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Watergate Notes

I get an appreciative chuckle whenever I tell people I am staying at the Watergate Hotel. Even before the break-in, the ten-acre aggregate comprising three cooperatives, the hotel, and two office buildings began to tickle the public fancy because the Mitchells lived here—in the cooperative known as. Watergate East—at the time when Martha, looking out of the window of her husband’s office down-town at the Justice Department, watched “the very liberal Communists, the worst kind” demonstrating in the street below.

Now the Mitchell tenure here and that of Maurice Stans are only vaguely recalled; what tourists come to look at and be photographed in front of are the office building, where the Democratic National Committee had its headquarters on the sixth floor, and the more plebeian red-roofed Howard Johnson Motor Lodge, opposite, where the listening-post of the wire-tappers was situated. Tourists also roam through the hotel lobby, buy Watergate joke material, including bugs, at the newsstand, and take a peep at the Watergate Terrace Restaurant overlooking the outdoor swimming pool (restricted to cooperative residents; there is an indoor swimming pool, with sauna, for hotel guests), where McCord and his men are supposed to have had a lobster dinner before the break-in.

As the hotel literature puts it, “The Watergate Complex, one of the most distinctive private real estate developments in the nation, offers a way of life that is complete in every respect…for you, the visitor, as well as for those who reside and/or work in this pace-setting community.” Designed by an Italian architect, the whole complex, with the exception of the office buildings, bristles with rows of stony teeth, which are a sort of coping around the balconies opening off nearly every room. The impression is of an updated medieval fortress, quite extensive, and between Watergate East and Watergate South there is what looks like a Bridge of Sighs, topped by an American flag. Those uniform graywhite teeth projecting from the curious swollen shapes, elliptical, wedge-like, semi-circular, of the building units, suggest a sea animal—a whale, somebody said, but also something sharkish. To assure privacy, balconies are separated from each other by what seem to be cement fins. Maybe the marine imagery is meant to be in harmony with the Potomac setting. The teeth, on close inspection, turn out to be made of tiny stones pressed into cement, giving a scaly effect.

Even though it is summer and not always too hot, almost nobody appears on the balconies, which are the main architectural feature; empty garden furniture stares out from them on the landscaped grounds. Once I saw a single figure, a fat woman in a pink wrapper, wander ghost-like behind her toothy parapet. Yet at some point in time, as the Ervin Committee witnesses express it, somebody must have used my balcony, for when I arrived, ten days ago, two empty beer cans (Budweiser) were lying there; this morning, finally, they were gone—the windowwasher had come by. On a few of the cooperative balconies, there are some illtended, long-suffering flowering plants. The cells of this “community” are not neighborly; no voices call across the outdoor expanse, and the rooms are effectively sound-proofed.

The sense of being in a high-security castellated fort or series of forts is added to by lower-level passages, known as Malls, which constitute a labyrinth. The whole place, in fact, is a maze, marked here and there by highly misleading signs directing you to “Les Champs,” “Mall,” “Restaurant,” “Arcade.” When you try to follow them, you either go round in circles or end up against a blank, no-entry wall. It is as if there were a war on, and the red, green, and blue directional arrows had been turned to point the wrong way in order to confuse the enemy expected to invade at sunrise. Every day, so far, I have got lost in this eerie complex, hoping to find an Espresso bar that was rumored to exist somewhere in the vicinity of “Les Champs.” Once I found myself in “Peacock Alley,” and another time standing on the verge of the forbidden swimming pool. Yesterday, though, I reached the goal, following the instructions of a porter: “You just keep goin’ around.”

This Kafkian quest for the Espresso bar had an economic motive. I was comparison-shopping the breakfasts available. The People’s Drugstore, in a “popular” region of the Mall near the hotel, is the cheapest, offering fruit juice, toasted English muffin, grape jelly, and coffee for sixty cents; the Howard Johnson, across from the famed office building, is the best value, giving you the same but with a better muffin and a choice of grape jelly or marmalade for eighty cents; the hotel Terrace Restaurant calls this—with an inferior muffin but more copious marmalade—a Continental breakfast and charges two dollars and fifty cents. The Espresso bar, which doubles as a hot-dog stand, does not serve breakfast, it turns out, but is a fairly good value for a sandwich- or salad-and-coffee lunch. It too has a “popular” clientele, and it was there I heard a young girl, yesterday, say to her girl friend, “Senator Ervin? I heard him on the radio. He’s real sharp.”

