The Worm Turns in Swamptown … Violent Talk at the National Affairs Desk … A Narrow Escape for Tex Colson… Heavy Duty in The Bunker…No Room for Gonzo? ‘Hell, They Already Have This Story Nailed Up and Bleeding from Every Extremity.’
“Reflecting on the meaning of the last presidential election, I have decided at this point in time that Mr. Nixon’s landslide victory and my overwhelming defeat will probably prove to be of greater value to the nation than would the victory my supporters and I worked so hard to achieve. I think history may demonstrate that it was not only important that Mr. Nixon win and that I lose, but that the margin should be of stunning proportions… . The shattering Nixon landslide, and the even more shattering exposure of the corruption that surrounded him, have done more than I could have done in victory to awaken the nation… . This is not a comfortable conclusion for a self-confident — some would say self-righteous — politician to reach….”
— George McGovern in the Washington Post: Aug. 12th, 1973
Indeed. But we want to keep in mind that “comfortable” is a very relative word around Washington these days — with the vicious tentacles of “Watergate” ready to wrap themselves around almost anybody, at any moment — and when McGovern composed those eminently reasonable words in the study of his stylish home on the woodsy edge of Washington, he had no idea how close he’d just come to being made extremely “uncomfortable.”
I have just finished making out a report addressed to somebody named Charles R. Roach, a claims examiner at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Headquarters of Avis Rent-a-Car in Arlington, Virginia. It has to do with a minor accident that occurred on Connecticut Avenue, in downtown Washington, shortly after George and his wife had bade farewell to the last staggering guests at the party he’d given on a hot summer night in July commemorating the first anniversary of his seizure of the presidential nomination in Miami.
The atmosphere of the party itself had been amazingly loose and pleasant. Two hundred people had been invited, — twice that many showed up — to celebrate what history will record, with at least a few asterisks, as one of the most disastrous presidential campaigns in American history. Midway in the evening I was standing on the patio, talking to Carl Wagner and Holly Mankiewicz, when the phone began ringing and whoever answered it came back with the news that President Nixon had just been admitted to the nearby Bethesda Naval Hospital with what was officially announced as “viral pneumonia.”
Nobody believed it, of course. High-powered journalists like Jack Germond and Jules Witcover immediately seized the phones to find out what was really wrong with Nixon … but the rest of us, no longer locked into deadlines or the fast-rising terrors of some tomorrow’s election day, merely shrugged at the news and kept on drinking. There was nothing unusual, we felt, about Nixon caving in to some real or even psychosomatic illness. And if the truth was worse than the news … well … there would be nothing unusual about that either.
One of the smallest and noisiest contingents among the 200 invited guests was the handful of big-time journalists who’d spent most of last autumn dogging McGovern’s every lame footstep along the campaign trail, while two third-string police reporters from the Washington Post were quietly putting together the biggest political story of 1972 or any other year — a story that had already exploded, by the time of McGovern’s “anniversary” party, into a scandal that has even now burned a big hole for itself in every American history textbook written from 1973 till infinity.
* * *
One of the most extraordinary aspects of the Watergate story has been the way the press has handled it: What began in the summer of 1972 as one of the great media-bungles of the century has developed, by now, into what is probably the most thoroughly and most professionally covered story in the history of American journalism.
When I boomed into Washington last month to meet Steadman and set up the National Affairs Desk once again, I expected — or in retrospect I think I expected — to find the high-rolling newsmeisters of the capital press corps jabbering blindly among themselves, once again, in some stylish sector of reality far-removed from the Main Nerve of “the story” … like climbing aboard Ed Muskie’s Sunshine Special in the Florida primary and finding every media star in the nation sipping Bloody Marys and convinced they were riding the rails to Miami with “the candidate” … or sitting down to lunch at the Sioux Falls Holiday Inn on election day with a half-dozen of the heaviest press wizards and coming away convinced that McGovern couldn’t possibly lose by more than ten points.
My experience on the campaign trail in 1972 had not filled me with a real sense of awe, vis-a-vis the wisdom of the national press corps … so I was seriously jolted, when I arrived in Washington, to find that the bastards had this Watergate story nailed up and bleeding from every extremity — from “Watergate” and all its twisted details, to ITT, the Vesco case, Nixon’s lies about the financing for his San Clemente beach-mansion, and even the long-dormant “Agnew Scandal.”
There was not a hell of a lot of room for a Gonzo journalist to operate in that high-tuned atmosphere. For the first time in memory, the Washington press corps was working very close to the peak of its awesome but normally dormant potential. The Washington Post has a half-dozen of the best reporters in America working every tangent of the Watergate story like wild-eyed junkies set adrift, with no warning, to find their next connection. The New York Times, badly blitzed on the story at first, called in hotrods from its bureaus all over the country to overcome the Post’s early lead. Both Time’s and Newsweek’s Washington bureaus began scrambling feverishly to find new angles, new connections, new leaks and leads in this story that was unraveling so fast that nobody could stay on top of it… . And especially not the three (or four) TV networks, whose whole machinery was geared to visual action stories, rather than skillfully planted tips from faceless lawyers who called on private phones and then refused to say anything at all in front of the cameras.
The only standard-brand visual “action” in the Watergate story had happened at the very beginning — when the burglars were caught in the act by a squad of plain-clothes cops with drawn guns — and that happened so fast that there was not even a still photographer on hand, much less a TV camera.
The network news moguls are not hungry for stories involving weeks of dreary investigation and minimum camera possibilities — particularly at a time when almost every ranking TV correspondent in the country was assigned to one aspect or another of a presidential campaign that was still boiling feverishly when the Watergate break-in occurred on June 17th. The Miami conventions and the Eagleton fiasco kept the Watergate story backstage all that summer. Both the networks and the press had their “first teams” out on the campaign trail until long after the initial indictments — Liddy, Hunt, McCord, et al. — on September 15th. And by election day in November, the Watergate story seemed like old news.
It was rarely if ever mentioned among the press people following the campaign. A burglary at the Democratic National Headquarters seemed relatively minor, compared to the action in Miami. It was a “local” (Washington) story, and the “local staff” was handling it … but I had no local staff, so I made the obvious choice.
Except on two occasions, and the first of these still haunts me. On the night of June 17th I spent most of the evening in the Watergate Hotel: From about eight o’clock until ten I was swimming laps in the indoor pool, and from 10:30 until a bit after 1:00 AM I was drinking tequila in the Watergate bar with Tom Quinn, a sports columnist for the now-defunct Washington Daily News.
Meanwhile, upstairs in room 214, Hunt and Liddy were already monitoring the break-in, by walkie-talkie, with ex-FBI agent Alfred Baldwin in his well-equipped spy-nest across Virginia Avenue in room 419 of the Howard Johnson Motor Lodge. Jim McCord had already taped the locks on two doors just underneath the bar in the Watergate garage, and it was probably just about the time that Quinn and I called for our last round of tequila that McCord and his team of Cubans moved into action — and got busted less than an hour later.
