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Watergate

I

It is five months now since I left the Senate Caucus Room. Helms, the former CIA director, was testifying before the Committee that Thursday—thin, elegant, debonair, the only witness insouciant enough to smoke cigarettes in the witness chair. He was followed by General Cushman, who was followed, on Friday, by General Walters, both CIA brass and beefy. The next week came Pat Gray, former Attorney General Kleindienst, and Assistant Attorney General Henry Petersen, each in his own way an emotional witness, service-oriented and wearing Watergate wound-stripes. After that, the Committee went home for what was left of the summer—high time.

Something had happened, probably during the Ehrlichman week, to destroy the “spirit of wonderful unanimity” of which Senator Ervin had spoken so feelingly during the early stages of the tapes confrontation. When the Committee resumed hearings in the fall, it was more disunited than ever. There have been reports and rumors of fighting within the staff between majority and minority appointees, of dissatisfaction with Sam Dash, but these internal troubles may be mere localized symptoms of a general collapse. At the height of its success, seemingly in the prime of life, the Committee behaved like a broken man, and the public was quick to sense this and demonstrate boredom. The lie put about by the Nixon people during the exciting, electrifying months of June and July, that the public was fed up with the hearings and all the coverage, in due time became true.

Those who watched on television during late September (I was no longer in America) said the low point came when Patrick Buchanan, the White House speech writer, was able to make fools of the senators. For me, the low point had come before that, in the failure to call Colson to testify. Colson was a key figure, in my view the key figure who could have unlocked the mystery, if there really is one, of who ordered the Watergate break-ins. Though he was not Liddy’s sponsor (that was Egil Krogh), he had gone out of channels to press for action on the Liddy project, back in February, when the other principals—Mitchell, Dean, Magruder—were dragging their feet.

That is, if Jeb Magruder can be believed. The master of dirty tricks had called Magruder one evening “and asked me, in a sense, would we get off the stick and get the budget approved for Mr. Liddy’s plans, that we needed information, particularly on Mr. O’Brien.” Unfortunately for Magruder, Fred LaRue, who he said was present during this conversation, had no recollection of it. Yet Dean accepted Magruder’s word that there had been pressure on him from Colson and not just on that one occasion. Dean had the impression that Colson was on Magruder’s neck.

And even if one wonders about Magruder, there is the fact that it was Colson who detailed Howard Hunt, his employee and long-time protégé, to work on the Gemstone operation with Liddy and McCord, giving him time off from his own projects. Colson denied McCord’s assertion that he had had prior knowledge of Gemstone and was supported by Hunt in an affidavit sworn to on April 5, 1973. Then, appearing before the Committee in September, Hunt changed his story: he did remember one or more conversations with Colson about the Liddy plans and in fact remembered telling him back in January 1972 of his intention to recruit the same team of Cuban-Americans he and Liddy had used in the burglary of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist. With the addition of the Cubans to the original nucleus, the Watergate break-in became operational.

Of all Nixon’s counselors, Colson thus appears to have been not only the most zealous in pushing for Gemstone but also—a further sign of zeal—the most familiar with the mode and staffing of the operation. McCord testified that a typewritten step-by-step plan for the break-in, which Hunt showed him in his office, was being taken, he understood, to show Colson. This was more than a conjecture.

…at one point, he held this plan in his hands, and his words were, he interjected the name of Mr. Colson into the conversation at that point, words to the effect, “I will see Colson.” And he held the paper in his hand in this sense. From that statement, I drew the conclusion that he was going to see Mr. Colson and discuss our giving him the operational plan.

If Mitchell ever got any such blueprints or was aware of a Cuban component in the personnel, no witness has been able to say so. The same with Haldeman. Nobody, not even Magruder, has claimed that the Gemstone memos Haldeman received through Strachan contained any programmed “specifics.” Possibly this is just a difference of temperament: Colson eager and pushy, the others prudent and incurious.

The Senate panel’s excuse for not calling Colson when hearings resumed late in September was that they had heard him in executive session, where he had taken the Fifth Amendment on every question put to him. Even so, the Committee might have let the public see him take it, in response to counsel’s questions: “I refuse to answer on the ground of self-incrimination,” “I refuse to answer,” “I refuse to answer,” “I refuse….” He would have been the only witness before the Committee to take the Fifth in open session. Liddy had invoked it in executive session, just as he had refused to take the stand in his own defense in Judge Sirica’s court. In jail he has maintained his silence, though he could bargain his way out if he would talk. The Colson-Liddy axis represents the irreducible hard core of resistance to investigation of Watergate, as on another plane does Nixon himself. It would have been educational for the public to watch the spectacle (martyrdom, he would have called it) of the recusant Colson in the Caucus Room and draw the analogies.