The main attraction, though, of the Watergate complex was intended, evidently, to be the shopping, ranging from low-cost, lower-level (the People’s Drugstore and a Safeway, where Senator Brooke, they say, can be seen with a shopping bag full of groceries), to unarmed robbery in “Les Champs.” There are Pierre Cardin, Gucci, Yves St. Laurent, Enzo Boutique for men, located in the “exclusive” end, and Saks and more moderate shoe and dress shops along the arcade. But you can buy almost any kind of goods and services, short of guns or a suit of armor, in these labyrinthine ways: wigs, pottery and china, jewelry, antiques, Uruguayan handicrafts, patchwork, Swedish everything, Oriental everything, flowers, liquor (including Watergate brands of scotch and bourbon, now much in demand by souvenir hunters), insurance, air tickets and hotel reservations. In the Mall, there are an optician and a US post office; a bookstore, the Savile, has gone out of business and a cheese shop is moving into the space. On the street level there are a bank and a building-and-loan association. As the hotel flyer indicates, the idea has been to make Watergate as nearly as possible self-sustaining—as though it were under siege.

This, I suppose, is the Watergate mentality, in a more general sense: a compound of money, the isolation or insulation it can buy, and fear. Though conceived as a cosmopolitan center, the result is rather pathetically sub-urban and middle-American. What it boils down to is not very different from any of the so-called shopping malls along US highways. Except that they can usually support at least a paperback bookstore.

The hotel employment policy seems to be somehow meaningful and to imply a curious notion of classification, like that distinguishing the Malls from the Arcade and Les Champs. Downstairs, in front, the help is mainly Spanish-speaking—one imagines a staff of brown-uniformed Cuban defectors, potential recruits for CREEP and the CIA. In the Terrace Restaurant, again Spanish-speaking, but in red uniforms and with a few Southeast Asians and East Europeans added—more CIA material? Upstairs, the chambermaids and maintenance men, who constitute the core of the hotel invisible from below, are nearly all black; I think of Ralph Ellison and his invisible man. Probably there is a key to employment policy here that eludes me; maybe it is artistic—a matter of subtle color blends and contrasts, designed to please the eye.

A French friend, in town for a picture story on the hearings, says he thinks that the Americans are using Watergate to cleanse themselves of guilt for Vietnam. As he says this, a light goes on in my mind. Yes, he is right; if it had not been for Vietnam, the scandal of the break-in might have soon dropped from notice like previous scandals—a tempest in a teapot.

I had assumed it was just luck, a happy coincidence of independent factors—the zeal of the Washington Post in tracking down the story, Judge Sirica’s determination to be told the truth, the early leaks coming from the Justice Department and the FBI—that had brought about disclosure and led to what is now spoken of as a turning point in the nation’s history or at least of Richard Nixon’s place in it. None of these factors singly would have sufficed, but all of them converging, plus Senator Ervin, did it, and many editorialists took pride in this as showing that the American system—the judiciary, the press, the Congress—worked to curb the arrogant power of the executive. No doubt this is true (though we have not yet seen the end), but without another factor—Vietnam—the pursuit of truth, I now feel, might have been less vigorous and public interest slight.

Because of Vietnam, the country suddenly wants to be “clean,” as my French friend said. Watergate is the scrubbing brush, sometimes painful to the skin, since it is not easy on the national touchiness to have all those cosmetics scrubbed away. Watergate hurts many simple patriots, to the point where they don’t want to hear about it. This is understandable when you think of Nixon’s “landslide”—the millions of voters who must to some degree have identified themselves with the image he presented on the TV screen. What is surprising is the turn-about: the vast numbers that now watch the rapid erosion of that image without too much complaint. Most of those viewers participated with Richard Nixon and with LBJ before him in the crime of Vietnam.

It is worth examining the fact that those most prominent now in the pursuit of truth about Watergate (i.e., about the character-potentialities of the President) were not, to say the least, among the leading opponents of the war in Vietnam. I do not know Judge Sirica’s voting record but I do not recall seeing his name on any manifesto; the same for Archibald Cox: Of the senators on the Ervin Committee I wonder how many took a stand against the war. On the McGovern-Hatfield amendment cutting off funds for Indochina after December 31, 1971—scarcely the acid test—two, Montoya and Inouye, voted yes. We know the position of Goldwater, who is now calling for the truth, and I believe him. Judge Sirica, the senators of the Committee, and Goldwater must be fairly representative of that almost consistent majority that answered “Approve” when asked by pollsters for their opinion of US policy in Vietnam.

