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A Surprise Ending On Watergate’s 40th Anniversary

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Party! June 17 marks the 40 th anniversary of the biggest scandal in presidential history.

But did you ever wonder why Richard Nixon was forced from office if he had absolutely nothing to do with the precipitating event—the burglary of the Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate office complex? The real story of the removal of an American president has been told in several important books…and yet most people have never heard it.

Here’s your chance. Because of the anniversary, we are reposting the first of our three-part excerpt, which ran in May. You click at the bottom to go on to Part 2.

Those who have already read it might consider sharing with friends. After all, it’s better to get the truth 40 years later, than never.

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Suddenly, everyone’s interested in Watergate again.

The media were excited to report that Robert Redford is working on a  documentary about the scandal that brought down a president and created new heroes: the reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Given that the film  All the President’s Men, in which Redford played the heroic Bob Woodward, practically made Redford’s career, we probably shouldn’t expect any big surprises.

But here’s one: In recent days,  we’ve heard doubts from former  Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee about his journalists’ reporting on Watergate. This from a  new book by Woodward’s own former assistant:

Ben talked about Bob’s famous secret source, whom he claimed to have met in an underground garage in rendezvous arranged via signals involving flowerpots and newspapers.

You know I have a little problem with Deep Throat…..Did that potted [plant] incident ever happen? … and meeting in some garage. One meeting in the garage? Fifty meetings in the garage? I don’t know how many meetings in the garage …  There’s a residual fear in my soul that that isn’t quite straight.

Salon ran a kind of strange and foggy  article about Nixon’s difficult relationship with the CIA, which nevertheless brought up an important question: what was the real role of the spy agency in Nixon’s downfall? That article doesn’t answer it. But I did—in my book, Family of Secrets: The Bush Dynasty, America’s Invisible Government and the Hidden History of the Last Fifty Years.

One of the major revelations is that, decades before George H.W. Bush was named CIA director as a purported outsider, he was already involved with CIA covert operations. Family of Secrets shows how the CIA has violated the spirit and letter of its charter by meddling secretly, and constantly, in American politics since its inception. The book follows the elder Bush and the CIA into the life of Richard Nixon and the scandal that brought Nixon down. It reveals new information about the background and actual role of Bob Woodward and other seminal figures in the drama. And it provides an explanation of Watergate that is the polar opposite of the one that most Americans have accepted for four decades.

Because people are talking again about Watergate and Nixon, we felt this was a good time to present the three Nixon chapters from the book. The first installment is today. It provides an alternate history of the rise of Nixon, and sets the stage for the momentous collision between Nixon and powerful forces in and out of government that would lead to his political demise. The next two installments, to be published imminently, cover Watergate itself.

Notes: (1) Although these excerpts do not contain footnotes, the book itself is heavily footnoted and exhaustively sourced. (2) To distinguish between George Bush, father and son, George H.W. Bush is sometimes referred to by his nickname Poppy, and George W. Bush by his, W. (3) Additional context can be found in the preceding chapters.

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Family of Secrets, Chapter 9: The Nixonian Bushes

In early 1969, the newly elected Richard M. Nixon took one of his first acts as president: he arranged a date for his twenty-three-year-old daughter, Tricia, with George W. Bush. Not only that, he even dispatched a White House jet, at taxpayers’ expense, to pick up young Bush at Moody Air Force Base in Georgia, in order to bring him back to Washington.

This would not be the only time that Nixon would bestow special favors upon the Bush family. Six months earlier, as the GOP presidential candidate, he had seriously considered Poppy as a potential running mate, even though the latter was just a freshman congressman. Two years after W.’s date with Tricia, following Poppy’s second unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate, Nixon named him his ambassador to the United Nations. And two years later, with President Nixon’s nod, Poppy served a stint as chairman of the Republican Party. It was a quick rise from relative obscurity to the highest level of national politics—and all with Nixon’s help.

Taped conversations reveal that Nixon considered Poppy Bush a lightweight. Nevertheless, he repeatedly pushed Poppy ahead, often over people who were much more qualified. This put the elder Bush on the upper rungs of the ladder to the presidency. In all probability, had Nixon not so favored Poppy, he never would have reached the top. And had Poppy Bush not been president, his son George W. Bush almost certainly would not have either.

In no small way, Richard Nixon helped to create the Bush presidential dynasty.

What disposed Nixon so positively toward the Bushes? A little-known fact, certainly missing from the many splendid biographies of the thirty-seventh president, is the likely role of Poppy Bush’s father, Prescott, in launching Nixon’s own political career.

Beyond that, the depth and complexity of the ongoing relationship between Nixon and the Bushes, a relationship that spanned nearly three decades, has somehow eluded most historians. An index search of the name Bush in the major Nixon biographies—including even those published after George H. W. Bush rose to the presidency—finds at most a handful of mentions, and in some cases, none at all.

The long overlooked Nixon-Bush story is a tale filled with plots and counterplots, power lust and ego trips, trust and betrayal, strategic alliances and rude revenge. It has a kind of mythic circularity: the elite Bush clan created the “populist” Nixon so that a President Nixon could later play a major role in creating a Bush political dynasty. And finally, the trusted Bushes, having gotten where they wanted, could play a role in Nixon’s fall.

Generally, Richard Nixon was known to be a wary and suspicious man. It is commonly assumed that he was paranoid, but Nixon had good reasons to feel apprehensive. One was probably the worry that someone would unearth the extent to which this self-styled outsider from Whittier, California, had sold his soul to the same Eastern Establishment that he publicly (and even privately) reviled. At the same time, he knew that those elites felt the same about him. They tolerated him as long as he was useful, which he was—until he got to the top. Then the trouble started.