A second (or third) low point was reached in October when Senator Ervin, summoned from New Orleans to the Oval Office, agreed to the so-called Stennis compromise, by which Nixon would give the tapes to Senator Stennis, an ancient, infirm, Southern reactionary, to listen to and check against the summaries the White House would furnish the Committee. Senator Baker, found in Chicago, agreed too, but this was not surprising since Baker for some time had been inching toward the Administration, having concluded (I would assume) that that was the winning side. The shock was Sam Ervin. Even though he soon retracted his agreement, declaring that the compromise had been misrepresented to him (he had understood that the Committee would get transcripts, not summaries, and had been allowed to think that Archie Cox had accepted the compromise), he sounded unlike himself, befuddled and vague. How could the old man, looking benign and dreamy in that Oval Office rogues’ gallery, have welcomed a Trojan horse into his so long and stoutly defended territory? A country lawyer looks a gift horse in the mouth.

The answer, I am afraid, is that most men have a fatal weakness or—to stay in Troy—an Achilles heel, and Nixon had found Ervin’s. Ervin is a hawk. We had forgotten or all but forgotten it in our affection for his love of liberty, Shakespeare, and the Bill of Rights. But Nixon had not. When the Stennis-compromise was proposed, the Middle East crisis was at its height, a confrontation with the Soviets was looming, and the White House played on the old warrior’s patriotic sentiments, emphasizing the need for national unity in the impending showdown. Ervin succumbed. Well, every good man pays for his sins, and Senator Sam paid for a lifetime of being a hawk; he was diminished in the public eye and probably in his own. The sudden loss of his heroic stature made him seem pathetic, a deflated windbag still tiresomely huffing and puffing.

Yet one would have to have a very short memory to join the ravens dining on his flesh. The Ervin Committee served the country well in an emergency, and if it has now outlived its function, that is hardly a reason for minimizing what it did. Rather the contrary: the proof that it served its purpose is that it is now regarded as obsolete. The accomplishments of the Committee can be measured by asking ourselves where we would be today if it had never held hearings. Nixon would be nowhere near impeachment or resignation if the tapes had not caught him in their toils, and we might never have known of their existence without the Ervin Committee—if a junior staff member, routinely questioning Alexander Butterfield, had not chanced to ask the right question.

And it was a passage in John Dean’s testimony before the Committee that had led Donald Sanders, the deputy minority counsel, to put the question to Butterfield: Dean had got the feeling, he said, that his April 15, 1973, conversation with Nixon was being taped. Perhaps Archie Cox and his staff would have uncovered, in time, the same information, but that is not sure. Moreover, without the Ervin Committee, Cox, Richardson, and Ruckelshaus would no doubt still be in place: the Saturday night massacre grew out of the Butterfield disclosure. Indeed, without the Ervin Committee, there might never have been a Special Prosecutor Cox to fire.

The tapes have always been the crux of the case against Nixon, and the public has always understood that, despite the pleas of liberal editorialists who begged for greater seriousness, concentration on the main issues, compared to which the tapes were a childish distraction, trivial sensational stuff out of a whodunit. The fear that the tapes would be tampered with, based on ordinary common sense, has been with the public since the very first day. The only wonder is that they were not destroyed altogether and then declared to be “missing,” like the two under subpoena that the White House now says were never made. Why eight erasures in the eighteen-and-a-half-minute gap? Why not rub the whole thing out?* Nixon believes that there is material favorable to him in what remains of that June 20 “meeting” with Haldeman, but how can scraps of a conversation exonerate him when the surrounding parts have been obliterated? The public, unlike Senator Hugh Scott, is not such a fool, which is why, as Nixon’s spokesmen now state frankly, the public must never be allowed to see them.

That the pursuit of the tapes was chasing after a will-o’-the-wisp is something else. It took no prophetic gift to foresee that even if captured they would not tell us what was on them, for the simple reason that they would not be permitted to. But the handling of the sought-after tapes by Nixon and his aides has told us a great deal or, rather, has confirmed our suspicions that something here is not kosher, Mr. Kalmbach, to quote Tony Ulasewicz. The handling has turned suspicion into the nearest approximation to certainty one can have outside of signed confessions by Nixon and his associates.

  1. *

    The hypothesis published in Science magazine—that the panel of six experts appointed by Judge Sirica failed to take account of the possibility of electrical failure of a component in Rose Mary Woods’s machine—may in fact clear up this little mystery. As the author of the Science article, Nicholas Wade, writing in The Washington Post in answer to Joseph Alsop, points out, the Dektor hypothesis, even if proved right, would still leave the eighteen-and-a-half-minute gap or continuous buzz to be explained. How did that happen? Someone must have held the machine on “Record” for eighteen and a half minutes, thereby effecting the erasure. One big erasure, rather than eight little ones. If you accept Rose Mary Woods’s explanation, that she accidently pressed the Record button and kept her foot on the pedal during a five-minute telephone call, you are left with thirteen and a half minutes of unaccountable buzz.

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