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I’ll Take My Stans

The Terrors of Justice: The Untold Side of Watergate

by Maurice H. Stans
Everest House, 478 pp., $10.95

Whatever Maurice Stans, Nixon’s top fund raiser, may or may not have been guilty of in the Watergate campaign of 1972, he certainly should be jailed for writing this book. It is a literary felony, the primary overt act in a conspiracy to obstruct the printed word. At the least, the editors and executives at Everest House, the publishers of this chaotically dull, 478-page work of angry, apologetic confusion, should be named unindicted co-conspirators in this sinister effort to get those few left who read to switch to television.

Still, Maurice Stans is such an important figure that someday his role in the politics of Nixon’s campaigns may be regarded as more worthy of study than that of Haldeman or Mitchell. Students of money and elections, like Herbert E. Alexander of the Citizens Research Foundation, have long since considered Stans much more than a minor member of the Nixon entourage who pleaded guilty to five misdemeanor counts but managed to stay out of jail.

The 1972 campaign, businessmen pointed out, had brought extraordinary pressures. It was the first campaign in memory, for example, in which solicitations were so widely made by so high a former official as Maurice Stans, who as Secretary of Commerce had close associations with many of the businessmen he was soliciting,” writes Alexander. “One might have to hearken back to the days of Mark Hanna and his systematic assessment of corporations for funds in support of William McKinley for a historic parallel; it was the Hanna approach, in fact, that led to the Tillman Act of 1907, the first federal law prohibiting corporate contributions.”1

The parallel goes even further in that it was the reaction to revelations about the Nixon campaign money machine that led to the recent federal campaign law which, while more sweeping than that of 1907, appears to be no more effective in preventing moneyed groups and individuals from controlling elections. Under the provisions of the new reform’ legislation corporations may legally solicit political contributions from their own management personnel in ways that would have been against the law in the past. Naturally the contributions extracted from junior and middle management must be voluntary, meaning upper management can’t come right out and say, “kick into the slush fund, or start looking for a future in some other organization.” But whether the new laws have increased corporate power to buy elections is questionable. Money always finds a way to express itself, so that, for example, the class background and personal wealth of the members of the US Senate haven’t changed from the early years of the century, when the Senate was referred to as a “millionaires’ club.”

However that may be, in post civil war history, only Hanna can rival Maurice Stans as a money raiser, but Hanna didn’t raise his dough for an incumbent president. In 1972, though not in 1968 when Stans raised considerably less, Stans had his boy in the White House in a position, theoretically at least, to reward the makers of fat donations. Hanna had to raise money for McKinley in 1896 with a president of the opposite party in power, but the possibility that the quasi-populist William Jennings Bryan might move into the oval office was terrifying enough to get the Gilded Age millionaires kicking in. A Chicago millionaire was reported to have said, “We wouldn’t be such damned fools as the South in 1861. We wouldn’t walk out of Washington and turn it over to that crowd!” And campaign manager Hanna, himself a millionaire businessman, was heard to shout, “Do you think that we’d let that damned lunatic get into the White House? Never! You know you can hire half of the people of the United States to shoot down the other half if necessary, and we’ve got the money to hire them.”2

Stans and other Nixon people have argued that the fear of George McGovern in 1972 was as great as the fear of Bryan in ‘96 and that’s why the money flowed until over $60 million had been collected. The other side has argued it wasn’t the businessmen’s fear of the crazy McGovern but an enormous extortion operation with the full force of the American presidency behind it which explains how Stans was able to come up with his election El Dorado. This soliloquy, attributed to House Speaker Tip O’Neill, about how Democratic tycoon and generous contributor George Steinbrenner was forced to contribute to the Republicans illustrates the accusations against Stans (Note: Steinbrenner’s boat business depends on government contracts):

George Steinbrenner. He’s a helluva guy. I called him up and I said, ‘George, old pal, what’s the matter? Why don’t we hear from you any more? Is something the matter?’… So what does Steinbrenner say to me? He said, ‘Geez, Tip, I want to come to see you and tell you what’s going on.’ They got him between the IRS, the Justice Department, the Commerce Department [which Stans headed under Nixon until he resigned to run the money raising for the campaign]. He was afraid he’d lose his business…. He said Stans’s people wanted a hundred thousand dollars for Nixon’s campaign…. This Maurice Stans. He has to be the lousiest bastard ever to live. Now I was getting this from all over. Guys began to come in and see me and say, ‘Tip, I’m having trouble with a contract. I never had trouble before. It’s legitimate business. They tell me to see Stans….’ It was a shakedown. A plain, old-fashioned goddamned shakedown.”3

Steinbrenner pleaded guilty to two felony counts in connection with illegal campaign giving but has never inculpated Stans. Moreover, Steinbrenner’s contributions extended past Nixon to a number of Democrats so that a picture of him as a sandbagged victim of extortion has not yet been convincingly established.