All this was happening less than 100 yards from where we were sitting in the bar, sucking limes and salt with our Sauza Gold and muttering darkly about the fate of Duane Thomas and the pigs who run the National Football League.
* * *
Neither Bob Woodward nor Carl Bernstein from the Post were invited to McGovern’s party that night — which was fitting, because the guest list was limited to those who had lived through the day-to-day nightmare of the ’72 campaign … People like Frank Mankiewicz, Miles Rubin, Rick Stearns, Gary Hart and even Newsweek correspondent Dick Stout, whose final dispatch on the doomed McGovern campaign very nearly got him thrown out of the Dakota Queen II at 30,000 feet over Lincoln, Nebraska, on the day before the election.
This was the crowd that had gathered that night in July to celebrate his last victory before the Great Disaster — the slide that began with Eagleton and ended, incredibly, with “Watergate.” The events of the past six months had so badly jangled the nerves of the invited guests — the staffers and journalists who had been with McGovern from New Hampshire all the way to Sioux Falls on election day — that nobody really wanted to go to the party, for fear that it might be a funeral and a serious bummer.
By the end of the evening, when the two dozen bitter-enders had forced McGovern to break out his own private stock — ignoring the departure of the caterers and the dousing of the patio lights — the bulk of the conversation was focused on which one or ones of the Secret Service men assigned to protect McGovern had been reporting daily to Jeb Magruder at CREEP, and which one of the ten or 12 journalists with access to the innards of George’s strategy had been on CREEP’s payroll at $1500 a month. This journalist — still publicly unknown and un-denounced — was referred to in White House memos as “Chapman’s Friend,” a mysterious designation that puzzled the whole Washington press corps until one of the President’s beleaguered ex-aides explained privately that “Chapman” is a name Nixon used, from to time, in the good old days when he was able to travel around obscure Holiday Inns under phony names …
R. Chapman, Pepsi-Cola salesman, New York City … with a handful of friends carrying walkie-talkies and wearing white leather shoulder-holsters.
… But what the hell? Just send a case of Pepsi up to the suite, my man, and don’t ask questions; your reward will come later — call the White House and ask for Howard Hunt or Jim McCord; they’ll take care of you.
Right. Or maybe Tex Colson, who is slowly and surely emerging as the guiding light behind Nixon’s whole arsenal of illegal, immoral and unethical “black advance” or “dirty tricks” department. It was Colson who once remarked that he would “walk over his grandmother for Richard Nixon” … and it was Colson who hired head “plumber” Egil “Bud” Krogh, who in 1969 told Daniel X. Friedman, chairman of the psychiatry department at the University of Chicago: “Anyone who opposes us, we’ll destroy. As a matter of fact, anyone who doesn’t support us, we’ll destroy.”
Colson, the only one of Nixon’s top command to so far evade Watergate’s legal noose, is the man who once told White House cop Jack Caulfield to put a firebomb in the offices of the staid liberal Brookings Institute, in order to either steal or destroy some documents he considered incriminating. Colson now says he was “only joking” about the firebomb plan, but Caulfield took it so seriously that he went to then White House counsel John Dean and said he refused to work with Colson any longer, because he was “crazy.”
* * *
Crazy? Tex Colson?
Never in Hell. “He’s the meanest man in American politics,” says Nixon’s speechwriter Pat Buchanan, smiling lazily over the edge of a beer can beside the pool outside his Watergate apartment. Buchanan is one of the few people in the Nixon administration with a sense of humor. He is so far to the right that he dismisses Tex Colson as a “Massachusetts liberal.” But for some reason, Buchanan is also one of the few people — perhaps the only one — on Nixon’s staff, who has friends at the other end of the political spectrum. At one point during the campaign I mentioned Buchanan at McGovern Headquarters, for some reason, and Rick Stearns, perhaps the most hardline left-bent ideologue on McGovern’s staff, sort of chuckled and said, “Oh yeah, we’re pretty good friends. Pat’s the only one of those bastards over there with any principles.” When I mentioned this to another McGovern staffer, he snapped: “Yeah, maybe so … like Josef Goebbels had principles.”
My own relationship with Buchanan goes back to the New Hampshire primary in 1968 when Nixon was still on the dim fringes of his political comeback. We spent about eight hours one night in a Boston hotel room, finishing off a half gallon of Old Crow and arguing savagely about politics: As I recall, I kept asking him why a person who seemed to have good sense would be hanging around with Nixon. It was clear even then that Buchanan considered me stone crazy, and my dismissal of Nixon as a hopeless bum with no chance of winning anything seemed to amuse him more than anything else.
About eight months later, after one of the strangest and most brutal years in American history, Richard Nixon was President and Pat Buchanan was one of his top two speech writers along with Ray Price, the house moderate. I didn’t see Pat again until the McGovern Campaign in ’72 when Ron Ziegler refused to have me on the Nixon Press Plane and Buchanan intervened to get me past the White House Guard and into what turned out to be a dull and useless seat on the plane with the rest of the White House press corps. It was also Buchanan who interviewed Garry Wills, introducing him into the Nixon Campaign of 1968 — an act of principle that resulted in an extremely unfriendly book called Nixon Agonistes.
So it seemed entirely logical, I thought — going back to Washington in the midst of this stinking Watergate summer — to call Buchanan and see if he felt like having 13 or 14 drinks on some afternoon when he wasn’t at the White House working feverishly in what he calls “the bunker.” Price and Buchanan write almost everything Nixon says and they are busier than usual these days, primarily figuring out what not to say. I spent most of one Saturday afternoon with Pat lounging around a tin umbrella table beside the Watergate pool and talking lazily about politics in general. When I called him at the White House the day before, the first thing he said was “Yeah, I just finished your book.”
“Oh Jesus,” I replied, thinking this naturally meant the end of any relationship we’d ever have. But he laughed. “Yeah, it’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever read.”
One of the first things I asked him that afternoon was something that had been simmering in my head for at least a year or so and that was how he could feel comfortable with strange friends like me and Rick Stearns, and particularly how he could possibly feel comfortable sitting out in the open — in plain site of the whole Watergate crowd — with a known monster whose affection for Richard Nixon was a matter of fairly brutal common knowledge — or how he felt comfortable playing poker once or twice a week sometimes with Rick Stearns, whose political views are almost as diametrically opposed to Buchanan’s as mine are. He shrugged it off with a grin, opening another beer. “Oh, well, we ideologues seem to get along better than the others. I don’t agree with Rick on anything at all that I can think of, but I like him and I respect his honesty.”
A strange notion, the far left and far right finding some kind of odd common ground beside the Watergate pool and particularly when one of them is a top Nixon speechwriter, spending most of his time trying to keep the Boss from sinking like a stone in foul water, yet now and then laughingly referring to the White House as The Bunker.
