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.
Of course there are still those who can believe that the tape erasures were accidental, that by bad luck the June 20 telephone conversation with John Mitchell was never recorded because the call was made on an extension not connected with the automatic recording system, that during the April 15 conversation with John Dean in the Oval Office the equipment, owing to another accident, was “malfunctioning” or had an “inadequacy.” Such people will not ask why Nixon and Mitchell were talking on another extension, i.e. a “secure phone,” three days after the break-in: there could be a lot of innocent explanations, e.g., that Nixon, when the Mitchell call came, was answering a call of nature. Yes: It makes me think of the old joke about the jealous Frenchman wanting solid proofs of his wife’s infidelity: at last he catches her in bed with a lover, and his friend, to whom he relates the story, says “Eh bien, enfin!” but the husband shakes his head sadly—“Toujours ce doute.” Anybody who is satisfied that the tape erasures and the missing tapes prove nothing would probably not be satisfied by Mr. Nixon’s signature on a full confession and ask for handwriting tests, medical certificates stating that he had not been drugged or hypnotized….
Naturally, it would be a help if Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Mitchell, and Colson—or any one of them—were to turn state’s evidence, and if Nixon falls we shall certainly hear more from some of them. There will be a scramble to shift responsibility, like a football, from one member of the former team to another and back-to the old quarterback, who was calling the signals. But to hope that these men, singly or in unison, will talk and bring about Nixon’s fall is nearly as foolish as the hope that the tapes would talk. The tapes have talked, by now, to the maximum (one guesses) of their ability; they have told us that someone with access to them—and that cannot be John Dean—is afraid of them. But then Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Mitchell, and the others have also talked; we heard them before the Ervin Committee proclaim their guilt by open equivocation and manifest lying. Though they left us to speculate on the degree of guilt in each case, they all plainly told us that they were afraid that the knowledge they carried inside them would inadvertently slip out.
The great service of the Ervin Committee was to show these men to the nation as they underwent questioning—something that would not have been possible in a court of law, where TV is not admitted. That the questioning was not always of the best, that leads were not always followed up, is minor in comparison. The self-righteous, pedantic tone adopted by some mournful analysts writing in liberal magazines, the triumphant pouncing on sins of omission by the hard-worked senators, are unpleasant reminders of the persistent puritanism and Zeal-of-the-Land Busyness in our national character. The Ervin Committee was not out to convict the witnesses before it, to nail down their testimony with expert ringing blows, but to give us a basis for judging them and the Administration they served. Who can deny that it did that?
What emerged from the hearings and emerges even more clearly from the transcripts as they are published, with appendices (eleven volumes now), by the Government Printing Office is an overwhelming case for impeachment and conviction. To my mind, there can be no doubt that Nixon himself ordered Watergate and was kept informed of the cover-up, which of course he did not need to order—as the testimony repeatedly brought out, the necessity of a cover-up was taken for granted as soon as news of the arrests reached the Nixon organization. Nobody had to order it; it happened by itself and was inherent in the break-in. A covert operation is covered before it gets off the ground, and the process continues mechanically to the bitter end, which is where we seem to be now. The mystery is not in the cover-up—who took part and how. They all took part, each in his own capacity: the money-raisers raised money; the petty bureaucrats shredded; the big bureaucrats got on the telephone to switch off the FBI investigation. Everybody (with two exceptions) stood ready, if called upon, to commit perjury; nobody talked. The mystery lies in the original decision—who made it and under what circumstances?
Without prejudgment, let us tick them off. Mitchell. He is the White House candidate, but that does not entitle us to rule him out of consideration. In favor of the Mitchell hypothesis is the fact that he was in charge at CREEP, out of which the conspiracy operated. Nobody in CREEP but he had the authority to order it—certainly not his deputy, Magruder, acting on his own. And, according to Magruder, Mitchell did order it, at Key Biscayne, on March 30. The date, if not the fact, is confirmed by other testimony. According to McCord, early in March the operation had not been funded; roughly a month later it was. All through March McCord was weighing the decision of whether or not to accede to Liddy and sign on; it took him thirty days to make up his mind, and during these same thirty days (Liddy told him) “…the whole matter was being considered and reconsidered by Mr. Mitchell.”
Robert Reisner, Magruder’s deputy, remembers Magruder saying to him, “Call Liddy and tell him it is approved.” He is uncertain of the exact date but feels it must have been around the end of the month since Magruder gave Liddy the first two weeks in April to get ready. Gordon Strachan, Haldeman’s deputy, says Magruder reported to him on March 31 or April 1 that a $300,000 “sophisticated intelligence-gathering plan” had been approved at Key Biscayne. Just before or just after April 7, according to Hugh Sloan, Liddy came to him with a sheet of paper representing a $250,000 budget on which he would soon be wanting “substantial cash payment.” All this argues that if the decision was not made at Key Biscayne on March 30 (LaRue says it was not), it was made within the next day or two, and who could have done that but Mitchell?
Yet it does not sound like Mitchell. Magruder and Dean, who had been present at the two earlier meetings, both described Mitchell’s very negative, pipe-puffing responses. At Key Biscayne, he was still “reluctant” (Magruder), “not enthusiastic” (LaRue). Gemstone in any of its avatars was not in Mitchell’s style. Dean says the Attorney General “was not interested at all” in its predecessor, Operation Sand-wedge, when it was presented. Nor can that dour realist have cared much for Liddy, an exotic product of Ehrlichman’s brain work. Liddy and his plan were a bitter pill he had to swallow and, in the hearing-room, almost visibly spat out. McCord, who was not privy to the ins and outs of Gemstone’s reception, gave his estimate of how it must have gone.