Stans in his book is of little help in explaining what went on. Of the Tip O’Neill quote he has only this to say: “One of the most scurrilous and careless messes…was a product of columnist-author Jimmy Breslin. He attributes absurd remarks [never denied by O’Neill] to Congressman Tip O’Neill that…both would have known were totally without foundation. It was clearly one more book written from discredited newspaper clippings.”

One of the book’s many demerits is that it sheds so little light on the exact character of the relationship between people like Maurice Stans and the people who were coughing up the money. Instead of getting Stans’s version of why Steinbrenner might have done what he did we get this kind of defensive passage:

If I were looking for opportunities, for example, there would have been the easy case of the American Ship-building Company. Its $6 million claim came before me a few weeks before I moved over to finance chairman, and I denied it in full on its merits, despite pleading calls from a half dozen Congressmen. Yet the company’s chairman, George Steinbrenner, became a large contributor in 1972.

Why? Because he liked being kicked in the teeth?

One person who did talk about why he violated the campaign laws was George A. Spater, the former president and board chairman of American Airlines. His testimony to the Watergate Committee illustrates how any businessman who has to look to the government for such things as airline routes doesn’t need to be shaken down:

I think I was motivated by a host of fears. You just don’t know what’s going to happen to you…sometimes the fear of the unknown is greater than the fear of what you know…. Most contributions from the business community are not volunteered to see a competitive advantage, but are made in response to pressure for fear of competitive disadvantage that might result if they are not made. The process degrades both the donor and the donee…. It is particularly dangerous when the pressure is implicit in the position of the individual making the solicitation.

Be it persuasion, extortion, or implicit pressure, my god how Stans made the money roll in, as this passage from Herbert Alexander illustrates:

In late February 1972 Gulf Oil delivered $50,000 in cash—having previously given $50,000 in May 1971. On March 9 Goodyear executives turned over $20,000 in cash and then another $20,000 five days later. In March American Airlines delivered $55,000 that it had laundered through a Lebanese agent. On March 26th a 3M executive handed Stans $30,000 in a St. Paul hotel suite. In late March or early April Braniff Airways delivered $40,000. On April 3 an Ashland Oil official gave $100,000 in cash to Stans who said “Thanks,” dumped it on his desk and passed it on to Sloan [his assistant].

All of this money came in before April 7, 1972, the date the law changed making it illegal henceforth to conceal the names of the big contributors. Where all that money went and where it came from has never been completely explained, thanks in no small measure to Stans ordering many of the records destroyed, something his book is less than adequate in explaining. Nevertheless, Stans has never successfully been tied to any of the major dishonesties connected with Watergate. The misdemeanors he pleaded guilty to were insignificant technicalities, while a jury found him innocent of the felonies he and John Mitchell were accused of in connection with the Vesco case. The substance of that accusation was that he accepted a quarter of a million from Vesco to get him out of trouble with the Securities and Exchange Commission, but no fair-minded juror could have convicted. The government’s case against Stans was too weak, so we are left with this man, around whom countless crimes were committed, who always seemed to be nearby when dirty work was afoot, and who yet has never convincingly been shown to be part of it.

That fits in with his own somewhat unwitting description of himself in the Nixon constellation as a hard-working mule whose labors were so taken for granted that Nixon even had trouble remembering Stans’s name, a hell of a note considering they’d known each other since the Eisenhower years when Stans served as deputy postmaster general and director of the Bureau of the Budget: “His failure to mention my name on two celebrated public occasions, the first when he introduced his Cabinet in December 1968 and the second a month later when I was sworn in as Secretary of Commerce, was amusing and likely due to oversight, certainly not to inability to remember who I was.”

Could it be that this son of Belgian immigrants, this CPA who grew up in a small Minnesota farm community, this man who made his million apparently more by stick-to-itiveness than brilliance, this man who put together the new model money machine of American politics was no more than a distant, inconsequential servitor with no guilty knowledge or indeed no very good knowledge or judgment of events whatsoever? Certainly some of his written assessments of Nixon are both so soft-headed and so extravagant that you don’t wonder Nixon couldn’t take him seriously enough to recall his name.