The innocent in that crime, if anybody can be considered so, i.e., the liberals and radicals who spoke out and demonstrated, have been taking rather a back seat in the Watergate investigation. As far as the Congress goes, this is being ascribed to a Democratic party strategy of letting the Republicans carry the ball, to avoid giving any appearance of narrow partisanship: let his own party call for Nixon’s impeachment or go to him and demand that he resign. No doubt that strategy is operating, but there is something deeper involved that has compelled conservatives of both parties to play leading roles in the investigation and compels ordinary lifelong Republicans to demand the truth almost more loudly than the rest of us—possibly because they had had no suspicion of it before.

One can say that Watergate is a good test to determine who is really a conservative and who just pretends to be: Goldwater passes the test; Senator Ervin passes with honors; Agnew fails; William Buckley gets a D. But are there, then, as many true conservatives in the country as poll results on Watergate (58 percent think Nixon was in on it, after if not before) by this criterion would seem to show? I wonder, having found it difficult in my private, pre-Watergate experience to meet more than one or two, though I have gone out with a Diogenes lantern.

It might be safer to conclude that 58 percent of the nation still has some common sense left and can be trusted to serve on a jury. But I will go further and say that a considerable percent of that percent (reducing the figure to allow for those who think Nixon guilty but regard it as “just politics,” who are in other words apolitical and don’t care) has a conscience. On which Vietnam has weighed. Despite all rationalization. Napalm, defoliants, area bombing, Lazy Dogs, anti-personnel missiles, these means to achieve an end presumed to be virtuous have cost this country much secret pain.

Watergate too has been justified before the Senate Committee as a means to achieve a similar though not identical end: the defeat of subversion through the re-election of Nixon. Watergate too is advanced technology enlisted in the service of patriotism. Of course the means of Watergate are much less repellent than napalm and cluster bombs. Wire-tapping doesn’t “hurt anybody.” That may be why the emerging truth of Watergate could be faced day after day by such a large part of the US population. It did not seem, at the beginning, too heavy a load for the national conscience to shoulder, and confession would have been good for the White House collective soul. Yet confession did not come; Nixon did not make “a clean breast” in his much awaited April 30 television appearance. He sacrificed Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Kleindienst, Dean to the gods of retribution but failed to satisfy them. The guilty secrets remained unadmitted and in fact increased and multiplied, or, rather, first suspicion, then knowledge of them did.

It was no longer just the little sin of wire-tapping but lying, perjury, bribery, subversion—a different kind—of justice, misuse of funds, fraud, extortion, forgery. The discovered guilt spread till it embraced nearly every common crime short of rape and murder, enveloping Agnew’s fund-raising dinner, reaching out to San Clemente and touching Nixon’s office chair, his lamp, his septic tank, possession of which might be regarded (unless he could show otherwise) as evidence of a theft of public money. Certainly this kind of venality—charging off personal expenses to the company—is S.O.P. among certain categories of American businessmen, and Nixon may have been incapable of distinguishing the nation from a company of which he was chairman of the board.

It is quite likely that he was unaware of any wrongdoing in many of the shady operations that have come to light: wire-tapping of rival firms is common in business, for instance. Except in the matters of subornation of perjury, he and his aides did not make any great departure from the prevailing business ethic. Startled by the public outcry, he may have suddenly waked up to the awareness of another world, with other standards from those he and his associates were accustomed to.

In any case, unable to face the louder and louder music, he found no way of “containing” the Watergate scandal. Meanwhile every fresh disclosure, far from exhausting the public capacity for shock, whetted the appetite for more and worse revelations, as though the desire for truth was unslakable, had no limits, although in normal circumstances this is seldom the case: “Don’t tell me any more” is a common plea, except in crises of sexual jealousy.

The public’s ability to absorb more shocks than it was originally prepared for can be explained by the residue of guilt left over from Vietnam, guilt unadmitted by the majority and therefore all the more in need of relief. There has been much talk about atonement in the Senate Committee’s proceedings, some of it hypocritical on the part of both senators and witnesses. Senator Baker’s repeated questions about motive suggest that he is playing a TV role of spiritual surgeon and healer, and only once, I feel, did his probing elicit a truthful answer; when Herbert Porter told him, “I did not do it [perjury] for money…for power…for position. My vanity was appealed to. They said I was talked about in high councils…that I was an honest man.”