After the sixth or seventh beer, I told him about our abortive plot several nights earlier to seize Colson out of his house and drag him down Pennsylvania Avenue tied behind a huge gold Oldsmobile Cutlass. He laughed and said something to the effect that “Colson’s so tough, he might like it.” And then, talking further about Colson, he said, “But you know he’s not really a Conservative.”
And that’s what seems to separate the two GOP camps, like it separates Barry Goldwater from Richard Nixon. Very much like the difference between the Humphrey Democrats and the McGovern Democrats. The ideological wing versus the pragmatists, and by Buchanan’s standards it’s doubtful that he even considers Richard Nixon a Conservative.
My strange and violent reference to Colson seemed to amuse him more than anything else. “I want to be very clear on one thing,” I assured him. “If you’re thinking about having me busted for conspiracy on this, remember that I’ve already deliberately dragged you into it. He laughed again and then mentioned something about the “one overt act” necessary for a conspiracy charge, and I quickly said that I had no idea where Tex Colson even lived and didn’t really want to know, so that even if we’d wanted to drag the vicious bastard down Pennsylvania Avenue at 60-miles per hour behind a gold Oldsmobile Cutlass we had no idea, that night, where to find him and about halfway into the plot we crashed into a black and gold Cadillac on Connecticut Ave and drew a huge mob of angry blacks who ended all thought of taking vengeance on Colson. It was all I could do to get out of that scene without getting beaten like a gong for the small crease our rented Cutlass had put in the fender of the Cadillac.
* * *
Which brings us back to that accident report I just wrote and sent off to Mr. Roach at Avis Mid-Atlantic Headquarters in Arlington. The accident occurred about 3:30 in the morning when either Warren Beatty or Pat Caddell opened the door of a gold Oldsmobile Cutlass I’d rented at Dulles airport earlier that day, and banged the door against the fender of a massive black & gold Cadillac roadster parked in front of a late-night restaurant on Connecticut Avenue called Anna Maria’s. It seemed like a small thing at the time, but in retrospect it might have spared us all — including McGovern — an extremely nasty episode.
Because somewhere in the late hours of that evening, when the drink had taken hold and people were jabbering loosely about anything that came into their heads, somebody mentioned that “the worst and most vicious” of Nixon’s backstairs White House hit men — Charles “Tex” Colson — was probably the only one of the dozen or more Nixon/CRP functionaries thus far sucked into “the Watergate scandal” who was not likely to do any time, or even be indicted.
It was a long, free-falling conversation, with people wandering in and out, over a time-span of an hour or so — journalists, pols, spectators — and the focus of it, as I recall, was a question that I was trying to get some bets on: How many of the primary Watergate figures would actually serve time in prison?
The reactions ranged from my own guess that only Magruder and Dean would live long enough to serve time in prison, to Mankiewicz’s flat assertion that “everybody except Colson” would be indicted, convicted, sentenced and actually hauled off to prison.
(Everybody involved in this conversation will no doubt deny any connection with it — or even hearing about it, for that matter — but what the hell? It did, in fact, take place over the course of some two or three days, in several locations, but the seed of the speculation took root in the final early-morning hours of McGovern’s party … although I don’t remember that George himself was involved or even within earshot at any time. He has finally come around to the point where his friends don’t mind calling him “George” in the friendly privacy of his own home, but that is not quite the same thing as getting him involved in a felony-conspiracy attempted murder charge that some wild-eyed, Nixon-appointed geek in the Justice Department might try to crank up on the basis of a series of boozy conversations among journalists, politicians and other half-drunk cynics. Anybody who has spent any time around late-night motel bars with the press corps on a presidential campaign knows better than to take their talk seriously … but after reading reviews of my book on the ’72 campaign, it occurs to me that some people will believe almost anything that fits their preconceived notions.)
And so much for all that.
* * *
Patio Bar beside the Washington Hilton Swimming Pool
Steadman and his wife had just arrived from England. Sandy had flown in the day before from Colorado and I had come up from Miami after a long vacation in the decompression chamber. It was a Tuesday or Wednesday afternoon, I think, and the Watergate Hearings were in progress but we’d decided to take the first day off and get ourselves under control. One of the first things I had to do was make out a long overdue accident report for that night, two weeks earlier, when the door of my rented car smacked into the Cadillac at four in the morning. The Avis people were threatening to cut off my coverage for “non-cooperation” so I’d brought the insanely complicated accident report down to the patio table by the pool, thinking to fill it out with the help of eight or nine Carlsbergs.
Steadman was already sketching distractedly, swilling beers at a feverish rate and muttering darkly to himself about the terrible conditions in the hotel and how earlier that morning while passing thru the coffee shop, a huge ceiling lamp had fallen from the ceiling and nearly killed him.
It was “teddible teddible” he said, “the damn thing came so close that it knocked my briefcase full of drawings out of my hand. Six inches closer and it would have caved in my head!”
I nodded sympathetically, thinking it was just another one of those ugly twists of luck that always seems to afflict Ralph in this country, and I kept on grappling with the accident report.
Steadman was still babbling. “God, it’s hot … Ah, this teddible thirst … what’s that you’ve got there?”
“The goddamn accident report. I’ve got to make it out.”
“Yeah, I had a small wreck the last time I was here about two weeks ago… .”
“Alright, alright… . Yes, two more Carlsbergs.”
“… And the car blew up the next night and I had to abandon it in Rock Creek Park at four in the morning. I think they’re still billing me for it.”
“The Avis people.”
“My God, that’s teddible.”
“I only had it two nights. The first night I had this wreck, and the next night it blew up.”
“What were you doing in this wretched city at four in the morning?”
“Well, actually we were thinking about going out to Tex Colson’s house and jerking him out of bed, tying him behind the car with a big rope and dragging him down Pennsylvania Avenue … then cutting him loose in front of the White House Guard Gate.”
“You’re kidding… . You don’t really mean that. You wouldn’t do a thing like that, would you?”
“Of course not. That would be a conspiracy to commit either murder or aggravated assault, plus kidnapping… and you know me, Ralph; that’s not my style at all.”
“That’s what I mean. You were drunk perhaps, eh?”
“Ah, we were drunk yes. We’d been to a party at McGovern’s.”
“McGovern’s? Drinking? Who was with you?”
“Drinking heavily, yes. It was Warren Beatty and Pat Caddell, McGovern’s poll wizard and myself and for some reason it occurred to me that the thing to do at that hour of the morning was to go out and get Colson.”
“My God, that’s crazy! You must have been stoned and drunk — especially by four in the morning.”
“Well, we left McGovern’s at about 2:30 and we were supposed to meet Crouse at this restaurant downtown. … McGovern lives somewhere in the Northwest part of town and it had taken me two hours to find the damn house and I figured it would take me another two hours to get out again unless I could follow somebody. Crouse was about a block ahead of me when we left. I could see his taillights but there was another car between me and Crouse and I was afraid I’d lose him in that maze of narrow little streets, almost like country lanes.