I knew from previous contact with him that he was a very decisive man, that he did not agonize over decisions, and yet apparently he took this one under careful consideration and considered it for some thirty days in making the decision, and frankly, I had it, my conclusion was that he took it as well to higher authority and got a final approval from his superior before embarking on this task.
Again the sense of duress. Despite Mitchell’s insistent denials, there is plenty of evidence to show that he was aware of Watergate before the morning of June 17, whether or not he had approved it, but everything points to a disgruntled, unwilling awareness. And the new awareness, coming to him late last March, of his now being set up as the “goat” for Watergate, must have increased his bile. If of all Nixon’s counselors you were the one who was a hold-out on Watergate, what a mockery, what an irony to sit in exile and bitterly savor. In the Caucus Room, he was steeped in irony, like some horrible dark and yet congenial decoction brewed in his private still. If, against his better judgment, he did authorize Watergate, he evidently had not conceived it.
Dean. He did not have the authority, and all the arguments against Mitchell’s having been the “father” of Watergate would apply to Mitchell and Dean working together. If somehow he was behind Gemstone, pushing the plan forward despite Mitchell’s resistance, it must have been as somebody else’s representative and courier—in his characteristic messenger role. But what powerful figure could have deputized him to flit behind the scenes? His chief friend, Krogh, had no more power than he. Against Dean, however, is the fact, heavily underlined by Senator Gurney and Minority Counsel Thompson, that he had “recommended” Liddy to Mitchell, “introduced” him to the Committee to Re-elect. True, he had accompanied Liddy on his maiden appearance at the CREEP offices, and, true, he had recommended Liddy to Mitchell for the post of General Counsel. But he was only passing on his friend Krogh’s recommendation, and the transfer of Liddy to CREEP had been approved by Ehrlichman when Dean brought him to the office and introduced him to Magruder, his new boss. Unlike Dean, Ehrlichman had previous experience with Liddy, having kept him on his staff and used him (with Hunt) for the burglary of Dr. Fielding’s office. Ehrlichman hated Mitchell and vice versa.
Two other counts against Dean as the author or main abettor of Watergate should be mentioned. First, the fact vouched for by Magruder (and by Magruder only) that in the fall of 1971, before the advent of Liddy, “some people in the White House” had been keen on an intelligence-gathering project: when asked to specify, the only name he could remember was John Dean. Finally, Dean had urged Magruder to try to stay on terms with Liddy after a falling-out. Dean did not deny this, but it scarcely constitutes proof of eagerness on his part to bring Watergate to fruition. He was a natural smoother-over, and, in any case, Strachan testified that Dean had been acting on Haldeman’s instruction.
At worst, these small “damning” facts only show that Dean had more prior information about Watergate than he has admitted to. They might also show, however, that Dean, from the start, was being used as the unconscious agent of other people anxious to remain invisible: if the Liddy project went sour, only Dean could be seen as instrumental in recommending it, performing the right introductions, smoothing its course….
Haldeman and Ehrlichman. Either or both had the power—if not technically the authority—to override Mitchell’s objections and direct Magruder to proceed with Gemstone. Or Haldeman alone, invoking the presidential sanction, could have forced the recalcitrant Mitchell to initial the budget; from Ehrlichman, Mitchell would probably not have accepted that. There is a faint possibility, which gets some tenuous support from Robert Reisner’s testimony to communications between Magruder and Liddy, that the operation had already been approved by somebody not Mitchell when Magruder flew down to Key Biscayne, in other words that Mitchell’s signature was a formality that could be dispensed with if need be. Yet Gemstone, at least to my mind, does not sound like a conception that could have originated with Haldeman and Ehrlichman, though it is closer to their spirit than to Mitchell’s.
Even if it could not be traced to them in the event of failure, they would surely have had their doubts about the public-relations aspect of such an adventure, were the press to get hold of it. A simple CIA workhorse like Jim McCord could be persuaded that a break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters was in the interests of national security, but Haldeman and Ehrlichman, whatever their private convictions, would scarcely have seen national security as a plausible public defense for a job against the opposition party.
There is very strong evidence that Haldeman, at least, knew that a plan for electronic surveillance was in the works, but knowing and advocating are not the same thing. Probably he and Ehrlichman, assuming they both knew, kept their fingers crossed throughout May and early June. If the operation got results, so much the better; if it failed, old John Mitchell would be left holding the bag. Apprehension, on their part, must have mingled with amusement—the amusement anticipating Mitchell’s grim predicament if Liddy’s men got caught. This would account for Haldeman’s “mellow mood” on the morning of June 20 when he checked into the office, fresh from Florida, where he had been during the break-in. Gordon Strachan went in to see him, “scared to death,” fully expecting to be fired for having failed to reach his boss over the weekend and report to him on Magruder and the Gemstone connection. Instead, Haldeman greeted him “half jokingly” with “Well, what do we know about the events of the weekend?” and calmly perused the file Strachan handed him.
Colson. More likely, in all but one respect, than any of the preceding. When he heard of the break-in on his return from the Philippines, Dean’s first thought, he testified, was “Colson.” Asked to explain that reaction, he mentioned the Brookings Institution burglary by fire-bombing—a typical Colson project that he himself, by flying to California, had managed to avert. In addition, he had remembered Colson’s friendliness with Hunt. Dean was not the only member of the White House staff to have the name “Colson” rise out of the cloudy incident like a genie issuing from a bottle. Ehrlichman, on the telephone, as soon as Dean got back to his desk in Washington Monday morning, the nineteenth, told him “to find out what Colson’s involvement was in the matter.” If that instruction was given in good faith and not merely placed on the record, it shows that Ehrlichman, far from being on the inside track about Watergate, was guessing like anybody else. In any case, it was an easy guess. After being debriefed by Liddy, Mardian thought so too. On its face, Watergate looked like pure Colson.
