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Propaganda of the Victors

But his is the view of the foot soldier rather than of the media captains who advanced into the thickets of Watergate with trepidation and who were inclined to beat a retreat at each untoward rustle in the undergrowth. It is easy now to forget that there were weeks and even months between June, 1972, and August, 1974, when the press and television were inclined to give up on Watergate, fearing the famous backlash, and more specifically vindictive retribution from Nixon. It was, after all, far from clear until July of this year that Nixon would be impeached, and unknown until the start of August that he would have to go. Examination of the newspapers and magazines in June shows that discretion was waging a stubborn and promising battle with valor.

Proof, if such was needed, of the eagerness with which the newspapers and networks tip their collective cap to the system was of course provided by the firestorm of praise for the above-mentioned system just after Nixon’s resignation and by the subsequent reluctance of the major newspapers and indeed television companies to examine the details of the Ford pardon.

So the media view of Watergate, which consorts to some extent with the popular view, remains somewhat limited. Some bad men gained access to the White House, went too far, and were ejected. Dan Rather’s and Gary Paul Gates’s The Palace Guard has its place in this version of history. Their series of portraits of Nixon’s entourage—notably Haldeman and Ehrlichman—has its jolly moments. No charge is too petty to be leveled against the duo in the days of their disgrace. “A woman who used to play [tennis] against Ehrlichman on occasion recalls that almost every time she hit a shot close to the baseline he would holler ‘out’ and claim the point for himself, even though she often had the feeling the ball was really in bounds and should have been her point.” I’m sure Ehrlichman would have a different recollection of this, though no one would be much inclined to believe the poor fellow now.

The White House tales of Rather and Gates do, I suppose, add to our fund of knowledge about how it operated under Nixon. Their judgments of the California mafia remain fairly conventional, and they shun what one might call the more piquant aspects of Nixon’s or Haldeman’s recruitment policy: for example the youthful and pretty aspect of most of the aides. There do not seem to have been many ugly or even repulsive young fellows wandering around the White House corridors then, though of course these zealous Ariels were complemented by Ulasewicz and the other Calibans out in the field with their telephone bugs and satchels of $100 bills.

A bleaker estimate of the Rather-Gates book might include some reflections on its timing. In fact Rather and Gates offered in essence the same profiles to an American monthly magazine just before Nixon’s trip to China. The editor eagerly agreed, but nothing came forth in the way of prose. Taxed by the editor Rather said that it seemed to him he would be more useful “working from the inside” of the White House. The implication was that any frank talk about Haldeman and Ehrlichman and the others at that time would probably get Rather ejected from his job as White House correspondent for CBS. It took Watergate to terminate this enforced collusion of journalists with the objects of their attention. It is easy enough now to kick Haldeman and Ehrlichman around and say they cheated at tennis, but one would imagine that this is only a temporary phase of frank talking and that no one will be lightly alleging that Robert Hartman or Donald Rumsfeld fixes the deck at a game of poker.

The ultimate expression of the simple Watergate story line comes in Howard Simons’s and Ben Bradlee’s introduction to a collection of essays by Washington Post writers, which was published as a supplement the day after Nixon resigned. Here is their punchy obituary to the scandal:

The best journalists know they are as strong and frail as other human beings. Other Presidents liked them more than Richard Nixon did, and perhaps they responded by liking other Presidents more than they liked Richard Nixon. But during the 2,027 days of the Nixon presidency some of the men closest to the President decided they had a better notion of how to govern than anyone else in the historic past of this country. They substituted contempt for communication, hubris for humility, and lèse-majesté for law and order. And so with the judiciary and the legislature, the fourth branch of government—the press—responded instinctively and inevitably to the threat to the fragile experiment that is democracy.

It is depressing that grown men can permit this kind of writing to see the light of day and depressing too that the grown men in question were editor and managing editor of the Washington Post. But these brisk clichés do boil down, in one awful paragraph, the “truth” of Watergate as it is embalmed in some of these books and will be in many more.

