, again as a communications officer, this time one who provided briefings and documents to top brass in the White House on national security matters. According to this account, in 1969-70, Woodward frequently walked through the basement offices of the White House West Wing with documents from Admiral Moorer to General Alexander Haig, who served under Henry Kissinger. In a 2008 interview, Woodward categorically denied having any intelligence connections. He also denied having worked in the White House or providing briefings there. “It’s a matter of record in the Navy what I did, what I didn’t do,” Woodward said. “And this Navy Intelligence, Haig and so forth, you know, I’d be more than happy to acknowledge it if it’s true. It just isn’t. Can you accept that?” Journalist Len Colodny, however, has produced audiotapes of interviews by his Silent Coup coauthor, Robert Gettlin, with Admiral Moorer, former defense secretary Melvin Laird, Pentagon spokesman Jerry Friedheim—and even with Woodward’s own father, Al—speaking about Bob’s White House service. At a minimum, Woodward’s entry into journalism received a valuable outside assist, according to an account provided by Harry Rosenfeld, a retired Post editor, to the Saratogian newspaper in 2004:
The [Watergate] tapes unmasked Nixon not as the take-charge boss of a criminal conspiracy but rather as an aging and confused politician lost in a welter of detail, unable to distinguish his Magruders from his Strachans, uncertain who knew what and when, what each player had told the grand jury, whose testimony was direct, whose hearsay.
In 2008, some time after I spoke to Woodward, I reached Rosenfeld. He said he did not recall telling the Saratogian that Woodward had been hired on the advice of someone in the White House. He did, however, tell me that he remembered that Woodward had been recommended by Paul Ignatius, the Post’s president. Prior to taking over the Post’s presidency, Ignatius had been Navy secretary for President Johnson. In a 2008 interview, Ignatius told me it was possible that he had a hand in at least recommending Woodward. “It’s possible that somebody asked me about him, and it’s possible that I gave him a recommendation,” Ignatius said. “I don’t remember initiating anything, but I can’t say I didn’t.” I asked Ignatius how a top Pentagon administrator such as himself would even have known of a lowly lieutenant, such as Woodward was back in those days, and Ignatius said he did not recall. In September 1971, after one year of training at the Maryland-based Sentinel, Woodward was hired at the Washington Post. The Post itself is steeped in intelligence connections. The paper’s owner, the Graham family, were, as noted in chapter 3, aficionados of the apparatus, good friends of top spies, and friends also of Prescott Bush. They even helped fund Poppy Bush’s earliest business venture. Editor Ben Bradlee was himself a Yale graduate who, like Woodward, had spent time in naval intelligence during World War II. (As noted earlier, Poppy Bush had also been associated with naval intelligence during World War II: prior to beginning his work with the CIA, he had been involved with top-secret aerial reconnaissance photography.) Woodward demonstrated his proclivity for clandestine sources a month before the Watergate break-in, in his coverage of the shooting and serious wounding of presidential candidate George Wallace at a shopping center in Washington’s Maryland suburbs. A lone gunman, Arthur Bremer, would be convicted. Woodward impressed his editors with his tenacity on the case, and his contacts. As noted in a journalistic case study published by Columbia University: At the time, according to [Post editors Barry] Sussman and [Harry] Rosenfeld, Woodward said he had “a friend” who might be able to help. Woodward says his “friend” filled him in on Bremer’s background and revealed that Bremer had also been stalking other presidential candidates. As to Woodward’s initial introduction to the newspaper, nobody seems to have questioned whether a recommendation from someone in the White House would be an appropriate reason for the Post to hire a reporter. Nor does anyone from the Post appear to have put a rather obvious two and two together, and noted that Woodward made quick work of bringing down the president, and therefore wondered who at the White House recommended Woodward in the first place—and with what motivation. Others, however, were more curious. After Charles Colson met with Senator Howard Baker and his staff—including future senator Fred Thompson— he recounted the session in a previously unpublished memo to file:
Bob had come to us on very high recommendations from someone in the White House. He had been an intelligence officer in the Navy and had served in the Pentagon. He had not been exposed to any newspaper. We gave him a tryout because he was so highly recommended. We customarily didn’t do that. We wanted to see some clips, and he had none of that. We tried him out, and after a week or two I asked my deputy, “What’s with this guy?” And he said well, he’s a very bright guy but he doesn’t know how to put the paper in the typewriter. But he was bright, there was that intensity about him and his willingness, and he acted maturely. So we decided because he had come so highly recommended and he had shown certain strengths that we would help get him a job at the Montgomery County Sentinel.
