All the President's Men
In his 1968 campaign, Nixon did a whistlestop tour of the Midwest, for “color.” His advance men recruited off-duty stewardesses, wearing “Nixonette” garb on the train, to jump off at each stop, run back to the Nixon car, and start cheerleading. One girl who got bored with this routine just sat in the dining car nursing her drink and complaining that the Secret Service men were even more flirtatious than journalists. “What about Nixon’s staff?” I asked—“Do they make any passes?” “Oh no,” she answered. “They’re prettier than we are.” She was looking out the window at Dwight Chapin. “They’re all such good little boys.” She did not know about ratfucking.
“Ratfucking” is a term of USC provenience—the University of Southern California being Chapin’s alma mater; and Ron Ziegler’s, and Gordon Strachan’s, and Bart Porter’s, and Donald Segretti’s. The term, used in campus politics, means sabotaging your opponent’s campaign, getting the “rats” all fucked up. Carl Bernstein came across the word while asking after USC people who might have known “Dirty Trickster” Donald Segretti. Investigative reporting is often a game of bluff—you pretend to know A for sure in order to get a confirmation of it, which might reveal something about B which you can confirm elsewhere, and make you aware for the first time of C. So Bernstein began dropping the term “to ratfuck” around people involved with the White House or the Watergate investigation. He hit pay dirt in a routine call to the Justice Department: “Ratfucking? You can go right to the top on that one.”
Campus politics is traditionally irresponsible because it is not “for real.” You can steal the other team’s mascot, and no moral question arises—it is not, say, like stealing a rival corporation’s research secrets. Campus life was conceived, at one time, as an interlude from reality, a hiatus from “the real world,” a time to blow off steam, experiment, be childish while trying on adult styles, temporarily. School has largely ceased to be that free-and-easy now; but the attitude perdured longest out in Beachboy-Land.
There was an air of high jinks about some of Segretti’s proposals—he tried to recruit nonideological types by telling them how much “fun” it could be. But traducing Hubert Humphrey, helping to end in squalor a long serious career in politics, is not like taunting the leader of a rival fraternity to get him rattled. Besides, for the ideologues in charge, ratfucking was a deadly serious business. Bob Haldeman is much too fierce to pose convincingly as a Dick Tuck in the Oval Office (where even the real Dick Tuck would be out of place). Still, “Dick Tuck stuff” was the polite equivalent for ratfucking that the ratfuckers had to use in public. These were men for whom the Interlude From Reality became a lasting state, and high jinks turned to a grim code of punishment for such spoiled “Big Men on Campus” as Edward Kennedy.
Nixon used to boast that his was the youngest White House staff ever assembled, as it was the largest. All those clean young men, the joggers and teetotalers and prayer meeting attenders—his felonious cherubs. John Ehrlichman spoke for them when he warned the next wave of neatly shorn idealists to stay away from the Georgetown cocktail party circuit, lest they end up drunk on the floors of Congress. The Nixon people retained that kind of purity, kept clear of temptations arising from the other Washington that had been there before they came. All its aspects and instruments were tainted, to be replaced with the brand-new devices of young men with no other ties than to the White House.
These new Children of God kept themselves to themselves, attending in each others’ company the churches and tennis courts of their choice. They were genuinely righteous, and censorious, and prudes—which puzzles many people now, when we know they were crooks, too. This was an administration with an equal fondness for Billy Graham and for break-ins. It put Tony Ulasewicz at the service of Mrs. Grundy. We can read in the transcripts how the President, one Sunday morning, left the East Room for the Oval Office to intermit prayer-breakfasting with ratfuckery. This was the dingy new Kingdom of Heaven. Seek and you shall find; ask, you will be answered; break and enter, and it shall be given to you.
There is a recurrent tendency among spiritual elects of any sort to become antinomian: precisely because one is not part of “the world,” one can use the world’s worst weapons against it without being sullied. Indeed, one is obliged to do this, to protect the suffering saints who would otherwise be helpless before the world’s malevolence. Nixon the Victim became the central object of worship in a White House convinced that God would punish the political “world” of Congress, Establishment, Bureaucracy, Academy, Press—all those fouled sources of power in the days before the Elect arrived in town. How else explain the way a “straight arrow” like Egil Krogh could take so crooked a flight?
Nixon was always Wronged; so, since the score could never be settled entirely, he felt no qualms about getting back what slight advantage he could when no one was looking. Even at the height of his power, he feels he must steal one extra vote, tell the marginal little lie. He is like a man who had to steal as a child, in order to eat, and acquired a sacred license—even a duty—to steal thenceforth; it would punish the evil that had first deprived him. Thus he took as his intimate into the Oval Office the very man who helped him try to cheat his way into the office of governor of California. Those who say Nixon did not know what kind of thing his lieutenants were up to forget that the judge who decreed in favor of plaintiffs in the fake postcard-poll case of 1962 did so on the grounds that both Haldeman and Nixon knew about the illegal tactic. Watergate is the story of a man who has just pulled off a million-dollar heist and gets caught when he hesitates to steal an apple off a passing vendor’s cart.