There was only one catch: did he have the power to authorize it? The call to Magruder urging him “to get off the stick” seems to prove that he did not. That was an entreaty, not an order. The best Colson could do for Gemstone was to keep after Magruder in the hope that it would go through. If he was the mastermind, he must have had an ally more powerful than himself who interposed to put an end to shilly-shallying.
Nixon. By elimination, we arrive at the only suspect who had the power to authorize. Watergate, and character traits to match. Unless we say “Nixon,” we are forced to conclude that nobody authorized Watergate, that the directive to fund Liddy and his co-conspirators came to Magruder from a supernatural agency, identified by some with Mitchell, by some with Haldeman, by some with Colson, and by Mitchell probably with the President.
It remains to try to analyze how and by what stages and through whom the presidential will was implemented. Here we are in the dark, and Dean, our only guide, is in the dark too. He does not know where the plan for electronic surveillance of the opposition party (as opposed to traditional spying) originated and he offers no conjecture.
Something happened, he thinks, between December 10, 1971, when Liddy went to work at CREEP, and January 27, when he showed his charts on an easel in the Department of Justice, with Mitchell, Magruder, and Dean watching in utter astonishment. The plan for intelligence-gathering on demonstrators discussed at the time of Liddy’s hiring, to occupy only a small part of his time (2 to 5 percent, Hugh Sloan understood), had undergone a wondrous change. In the January 27 plan, the demonstrators are still there (to be kidnapped and held in Mexico till the Republican convention, then slated for San Diego, was over), but the main activity, inflated and grandiose, with a bugged yacht, call girls, and blackmail, now centers on the Democratic convention at Miami.
In the scaled-down second presentation of February 4, the demonstrators have disappeared, and instead, as a sideshow to the big anti-Democratic attraction, there is a burglary of Hank, Greenspun’s safe in Nevada with a Howard Hughes plane standing by to fly the burglars to a Central American haven once the job is completed. In the final, Key Biscayne version, again no demonstrators, and nothing more is heard of them as the Watergate scheme develops except as justification given to McCord and the Cubans for entering Democratic headquarters to plant bugs on telephones and photograph papers. The Latin American theme (perhaps Hunt’s leitmotiv) persists, though pianissimo: in the end it is just money that is spirited to Mexico to be laundered.
Thus the rational basis for Liddy’s employment was quickly subordinated to irrational elements and soon vanished from sight. For the Republicans to be concerned about having their convention broken up by demonstrators (as had happened in Chicago to the Democrats in 1968) was perfectly natural and even sensible; to infiltrate antiwar groups would be Standing Operating Procedure and an old habit with the FBI. That Nixon was unwilling to leave the handling of left-wing protesters to the FBI and the police was not quite so sensible but understandable, in view of his feud with J. Edgar Hoover and his general dissatisfaction with the ordinary repressive agencies of government. He wanted his own spies, paid by his own campaign people and under their supervision.
What is strange is that once this function was added to CREEP’s administrative structure no more heed was paid to it, and it was allowed to atrophy, as though the expensive charms of electronic surveillance were too wonderful to be wasted on dime-a-dozen left-wingers. With the dynamic Liddy and his vision in the pay of CREEP, somebody, singular or plural, was tempted to divert this “capability” from powerless antiwar groups—who were only a nuisance—to the still powerful opposition party. In this broader perspective, the demonstrators were even seen to have a certain utility, particularly if they could be linked to the Democrats. Dean, a reasonable and pacific young man who well understood the realities of the demonstrator problem (he had won credit as the Justice Department negotiator with the leaders of the big protest march on Washington in 1969), was baffled by the sudden delusion of grandeur implicit in the Liddy charts. Mitchell, for his part, on each presentation, kept growling, in effect: “What about the demonstrators? What about our security? Why isn’t this fellow working on that?”
Several times in his testimony, Dean returned to the incredible transformation that, in the space of a month and a half, had overtaken a project with which he thought he was familiar. “That has always been one of the great mysteries to me, between the time he [Liddy] went over there…what happened between December 10 and January 27, and my conception of what his responsibilities were and possibly his own and others’ conception dramatically changed.” His mystification continued and embraced the whole sequence of events right up to June 17. He had thought the plan was dead after January 27. When it resurfaced on February 4, he was alarmed enough to go to inform Haldeman. After this, he was told no more of Gemstone till he was called upon for his services in the cover-up: “I have never been clear on what happened between February and June 17.” All he could say was that “someone wanted the operation.”
Obviously this puzzlement of his may be specious. While admitting large responsibility in the cover-up, he may want to dissociate himself in so far as he can from the planning of the break-in. That possibility must be kept in mind, and yet it seems undeniable that on January 27 both he and Mitchell were taken completely by surprise. Could they have been deceived from the outset as to Liddy’s functions? Was “intelligence-gathering on demonstrators” a cover under which the former Plumber was slipped into Mitchell’s territory, with Dean, all unknowing, acting as his escort? The idea of electronic surveillance may have been in the White House air throughout the fall of 1971—the offspring of group-think with no acknowledged paternity—and Liddy may have been chosen and sent over to CREEP to try it out on Mitchell. When Mitchell refused, then the pressure slowly built up, White House desire for the project mounting as frustration was encountered.