Woodward’s good connections would help generate a series of exclusive- access interviews that would result in rapidly produced bestselling books. One was Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA, 1981-1987, a controversial book that relied in part, Woodward claimed, on a deathbed interview—not recorded—with former CIA director William Casey. The 543-page book, which came out as Poppy Bush was seeking the presidency, contained no substantive mentions of any role on the part of Bush in these “secret wars,” though Bush was both vice president with a portfolio for covert ops and a former CIA director. Asked how it was possible to leave Bush out of such a detailed account of covert operations during his vice presidency, Woodward replied, “Bush was, well, I don’t think he was— What was it he said at the time? I was out of the loop?” Woodward went on to be blessed with unique access to George W. Bush—a president who did not grant a single interview to America’s top newspaper, the New York Times, for nearly half his administration—and the automatic smash bestsellers that guaranteed. Woodward would also distinguish himself for knowing about the administration’s role in leaking the identity of CIA undercover officer Valerie Plame but not writing or saying anything about it, despite an ongoing investigation and media tempest. When this was revealed, Woodward issued an apology to the Post. To its credit, the Washington Post in these years had other staffers doing some of the best reporting on the intelligence establishment. Perhaps the most revealing work came prior to Nixon’s tenure, while Woodward was still doing his naval service. In a multipart, front-page series by Richard Harwood in early 1967, the paper began reporting the extent to which the CIA had penetrated civil institutions not just abroad, but at home as well. “It was not enough for the United States to arm its allies, to strengthen governmental institutions, or to finance the industrial establishment through economic and military programs,” Harwood wrote. “Intellectuals, students, educators, trade unionists, journalists and professional men had to be reached directly through their private concerns.” Journalists too. Even Carl Bernstein later wrote about the remarkable extent of the CIA’s penetration of newsrooms, detailing numerous examples, in a 1977 Rolling Stone article. As for the Post itself, Bernstein wrote:
The CIA has been unable to determine whether Bob Woodward was employed by the agency. The agency claims to be having difficulty checking personnel files. Thompson says that he believes the delay merely means that they don’t want to admit that Woodward was in the agency. Thompson wrote a lengthy memo to Baker last week complaining about the CIA’s non-cooperation, the fact that they were supplying material piecemeal and had been very uncooperative. The memo went into the CIA relationship with the press, specifically Woodward. Senator Baker sent the memo directly to [CIA Director] Colby with a cover note and within a matter of a few hours, Woodward called Baker and was incensed over the memo. It had been immediately leaked to him.