“‘We can’t let Crouse get away,’ I said. So I slammed it into passing gear and passed the car right in front of me in order to get behind Crouse, and all of a sudden here was a car coming the other direction on this street about 15 feet wide — just barely enough room for two cars to pass and certainly not enough room for three cars to pass, one of them going about 70 miles an hour with a drunk at the wheel.
“I thought, hmmmm, well … I can either slow down or stomp on it and squeeze in there, so I stomped on it and forced the oncoming car up over the curb and onto the grass in order to avoid me as I came hurtling back into my own lane, and just as I flashed past him I happened to look over and saw that it was a police car. Well, I thought, this is not the time to stop and apologize; I could see him in my rear view mirror, stopping and beginning to turn around. … So instead of following Crouse, I took the first left I could, turned the lights off and drove like a bastard — assuming the cop would probably chase Crouse and run him down and arrest him, but as it happened he didn’t get either one of us.”
* * *
“What a rotten thing to do.”
“Well, it was him or me, Ralph … as a matter of fact I worried about it when we didn’t see Tim at the restaurant later on. But we were late because we did some high-speed driving exercises in the Southeast area of Washington — flashing along those big empty streets going into corners at 80 miles an hour and doing 180s … it was a sort of thunder road driving trip, screwing it on with that big Cutlass.”
“A real monster, extremely overpowered …”
“How big is it? The size of a bus?”
“No, normal size for a big car, but extremely powerful — much more, say, than a Mustang or something like that. We did about an hour’s worth of crazed driving on these deserted streets, and it was during this time that I mentioned that we should probably go out and have a word with Mr. Colson — because during a conversation earlier in the evening, the consensus among the reporters at McGovern’s party was that Colson was probably the only one of Nixon’s first-rank henchmen who would probably not even be indicted.”
“He had managed to keep himself clean, somehow — up to that point anyway. Now, he’s been dragged into the ITT hassle again, so it looks like he might go down with all the others.”
“But at that point, we thought, well, Colson really is the most evil of those bastards, and if he gets off there is really no justice in the world. So we thought we’d go out to his house — luckily none of us knew where he lived — and beat on his door, mumbling something like: ‘God’s mercy on me! My wife’s been raped! My foot’s been cut off!’ Anything to lure him downstairs … and the minute he opened the door, seize him and drag him out to the car and tie him by the ankles and drag him down to the White House.”
“He could identify you …”
“Well, he wouldn’t have time to know exactly who it was — but we thought about it for a while, still driving around, and figured a beastly thing like that might be the only thing that could get Nixon off the hook, because he could go on television the next afternoon, demanding to make a nationwide emergency statement, saying: ‘Look what these thugs have done to poor Mr. Colson! This is exactly what we were talking about! This is why we had to be so violent in our ways, because these thugs will stop at nothing! They dragged Mr. Colson the length of Pennsylvania Avenue at four in the morning, then cut him loose like a piece of meat!’ He would call for more savage and stringent security measures against ‘the kind of animals who would do a thing like this.’ So we put the plot out of our heads.”
“Well, it would have been a bit risky … wouldn’t have done the Democratic party any good at all, would it?”
“Well, it might have created a bit of an image problem — and it would have given Nixon the one out he desperately needs now, a way to justify the whole Watergate trip by raving about ‘this brutal act.’ … That’s an old Hell’s Angels gig, dragging people down the street. Hell’s Angels. Pachucos, drunken cowboys.
“But I thought more about it later, when I finally got back to the hotel after that stinking accident I’m still trying to explain … and it occurred to me that those bastards are really mean enough to do that to Colson, themselves — if they only had the wits to think about it. They could go out and drag him down the street in a car with old McGovern stickers on the bumpers or put on false beards and wave a wine bottle out the window as they passed the White House and cut him loose. He’d roll to a stop in front of the Guard House and the Guard would clearly see the McGovern sticker on the car screeching off around the corner and that’s all Nixon would need. If we gave them the idea, they’d probably go out and get Colson tonight.”
“He’d be babbling, I’d think — “
“He’d be hysterical, in very bad shape. And of course he’d claim that McGovern thugs had done it to him — if he were still able to talk. I really believe Nixon would do a thing like that if he thought it would get him out of the hole … So I thought about it a little more, and it occurred to me what we should do was have these masks made up — you know those rubber masks that fit over the whole head.”
“Ah yes, very convincing… .”
“Yeah, one of them would have to be the face of Haldeman, one the face of Ehrlichman and one the face of Tony Ulasewicz.”
“Yes, the meanest men on the Nixon Staff.”
“Well, Colson’s the meanest man in politics, according to Pat Buchanan. Ulasewicz is the hit man, a hired thug. I thought if we put these masks on and wore big overcoats or something to disguise ourselves and went out to his house and kind of shouted: ‘Tex, Tex! It’s me, Tony. Come on down. We’ve got a big problem.’ And the minute he opens the door, these people with the Haldeman and Ehrlichman masks would jump out from either side and seize him by each arm — so that he sees who has him, but only for two or three seconds, before the person wearing the Ulasewicz mask slaps a huge burlap sack over his head, knots it around his knees and then the three of them carry him out to the car and lash him to the rear bumper and drag him down the street — and just as we passed the White House Guard Station, slash the rope so that Colson would come to a tumbling bloody stop right in front of the guard … and after two or three days in the Emergency Ward, when he was finally able to talk, after coming out of shock, he would swear that the people who got him were Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Ulasewicz — and he would know they were mean enough to do it, because that’s the way he thinks. He’s mean enough to do it himself. You’d have to pick a night when they were all in Washington, and Colson would swear that they did it to him, no matter what they said. He would know it, because he had seen them.”
* * *
“Brilliant, brilliant. Yes, he’d be absolutely convinced — having seen the men and the faces.”
“Right. But of course you couldn’t talk — just seize him and go. What would you think if you looked out and saw three people you recognized, and suddenly they jerked you up and tied you behind a car and dragged you 40 blocks? Hell, you saw them. You’d testify, swear under oath … which would cause Nixon probably to go completely crazy. He wouldn’t know what to believe! How could he be sure that Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Ulasewicz hadn’t done it? Nobody would know, not even by using lie detectors… . But that’s a pretty heavy act to get into — dragging people around the street behind rented Avis cars, and we never quite got back to it, anyway, but if we hadn’t had that accident we might have given it a little more thought although I still have no idea where Colson lives and I still don’t want to know. But you have to admit it was a nice idea.”
“That’s a lovely thing, yes.”
“You know Colson had that sign on the wall in his office saying ONCE YOU HAVE THEM BY THE BALLS, THEIR HEARTS AND MINDS WILL FOLLOW.”
“He’s an ex-Marine captain. So it would be a definite dose of his own medicine.”
“Do you really think he deserves that kind of treatment?”