Nixon engages in a kind of antipolitics; a punishment of politics for what it has done to him. That is why he could never understand “the other side” in the Washington Post’s coverage of the Watergate investigation. Jeb Magruder has written that his staff was pleased when two unknown local reporters, Bernstein and Woodward, were given the break-in as their assignment. When the story did not lapse after a decent interval, Nixon conceived it as an ideological vendetta directed by Katharine Graham for the benefit of George McGovern—something to be countered by high-level threats, intimidation, and “stonewalling.” Even Henry Kissinger tried to intervene with Mrs. Graham.
Actually, if the coverage had been political, it might have failed. Very few columns or editorials played up Watergate in the election period, even at the Post. Those wanting high political sources and theoretical patterns would not have found the sneaky little paths under out-of-the-way bushes, as Woodward and Bernstein did. They thought, from the outset, they were dealing with robbers, not politicians. When their tips kept leading them toward the White House; they balked repeatedly, out of awe and fear and common sense; but the evidence kept tugging them against the pull of expectation. The editors kept them at it, but gave them little help. They must pursue their modest leads even after they wanted to be switched to “the big story” at the Ervin hearings. Others would theorize, editorialize, do the White House circuit. Theirs was the leg work, the endless doors knocked on, wrong numbers called, the days of thirty leads checked out and nothing to show for it. A leitmotiv of the book is “back to square one.”
They advanced, as it were, backward—always back to the same sources; would they talk this time? No. Then put them on the list of people to go back to. Back and back. Which became up and up. Up, scarily at the last, “to the very top” (as the Justice Department man had put it). Their sources—originally secretaries and minor functionaries—were added to when parts of the gang like Dean started dealing to get out; but there had always been people who talked because they were sincerely shaken by what was going on—not only Hugh Sloan at the outset, but the mysterious White House cooperator called “Deep Throat.” It is good to know the gang could not entirely succeed in imposing its code of omertà.
The story, despite jealousy over on the national side, stayed at the local desk. The reporters saw more of Barry Sussman (DC Editor) and Harry Rosenfeld (Metro Editor) than of Ben Bradlee (Executive Editor). Only one of the two saw, briefly, Mrs. Graham during the period covered by their book; and both of them first got a glimpse of bradlee’s house early one morning when they took him a message. They were hardly the Georgetown cocktail circuit in action.
It was precisely because they were innocently after robbers that they stumbled, at last, on Nixon. They did not pretend to understand the subtleties of antinomianism. They just knew a clue when they saw one. Indeed, their workaday opponents were not the Nixon men, but—on point after point—the editors who would not let them print stories they had all but nailed down—only to see Time or the Times get into print ahead of them. And the editors’ enemies were not in the White House; they were other publications with better sources at the Justice Department. The real setbacks, causing gloom, were those that made them lose out to the Times—even, on occasion, to the Star-News! Conversely, when Ben Bradlee crowed in triumph, it was not over Richard Nixon but Abe Rosenthal. There is something eerily appropriate, in this world of economic competition, about the fact that Nixon was nailed by two Horatio Algers of the journalistic world, comparatively lowly plodders undoing the Lowliest of Them All.
A New York Times reviewer (I might as well help keep up their rivalry) claimed that this book lost interest because of the flood of new White House material released in the form of edited transcripts. Nothing could be less true. I read the book just after completing the transcripts. It is fascinating to see the “war” (as Nixon called it) from the opposing armies’ headquarters. We can go from the reporters’ canceled interview with Kleindienst to the one with Nixon that took its place. From Oval Office talk of “giving them Segretti” to Segretti’s efforts, with Carl Bernstein, to escape being given. From Haldeman on what Dean was telling the Post to what his representative was actually saying. Not being “of the world,” the White House forces consistently misunderstood their opposition.
Nixon, trying to “wargame” situations, is fighting a phantom. He has no idea what kind of men were actually doing him the greatest damage. I wonder if he will read the book some day—in retirement. If not, he will be one of the few people who read anything yet neglect this little volume. I hope the two men write a sequel, about the second year of Watergate, since they are still on the assignment, where it all began. Meanwhile we have this cops-and-robbers story meticulously told (“Just the facts, Ma’am”), which leads to a genuine surprise ending, one the two reporters never dreamed of reaching when they started—the unveiling of our “Leader of the Free World” as just the Ratfucker-in-Chief.