It is therefore something of a relief to get to E. Howard Hunt’s latest burst of typewriter fire—Undercover: Memoirs of an American Secret Agent. Hunt has stated, since the completion of this book, that many of his statements anterior to his October appearance in the cover-up trial are false. No fan of Hunt will be distressed or even surprised at such a confession. In fact one would think slightly the less of this seasoned conspirator if he insisted too much he was telling the truth. But his book is a relief as an antidote to the view, outlined and illustrated above, that Watergate was an aberration.

The basic point of Hunt’s reflections—apart from some dutiful breast-beating near the end—is that the aberrations in Watergate were (a) that he was caught and (b) that he was regarded as a criminal. He seems to have a point, in that his entire career was devoted to Watergate-type activity, for which he was well paid and congratulated by his superiors. A man who helped to organize the coup against Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954, helped to organize the Bay of Pigs invasion, oversaw the burglarizing of a foreign embassy in Mexico City by a team of CIA safe-crackers—just to mention some of the exploits Hunt boasts of—has genuine grounds for complaint when he is finally jailed for operations promoted by his White House superiors and helped along with equipment by his old agency.

The righteous indignation of the seasoned veteran of dirty tricks on a world-wide scale is a welcome departure from the soothing parables of other writers on Watergate. And as one glides along in the fluent stream of his recollections about the CIA, and then his transfer to the CIA-front Mullen Co., and his subsequent peregrinations between the Mullen Co. and the White House, one realizes with full force how much is still omitted from the parables.

To pursue this evident lack of clarity a little further, it is still not generally known who ordered the break-in to the Democratic National Committee and what the motive for the break-in actually was. Even if we lay responsibility for the order at the foot of P’s hospital bed we are still left with the Why.

Larry O’Brien in his political autobiography No Final Victories brusquely dismisses more Byzantine explanations in favor of what he regards as the obvious: “What was the ‘real reason’ for the Watergate break-in? The political realities and the facts show conclusively that the objective of Watergate was to secure all possible information that would help destroy the Democratic Party and its chairman. It is as simple as that.” One can certainly assume with confidence that the object at all times of the Nixon gang was to destroy both the Democratic Party and O’Brien. Jeb Magruder has said that O’Brien “was their most professional political operator. So we hoped that information might discredit him.” But what sort of information were the burglars after? O’Brien does not speculate.

One reasonably simple suggestion which seems never to have been publicly advanced is that Nixon and his fellow strategists were simply terrified that at the last minute a cabal of high-level fixers in the Democratic Party would conspire together to deny the nomination of the man the White House most wanted to see as presidential candidate in 1972—George McGovern. A prime objective of White House strategy had been to take all possible steps to eliminate or at least discredit rivals of McGovern. It must have seemed clear to the Nixon people that one place such a cabal might do some plotting would be in the DNC, and that at the very least the cabal would be in close touch with O’Brien.

The nearest O’Brien gets in his book toward providing any actual evidence that such maneuverings might have been going on is the following recollection: “A few weeks before the National Convention was to open in Miami I received an unexpected visit from one of George Meany’s chief political advisers. The man indicated, in rather a roundabout way, that he hoped some action could be taken to stop a McGovern nomination.” O’Brien continues, rather virtuously, “I made it clear that I was neutral with regard to the nomination and would continue to be. I assumed a stop McGovern effort would develop at the Convention, but I was not going to be part of it. Perhaps my visitor hoped that I, by some ruling at the Convention, could help stop McGovern.”

It is possible that O’Brien is being a little less than frank about his own emotions toward a stop-McGovern plan. But even if this were not so, it is clear that the mere knowledge of such a visit by a Meany representative to O’Brien, whether at the DNC or elsewhere, would have stimulated an overwhelming desire among the Nixon forces to find out more.

O’Brien is particularly keen to rebut two other theories of the break-in. The first does not explain the motive, but it accounts for the successful capture of the burglars—viz. that O’Brien had been tipped off that a break-in was going to take place and thus had the Washington police department alerted. If this were true O’Brien would merely be joining other people and agencies who could arguably have had foreknowledge—apart from the actual planners and perpetrators themselves. The CIA had multiple sources of information, including Hunt, Martinez—who was on the CIA pay roll—McCord, and at a further remove, Robert Bennett, who has told Les Whitten, associate of Jack Anderson, that he knew of the break-in plan at least three days before it happened. Bennett, in charge of the CIA-front Mullen Co., thus could easily have told his CIA case officer. It is permissible to suppose that the FBI could have known, through its ex-employee Alfred C. Baldwin III. These questions of who was privy, and with what consequences, remain obscure.