“Well, he was going to set off a firebomb in the Brookings Institution, just to recover some papers … Colson is not one of your friendlier, happier type of persons. He’s an evil bastard, and dragging him down the street would certainly strike a note of terror in that crowd; they could use some humility.”
“Poetic justice, no?”
“Well, it’s a little rough … it might not be necessary to drag him 40 blocks. Maybe just four. You could put him in the trunk for the first 36 blocks, then haul him out and drag him the last four; that would certainly scare the piss out of him, bumping along the street, feeling all his skin being ripped off …”
“He’d be a bloody mess. They might think he was just some drunk and let him lie there all night.”
“Don’t worry about that. They have a guard station in front of the White House that’s open 24 hours a day. The guards would recognize Colson … and by that time of course his wife would have called the cops and reported that a bunch of thugs had kidnapped him.”
“Wouldn’t it be a little kinder if you drove about four more blocks and stopped at a phone box to ring the hospital and say, ‘Would you mind going around to the front of the White House? There’s a naked man lying outside in the street, bleeding to death… .”‘
“… and we think it’s Mr. Colson.”
“It would be quite a story for the newspapers, wouldn’t it?”
“Yeah, I think it’s safe to say we’d see some headlines on that one.”
Flashbacks & Time Warps … Scrambled Notes and Rude Comments from the High Country … Dean vs. Haldeman in the Hearing Room; … A Question of Perjury … Ehrlichman Sandbags an Old Buddy … Are the Sharks Deserting the Suckfish?
Due to circumstances beyond our control, the following section was lashed together at the last moment from a six-pound bundle of documents, notebooks, memos, recordings and secretly taped phone conversations with Dr. Thompson during a month of erratic behavior in Washington, New York, Colorado and Miami. His “long-range plan,” he says, is to “refine” these nervewracking methods, somehow, and eventually “create an entirely new form of journalism.” In the meantime, we have suspended his monthly retainer and canceled his credit card. During one four-day period in Washington he destroyed two cars, cracked a wall in the Washington Hilton, purchased two French Horns at $1100 each and ran through a plate-glass door in a Turkish restaurant.
Compounding the problem was the presence in Washington, for the first time, of our artist Ralph Steadman — an extremely heavy drinker with little or no regard for either protocol or normal social amenities. On Steadman’s first visit to the Watergate Hearing Room he was ejected by the Capitol Police after spilling beer on a TV monitor and knocking Sam Ervin off his feet while attempting to seize a microphone to make a statement about “the rottenness of American politics.” It was only the timely intervention of New York Post correspondent John Lang that kept Steadman from being permanently barred from the Hearing Room.
In any case, the bulk of what follows appears exactly as Dr. Thompson wrote it originally in his notebooks. Given the realities of our constant deadline pressure, there was no other way to get this section into print.
“Jesus, this Watergate thing is unbelievable. It’s terrible, like finding out your wife is running around but you don’t want to hear about it.”
— Remark of a fat man from Nashville sharing a taxi with Ralph Steadman.
Tuesday morning 6/26/73: 8:13 AM in the Rockies…
Bright sun on the grass outside my windows behind this junk TV set and long white snowfields, still unmelted, on the peaks across the valley. Every two or three minutes the doleful screech of a half-wild peacock rattles the windows. The bastard is strutting around on the roof, shattering the morning calm with his senseless cries.
His noise is a bad burden on Sandy’s nerves. “God damnit!” she mutters. “We have to get him a hen!”
“Fuck him; we got him a hen — and she ran off and got herself killed by coyotes. What the crazy bastard needs now is a bullet through the vocal cords. He’s beginning to sound like Herman Talmadge.”
“Watch what’s happening, goddamnit! Here’s another true Son of the South. First it was Thompson … now Talmadge … and then we’ll get that half-wit pimp from Florida.”
I nodded, staring fixedly at the big blueish eye of the permanently malfunctioned “color TV” set that I hauled back from Washington last summer, when I finally escaped from the place … But now I was using it almost feverishly, day after day, to watch what was happening in Washington.
The Watergate Hearings — my daily fix, on TV. Thousands of people from all over the country are writing the networks to demand that this goddamn tedious nightmare be jerked off the air so they can get back to their favorite soap operas: As the World Turns, The Edge of Night, The Price Is Right and What Next for Weird Betty? They are bored by the spectacle of the Watergate hearings. The plot is confusing, they say; the characters are dull, and the dialogue is repulsive.
The President of the United States would never act that way — at least not during baseball season. Like Nixon’s new White House chief of staff, Melvin Laird, said shortly before his appointment: “If the President turns out to be guilty, I don’t want to hear about it.”
* * *
This is the other end of the attitude-spectrum from the comment I heard, last week, from a man in Denver: “I’ve been waiting a long time for this,” he said. “Maybe not as long as Jerry Voorhis or Helen Gahagan Douglas … and I never really thought it would happen, to tell you the truth.” He flashed me a humorless smile and turned back to his TV set. “But it is, by god! And it’s almost too good to be true.”
My problem — journalistically, at least — has its roots in the fact that I agree with just about everything that laughing, vengeful bastard said that day. We didn’t talk much. There was no need for it. Everything Richard Milhous Nixon ever stood for was going up in smoke right in front of our eyes. And anybody who could understand and appreciate that, I felt, didn’t need many words to communicate. At least not with me.
(The question is: what did he stand for, and what next for that? Agnew? Reagan? Rockefeller? Even Percy? Nixon was finally “successful” for the same reason he was finally brought low. He kept pushing, pushing, pushing — and inevitably he pushed too far.)
Noon — Tuesday, June 26th
The TV set is out on the porch now — a move that involved much cursing and staggering.
Weicker has the mike — mano a mano on Dean — and after 13 minutes of apparently aimless blathering he comes off no better than Talmadge. Weicker seemed oddly cautious — a trifle obtuse, perhaps.
What are the connections? Weicker is a personal friend of Pat Gray’s. He is also the only member of the Select Committee with after-hours personal access to John Dean.
” — Live from Senate Caucus Room — ”
— flash on CBS screen
Live? Rehearsed? In any case, Dean is livelier than most — not only because of what he has to say, but because he — unlike the other witnesses — refused to say it first in executive session to Committee staffers before going on TV.
Strange — Dean’s obvious credibility comes not from his long-awaited impact (or lack of it) on the American public, but from his obvious ability to deal with the seven Senatorial Inquisitors. They seem awed.
Dean got his edge, early on, with a mocking lash at the integrity of Minority Counsel Fred Thompson — and the others fell meekly in line. Dean radiates a certain, very narrow kind of authority — nothing personal, but the kind of nasal blank-hearted authority you feel in the presence of the taxman or a very polite FBI agent.
Only Baker remains. His credibility took a bad beating yesterday. Dean ran straight at him, startling the TV audience with constant references to Baker’s personal dealings with “the White House,” prior to the hearings. There was no need to mention that Baker is the son-in-law of that late and only half-lamented “Solon” from the Great State of Illinois, Sen. Everett Dirksen.