The only evidence, though, for such a supposition comes from Magruder. According to him, Liddy, early in December, on his first days at work, was already talking of a $1 million broad-gauged intelligence plan that had White House approval. But of all the witnesses before the panel the self-seeking Magruder is the most suspect, and in any case Liddy may merely have been boasting. The “something” that happened between December 10 and January 27 (assuming Dean is right that a new factor then entered) may have been simply Liddy. He had found, ready to hand, guarded by Sloan and Porter, the pot of gold at the end of his dream rainbow. CREEP’s campaign money, seemingly unlimited, may well have been the stimulus that set his brain working (who but he could have named the operation “Gemstone”?), and even before his charts had been submitted to Mitchell he had discovered a receptive audience back in the White House.
It is not hard to accept Dean’s puzzlement as genuine. Both he and the unimaginative Mitchell lacked the quality of “vision” and were incapable of grasping that what had been added to CREEP with the accession of Liddy was a new potential for transforming cash into power. In the unexplored field of electronics as a campaign accessory, Nixon and his corporate backers would have a clear advantage, almost a monopoly, since the Democrats were in no position to finance million-dollar bugging experiments, so poor in fact that they were defenseless against enemy bugging—Larry O’Brien guessed that his headquarters were being tapped but could not afford to hire his own team of experts to find and de-activate the bugs.
Dean and Mitchell, thinking along traditional lines, were too short-sighted to see that this unique advantage, which could outweigh the Democratic numbers (the country was still basically Democratic), should not be lightly discarded because of the risk element. Liddy ought to be given a trial, an initial dry run, to show what he could deliver. Unable to look at it this way, with an open mind, they were at a loss when Liddy appeared, apparently as a missionary from some quarter, undiscouraged by orders to “burn that stuff,” obediently cutting down his budget requirements (as though the price tag was the problem), indefatigably proselytizing, like a Jehovah’s Witness who has got one foot in the door. Who had sent him, what could be behind him, they hardly dared speculate.
And yet “someone wanted the operation” or, in Mitchell’s idiom, “somebody obviously was very interested.” At Key Biscayne, the former Attorney General must have drawn a terrible conclusion: it could only be Nixon. Hence his spleen and misery. He was frightened by the project, frightened by Liddy, and frightened by the advice the President evidently was getting from an undetermined familiar. His suspicions must have veered angrily back and forth between Colson and Haldeman, touched on Ehrlichman and reluctantly withdrawn. Since he has the primal virtue of loyalty, he would not have let himself blame the President: those damnable others had got at him.
He may have been told, straight out, and still half-refused to believe. One can imagine the telphone call to Florida, say on March 31. Haldeman: “The President wants this, John. I sympathize with your reservations, but what can we do? He wants it.” Or else Colson: “John, get your ass moving. That’s an order from You-Know-Who. If you don’t like it, put Jeb on it.” Mitchell, setting down the receiver, was maybe trying to persuade himself that the caller was lying—pretending to speak for the President but really pushing his own merchandise. In that case, why not ask to hear it from Nixon directly? But that was something Mitchell was not going to risk. As long as he did not ask the President; he could retain a doubt.
It may even be true that to this day he has refrained from asking. His categorical statement that he never discussed Watergate with the President, which the senators found inconceivable, was quite possibly a fact, though the reasons he gave (the “White House horror stories,” “lowering the boom,” and so on) were obviously fictitious. As so often happened in his testimony, Mitchell’s weary lies and justifications did not seek to convince, which was perhaps astute on his part: if the senators did not believe his explanations, they did not believe the astonishing fact he was stating, which from his point of view was just as well.
To go back to Key Biscayne. When Mitchell recognized, before, during, or after the March 30 meeting, that he could not stop Gemstone, he capitulated. But not gladly. His “I am tired of hearing it…let’s not discuss it any further” (if that is what he said to Magruder) defined his position. His lack of stomach for the enterprise was evident in his subsequent behavior, which, stopping just short of total non-cooperation, must have appeared strange to others in the CREEP office. He left Magruder in charge of whatever Liddy was up to and gave him sole authority over the moneys dispensed to him.
When Hugh Sloan, worried, begged Finance Chairman Maurice Stans to get Mitchell’s sanction for the first outsize payment ($83,000) on what Liddy said was an approved $200,000 budget, Stans drew a laconic answer: “Tell him to ask Magruder. He has the responsibility.” It was after this colloquy that Stans told Sloan, who wondered what the money was for, “I don’t want to know, and you don’t want to know.” Mitchell swears he never saw the Gemstone material placed in his file by Magruder. If “never saw” means “never looked at,” that may well be true. It would be Mitchell’s way of demonstrating that he knew in advance (and he was right, apparently) that the material would be worthless.
If the spongy surrounding tissue of lies can be cut away (which is now possible for a reader of the transcript), much of the testimony by Mitchell and about him becomes believable. Once you accept the hypothesis that Mitchell knew (or feared) that Nixon had ordered Gemstone, nearly everything falls into place. Even his dour jests about wishing that he had shot certain people, wishing that he had thrown Liddy out of the Department of Justice window. The trouble was, he couldn’t, but those are the wishes you entertain, cheerful murder dreams, when you sit by yourself, powerless, watching the fools take over. His exclamation (reported by LaRue) on getting the news of the break-in—“This is incredible!”—sums up with explosive sincerity his feelings on the subject or, as he would say, on the subject matter. Incredible from the beginning and incredible in the finale. That they should have let themselves get caught was predictable, but that McCord should have been with them! The CREEP security officer! It blew your mind.