The second theory that O’Brien dislikes suggests that Nixon and friends were keen to know how much he knew about the Hughes-Rebozo-Nixon connection, replete with $100,000 gift. O’Brien says a little naïvely that he did not know about this gift but that “if I had documentation on this gift no one would have been more anxious than I to have it publicized.” Which is presumably just what was frightening the White House.

As with so much of Watergate, detail is all. O’Brien had, during some eleven months, been paid $165,000 by the Hughes organization. His sponsor with Hughes had been Robert Maheu. When Hughes and Maheu fell out there occurred, as we know, the subsequent partial publication in February, 1972, of a great many of the Hughes-Maheu memoranda, stored for a time in Hank Greenspun’s Las Vegas safe. (A safe—be it remembered—which Liddy and Hunt proposed to rob jointly with the Hughes forces.) The Hughes lobbying account in Washington previously handled by O’Brien was taken over by Robert Bennett at the Mullen Co. Not only was Hunt an employee of the Mullen Co. but at one point, before Bennett gained control of Mullen, Hunt along with Douglas Caddy and Robert Oliver had hoped to take over Mullen Co. After Bennett took over, Robert Oliver was put in day-to-day charge of the Hughes account. Robert Oliver’s son, R. Spencer Oliver, Jr., was of course the other person in the Democratic National Committee to have his phone tapped.

The unpublished Ervin Committee staff report on this aspect of Watergate thus suggested that Nixon was desperate to know what O’Brien had learned about the Hughes-Nixon transactions through his friend Maheu, and also that Mullen Co., as Hughes’s Washington representative, was keen to know too. John Caulfield, an undercover man who was employed by CREEP, had fueled White House alarm by reporting that Maheu and O’Brien had enjoyed a “continuous” liaison, and Caulfield also reported that Intertel, the private intelligence outfit with close connections to Hughes interests, might have accumulated a great deal of dirt about some of the Nixon administration’s dealings. Caulfield testified to the Ervin Committee in executive session that “the White House thought Hughes had everything wired in Washington,” presumably through Intertel.

To this community of interest in discovering what O’Brien knew we can add one more factor, mentioned by Ron Rosenbaum in an excellent review of these complexities which appeared in the Village Voice of August 8, 1974. One of the burglars, Frank Sturgis, claimed in an interview with True magazine that the break-in team received from the CIA a description of a document the agency wanted them to look for in the DNC. “It was 130 typed pages…a long detailed listing of all the covert espionage and sabotage and counter-subversive operations the CIA and DIA have launched against Cuba since 1965 or ‘66.” This document allegedly emanated from the Cuban government and was “an itemized list” of the operations the CIA had never acknowledged. Sturgis says that “we looked high and low for this document and although we found a piece of it one night at another office we never did find the entire thing.” Thus we now have three outfits who are alleged to have been intensely interested in what was in the DNC: Nixon’s forces, the Mullen Co., and the CIA—all of whom Hunt worked for.

Nonetheless the most ardent promoters of the second burglary do seem to have been the Nixon forces. Both in his book and in his memorandum of November 14, 1972, given to his lawyer William Bittman and revealed in Sirica’s courtroom on November 4 of this year (published in The New York Times November 5), Hunt stressed his reluctance to enter the DNC for the second time. In the memorandum he says, “The seven defendants again protested further bugging of the DNC headquarters on June 16-17, the intercepted conversations by then having shown clearly that O’Brien was not using his office. Again objections were overridden and the attempt loyally [a splendid Hunt word] made….” (We must of course remember that Hunt’s recollection of almost anything should be regarded with the utmost caution.) But the conclusion must be that despite all the information reviewed above we still do not know what it was that Nixon’s people so desperately wanted to know, even though O’Brien himself had by that time left to work on convention arrangements in Miami. The break-in remains a mystery buried in a swamp of details.