Dean is clearly a shrewd executive. He will have no trouble getting a good job when he gets out of prison.
Now Montoya — the flaccid Mex-Am from New Mexico. No problem here for John Dean… . Suddenly Montoya hits Dean head on with Nixon’s bogus quote about Dean’s investigation clearing all members of White House staff. Dean calmly shrugs it off as a lie — “I never made any investigation.”
— Montoya continues with entire list of prior Nixon statements.
Dean: “In totality, there are less than accurate statements in that … ah … those statements.”
Montoya is after Nixon’s head! Is this the first sign? Over the hump for Tricky Dick?
***Recall lingering memory of Miami Beach plainclothes cop, resting in armory behind Convention Center on night of Nixon’s renomination — (“You tell ’em, Tricky Dick.) — watching Nixon’s speech on TV … with tear gas fumes all around us and demonstrators gagging outside.
As usual, the pace picks up at the end. These buggers should be forced to keep at it for 15 or 16 straight hours — heavy doses of speed, pots of coffee, Wild Turkey, etc., force them down to the raving hysterical quick. Wild accusations, etc …
Dean becomes more confident as time goes on — a bit flip now, finding his feet.
Friday morning, June 29 … 8:33 AM
Jesus, this waterhead Gurney again! You’d think the poor bugger would have the sense to not talk anymore … but no, Gurney is still blundering along, still hammering blindly at the receding edges of Dean’s “credibility” in his now-obvious role as what Frank Reynolds and Sam Donaldson on ABC-TV both described as “the waterboy for the White House.”
Gurney appears to be deaf; he has a brain like a cow’s udder. He asks his questions — off the typed list apparently furnished him by Minority (GOP) counsel, Fred J. Thompson — then his mind seems to wander, his eyes roam lazily around the room while Thompson whispers industriously in his ear, his hands shuffle papers distractedly on the table in front of his microphone … and meanwhile, Dean meticulously chews up his questions and hands them back to him in shreds; so publicly mangled that their fate might badly embarrass a man with good sense …
But Gurney seems not to notice: His only job on this committee is to Defend the Presidency, according to his instructions from the White House — or at least whatever third-string hangerson might still be working there — and what we tend to forget, here, is that it’s totally impossible to understand Gurney’s real motives without remembering that he’s the Republican Senator from Florida, a state where George Wallace swept the Democratic primary in 1972 with 78% of the vote, and which went 72% for Nixon in November.
In a state where even Hubert Humphrey is considered a dangerous radical, Ed Gurney’s decision to make an ignorant yahoo of himself on national TV makes excellent sense — at least to his own constituency. They are watching TV down in Florida today, along with the rest of the country, and we want to remember that if Gurney appears in Detroit and Sacramento as a hideous caricature of the imbecilic Senator Cornpone — that’s not necessarily the way he appears to the voters around Tallahassee and St. Petersburg.
Florida is not Miami — contrary to the prevailing national image — and one of the enduring mysteries in American politics is how a humane & relatively enlightened politican like Reuben Askew could have been elected Governor of one of the few states in the country where George Wallace would have easily beaten Richard Nixon — in a head-to-head presidential race — in either 1968 or 1972. Or even 1976, for that matter …
* * *
And so much for all that. Gurney is off the air now — having got himself tangled up in a legal constitutional argument with Sam Ervin and Dean’s attorney. He finally just hunkered down and passed the mike to Senator Inouye, who immediately re-focused the questioning by prodding Dean’s memory on the subject of White House efforts to seek vengeance on their “enemies.”
Which Senators — in addition to Teddy Kennedy — were subjects of surveillance by Nixon’s gumshoes? Which journalists — in addition to the man from Newsday who wrote unfavorable things about Bebe Rebozo — were put on The List to have their tax returns audited? Which athletes and actors — in addition to Joe Namath and Paul Newman — were put on the list to be “screwed”?
Dean’s answers were vague on these things. He’s not interested in “interpreting the motives of others,” he says — which is an easy thing to forget, after watching him on the tube for three days, repeatedly incriminating at least half the ranking fixers in Nixon’s inner circle: Colson, Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Mitchell, Magruder, Strachan, Ziegler, Moore, LaRue, Kalmbach, Nofziger, Krogh, Liddy, Kleindienst … and the evidence is “mind-boggling,” in Senator Baker’s words, when it comes in the form of verbatim memos and taped phone conversations.
The simple-minded vengefulness of the language seems at least as disturbing as the vengeful plots un-veiled.
Sitting out here on the porch, naked in a rocking chair in the half-shade of a dwarf juniper tree — looking out at snow-covered mountains from this hot lizard’s perch in the sun with no clouds at 8000 feet — a mile and a half high, as it were — it is hard to grasp that this dim blue tube sitting on an old bullet-pocked tree stump is bringing me every un-censored detail — for five or six hours each day from a musty brown room 2000 miles east — of a story that is beginning to look like it can have only one incredible ending — the downfall of the President of the United States.
Six months ago, Richard Nixon was the most powerful political leader in the history of the world, more powerful than Augustus Caesar when he had his act rolling full bore — six months ago.
Now, with the passing of each sweaty afternoon, into what history will call “the Summer of ’73,” Richard Nixon is being dragged closer and closer — with all deliberate speed, as it were — to disgrace and merciless infamy. His place in history is already fixed: He will go down with Grant and Harding as one of democracy’s classic mutations.
* * *
Billy Graham Crusade on both TV channels… But what? What’s happening here? An acid flashback? A time warp? CBS has Graham in Orange County, raving about “redemption through blood.” Yes, God demands Blood! … but ABC is running the Graham Crusade in South Africa, a huge all-white Afrikaner pep rally at Johannesburg’s Wanderers Stadium. (Did I finally get that right; are these mushrooms deceiving me?)
Strange … on this eve of Nixon’s demise, his private preacher is raving about blood in Los Angeles (invoking the actual bloody images of Robert Kennedy’s brain on the cold concrete floor of the Ambassador Hotel kitchen and Jack Kennedy’s blood “on his widow’s dress that tragic day in Dallas” … and the blood of Martin Luther King on that motel balcony in Memphis).
But wait? Is that a black face I see in the crowd at Wanderers Stadium. Yes, a rapt black face, wearing aviator shades and a green army uniform … stoned on Billy’s message, along with all the others: “Your soul is searching for God! [pause, body crouched, both fists shaking defiantly in the air… .] They tore his flesh! They pulled his beard out.” Graham is in a wild Charleton Heston fighting stance now: “And while they were doing that, 72 million avenging angels had to be held back … yes … by the bloody arm of the Lord … from sweeping this planet into hell.”
