Watergate — a name forever synonymous with former President Richard M. Nixon.
Forty years ago this month, I was glued to the TV watching the Senate Watergate Committee hearings, and astounded at the laundry list of accusations made against then President Nixon that would eventually lead to his resignation – something no one could ever imagine, let alone see come to pass.
Watergate is also synonymous with Woodward and Bernstein – the intrepid Washington Post journalists who became the gold standard of investigative journalism. Well, they’re going back to Watergate to tell us… that Nixon’s actions were far worse than anyone could image.
According to a recent Washington Post story (June 8), Woodward and Bernstein reveal additional details that clearly demonstrate that the Watergate break-in was just one of many criminal activities the former president was involved in. Nixon was, in fact, at war with five groups.
“Nixon’s first war was against the anti-Vietnam War movement. In 1970, he approved the top-secret Huston Plan, authorizing the CIA, the FBI and military intelligence units to intensify electronic surveillance of individuals identified as ‘domestic security threats.’ The plan called for, among other things, intercepting mail and lifting restrictions on ‘surreptitious entry’ — that is, break-ins or ‘black bag jobs.’ …
“Nixon’s second war was waged ceaselessly against the press, which was reporting more insistently on the faltering Vietnam War and the effectiveness of the antiwar movement. Although [the FBI’s J.Edgar] Hoover thought he had shut down the Huston Plan, it was in fact implemented by high-level Nixon deputies. A ‘Plumbers’ unit and burglary team were set up under the direction of White House counsel John Ehrlichman and an assistant, Egil Krogh, and led by the operational chiefs of the future Watergate burglary, ex-CIA operative Howard Hunt and former FBI agent G. Gordon Liddy….
“An early assignment was to destroy the reputation of Daniel Ellsberg, who had provided The Pentagon Papers, a secret history of the Vietnam War, to the news media in 1971. Publication of the documents in the New York Times, the Washington Post and eventually other newspapers had sent Nixon into rants and rages, recorded on his tapes…
“In Nixon’s third war, he took the weapons in place — the Plumbers, wiretapping and burglary — and deployed them against the Democrats challenging his reelection.
John N. Mitchell, Nixon’s campaign manager and confidante, met with Liddy at the Justice Department in early 1972, when Mitchell was attorney general. Liddy presented a $1 million plan, code-named ‘Gemstone,’ for spying and sabotage during the upcoming presidential campaign
“The tapes also reveal Nixon’s obsession with another Democrat: Sen. Edward Kennedy. One of Hunt’s earliest undertakings for the White House was to dig up dirt on Kennedy’s sex life…
“ ‘I’d really like to get Kennedy taped,’ Nixon told Haldeman in April 1971. According to Haldeman’s 1994 book, ‘The Haldeman Diaries,’ the president also wanted to have Kennedy photographed in compromising situations and leak the images to the press.
And when Kennedy received Secret Service protection as he campaigned for McGovern, the Democratic presidential nominee, Nixon and Haldeman discussed a novel plan to keep him under surveillance: They would insert a retired Secret Service agent, Robert Newbrand, who had been part of Nixon’s protection detail when he was vice president, into the team protecting Kennedy.
“ ‘I’ll talk to Newbrand and tell him how to approach it,’ Haldeman said, ‘because Newbrand will do anything that I tell him.’
“ ‘We just might get lucky and catch this son of a bitch and ruin him for ’76,’ replied the president, adding, ‘That’s going to be fun.’
“The arrest of the Watergate burglars set in motion Nixon’s fourth war, against the American system of justice. It was a war of lies and hush money, a conspiracy that became necessary to conceal the roles of top officials and to hide the president’s campaign of illegal espionage and political sabotage, including the covert operations that Mitchell described as ‘the White House horrors’ during the Watergate hearings: the Huston Plan, the Plumbers, the Ellsberg break-in, Liddy’s Gemstone plan and the proposed break-in at Brookings [Institution – a liberal-leaning think tank].
“In a June 23, 1972, tape recording, six days after the arrests at the Watergate, Haldeman warned Nixon that ‘on the investigation, you know, the Democratic break-in thing, we’re back in the problem area, because the FBI is not under control . . . their investigation is now leading into some productive areas, because they’ve been able to trace the money.’
“Haldeman said Mitchell had come up with a plan for the CIA to claim that national security secrets would be compromised if the FBI did not halt its Watergate investigation.
“Nixon approved the scheme and ordered Haldeman to call in CIA Director Richard Helms and his deputy Vernon Walters. ‘Play it tough,’ the president directed. ‘That’s the way they play it, and that’s the way we are going to play it.’
“The contents of the tape were made public on Aug. 5, 1974. Four days later, Nixon resigned.
“Nixon’s final war, waged even to this day by some former aides and historical revisionists, aims to play down the significance of Watergate and present it as a blip on the president’s record. Nixon lived for 20 years after his resignation and worked tirelessly to minimize the scandal.
“Though he accepted a full pardon from President Gerald Ford, Nixon insisted that he had not participated in any crimes. In his 1977 television interviews with British journalist David Frost, he said that he had “let the American people down” but that he had not obstructed justice. ‘I didn’t think of it as a cover-up. I didn’t intend a cover-up. Let me say, if I intended the cover-up, believe me, I would have done it.’
“In his 1978 memoir ‘RN,’ Nixon addressed his role in Watergate: ‘My actions and omissions, while regrettable and possibly indefensible, were not impeachable.’ Twelve years later, in his book ‘In the Arena,’ he decried a dozen ‘myths’ about Watergate and claimed that he was innocent of many of the charges made against him. One myth, he said, was that he ordered the payment of hush money to Hunt and others. Yet, the March 21, 1973, tape shows that he ordered Dean to get the money 12 times.”
Perhaps even more shocking is to ponder the “What ifs.”
What if… Nixon had succeeded in burying the Watergate mess before it got out of control? There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that he just might have pulled it off.
What if Deputy FBI Director and Deep Throat informer Mark Felt had not guided and provided the critical information necessary to aid Woodward and Bernstein’s investigation?
What else might Nixon and his men have done, and what greater price might the country have paid?