Mitchell testified that he had taken no part in the cover-up. Few believed him, but it was probably half true and it expressed a whole truth of feeling: he wanted no part of the cover-up. Probably he had as little faith in the abilities of the cover-up activists as he had had in Liddy’s capacities. John Dean had some sparks of judgment, but he was busy being a messenger boy for the others. Mitchell trusted only his own people: Mardian and LaRue. And to be forced to cover up for a crazy action that you had opposed from the outset was a bit much. In trying to cover up, you might be digging yourself in deeper.
Yet there was his loyalty to the President to remember, there was the election, and there was the fact that the faithful LaRue was being dragged into the business of paying hush money to the defendants and Mardian had been drafted into the role of Liddy’s legal adviser, among other uncongenial Watergate-related tasks. Under the circumstances, Mitchell could not refuse to lend a hand. Though his opposition to Gemstone had probably cost him the President’s friendship, he carried on.
He seems to have drawn the line, though, at hush money. Somebody, no doubt, had to pay it, but let them use White House funds and not come to him about it. The last time anyone tried to enlist his help in pay-offs was in February, 1973, when his old friend Richard Moore was dispatched to New York by Haldeman and Ehrlichman, in the unlikely hope that Mitchell could be persuaded to raise money for “lawyers’ fees” from “his rich New York friends.” Mitchell’s answer: “Tell them to get lost.” On March 21, LaRue was worrying about a $75,000 payment he had been directed to make to Hunt’s lawyer. This was a large sum, the largest he had paid out yet, and he hesitated to use his own judgment on whether or not to make the delivery. At Dean’s suggestion, he called Mitchell, “and he told me that he thought I ought to pay it.” This can be construed as authorization (Mitchell, then, making an exception to the sour rule he had set himself), but it can also be construed as private worldly advice given to an old friend who had come to him for counsel. Anyway, that White House money was not Mitchell’s lookout; it came out of a cash fund Haldeman had been holding to be used “for polling purposes.”
Yet for all his disgust and rancor, Mitchell, being human, must have blamed himself as well as the others for the Watergate fiasco. Against any nominee but McGovern, it could have cost Nixon the election, and Mitchell, in that eventuality, would have had plenty of cause for self-reproach. If he had not stubbornly declined to know anything about Gemstone, if he had not left it strictly to Magruder, in short if he had not been so unyielding, the burglars might still have been caught, but there would have been no Jim McCord among them. Nor, if Mitchell had had any say, would a White House telephone number have been found in two of the Cubans’ address books or sequenced CREEP bills in their pockets. So, at any rate, he may have argued “in hindsight,” and here another bit of his testimony suddenly fits into the puzzle and assumes a truthful look. On June 20, he spoke with the President, for the first and only time, about Watergate. You could hardly call it a discussion, since Mitchell was talking and Nixon was listening. Mitchell says he apologized to the President for not running a tighter ship: “I think I made it quite clear to him that I hadn’t exercised sufficient control over the activities of all the people in the Committee.”
That this was all Mitchell had to say on the matter to the Chief Executive struck most people as unbelievable, positively grotesque. Yet it was about all he could say in the circumstances: he was sorry he had not kept his eye on Gemstone, sorry he had left Magruder to handle it, sorry he had let his opposition to the project get the better of him…. The tape of that conversation is “missing,” but we can assume that Nixon’s response was icy. No wonder the call was short.
If we accept that the impetus for Watergate came from Nixon, still it must have been communicated through a channel or channels. Someone besides Nixon was active in promoting the plan. Mitchell in his testimony threw out a few morose hints as to who that might have been, but he would not be more definite. “You can almost take your pick of quite a number of such influences.” The obvious choice is Colson. Magruder is a possibility, though mainly because of his eagerness to divert suspicion elsewhere—onto Colson, among others. He authorized the funds, without reference to Mitchell, and he was very much up-to-the-minute on the break-in program. When Liddy called him, on the morning of June 17 in the Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles, he came back from the telephone to the break-fast table and said in an aside to LaRue, “You know, I think maybe last night was the night they were going into the Democratic National Committee.” But if he was getting orders from the Oval Office and feeding information back, it seems inconceivable that somebody was not acting as liaison—impossible to picture Nixon stepping into a pay phone booth, depositing a dime, and asking for “Job.” But this sends us back to wondering about Haldeman; Magruder was an old Haldeman boy.
From some of Dean’s notes written at Camp David and from remarks he made to the President, it sounds as if for a time Dean had suspected Gordon Strachan of being the principal agent or intermediary. But either this suspicion had been dropped in his ear by Magruder (status rivalry: he had been Strachan’s boss in Haldeman’s office and now at CREEP he was getting orders from him), or “Strachan” was a pseudonym for the big boss, Haldeman, since of all the figures we have been discussing the thin high-voiced Strachan was the most powerless. But by the time of the hearings Dean had dropped Strachan or “Strachan” and seemed to be inclining toward Colson. One wonders whether, by now, the thought of Nixon as the prime mover is turning over in his mind.
Colson, Haldeman, Haldeman, Colson—the Moving Finger writes and, having writ, erases; the needle wavers; maybe the daisies can tell. It is a count-out game. But one thing is sure: Nixon cannot be counted out. Senator Baker’s “searching” question, “What did the President know and when did he know it?” could not be more incongruous. Ask when an archconspirator first heard of his conspiracy or when our wicked Creator got news of this wicked world.
Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to examine the circumstances out of which Watergate emerged. The crucial date was probably June 1971. The publication of the Pentagon Papers was a turning-point for Nixon. At that moment, maybe at that instant, he went around the bend, from normal politics (however dirty and ruthless) to the politics of irrationality. There had been premonitory signs. Already, in the spring of 1971, the installation of the White House monitoring system pointed in the direction of Watergate, and the Huston internal-security plan of the summer of 1970 was another road-indicator. Both of these measures were well-guarded secrets, and it was Watergate, significantly, that finally released them, along with a great deal of other material that had been kept from public scrutiny.
The monitoring system and the Huston plan were directed, in their different ways, at a much tighter control of the environment and both were designed to make use of modern, up-to-date technology. An infatuation with the latest technology apparently went hand in hand with a passion for secrecy: according to John Dean, Tom Huston (whose hero was Cato the Younger) had a scrambler telephone locked in a safe beside him—he sounds like a more highly educated Liddy, a flamboyant conservative militant responsive to the appeal of space-age gimcrackery.
But the Huston plan had to be scrapped (or to go more deeply underground) after only a few days of service, owing to the resistance of J. Edgar Hoover, and this thwarting of the presidential will occurring within the extended “family” of government must have made Nixon sharply aware of his nuclear isolation. Just as he was moving to establish the tighter control he deemed necessary to the process of governing, he was forced to note, and not for the first time, his inability to control or discipline the agencies that were supposedly under him.
He was isolated, pent up, in the White House with his tiny nucleus of planners and visionaries, and against him were allied the inert and—from his point of view—reactionary forces of the nation: J. Edgar Hoover, Helms at the CIA, the Eastern Establishment press, the judiciary, most of the Congress, and the Internal Revenue Service, manned by Democratic holdovers who blocked all his efforts to enforce legitimate authority through tax audits and tax harassment.
It is important, I think, to realize that Nixon saw nothing wrong in the conception of governing through tax harassment of foundations and individuals. To him, control of the IRS was one of the natural perquisites of the office, like the patronage dispensed by the Postmaster General, the parceling out of contracts and embassy assignments as rewards to campaign contributors. As for the wire-tapping of dissenters and subversives, some people, he knew, thought it was illegal, but it was not wrong. And why shouldn’t the CIA lend a hand in undercover operations against domestic radicals? Its charter from Congress specified foreign intelligence work only, but it was common knowledge that a lot of those radicals were working for foreign powers.
Yet these little natural innocent things (how could a tax audit hurt anybody who had made an honest return?) were being treated as if they were crimes by the people over at IRS and by Hoover and Helms, who got legalistic when asked to do the slightest favor. It had not been that way when the Democrats were running things. The difference was Richard M. Nixon. Elected by the popular will to the highest office of the land, the President of the United States was thrust into the position of a conspirator if he was going to execute his mandate.
A number of presidents—e.g., Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson—have not been strangers to this feeling and have acted accordingly. It is probably in the nature of things that the Chief Executive will chafe against the laws and institutions restraining him more than the average citizen and turn, on occasion, into the Chief Lawbreaker. But no Administration before Nixon’s can have lent itself so readily to a conspiratorial view of government. His secretive and unsociable nature made friends with the underground methods he felt were imposed on him by an unsympathetic Congress (even his own party had its Javitses and Percys) and an uncooperative entrenched bureaucracy.
In 1970 conspiracy (the wrong kind) was much in the Administration’s thoughts. At Justice, Mitchell and Mardian were bringing dissenters to trial under the conspiracy statutes and creating more dissent among the judiciary, which complained of loosely drawn indictments, tainted evidence, and the violation of the rights of defendants. From the Administration’s point of view, those aborted trials should have been seen, nevertheless, as a qualified success; like tax audits, they constituted a harassment, very costly both of time and money not only to those indicted but also to their supporters, busy raising funds, writing letters to the press, hiring halls, drafting appeals. But Nixon was dissatisfied.
(A) With the judiciary and (B) probably, with Mitchell and Mardian. As he drew closer to the notion (unnamed by him, of course) of forming a conspiratorial nucleus within his own government, he began to draw away from his old counselor Mitchell, who believed in “working within the system” by rapping on the right doors. The Senate’s rejection of Haynsworth and Carswell—Mitchell’s nominees for the Supreme Court and part of “the Southern strategy”—must have produced the first signs of a chill on Nixon’s part. Trying to work within the system, twisting a few arms (Senator Margaret Chase Smith’s for instance) had caused him two public humiliations and anyway it was too slow. An analogy with the politics of the left comes to mind: the younger ideologues and actionists of the White House inner circle were revolutionaries, while Mitchell and his cronies (I ask Willy Brandt’s pardon) were Social Democrats. Both had the same goal—the rule of Nixon—and the differences were over methodology, but Mitchell’s addiction to the old semi-legal methods, a habit he could not shake, was starting to prove, at least to Nixon, that he did not understand the goal any better than J. Edgar Hoover or Randolph Thrower of the IRS.
The disclosure of the Pentagon Papers brought all this to a head. Their publication inflicted a symbolic injury on Nixon. Whatever disapproval he was bound to express in public, privately he might almost have enjoyed it. The documents had nothing to do with him and cast discredit, to put it mildly, on his Democratic predecessors. Nor did the Pentagon come out well, which could have given him some satisfaction; relations, as we now know, were strained to the point where the Pentagon was spying on him. It is understandable that he should have been led to worry about leaks from his own Administration. Perhaps almost any president in his place would have formed something like a Plumbers’ unit to make doubly sure this did not happen to him.