The role of the CIA in Watergate is still extremely unclear. At the time of its publication in the summer, Senator Baker’s minority report on the CIA’s role in Watergate received rather scant attention. It was widely felt, perhaps with some justice, that Baker was merely trying to take the heat off the main enemy—Nixon. Baker’s report can be found in the Dell paperback volumes, and it is an interesting piece of work. It shows that the CIA was deeply involved in Hunt-Liddy operations before the break-in, almost certainly knew that the break-in was going to take place, and had an important part in the first vital ten days of the cover-up, before Helms and Walters cut their losses and let the FBI loose on the Mexican connection.

It has still never been satisfactorily explained why the CIA-veteran McCord told his colleagues on the stairs in the Watergate building that he had removed the tapes from the doors, when in fact he had done nothing of the sort, and it is still unclear why we should somehow divorce Hunt from the CIA so far as the break-in to Dr. Fielding’s office is concerned, even though he was using CIA equipment, trying to acquire material for a CIA psychiatrist, after having provided the CIA with photographs of the building into which he was proposing to break. As Orson Welles said, “Just because a man looks guilty, it doesn’t mean that he is innocent.” It is surely simpler to regard Hunt, certainly in the Fielding operation, as a CIA operative, on a short leash.

It is interesting in this context that before his trial Charles Colson made a motion of discovery—also noticed by Rosenbaum—for the government to turn over any and all “documents or records indicating that the CIA obtained a copy of a thirty-five to fifty-page document written by Dr. Ellsberg and maintained in Dr. Fielding’s files.” Of course this may have been just innuendo by Colson, but it is legitimate to speculate that the burglars may not have come away from Dr. Fielding’s office empty-handed after all. (I have always thought that the second CIA profile of Ellsberg gave indications that the CIA psychiatrist may have been reviewing actual case material on Ellsberg’s analysis instead of merely using his imagination.)

If Hunt’s book plunges one back into the parts of Watergate, rather than presenting the commonly accepted sum, then Big Brother and the Holding Company, a collection of essays by left-wing writers on Watergate, drowns one in them. The book teeters uneasily between baroque conspiracy-mongering, notably in the scenario for the plane crash which killed Hunt’s wife and forty-four other people, and efforts to provide a sociological profile of the world of Watergate, as exemplified in Kirkpatrick Sale’s essay reprinted from the New York Review.

The problem of the left’s coverage of Watergate is that the material has, as yet, proved too copious for trenchant handling. Writers in this collection often give the impression of clambering rather desperately among the foothills of a vast mountain range. All around are tempting paths upward: connections to Dallas, the corporate world, Watergate as a response to the radicalism of the 1960s, the Miami-Rebozo connection, the San Diego connection, the San Diego coup, and so on.

From the radicals’ point of view Watergate was of course deeply satisfactory, in the sense of providing graphic proof of events and crimes they had been denouncing for years. But paralleling the satisfaction is the ultimate disappointment of the scandal’s resolution: the final cover-up—Nixon’s resignation. Even when the interest of the networks and the big newspapers in Watergate was at its height, many alarming aspects of the affair were barely dealt with: the bombing of Cambodia, the FBI campaign against the radicals, the Mitchell-Mardian-Guy Goodwin grand juries.

Many matters of this sort, which surfaced during the last two years, have now been shoveled safely back under the carpet, as part of the general enterprise of closing the book on Watergate. Actually, as one reads the basic material, represented in the findings of the congressional committees, and as one reads about IRS investigations—still going on—into the whereabouts of some of the CREEP funds, as one still hears rumors of other teams of plumbers, other break-ins, one realizes that the book is being closed before it got more than about half way open. The problem becomes one of who is interested, and with what power to bring that interest to the public: the mass media have had their day; the courts have almost had their day; Congress has had its day. A steady tide of books will flood down the years till the end of the century, but every year that passes will put further distance between us and the evidence that in a paroxysm of accidents was, for about two years, disgorged.

Such a paroxysm momentarily exposed the actions of such folk as the harried executives of Braniff, along with their corporate brethren. It gave us a brief look at the real world. Most of the books that will come out on Watergate will take us away from it. History, as Ernst Toller remarked, is the propaganda of the victors, and the victors are the people who, when they complain about the abuse of power, feel no qualms about the implied opposite in that phrase—the use of power, rather in the same way that people who talk about senseless killing seem to be implying that there can be sensible killing too.

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