Using a scale of ten, he writes he gave Richard Nixon, the ugliest president since G. Washington was caught with his choppers out of his mouth, an eight for appearance and that’s one of the reasons he threw in with him in 1968. He calls Nixon a man of “towering intellect, enhanced by an astoundingly capable power of organizing thoughts and expressing them.” Perhaps a better indication of how our author thinks is this passage: “Nixon’s dedication made him probably the most disciplined man ever to head the government of the United States. He drank sparingly, didn’t smoke, exercised daily, displayed no interest in extramarital sex, and stuck to a strict diet to control his weight.” That was the famous cottage cheese and catsup combo the jowly one used to have for lunch. Or there is this testimonial to why Nixon might have been “our greatest President in the twentieth century”—“He was generous in dividing his perquisites with Cabinet officers and others associated closely with him in the administration, allowing them to use the Presidential facilities at Camp David, the Sequoia on the Potomac, the Western White House, or his box seats at Kennedy Center when he was not in attendance.”

For those who may not think the election of William McKinley was best for the Republic, it is at least possible to attribute to Mark Hanna a brutal and by no means unsophisticated intelligence. He was, if not so evilly gifted as his enemies have made out, an inventive and quite remarkable politician. By comparison Maurice Stans is little more than, or perhaps less than, he presents himself—a certified public accountant. Amid his drab bookkeeperish attacks on opponents, both logical and illogical—there is even one thrust aimed at Abe Briloff, the accountant who has done so much to reform the sleazy practices of the CPA business—Stans makes certain points that are no less valid because of his own self-interest.

Like many on the left who’ve suffered from them, Stans learned from his own experience how hopelessly one-sided and unfair grand jury practices have become: “The weakness of the system is that the grand jurors must place enormous trust in the prosecutor’s guidance. He tells them what the charge is, he selects the facts for them to hear, and he shapes the tone and feel of the case. When he is finished with his one-sided presentation, it is a rare grand jury that fails to bring down the indictment he wants.” On top of that, it cost Stans almost $400,000 to defend himself in the Vesco case. Fortunately for him there was enough money left over from the millions he had collected to elect Nixon to pay for his defense, but, he asks, not without good reason, “Is there not some principle of fairness that suggests that the government ought also to reimburse defendants for the cost of a trial on charges that prove to be unfounded?”

As matters stand now you’re ruined if a vindictive district attorney indicts you, whether or not he has much of a case. Stans believe he was the victim of just such administrative injustice, and while civic outrage prompts one to be unsympathetic to this unpalatable man, there is much about many of the Watergate legal proceedings to give a fair-minded person reason to wonder. How many who went to jail or pleaded guilty had their rights fully protected, and how many were jugged in the lynch law atmosphere which prevailed in our country five years ago? Perhaps the circumstances were so unusual, so unique that Judge Sirica was entitled to do such things as use his sentencing power to force confessions out of defendants, but can we be completely indifferent when the pro-Nixon people say he was a frightening and frightful judge? Even where justice was done as, say, in the case of John Mitchell, the lack of mercy is disconcerting. An old, sick man, Mitchell with his long prison term has been treated with the same harshness he once used on others. The victors in this long struggle over Nixon and the Nixonians may have been right, but they have acted with the same lack of generosity, the same low elevation that made their beaten foe so deeply unlovable. Perhaps what Jerry Ford should have done on the day he pardoned Nixon was to pardon all the Watergaters and all the Vietnam resisters in one controversially magnanimous act.

As for Stans, his fullest measure of condemnation comes from quoting his own self-praise:

The finest moment of my career in Commerce was the evening of February 24, 1972, a week after I had departed, when two thousand members of the minorities from all over the country gave me a testimonial dinner at the Sheraton Park Hotel in Washington and showered me with words of praise and thanks and many mementos in token of their appreciation for what I had done for them.

  1. 1

    Financing the 1972 Election, by Herbert E. Alexander (Lexington Books, D.C. Heath and Co., 1976), p. 459.

  2. 2

    As quoted from William Jennings Bryan: Political Evangelist, 1860-1908, by Paolo E. Coletta (University of Nebraska Press, 1964), p. 195.

  3. 3

    Quoted from How the Good Guys Finally Won, by Jimmy Breslin (Ballantine Books, 1975), pp. 14-15.

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