When the Watergate burglary story broke, Bob Woodward got the assignment, in part, his editor Barry Sussman recalled, because he never seemed to leave the building. “I worked the police beat all night,” Wood- ward said in an interview with authors Tom Rosenstiel and Amy S. Mitchell, “and then I’d go home—I had an apartment five blocks from the Post—and sleep for a while. I’d show up in the newsroom around 10 or 11 [in the morning] and work all day too. People complained I was working too hard.” So when the bulletin came in, Woodward was there. The result was a front-page account revealing that E. Howard Hunt’s name appeared in the address book of one of the burglars and that a check signed by Hunt had been found in the pocket of another burglar, who was Cuban. It went further: Hunt, Woodward reported, worked as a consultant to White House counsel Charles Colson. Thus, Woodward played a key role in tying the burglars to Nixon. Woodward would later explain in All the President’s Men (coauthored with Bernstein) that to find out more about Hunt, he had “called an old friend and sometimes source who worked for the federal government.” His friend did not like to be contacted at this office and “said hurriedly that the break- in case was going to ‘heat up,’ but he couldn’t explain and hung up.” Thus began Woodward’s relationship with Deep Throat, that mysterious source who, Woodward would later report, served in the executive branch of government and had access to information in the White House and CREEP. Based on tips from Deep Throat, Woodward and Bernstein began to “follow the money,” writing stories in September and October 1972 on a political “slush fund” linked to CREEP. One story reported that the fund had financed the bugging of the Democratic Party’s Watergate headquarters as well as other intelligence-gathering activities. While Nixon coasted to a landslide victory over the liberal Democrat George McGovern, the story seemed to go on hiatus. But just briefly. Poppy Enters, Stage Right If someone did want to undermine the president from outside the White House, he couldn’t have found a better perch than the chairmanship of the Republican Party. Right after the election, Poppy Bush, again utilizing his pull with Nixon, had persuaded the president to bring him back from his cushy U.N. post and install him at the Republican National Committee. This put him at the very epicenter of the nationwide Republican elite that would ultimately determine whether Nixon would stay or go. As chairman of the RNC, Poppy was expected to be the president’s chief advocate, especially to the party faithful. He would travel widely, interact with big donors and party activists. If anyone would have their finger on the pulse of the loyalist base, it was Poppy. He would have a good sense of what would keep supporters in line, and conversely, what might convince them to abandon ship. But Poppy was unique among RNC chairmen over the years in that he had convinced Nixon to let him maintain an official presence at the White House. Just as Nixon had permitted him to participate in cabinet meetings as U.N. ambassador, he now continued to extend that privilege while Poppy ran the RNC. This was unprecedented for someone in such an overtly partisan position. Here was a man closely connected to the CIA, as we have seen, now both running the Republican Party and sitting in on cabinet deliberations. An intelligence officer couldn’t have asked for a better perch. Moreover, this put him in the catbird seat just as Watergate began heating up. But Poppy was even more wired into Nixonworld. When he came to the RNC, he hired Harry Dent and Tom Lias, the top officials of Nixon’s Political Affairs office, which had established the Town house Operation. Dent was the architect of Nixon’s Southern strategy, with which Poppy Bush and his backers were closely allied. Lias had ties to Poppy from before working in the White House. He had been a top organizer for the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, strategizing how to elect people like Poppy to formerly Democratic seats in the South. After Poppy came to Washington, the two often socialized. According to Pierre Ausloos, stepfather of Lias’s daughter, and a friend of the family, “On weekends, Bush would always invite [Lias] for a barbecue party at his house here in Washington.” Ausloos also remembers that during the 1968 Republican convention, Liasís daughter’s babysitter was Poppy’s son, George W. Bush. Thus, at the time Dent and Lias were installed in the White House Political Affairs office, they were already close with Bush. Indeed, right after the 1970 election and the termination of the Town house Operation, Bush took Lias with him to New York, where Lias served as a top aide on Poppy’s United Nations staff. The U.N. choice struck people who knew Lias as odd. Lias had no relevant qualifications or knowledge for the U.N. post, just as Poppy himself didn’t. Poppy’s decision, once he moved to the RNC, to hire both Lias and Dent—the two men supervising Jack Gleason’s Town house Operation— is surely significant. Meanwhile, Poppy Bush and his team had