Porter said he had recognized, looking back, a weakness in himself he had not been conscious of. This simple, direct, and rather touching answer, however, did not seem to be what Senator Baker had been after when he talked of “atonement”; if I recall right, he quickly dropped the subject. As for Jeb Stuart Magruder, I myself was less saddened by the fact that Williams College had been unable to teach him Ethics (it would have been a tough job) than by the grammar it had left him with: “Mitchell told he and I” would be a fair sample. John Dean had rather better grammar and was more saturnine: On being asked by Montoya if he felt “better now,” he answered, “I am not here as a sinner in a confessional.”

Yet behind all the moralizing, I think, there is some notion of a genuine need for atonement and purification. Obviously, identification of the guilty in Watergate and associated crimes will not “make up” for Vietnam or wash it away, but I do not blame anybody for the wish and even think it a good thing. You cannot undo Vietnam, but that is true of most offenses, certainly all those involving murder, where no restitution is possible. You can’t bring back the dead, and with many other wrongs, when contrition arrives, it is generally too late.

Atonement is directed not toward the victims but toward the crime, that is toward the injury inflicted by the crime—on God or on the fragile social tissue holding living beings together. Some degree of repair here is possible or at least the attempt is salutary and may benefit the criminal, if nobody else. Ever since my mind and emotions became centered on Vietnam, I have been thinking about the problem of purgation and atonement. Perhaps this is due, a little, to living in France throughout this period, where so many of the early churches, abbeys, and hospitals you visit are memorials of some horrible blood crime committed by a high-placed person, king, duke, or noble. This is particularly true of Normandy and the Plantagenet country, where there was an unusual degree of violence. These religious buildings were blood money exacted by God, i.e., by the conscience, never by the Church. In other words, they were not a punishment but a self-punishment and served a double purpose: of symbolically washing away the blood the murderer had shed and of making that blood, so to speak, indelible, crying out to Heaven for as long as the abbey-church or Old Men’s Home would stand.

Modern people, by contrast, have no way of dealing with guilt, which is probably why they so seldom acknowledge it. I used to think about public men like McNamara, who evidently saw the error of his ways and left LBJ’s government. When anybody has done anything as bad as what they did, there ought to be some possibility of redemption. McNamara, in my opinion, would have been better off had he retired to a monastery rather than to the World Bank. McGeorge Bundy, if penitent, scarcely demonstrated it by his switch to the Ford Foundation. The old recourse of philanthropy used by big-scale public sinners like Carnegie, Frick, and Rockefeller to signify, if not atonement, repayment of a slight debt to humanity is now just another tax write-off. Reparations are paid, if at all, by governments, never by an individual war criminal.

It is impossible to see Nixon retiring to a monastery or its equivalent, but with LBJ one could just barely picture some Texan Thebaid, where he might have dotted the land with anchorite’s cells for himself and his cronies. If the various Watergate inquiries, trials, civil suits, and grand jury hearings are, as I feel, steps toward purgation, cathartic efforts, on the part of the country as a whole, direct atonement is being suggested, though, only to those pink-faced young men, wearing earnest glasses, who have appeared before the Ervin Committee. It is as if they were expected, through type casting, like little oblates, to expiate all the nation’s sins against its own conception of itself. “Mr. Porter,” declared Senator Ervin, “you give the appearance of a man who was brought up in a good home.” “Yes, Senator, I was.” The thought, certainly, would not occur to anybody about John Mitchell, who looks as if he were brought up in a reformatory. The burden of repentance is being offered to the young Republicans or to those among them, like Porter and Hugh Sloan, who have a quality of innocence.

Yet what are they supposed to do, exactly, to redeem themselves and their country? This is not clear. The free admission of wrongdoing is a first step, but where are they meant to go from there? They have been trained in American business life, and that, presumably, is what they will return to, as they try to “reinstate themselves” in society. But the society itself is corrupted, as their very appearance before the Senate interrogators demonstrates. They do not belong in jail, but the good home of which Senator Ervin spoke—and we all knew what he meant—is situated almost in another century.

Metaphorically speaking, it is America, the “old” parental America, which Senator Ervin still believes in. This house, he feels, can be cleaned and restored to at least a semi-pristine condition. That is why he is stubbornly convinced that the hearings will arrive at their destination—the truth. “But if it doesn’t come out that way?” I said to him. “If they fail?” Just take it as a hypothesis.” “I refuse to entertain the thought,” was his answer,as though the thought was a felon seeking entry into his mental house. He is becoming a folk hero because of that stout, old-fashioned attitude. I hope he is right, but if he is right and nothing then happens—a strong possibility—then we are worse off than we were before. If we know, that is, and don’t act, can find no frame for action, Nixon and his sly firm, knowing that we know and won’t do anything, will have nothing more to fear.

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