Obeisance

When Poppy Bush arrived in Washington after the 1966 elections, he was immediately positioned to help large moneyed interests, and by so doing improve his own political fortunes. His father, still influential, had twisted arms to get him a coveted seat on the House Ways and Means Committee, which writes all tax legislation. The committee was the gatekeeper against attempts to eliminate the oil depletion allowance, and Bush’s assignment there was no small feat. No freshman of either party had gotten on since 1904. But former senator Prescott Bush had personally called the committee chairman. Then he got GOP minority leader Gerald Ford—a Warren Commission member and later vice president and president—to make the request himself.

It was a lot of voltage, but the rewards were worth the effort. Poppy now would be a go-to rep for the oil industry, which could provide Nixon with the Texas financial juice he would need to win the Republican nomination in 1968. Bush was also now a crucial link to an alliance that was forming between Eastern bankers, Texas oilmen, and intelligence operatives.

Indeed, Texans and Bush friends dominated the Nixon presidential campaign. For fund-raising, Poppy recruited Bill Liedtke, his old friend and former Zapata Petroleum partner, who became Nixon’s highest- producing regional campaign finance chairman. Poppy’s ally, Texas senator John Tower, endorsed Nixon shortly before the 1968 GOP convention and was put in charge of Nixon’s “key issues committee.” Once Nixon’s nomination was secured, Poppy and Prescott worked their networks furiously, and within days some of the most influential members of the Republican Party sent letters to Nixon urging him to choose Poppy as his running mate. The names must have given Nixon pause—the CEOs of Chase Manhattan Bank, Tiffany & Co., J. P. Stevens and Co., and on and on. Not surprisingly, executives of Pennzoil and Brown Brothers Harriman were among the petitioners. Thomas Dewey, éminence grise of the GOP, also pushed for Poppy. Nixon put Bush’s name on a short list. But as he glimpsed the prize in the distance, he began to assert his independence. To the surprise of almost everyone, he selected as his running mate Spiro Agnew, Maryland’s blunt and combative governor, who had backed Nixon opponent Nelson Rockefeller, the “limousine liberal,” in the primaries. Agnew seemed to offer two things. One, he could be the attack dog who enabled Nixon to assume the role of statesman that he craved. And two, there was little chance that he would outshine the insecure man under whom he would be serving.

(Poppy Bush would adopt a variation on this same strategy in 1988 when he selected as his running mate Senator Dan Quayle, who was handsome but inexperienced, and would be ridiculed for his gaffes and general awkwardness.)

After Nixon tapped Agnew, Prescott Bush, writing to his old friend Tom Dewey, registered his disappointment in a measured manner: “I fear that Nixon has made a serious error here,” Prescott wrote. “He had a chance to do something smart, to give the ticket a lift, and he cast it aside.” Actually Prescott was seething; he hadn’t felt this betrayed since John Kennedy fired his friend Allen Dulles as CIA director. As for the Bush children, they had learned years earlier to fear the wrath of their stern, imposing father. “Remember Teddy Roosevelt’s ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick’?” Poppy once said. “My dad spoke loudly and carried the same big stick.”

But beyond political expediency, Prescott may have had good reason to expect Nixon to follow “suggestions” from the GOP establishment—a reason rooted in the earliest days of Nixon’s political career.

Nixon’s Big Break

In Nixon’s carefully crafted creation story, his 1945 decision to enter politics was triggered when the young Navy veteran, working on the East Coast, received a request from an old family friend, a hometown banker named Herman Perry. Would he fly back to Los Angeles and speak with a group of local businessmen looking for a candidate to oppose Democratic congressman Jerry Voorhis? They felt he was too liberal, and too close to labor unions.

The businessmen who summoned Nixon are usually characterized as Rotary Club types—a furniture dealer, a bank manager, an auto dealer, a printing salesman. In reality, these men were essentially fronts for far more powerful interests. Principal among Nixon’s bigger backers was the arch-conservative Chandler family, owners of the  Los Angeles Times. Nixon himself acknowledged his debt to the Chandlers in correspondence. “I often said to friends that I would never have gone to Washington in the first place had it not been for the Times,” he wrote. Though best known as publishers, the Chandlers had built their fortune on railroads, still the preferred vehicle for shipping oil, and held wide and diverse interests.

Yet Voorhis appears to have recognized that forces even more powerful than the Chandler clan were opposing him. As he wrote in an unpublished manuscript, “The Nixon campaign was a creature of big Eastern financial interests… the Bank of America, the big private utilities, the major oil companies.” He was hardly a dispassionate observer, but on this point the record bears him out. Nixon partisans would claim that “not a penny” of oil money found its way into his campaign. Perhaps. But a representative of Standard Oil, Willard Larson, was present at that Los Angeles meeting in which Nixon was selected as the favored candidate to run against Voorhis.

Representative Voorhis had caused a stir at the outset of World War II when he exposed a secret government contract that allowed Standard Oil to drill for free on public lands in Central California’s Elk Hills. But the establishment’s quarrel with Voorhis was about more than oil. While no anti-capitalist radical, Voorhis had a deep antipathy for corporate excesses and malfeasance. And he was not afraid of the big guys. He investigated one industry after another—insurance, real estate, investment banking. He fought for antitrust regulation of the insurance industry, and he warned against the “cancerous superstructure of monopolies and cartels.” He also was an articulate voice calling for fundamental reforms in banking.

He knew Wall Street was gunning for him. In his memoir,  Confessions of a Congressman, Voorhis recalled:

The 12th District campaign of 1946 got started along in the fall of 1945, more than a year before the election. There was, of course, opposition to me in the district. There always had been. Nor was there any valid reason for me to think I lived a charmed political life. But there were special factors in the campaign of 1946, factors bigger and more powerful than either my opponent or myself.

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