already been in contact with John Dean. In a brief 2008 conversation, in which a prickly Dean sought to control the conditions of the interview, I asked him whether he had any dealings with Bush. “I think there are some phone calls on my phone logs, but I never met with him personally,” he said. Indeed, phone logs show that on June 24, 1971, Ambassador Bush called Dean, and on December 6, 1971, Tom Lias of Ambassador Bush’s office called. The logs show other calls from Lias as well. It is not clear—nor did Dean volunteer an opinion—why Bush and Lias would have been calling him at all. Slumming in Greenwich When the Senate created a committee to investigate Watergate, there was no guarantee that anything would come of it. The perpetrators—the burglars and their supervisors, Hunt and Liddy—were going on trial, and it was uncertain whether the hearings would produce any further insights. Moreover, the committee featured four rather somnolent Democrats and three Republicans, two of them staunch Nixon loyalists. This left only one wild card: Lowell Weicker, a liberal Republican from Connecticut. A freshman, and an independent one, Weicker was not disposed to knee- jerk defense of Nixon. Furthermore, he saw himself as a crusader. At six feet six, Weicker was imposing, considered basically well-intentioned, a little naive, and in love with publicity. He had gotten his political start in the Bush hometown of Greenwich, Connecticut; and like the Bushes, he was heir to a family fortune, in his case from two grandfathers who owned the Squibb pharmaceutical company. But there the similarities ended. Weicker chose for his base Greenwich’s Third Voting District, which consisted almost entirely of working-class Italians. “Just decent, hard-working, down-to-basics families,” Weicker would say. “Had I been raised as a typical Republican in the salons of Fair- field County, discussing international issues at teas and cocktail parties, I know my career would have been a short one once off the Greenwich electoral scene.” In 1960, Weicker aligned himself with Albert Morano, a congressional candidate opposed by the Bush family. Now the Bushes saw Weicker as a traitor to his class. Over the years, Weicker and Bush would generally maintain a cool but civil relationship, driven by political expediency. “I think he was viewed as an outsider from day one, and it was a perspective he relished,” said Townhouse operative Jack Gleason. ”Because he always used to joke about ‘the Round Hill boys out to get me again’ every time he was up for reelection.” Weicker had arrived in Washington in 1968, following his election to the House of Representatives. Given the past, this would have made him a not-very-welcome colleague of Poppy Bush. And Poppy probably was not enthused when, after only two years in the House, Weicker was elected to Prescott Bush’s old Senate seat—in the same year Poppy lost his second Senate bid. Weicker’s star was rising faster than Poppy’s—and in the Bush home state to boot. It must have rankled. Still, Weicker’s least endearing qualities—his considerable ambition, love of publicity, and penchant for self-aggrandizement—would shortly prove useful in at least one respect: as a champion of the “truth” on the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, commonly known as the Watergate Committee. The same Republican maverick who had no qualms about challenging his party’s leadership in Connecticut would soon debut his maverick persona on the national stage. In his memoirs, Weicker writes that he was given the Watergate Committee assignment because he was one of only two Republicans who volunteered and that his interest in “campaign financing” and dwindling faith in the democratic process spurred his personal interest. Interestingly, the other Republican volunteer, stalwart conservative Edward J. Gurney of Florida, had won his seat with the help of Bush’s top political lieutenant, Jimmy Allison—and eldest son George W. Bush, who took the extraordinary step of securing a leave from his National Guard unit in 1968, when he had barely begun his military training. The other Republican on the committee was Minority Leader Howard Baker, a moderate. Weicker was the only Republican on the committee with the inclination to prove his independence from the party and openly challenge the president. By the spring of 1973, six defendants had been sentenced in the DNC burglary, and the Watergate hearings were due to begin. There was now an opportunity for Nixon to put the whole Watergate affair behind him, without mortal damage to his presidency. Weicker, however, already saw his role as an honest broker, and he criticized Nixon’s attempts at tamping down the matter. “I think the national interest is achieved by opening, not closing, the White House doors,” he said. He added that he would vote in favor of subpoenas for White House officials to appear before the committee. Poppy Bush apparently agreed. On March 20, the day after Weicker’s remarks, Poppy went to see Nixon at the Oval Office. In his usual oblique way, ascribing his advice to others, he urged Nixon to send John Dean to testify.