Cazart! Seventy-two million of the fuckers, eh? That threat would never make the nut in L.A. It would have to be 72 billion there. But South Africa is the last of the white nazi bush-leagues, and when you mention 72 million of anything ready to sweep across the planet, they know what you mean in South Africa.
Niggers. The avenging black horde … and suddenly it occurs to me that Graham’s act is extremely subtle; he is actually threatening this weeping crowd of white-supremist burghers… . Indeed… . Redemption Thru Fear! It knocked ’em dead in Houston, so why not here?
The news, and John Dean again — that fiendish little drone (Did the president seem surprised when you gave him this information?) “No sir, he did not.”
The junkies are rolling up the tents at Camp David tonight. Mister Nixon has cashed his check. Press reports from “the Western White House” in San Clemente say the President has “no comment” on Dean’s almost unbelievably destructive testimony.
No comment. The boss is under sedation. Who is with him out there on that lonely western edge of America tonight. Bebe Rebozo? Robert Abplanalp, W. Clement Stone?
Probably not. They must have seen what Nixon saw today — that the Ervin committee was going to give Dean a free ride. His victims will get their shots at him tomorrow — or next week — but it won’t make much difference, because the only ones left to question him are the ones he publicly ridiculed yesterday as tools of the White House. Baker’s credibility is so crippled — in the wake of Dean’s references in his opening statement to Baker’s alleged “willingness to cooperate” with the Nixon brain-trust in the days before these hearings — that anything Baker hits Dean with tomorrow will seem like the angry retaliation of a much-insulted man.
And what can poor Gurney say? Dean contemptuously dismissed him — in front of a nationwide TV audience of 70 million cynics — as such a hopeless yo-yo that he wouldn’t even have to be leaned on. Gurney was the only one of the seven senators on the Ervin committee that Nixon’s strategists figured was safely in their pocket, before the hearings started. Weicker, the maverick Republican, was considered a lost cause from the start.
“We knew we were in trouble when we looked at that line-up,” Dean testified. There was something almost like a smile on his face when he uttered those words … the rueful smile of a good loser, perhaps? Or maybe something else. The crazy, half-controlled flicker of a laugh on the face of a man who is just beginning to think he might survive this incredible trip. By 4:45 on Tuesday, Dean had the dazed, still hyper-tense look of a man who knows he went all the way out to the edge, with no grip at all for a while, and suddenly feels his balance coming back.
* * *
Well … maybe so. If Dean can survive tomorrow’s inevitable counter-attack it’s all over. The Harris poll in today’s Rocky Mountain News — even before Dean’s testimony — showed Nixon’s personal credibility rating on the Watergate “problem” had slipped to a fantastic new low of 15-70% negative. If the Ervin committee lets even half of Dean’s testimony stand, Richard Nixon won’t be able to give away dollar bills in Times Square on the Fourth of July.
* * *
Monday, July 15th, 2:10 PM
Old Senate Office Building
*Mystery witness — Alex Butterfield. Impossible to see witness’ face from periodical seat directly behind him.
*Rufus (pipe) Edmisten, Ervin’s man, the face behind Baker and Ervin. “Politically ambitious — wants to run for Attorney General of North Carolina” — always sits on camera.
Butterfield regales room with tales of elaborate taping machine in Oval Office (see clips). Nixon’s official bugger — “liaison to SS.”
BF: — sharp dark blue suit — Yes sir — it was a great deal more difficult to pick up in the cabinet room.
Talmadge: Who installed the devices?
BF: SS — Tech. Security Div… . To record things for posterity.
T: Why were these devices installed?
BF: Constant taping of all conversations in Oval Office for transcriptions for Nixon library. Voice activated mikes all over Nixon’s office… . With time delay, so as not to cut out during pauses.
Fred Thompson looks like a Tennessee moonshiner who got rich — somebody sent him to a haberdasher when he heard he was going to Washington.
Four 6′ x 6′ chandeliers — yellow cut glass — hanging from ceiling, but obscured by banks of Colortran TV lites. Stan Tredick and other photogs with cardboard shields taped over lenses to cut out TV lights from above.
2:34 — Voting warning signal?
Ah ha! Butterfield will produce Dean-Nixon tape from September 15th?
* * *
T: No warning signal?
BF: No Sir, not to my knowledge.
T: This taping was solely to serve historical purposes?
BF: Yes sir, as far as I know.
??: Key Biscayne and San Clemente?
BF: No recording devices there — at least not by me.
NY Post headline: NIXON BUGS SELF (full page)
*The most obvious difference between being in the hearing room and watching TV is the scale — sense of smallness like a football stadium. The players seem human-sized and the grass seems real (in some cases). Room 318 is only about 100 x 100 — unlike the vast theater it looks on TV.
*Constant stream of students being run in and out behind us.
* * *
Kalmbach sitting right in front of me — waiting to testify. $300 grey linen suit — $75 wing tips — lacquered black hair and tailored shirt — thin blue stripes on off-white. Large, rich. Sitting with silver-haired lawyer.
*Ervin reads letter from Buzhardt. Sends buzz through room — says LBJ did some taping.
Interesting — sitting directly behind witness chair — you can look right at Ervin and catch his facial expressions — as if he was looking at me. Nodding — fixed stare — occasional quick notes with yellow pencil.
*Kalmbach Ulasewicz phone calls — from phone booth to phone booth — like Mafia operations. — Check Honor Thy Father for similar.
*Kalmbach “… It was about this time that I began to have a degree of concern about this assignment.“
4:50: Tedium sets in
Sudden vision of reaching out with Ostrich Lasso and slipping it around Kalmbach’s neck then tightening it up and jerking him backwards. Sudden uproar in gallery — Cameras clicking feverishly as Kalmbach struggles with piano wire noose around his neck — falling backwards
Unable to control laughter at this image … forced to leave hearing room, out of control, people staring at me …
* * *
*Ron MacMahon, Baker’s press Sec., ex-Tennessee newsman, “How can they not give ’em to us? [Nixon office tapes] Down in Tennessee we used to have a courthouse fire now and then… .”
* * *
Burnhardt J. Leinan, 27, Jerseyville, Illinois 62052. Came to D.C. by train — 13 cars pulled by steam locomotive, coal tender. With 100 people Chi-Wash. Private train — Southern R.R. Independence Limited (“Watergate Special”)
“Most people in Jerseyville only got interested when Dean produced the enemies list.”
“Because they couldn’t understand why certain names were on it — Newman, Streisand, Channing, Cosby — they couldn’t understand why such a list was kept.”
* * *
*Carrol Arms Bar — like a tavern full of football fans — with the game across the street. Hoots of laughter in bar at La Rue’s dead-pan account of Liddy’s offer to “be on any street corner at any time — and we could have him assassinated.”
All Watergate Groupies seem to be anti-Nixon — both in the hearing room and bars around Old Senate Building. Like fans cheering the home team — “the seven Blocks of Jelly.”
* * *
Tuesday July 24th, ’73
Benton’s studio, 8:00 PM
PBS in Aspen is off again — even worse than PBS in D.C.