But Nixon’s reaction of fury was far in excess of the cause and unaccounted for by his practical interests. He became obsessed with Ellsberg—a spacedout academic who would never see the inside of a government office again. By all accounts, Nixon could not get his mind off him and talked about him incessantly. Ellsberg was the goad that spurred his thinking along security lines, and the White House staff was aware of it, so much so that a sycophant like Colson, trying to keep pace with that thinking, actually directed a White House employee to set off a fire-bomb in the Brookings Institution in order to effect an entry and steal some documents they were using for a current study of Vietnam affairs. It is interesting that this project was a mirror image of the Pentagon Papers “theft,” with arson, property damage, and possible loss of life added.
Nixon’s determination to see Ellsberg punished, like a close personal enemy, hardened throughout the summer. All his grudges and grievances now had a point to center on: his hatred of the press, his hatred of reds and pinks, his hatred of Hoover, his mistrust of the CIA and impatience with the judiciary. The FBI was refusing to conduct a serious investigation because of a friendship between Hoover and Ellsberg’s father-in-law; the CIA “psychological profile” of Ellsberg was derisory; the judge hearing the case naturally could not be counted on, so he had to be “fixed” with an offer to head the FBI.
Like furniture being moved into place to set a stage, Hunt and Liddy that summer were brought onto the White House staff. Caulfield and Ulasewicz, both with police backgrounds of investigating dissidents, were already there. Caulfield, a former Bronx cop, had been hired by Haldeman; his specialty had been “monitoring” terrorists, the Communist party, Cuban militant organizations, and a variety of “Latin domestic revolutionary groups who planned or were suspected of planning various kinds of unlawful activities.” The burglary of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist was coming.
The Ellsberg-poisoned atmosphere of the White House during the summer and fall of 1971 is reminiscent of the Kremlin during the late days of Stalin and the chimera of “the men in white.” Nixon could not tolerate the sight of an opponent, even the most harmless and peaceful demonstrator with a sign. The specter of Philby (called “Philbrick” by the preparer of the transcript, who is obviously not very spy-conscious) seems to have haunted the President, as though he were a nascent Ellsberg in British disguise. Like Stalin, Nixon was meditating a purge, but because the US was a democracy it would have to wait till after the election. In Washington, after the election, heads did not roll, as they did during the “doctors’ plot,” but Helms went, early in 1973, death had taken care of Hoover the previous spring, and late last summer a big “reorganization” of the CIA was reported. Ehrlichman, moreover (this has just come to light), took a leaf from Yagoda’s book: in 1971, he presented Admiral Welander with a prepared confession to sign that would have made “me admit to the wildest possible, totally false charges of political espionage.” Welander refused.
Nixon’s grim focus on Ellsberg is as easy (or as hard) to explain as Stalin’s final paranoia, which combined his fear of assassination with a phobic suspicion of Jews to fix on the doctors around him, and then struck out at Soviet Jews in general. Anti-Semitism was latent in the Soviet Union, just as red scares are endemic in the United States. Even Nixon, though, cannot have imagined Ellsberg as his future assassin except in a symbolic sense. The theft of those documents, their exposure to public view had dealt the Presidency a wound, and Nixon, in his own mind, had merged with the institution, to become a single body. The publication of the Pentagon Papers planted in him a doubt of the inviolability of his person and the office and of the principle of “confidentiality” about which he evidently has deeprooted feelings. It was as if his monitoring system, which he had hoped would ensure permanent control of the presidential environment by putting whatever happened there on record for his own exclusive retention, had been defied, almost laughed at, by another set of records compiled under McNamara’s directions and spirited away by a private individual.
At the same time there was perhaps something about Ellsberg, the man, the pre-Papers, clean, crew-cut Ellsberg, a defiant hawk in Vietnam, looking out, still, with a tight eager smile, from the cloud of hair, that reminded Nixon of some of the younger “modern conservatives” in his own hard-driving office family, and the feeling of half-familiarity would have further disturbed his balance, making him look fearfully at the aide with a clipboard coming in the door. Hence the angry insistence on Ellsberg as a “traitor” and the obsessive memory of Philby.
Late in the fall of 1971, after the unproductive Fielding burglary, as the courts prepared to try Ellsberg, the co-ordinates for Watergate were fixed, even if no brain as yet had made the calculation. The White House retained the Plumbers’ “capability” in addition to Caulfield and Ulasewicz, but had no immediate interesting employment to offer them. Electronic surveillance, working out of Ehrlichman’s office, had hardly been given a chance to show what it could do: only a few taps on journalists and on Kissinger’s aides. At CREEP there was money to burn. In September, McCord, on Caulfield’s recommendation, was hired by CREEP as a security officer, part time. A former FBI and CIA operative, he had knowledge of “the art of certain technical devices…listening-devices and so on.” Liddy, who arrived on December 10, did not; his field was clandestine photography. On January 1, McCord went on full time.
The idea of putting these elements together and plugging them into the campaign may have been Nixon’s. If he dropped it into Haldeman’s “suggestion box” during a chat at Camp David, it probably drew a neutral response: “I’ll look into the parameters, Mr. President, and report back.” Alternatively Colson brought Nixon the idea, which either he had thought up himself or which had come to him via Hunt from Liddy—Colson did not meet Liddy in person until early February. Or maybe several people, separately, put it forward. It is impossible to trace the routes by which it beat its way to Nixon’s mind until finally it could not be dislodged. But some time, as early as December or as late as April 1, it achieved “worthwhile for go status.” The conjugation of McCord and Liddy in the CREEP offices, followed by McCord’s going on full-time salary—facts not subject to dispute—point to a Christmas birth date.