When Newsweek was purchased by the Washington Post Company, publisher Philip L. Graham was informed by Agency officials that the CIA occasionally used the magazine for cover purposes, according to CIA sources. “It was widely known that Phil Graham was somebody you could get help from,” said a former deputy director of the Agency. “Frank Wisner dealt with him.” Wisner, deputy director of the CIA from 1950 until shortly before his suicide in 1965, was the Agency’s premier orchestrator of “black” operations, including many in which journalists were involved. Wisner liked to boast of his “mighty Wurlitzer,” a wondrous propaganda instrument he built, and played, with help from the press. Phil Graham was probably Wisner’s closest friend. But Graham, who committed suicide in 1963, apparently knew little of the specifics of any cover arrangements with Newsweek, CIA sources said.
In 1965-66, an accredited Newsweek stringer in the Far East was in fact a CIA contract employee earning an annual salary of $10,000 from the Agency, according to Robert T. Wood, then a CIA officer in the Hong Kong station. Some Newsweek correspondents and stringers continued to maintain covert ties with the Agency into the 1970s, CIA sources said.
Information about Agency dealings with the Washington Post newspaper is extremely sketchy. According to CIA officials, some Post stringers have been CIA employees, but these officials say they do not know if anyone in the Post management was aware of the arrangements.
John Ehrlichman remembers that meeting well, as noted in his memoirs. “Bush argued that the only way to blunt the current onslaught in the newspapers and on television was for the president to be totally forthcoming—to tell everything he knew about all aspects of Watergate.” This was a significant moment, where Poppy demonstrates a possible connection to and interest in Dean. It was a sort of specific advice that warrants attention, because it is an indication that the outsider Bush is unusually well informed about who knows what inside the White House— and encourages Nixon to let Dean begin confessing his knowledge. When I asked Dean in 2008 why he thought Poppy Bush was suggesting he testify, he said he had no idea. Nixon resisted Poppy’s advice to have Dean testify because, Nixon maintained, there was no White House staff involvement in Watergate, and therefore Dean’s testimony would serve only to break executive privilege, once and for all. “The president can’t run his office by having particularly his lawyer go up and testify,” Nixon told Poppy. If Poppy Bush seemed to have unusually good intelligence as to what was happening in the Oval Office, it might have had something to do with a good friend of his who was right in there with Nixon and Dean during the most critical days of Watergate. Richard A. Moore, a lawyer who served as a kind of elder statesman off of whom Nixon and Mitchell could bounce ideas, was, like Poppy, an alumnus of Andover, Yale, and Skull and Bones. Moore served as special assistant to the chief of military intelligence during World War II and is believed to have transitioned to civilian intelligence after the war. Over the years, Moore was practically a member of the extended Bush clan, exchanging intimate notes with Poppy and even joining family dinners. Moore shows up in background roles on a number of Nixon tapes, and phone logs show a flurry of phone calls between Moore and Dean, especially in the final weeks before Dean turned on Nixon. In a little-reported taped telephone conversation from March 16, Dean tells Nixon that he and Moore are working on a Watergate report; he also mentions that he and Moore drive home together. On March 20, in an Oval Office meeting featuring Nixon, Dean, and Moore—just prior to Nixon’s meeting with Poppy Bush— Moore can be heard typing the report in the background. Dean would later write that the term “cancer” as used in his famous “cancer on the presidency” briefing had been suggested by Moore—who though a close Nixon adviser in these sensitive days, managed to emerge from Watergate obscure and unscathed. His Watergate testimony did not support Dean, but he tended to be ambiguous. As Time magazine noted on July 23, 1973, “The Moore testimony was certainly not evidence that the President had had prior knowledge of the Plumbers’ felonious break-in. But it seemingly betrayed a curious nonchalance on the President’s part toward questionable activities by White House staffers.” Later, with Nixon departing and Ford preparing to become president, Moore urged Ford to make Poppy Bush his vice president, arguing that Bush had strong economic credentials. Moore specifically cited Poppy’s ties to Wall Street through his father and grandfather, “both highly respected investment bankers in New York.” Moore would go on to work on all of Poppy Bush’s presidential campaigns, including his unsuccessful 1980 bid, and would in 1989 be named by Poppy as his ambassador to Ireland. Repeat After Me Immediately after Poppy tried to convince Nixon to send Dean to testify, Dean himself telephoned the president. Dean asked to urgently meet the following morning and carefully explained to Nixon that there were important details of which the president was unaware and that he would tell him about these things—but did not yet tell him:
BUSH: We’re getting hit a little bit, Mr. President . . . It’s building, and the mail’s getting heavier . . . NIXON: What do you think you can do about it? . . . We’ve got hearings coming up. The hearings will make it worse. BUSH: . . . I was speaking with the executives at the Bull Elephants …The guy said to me,… why doesn’t the President send Dean? . . . The disclosure is what they’re calling for. NIXON: We are cooperating… They don’t want any cooperation. They aren’t interested in getting the facts. They’re only interested in [politicalgains?]… I wish there were an answer to Watergate, but I just don’t know any . . . I don’t know a damn thing to do. [emphasis added]
In other words, Dean was admitting, nine months into the scandal, that he knew quite a bit about Watergate that he had never revealed to the president. Now Dean planned to clue him in. Nixon then inquired about the progress on a public statement Dean was to be preparing—and was made to understand that the statement was going to try to avoid specifics, i.e., employ a common practice, stonewalling:
DEAN: I think that one thing that we have to continue to do, and particularly right now, is to examine the broadest, broadest implications of this whole thing, and, you know, maybe about thirty minutes of just my recitations to you of facts so that you operate from the same facts that everybody else has. NIXON: Right. DEAN: I don’t think—we have never really done that. It has been sort of bits and pieces. Just paint the whole picture for you, the soft spots, the potential problem areas… [emphasis added]
Nixon went on to pressure Dean to issue a statement to the cabinet explaining, in very general terms, the White House’s willingness to cooperate in any investigations. Without going into detail, Nixon wanted to publicly defend the innocence of White House officials whom he believed were innocent:
NIXON: And so you are coming up, then with the idea of just a stonewall then? Is that— DEAN: That’s right. NIXON: Is that what you come down with? DEAN: Stonewall, with lots of noises that we are always willing to cooperate, but no one is asking us for anything.
But Dean apparently didn’t intend to “do that.” He was seemingly waiting for the right moment to create the right effect—and that moment would not come until he had jumped the wall to the other side and become the key witness for the prosecution. In Haldemans diary entry of the same day, he observes that Nixon wants to come clean, but that Dean is warning him not to:
NIXON: I just want a general— DEAN: An all-around statement. NIXON: That’s right. Try just something general. Like “I have checked into this matter; I can categorically, based on my investigation, the following: Haldeman is not involved in this, that and the other thing. Mr. Colson did not do this; Mr. So- and- so did not do this. Mr. Blank did not do this.” Right down the line, taking the most glaring things. If there are any further questions, please let me know. See? DEAN: Uh huh, I think we can do that.
Thus, according to this account, Nixon was interested in facing his problems. This included, it appears, telling what they knew—Nixon’s version, in any case. And John Dean was urging Nixon not to do that. To make that case, Dean was feeding Nixon’s paranoia. In other words, Dean seemed to be saying: Too many leads out. Let me control this process. In response to a combination of events—Weicker’s call for more disclosure, Bush’s intervention with Nixon aimed at forcing Dean to testify, and Dean’s own insistence that there was more to the story—Nixon met with Dean the next day. That conversation, together with the smoking gun episode, would help seal Nixon’s fate. On the morning of March 21, Nixon’s White House counsel stepped into the Oval Office and proceeded to deliver a speech that would make Dean famous for the rest of his life. He would dramatically warn the president of a “cancer on the presidency” soon to become inoperable. This speech, which would shortly become Dean’s principal evidence against Nixon, may have been carefully calculated based on Dean’s awareness that the conversations were being taped. (Dean would later say he suspected he was being taped, but as we shall see, he may have known for certain.) In fact, for this dramatic moment, Dean had begun performing dress rehearsals some eight days earlier. This is borne out by earlier taped conversations—ones whose very existence has been largely suppressed in published accounts. In these earlier tapes, we hear Dean beginning to tell Nixon about White House knowledge related to Watergate. (Most of these tapes are excluded from what is generally considered the authoritative compendium of transcripts, Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes, by Stanley Kutler, who told me in a 2008 interview that he considers himself a close friend of John Dean.) In one unpublicized taped conversation, from March 13, Dean told Nixon that Haldeman’s aide Gordon Strachan had foreknowledge of the break-in, was already lying about it in interviews, and would continue to do so before a grand jury. The Watergate prosecutors, for whom Dean was a crucial witness, had the March 13 tape, but did not enter it into evidence.
