The Senate Watergate Report
The Great Cover-Up: Nixon and the Scandal of Watergate
The Palace Guard
The Fall of a President
Undercover: Memoirs of an American Secret Agent
No Final Victories
Even at the present modest distance from Watergate one is left with the somewhat depressing conclusion that the lifeblood of scandals, political as much as sexual, is detail. Depressing, because detail after all is what people forget first. Too soon we are left with “general lessons” and the trite impedimenta of editorial writers and other chartered accountants of our social and moral inventory.
Consider the case of Braniff Airways. It does not cost much to denounce, deplore, and otherwise animadvert on the huge sums of money forthcoming in 1971 and 1972 to fill Nixon’s war chest. Since such sums will always be forthcoming to fill political war chests the achievements of Maurice Stans are not really of much value as general historical parables. But it is the details of how Braniff Airways transferred the modest sum of $40,000 to Stans’s safe in the CREEP offices that excite the imagination.
On March 1, 1972, Harding Lawrence, chairman of the board of Braniff, gave Stans $10,000 in cash, as an unsolicited contribution. As Lawrence later related it to investigators for the Ervin Committee, Stans thanked him for the contribution but stated that he felt Braniff executives could do more because “the company was doing much better than the rest of the industry.” He suggested that a donation in the neighborhood of $100,000 would be more appropriate.
Lawrence decided that $40,000 was as far as Braniff would go, and delegated a group of executives to get the money, washed clean of “corporate” contamination, into Stans’s hands before the April 7 deadline, when donors would have to go public. This group opted for a Central American connection. Camilo Fabrega, Braniff’s manager in Panama, owned and controlled a firm called Camfab, described in the investigative literature as “a Panamanian entity.” A Braniff voucher was issued, approving the payment of $40,000 to Camfab for “expenses and services,” and the check was entered on Braniff’s books as an account receivable, due from Camfab.
The check was forwarded to Fabrega, who endorsed it on behalf of Camfab and cashed it at a bank in Panama. He returned the proceeds in US currency to Braniff officials in Dallas. Finally Lawrence and two colleagues delivered the money to Stans. But the Braniff executives now had the problem of paying off and liquidating the account receivable. So a supply of special ticket stock was given to Fabrega. Tickets written on this stock were sold at the ticket counters only by the supervisor in the Braniff Panama office, generally for cash. If a customer wanted to pay by check then regular tickets were used. The receipts for these cash sales were not accounted for as ticket receipts but applied to the liquidation of the account receivable from the Panamanian entity. Then, on his trips from Panama to the Dallas office, Fabrega would take the cash and deliver it to Braniff. The long-suffering Fabrega described these deliveries to investigators as “unusual.”
Despite the best efforts of the Panamanian sales office only $27,000 worth of sales in uncontrolled ticket stock had been achieved by December, 1972. Braniff was keen to liquidate the account by the end of the year, so Fabrega got a personal loan for $13,000 from a Panamanian bank, paid back Braniff, and then reimbursed himself by further sales of the uncontrolled ticket stock through early 1973. There was no final tax problem, since Braniff’s accounting procedures require that only ticket sales outstanding as of July 31 of any year are taken into income. And by July 31, 1973, the nine Braniff officers who had theoretically made the contribution hastened—as Watergate exploded—to repay Braniff the $40,000 which had been contributed from unrecorded ticket sales, and the sum was credited by Braniff to an unearned passenger transportation account. No request was ever made to CREEP to return the contribution.
On November 12, 1973, Lawrence and Braniff pleaded guilty to nonwillful violations of campaign law, and the company was fined $5,000 and Lawrence $1,000.
All through the early part of 1972 similar prodigies of corporate artifice were being achieved. Ashland Oil gave Stans $100,000, disbursing this from Ashland Petroleum-Gabon, an African subsidiary, and charging it off to an undeveloped leasehold. The actual $100,000 was picked up in cash in Geneva by William Seaton, the vice chairman of Ashland’s board. It was delivered on April 3, 1972, by Clyde Webb, a vice president of Ashland, to Stans, who “dumped it in the drawer of his desk and said ‘thank you.’ ” (As reported in the Watergate hearings.)
Orin Atkins, Ashland’s chief executive officer, was asked at the hearings why the decision was made to draw the money in Switzerland. “Well,” he said, “$100,000 in cash is a commodity which US banks, I do not believe, normally deal in from day to day. But I think the Swiss, being a more sophisticated financial society than ours, I believe, are used to dealing in such numbers, and it does not excite anybody’s curiosity if you walk in and ask for $100,000 out of a Swiss bank. If you did that in the United States, everybody and his brother would be wondering what you did with it.”
Atkins was asked why he wanted to make the illegal gift. “Being a relatively unknown corporation, despite our size,” he answered, “we felt we needed something that would be sort of a calling card.” He further agreed that modern methods of raising campaign contributions now bordered on extortion. Such a view was more graphically expressed by George Spater, chairman of the board of American Airlines.