It is impossible to foretell whether Nixon will be removed from office, by one means or another, when Watergate celebrates its second anniversary. As I write, in late February, the prediction is that he will stay. Yet Watergate has a strange organic life of its own which, in my opinion, is more persistent than Nixon’s desperate hold on power. Watergate has showed itself to be like an angleworm or a child’s belief about an angleworm: if you chop it in pieces, each piece will wriggle off and make a brand-new angleworm. Last September, everyone was sure that it had died. Then came Agnew, After Agnew, another “dead” period followed. Then came the Saturday night massacre. Another brief suspension of breath, then the missing tapes, then the tape erasures.
This persistence is not an accident or just bad luck. Watergate returns, reasserts itself because it is a whole, consistent in all its parts like the angleworm. It is a creation of Nixon and of Nixonian politics. Agnew, strictly speaking, had nothing to do with Watergate, but because he himself was a creation of Nixonian politics, he was a parallel phenomenon that could not sustain scrutiny when brought out into the light of day.
This organic wholeness of Nixon and his works, faithfully reflected in Watergate, has produced some ironies, nasty tricks of fate. But the irony results from the utter consistency of the whole—there are no spare parts; everything returns on itself. Because of Watergate, for example, Dan Ellsberg has gone free. And if Nixon gnashed his teeth over that, he must at least have cursed when he read McCord’s letter to Judge Sirica. What had persuaded McCord to talk or had been at any rate a prime factor in his decision was his loyalty to the CIA. On this point, he testified with a good deal of heat and at length. He was angry when he first heard of the White House effort “to lay the Watergate operation off on the CIA,” and he had refused to go along with the suggestion that he use the CIA in his defense.
I could not use as my defense the story that the operation was a CIA operation because it was not true…. Even if it meant my freedom, I would not turn on the organization that had employed me for 19 years…. I was completely convinced that the White House was behind the idea and ploy which had been presented, and that the White House was turning ruthless, in my opinion, and would do whatever was politically expedient at any one particular point in time to accomplish its own ends.
I was also convinced that the White House had fired Helms in order to put its own man in control at CIA…. It appeared to me that the White House had for some time been trying to get control over the CIA estimates and assessments, in order to make them conform to “White House policy.”
He went on to talk somewhat incoherently about how Hitler’s intelligence chiefs had been obliged to lie to him in giving their estimates of foreign military capabilities—thereby losing him the war. Jim McCord was a fire-breathing patriot and seemed to have decided, post-Watergate, that the White House, through persecution of the CIA, was weakening the country’s defenses. It took all kinds of Americans, including the seven rather conservative senators, to bring out the Watergate story: the press, the judiciary (Judge Sirica), even Pat Gray of the FBI. Nearly all of Nixon’s chickens have come home to roost, but a few more—the last of the brood—may finish the job.
Postscript, March 7
On March 1, since these thoughts were written, the grand jury indicted seven of Nixon’s associates and handed its sealed envelope to Judge Sirica. Watergate has come to life again, and again Nixon’s days appear to be numbered. In Cincinnati, a Republican candidate for Congress has been defeated—another inroad on strongly held Republican territory. Senator Ervin’s Committee has been voted some more money. Nixon has said on television that when he told Dean, “It would be wrong, that’s for sure”—his newest recollection of the words he used on March 21, 1973—he was talking about clemency for the men in prison. Not, as Haldeman had sworn before the Ervin panel, about raising a million dollars’ worth of hush money.
This would seem to “cover” Haldeman on one perjury charge: he had not been lying under oath to the Senate Committee but had only had a poor recollection of the context, understandable since hush money and clemency were linked in the discussion. Nixon went on to say that some people (was he thinking of the twenty-three grand jurors?) who read the whole transcript or heard the whole tape might put a different interpretation on the conversation, but “I know what I meant.”
We can now understand at least why the tape was not deep-sixed. The statement “it is wrong” or “that would be wrong” must occur somewhere on it, and to preserve those three or four precious little words, Nixon evidently decided to let the grand jury, if that was its mood, “misinterpret” the rest of the conversation: proof that he has a moral sense was scarce enough not to be jettisoned.
The seven indictments for conspiracy, perjury, lying, and obstruction of justice relate only to the cover-up. The grand jury apparently drew no conclusions as to who planned and directed the original crime, unless those conclusions are contained in the sealed envelope. One can hardly blame the jurors for failing to pronounce on the matter since no hard evidence, so far as we know, pointing to the guilty party or parties has been produced. Those who had an interest in covering up are legion—virtually the entire Nixon apparatus—but the entire apparatus cannot be guilty of ordering the break-ins at the Watergate. The plain fact is that the cover-up is still going on: evidence in the form of criminal knowledge is being effectively hidden, justice is being obstructed.
The grand jury indictments only confirm what was already a certainty in most people’s minds: that those seven men (though I must say that I did not suspect Gordon Strachan) were lying and/or conspiring to conceal when they gave testimony to legally constituted bodies. But what is not yet a general persuasion, what we can only guess at, remains a secret shared among a handful of men, not more than four probably. Three of these are now under indictment, and the prospect of jail may serve to squeeze some truth out. But it is more likely that the one who is still at large will be judged and condemned by another court—the Congress or what is left of the Republican party—before his accomplices can stand up to hear the verdicts reached by their peers.
April 4, 1974
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. ↩