[The president] feels strongly that we’ve got to say something to get ourselves away from looking like we’re completely on the defensive and on a cover-up basis. If we . . . are going to volunteer to send written statements . . . we might as well do the statements now and get them publicized and get our answers out. The problem is that Dean feels this runs too many leads out. [emphasis added]
This is significant since Strachan, a junior staff member, was essentially reporting to Dean—a fact that Dean failed to point out to Nixon. Although Strachan was Haldeman’s aide, when it came to matters like these, he would, at Dean’s request, deal directly with Dean. “As to the subject of political intelligence-gathering,” Strachan told the Senate Watergate Committee, “John Dean was designated as the White House contact for the Committee to Re-elect the President.” Thus, if Strachan knew anything about Watergate, even after the fact, it seems to have been because Dean included him in the flow of “intelligence.” On March 17, in another tape generally excluded from accounts of Watergate, Dean told Nixon about the Ellsberg break-in. He also provided a long list of people who he felt might have “vulnerabilities” concerning Watergate, and included himself in that list.
DEAN: Well, Chapin didn’t know anything about the Watergate, and— NIXON: You don’t think so? DEAN: No. Absolutely not. NIXON: Did Strachan? DEAN: Yes. NIXON: He knew? DEAN: Yes. NIXON: About the Watergate? DEAN: Yes. NIXON: Well, then, Bob knew. He probably told Bob, then. He may not have. He may not have. DEAN: He was, he was judicious in what he, in what he relayed, and, uh, but Strachan is as tough as nails. I— NIXON: What’ll he say? Just go in and say he didn’t know? DEAN: He’ll go in and stonewall it and say, “I don’t know anything about what you are talking about.” He has already done it twice, as you know, in interviews.
In the heavily publicized “cancer” speech of March 21, Dean essentially reiterated what he had told Nixon previously, if in more detail. But he added an important element—one which would cause Nixon serious problems when the “cancer” tape was played for the public: a request for one million dollars in “hush money” for the burglars. Informed by Dean of a “continual blackmail operation by Hunt and Liddy and the Cubans,” Nixon asked how much money they needed. Dean responded, “These people are going to cost a million dollars over the next two years.” There is debate as to whether Nixon actually agreed with Dean’s suggestion to pay money or merely ruminated over it. He never did pay the money. Dean’s behavior did not appear to be that of a lawyer seeking to protect his client, let alone advice appropriate to the conduct of the presidency. Next:Chapter 11 – Downing Nixon, Part II: The Execution
NIXON: Now, you were saying too, ah, what really, ah, where the, this thing leads, I mean in terms of the vulnerabilities and so forth. It’s your view the vulnerables are basically Mitchell, Colson, Haldeman, indirectly, possibly directly, and of course, the second level is, as far as the White House is concerned, Chapin. DEAN: And I’d say Dean, to a degree. NIXON: You? Why? DEAN: Well, because I’ve been all over this thing like a blanket. NIXON: I know, I know, but you know all about it, but you didn’t, you were in it after the deed was done. DEAN: That’s correct, that I have no foreknowledge . . . NIXON: Here’s the whole point, here’s the whole point. My point is that your problem is you, you have no problem. All the others that have participated in the God-damned thing, and therefore are potentially subject to criminal liability. You’re not. That’s the difference.