Richard Nixon’s downfall, a.k.a Watergate — a word whose suffix has become a part of the English language, has always fascinated me. In the summer of 1973, poised between graduation from college and the start of medical school, I spent an inordinate amount of time in front of the television watching the Senate Watergate hearings. In those days before 24 hour cable news and CSPAN it was almost unprecedented for the networks to “interrupt our regular programming” and carry such an event live. I remember John Dean’s relating his March 21, 1973 conversation with Nixon, telling him there was a “cancer on the presidency,” a warning that Nixon ignored, instead reassuring Dean regarding the estimated million dollars of hush money that the Watergate burglars wanted that “we can get that … I know where it can be gotten.” I remember Nixon’s top men, Mitchell, Ehrlichman and Haldeman, stonewalling it, denying the president had any knowledge of the cover-up. At the time it looked like it would boil down to Dean’s word against the president’s, with no evidence against the president other than hearsay. Then, on July 13, 1973 a relatively minor character, Alexander Butterfield, an assistant to the president, was called before the Senate committee in closed session. Apparently one of the lawyers on the committee (a Republican) had become suspicious by the amount of detail available relating to notes about a certain White House conversation, and asked Butterfield directly if there was a recording system in the White House. Butterfield, one of only a very few who knew of the existence of the system (Nixon’s top aides, other than Haldeman, did not know about it) had planned not to reveal the system, but faced with a direct question and the threat of perjury, had to answer honestly. So in public session on July 16th, Butterfield was asked the question by Fred Thompson (yes that Fred Thompson, who was a minority counsel for the committee) before all the TV cameras, and to the astonishment of everyone (including me who saw it live) revealed that every conversation and phone call in the Oval Office and in the president’s Executive Office Building was recorded automatically on tape.
The tapes of course are what destroyed Nixon’s presidency, a self-inflicted wound worthy of the most profound Greek tragedy. It is difficult to fathom the hubris of the man who wanted his every presidential conversation preserved for posterity and then went on to discuss with his aides an ever-evolving and increasingly complex cover-up scheme while his secret taping system was recording every word. Nixon eventually had to give up the tapes after the Supreme Court unanimously forced him to do so, and certain of the tapes, like the June 23rd 1972 “smoking gun” tape, in which Nixon has the FBI limit its investigation of the Watergate burglary for “national security” reasons, led immediately to his resignation. Beyond these several infamous tapes, there are hundreds of hours of tapes relating to Watergate that up until this point had never been transcribed or documented. In John Dean’s book The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It these recorded conversations are described and from the book there emerges a more complete picture of Nixon and what happened that led to his downfall.
The June 17th, 1972 Watergate break-in and bugging of the Democratic National Convention headquarters seem to have occurred due to the over-exuberance of certain of Nixon’s cronies who worked in the Committee to Reelect the President (which actually had the acronym CREEP) including former attorney general John Mitchell, born-again post-conviction Chuck Colson, and possibly Nixon’s top aids John Ehrlichman and H.R. “Bob” Haldeman. They had hired Gordon Liddy, a loose cannon if ever there was one, to find out what the Democrats were up to. Nixon, who it is pretty clear did not know of the Watergate activities beforehand, nevertheless set a tone in his administration that dirty politics was the norm and his associates, only too eager to please him, ended up going beyond the bounds of legality to do so. After the Watergate burglars were arrested, from the very start Nixon tried to limit the political damage to himself. After all, he was running for reelection. He also felt he had to prevent his political allies from going to jail. He had a very difficult time in actually firing Haldeman and Ehrlichman, his two top aides, when it became clear he had to do so. In the Nixon-Frost interviews one can almost feel sorry for Nixon when he talks about this. Yet for the most part the recorded conversations reveal a cold, calculating, ruthless character with whom it is difficult to sympathize.
Nixon based his defense around the March 21, 1973 conversation with John Dean, the “cancer on the presidency” meeting. Reading this in the book (or listening to it; the important conversations are on YouTube), it is clear that Dean, though involved in the cover-up initially, was trying to warn the president (he was after all the president’s counsel) that he risked becoming entangled in the Watergate cover-up. Dean revealed the blackmail demands of the indicted Watergate burglars and clearly seemed surprised that Nixon was willing to raise money to pay them off. Later Nixon and Haldeman would claim that Nixon said on that day that “we could raise a million dollars … but it would be wrong,” but that was a bold-faced lie (here is what he really said). Nixon later blamed the cover-up on Dean and said that he (Nixon) started his own personal investigation into Watergate after the March 21 meeting with Dean. This “investigation” was yet another cover-up created by Haldeman and Nixon. It is ironic that in the recorded conversations when this March 21 meeting was discussed, Nixon is constantly worried that John Dean had somehow carried a tape recorder on his person during that meeting and had recorded evidence that would show Nixon was lying. Strangely, Nixon seems to have given little thought to the fact that he himself had made a recording, and that this recording would eventually become public, indeed proving that he had lied. Only occasionally did Nixon give any thought to the automatic recording system. At one point he briefly considered destroying the tapes before their existence was discovered, but Haldeman talked him out of it, because of the potential loss to history. Ah, hubris!
The book may not be as fascinating to those who did not live through the era as it was to me. It is a long book, and for those interested in Watergate in less detail, Woodward and Bernstein’s All the President’s Men or John Dean’s earlier Blind Ambition are good. Nevertheless all Americans should be familiar with Watergate and how the government narrowly avoided a constitutional crisis. Compared with the governmental dysfunction today, this was an era when the process of government actually worked. Though Nixon had his defenders amongst the Republicans, as the evidence piled up against him, both parties united in the impeachment process. The Justice Department, the Supreme Court, and the Congress did what they needed to do. Despite the abuse of power in the executive branch, the other branches of government functioned properly and the balance of power built into the Constitution by the founding fathers saved the day. One wonders though what the outcome would have been if Nixon had not recorded himself, or had destroyed the tapes early on.
The Nixon Defense is probably the definitive Watergate book. Nixon was right about his tapes. They are of great historical interest, but not in the way he intended. They reveal a picture of the downfall of one of the most interesting political characters of the 20th century, a presidential reality show that, like most reality shows, can be banal and riveting at the same time.