Describing the motives that impelled American Airlines to pass $100,000 to Stans through its Lebanese agent, Spater said, “It is something like the old medieval maps that show a flat world and then what they called ‘terra incognito’ [sic, though you cannot tell if the slip is Atkins’s or the committee transcriber’s, or the typesetter’s at Dell] with fierce animals lying around the fringes of this map. You just don’t know what is going to happen to you if you get off it. I think sometimes, the fear of the unknown may be more terrifying than fear of the known.”
These little corporate adventure stories come from the Senate Watergate Report, handily available in two paperback volumes. They are fun to read anyway, but they also raise the question of what sort of perspective is most appropriate for Watergate.
The problem is that the parts of Watergate, whether represented by Braniff’s adventures or some other caper, are, as it were, much greater than its sum—at least so far accounted for. This is easy enough to comprehend just by running one’s eye down the index to the Senate Watergate Report. Apart from the section on the break-in and cover-up, there are extensive and detailed chapters on campaign practices (everything from the Diem cable incident to Dita Beard), the use of the “incumbency-responsiveness program” (use of federal resources to influence the election), the Hughes-Rebozo investigation, campaign financing, the milk fund, the Humphrey and Mills campaigns, and finally Baker’s minority report on the CIA and Watergate.
These are the parts, in bare outline—buttressed by the Judiciary Committee volumes and the presidential transcripts. But what is the sum, as we now perceive it? Evidently the answer to that is the resignation of Nixon, evicted from office by tenacious investigation and popular outrage. In this account, more or less the trajectory of Barry Sussman’s The Great Cover-Up, Watergate is seen as melodrama, starting on June 17, 1972, and culminating on August 9, 1974. Everything is centered around the gradual exposure of P, his abandonment of position after position, until finally he is forced to deliver up the June 23 tape and thus ensure his downfall.
As a Washington Post editor’s perception of the melodrama, Sussman’s book is interesting, particularly in his allotment of responsibility for the exposure of the scandal. This has been a matter of some dispute. A popular early version had it that Woodward and Bernstein, through determined and lonely effort, forced Watergate onto the front page of the Washington Post and kept it there long enough for official agencies to be stimulated into action. This was controverted, particularly by Edward Jay Epstein in an article in Commentary which proposed that official agencies, notably the FBI and the federal prosecutors in Washington DC, were in possession of the important facts within days of the break-in and the main achievement of the journalists was to be the recipients of interested leaks. The conclusion of this line of reasoning is that Nixon fell through the sabotage of bureaucracies, which kept the pumps of public disclosure discreetly but consistently primed.
The symbol for this theory becomes Deep Throat, Woodward’s and Bernstein’s renowned source. Throat, whether he was—as many believe—Mark Felt, then second in command at the FBI, or some other well-informed person in one of the departments or agencies, encapsulates in his talkative role the reason why Watergate would not go away. Too many established bureaucratic interests felt threatened by the Nixon gang and used the media to generate enough public clamor to ensure his ouster.
Sussman, unsurprisingly, disputes this attack on the achievements of his newspaper. In the period of the Washington Post‘s true glory, between the break-in and the election, he avers that Woodward and Bernstein did unearth facts, rather than have them handed over on a platter. Crucially, the Post published the story of the Dahlberg check, which was washed through Mexico and finally ended up in Barker’s bank account, thus linking the burglars firmly to CREEP. The facts here seem to be that Bernstein had the initiative to realize that a trip to interview the chief investigator in the prosecutor’s office in Miami would be useful. Dardis, the investigator, then showed Bernstein the Dahlberg check. Even before this the most important journalistic discovery of all was probably done by the Post‘s regular police reporter who had sufficiently good connections with the Washington Police Department to be shown the famous address book with Hunt’s White House telephone number in it.
Though he is firm in retaining praise to his newspaper where he thinks it due, Sussman is scrupulous in awarding credit in other directions—notably to Sirica, McCord, and Pat Gray, who insisted during his confirmation hearings in forcing down the throats of uninterested senators the news that it was Dean who was instrumental in passing FBI reports on to various parties involved in the cover-up. Thus, in the final Disclosure Awards, everyone gets some credit—the Post, the prosecutors, the Ervin Committee, Gray, Butterfield, the Supreme Court, and finally P himself, thrusting out Cox and thrusting forward his tapes.
Sussman’s book is, I am sure, one among many which will deal with Watergate in this manner: a thriller with a happy ending. Or rather, moderately happy. The pardon was a damaging blow to this type of Watergate literature, making it evidently more difficult to read Watergate as an encouraging parable of virtuous and ultimately triumphant democracy. Actually Sussman himself—since he was neither an editorial writer nor a columnist—is somewhat cynical about the vigor of democracy as evidenced by Watergate, preferring to imply that it was really a chapter of lucky accidents, against the tilt of the system, which finally brought about Nixon’s downfall.