*Ehrlichman takes the oath with Heil Hitler salute no laughter from spectators.
— Boredom in hearing room, tedium at press tables
Ehrlichman‘s face — ARROGANCE. Keep the fucker on TV — ten hours a day — ten straight days.
E: We saw very little chance of getting FBI to move … very serious problem.
[Right! The nation’s crawling with communists, multiplying like rats.]
Ehrlichman must have seen himself on Sixty Minutes — so he knows how he looks on TV — keeps glancing sideways at camera. Ehrlichman’s “faulty memory” … Brookings — didn’t remember who authorized fire-bombing — didn’t remember who he called to cancel Brookings bomb plot.
(Same backgrounds — Civic Club, Country Club, JCC, USC/UCLA — law school, law firms, ad agencies.)
*Attitudes of Thomp-Baker & Gurney are critical — they relate to Nixon’s survival chances — rats sneaking off a sinking ship.
*E has insane gall to challenge Ervin on consitutional issues — Nixon’s right to authorize Ellsberg burglary
Dan Rather says Nixon wants a confrontation NOW — and also wants Cox to resign — Nixon, by withholding tapes, makes conviction of Haldeman, Erhlichman, Dean, etc. impossible … thus holding this over their heads — to keep them from talking.
“Hang together or hang separately”
— Ben Franklin
The following conversation between Ehrlichman and Herb Kalmbach arrived as a third generation xerox in a package with Dr. Thompson’s notebooks. The transcript was released by Ehrlichman himself — he hadn’t told Kalmbach he was taping their phone call for possible use in his defense. This was not one of those documents ferreted out by the Select Committee investigators. According to Thompson, the following transcript is “the single most revealing chunk of testimony yet in terms of the morality of these people. It’s like suddenly being plunged into the middle of the White House.
Conversation with Herb Kalmbach — April 19th, 1973, 4:50 PM.
E: Hi, how are you?
K: I’m pretty good. I’m scheduled for two tomorrow afternoon.
E: Where — at the jury or the US Attorney?
K: At the jury and I’m scheduled at 5:30 this afternoon with Silver.
E: Oh, are you?
K: Yeah. I just wanted to run through quickly several things, John, in line with our conversation. I got in here last night and there was a call from O’Brien. I returned it, went over there today and he said the reason for the call is LaRue has told him to ask him to call me to say that he had to identify me in connection with this and he wanted me to know that and so on.
E: Did he tell you about Dean?
E: Well Dean has totally cooperated with the US Attorney in the hopes of getting immunity. Now what he says or how he says nobody seems to be able to devine but he.
K: The whole enchilada?
E: He’s throwing off on Bob and me heavily.
K: He is?
K: He is.
E: And taking the position that he was a mere agent. Now on your episode he told me before he left, so to speak, he, Dean, told me that really my transaction with him involving you was virtually my only area of liability in this thing and I said, well, John, what in the world are you talking about? He said, well I came to you from Mitchell and I said Mitchell needs money could we call Herb Kalmbach and ask him to raise some. And I said, and Dean says to me, and you said yes.
And I said yep, that’s right. And he said well that does it. And I said well that’s hard for me to believe. I don’t understand the law but I don’t think Herb entered into this with any guilty intent and I certainly didn’t and so I said I just find that hard to imagine. Now since then I’ve retained counsel.
K: Oh, you have?
E: … very good and who agrees with me that it is the remotest kind of nonsense but the point that I think has to be clarified, that I’m going to clarify if I get a chance, is that the reason that Dean had to come to me and to Bob where you were concerned is that we had promised you that you would not be run pillar to post by Maurice Stans.
K: And also that you knew I was your friend and you knew I was the President’s attorney.
K: Never do anything improper, illegal, unethical or whatever.
K: And …
E: But the point is that rather than Mitchell calling you direct Mitchell knew darn well that you were no longer available.
E: Now this was post April 6th, was it not?
K: Yep, April 7th.
E: So that Mitchell and Stans both knew that there wasn’t any point in calling you direct because we had gotten you out of that on the pretext that you were going to do things for us.
K: That’s right.
E: And so it was necessary for Dean to come to me and then in turn to Bob and plead a very urgent case without really getting into any specifics except to say you had to trust me, this is very important, and Mitchell is up his tree, or, you know, I mean is really worked, he didn’t use that phrase, but he is really exercised about this. And; John if you tell me it’s that important, why yes.
K: You know, when you and I talked and it was after John had given me that word, and I came in to ask you, John is this an assignment I have to take on? You said, yes it is period and move forward. Then that was all that I needed to be assured that I wasn’t putting my family in jeopardy.
K: And I would just understand that you and I are absolutely together on that.
E: No question about it, Herb, that I would never knowingly have put you in any kind of a spot.
K: Yeah. Well, and when we talked you knew what I was about to do, you know, to go out and get the dough for this purpose; it was humanitarian.
E: It was a defense fund.
K: … to support the family. Now the thing that was disquieting and this thing with O’Brien was that he said that there is a massive campaign evidently under way to indict all the lawyers including you and me, and I was a little shocked and I guess what I need to get from you, John, is assurance that this is not true.
E: Well, I don’t know of any attempt to target you at all. My hunch is that they’re trying to get at me, they’re trying to corroborate. See what they said to Dean is that he gets no consideration from them unless they can corroborate Haldeman and my liability.
K: God, if I can just make it plain that it was humanitarian and nothing else.
E: Yeah, and the point that I undoubtedly never expressed to you that I continually operated on the basis of Dean’s representation to me.
K: Yep. It was not improper.
K: And there was nothing illegal about it.
E: See, he’s the house lawyer.
K: Yep, exactly and I just couldn’t believe that you and Bob and the President, just too good friends to ever put me in the position I would be putting my family on the line.
K: And it’s just unbelievable, unthinkable. Now shall I just — I’ll just if I’m asked by Silver I’ll just lay it out just exactly that way.
E: Yeah, I wouldn’t haul the President into it if you can help it.
K: Oh, no, I will not.
E: But I think the point that which I will make in the future if I’m given the chance that you were not under our control in any sort of a slavery sense but that we had agreed that you would not be at the beck and call of the committee.
K: And, of course, too, that I acted only on orders and, you know, on direction and if this is something that you felt sufficiently important and that you were assured it was altogether proper, then I would take it on because I always do it and always have. And you and Bob and the President know that.
E: Yeah, well, as far as propriety is concerned I think we both were relying entirely on Dean.
E: I made no independent judgment.
K: Yep. Yep.
E: And I’m sure Bob didn’t either.
K: Nope and I’m just, I just have the feeling, John, that I don’t know if this is a weak reed, is it?
E: Who, Dean?
K: No, I mean are they still going to say well Herb you should have known.
E: I don’t know how you could have. You didn’t make any inquiries.
K: Never. And the only inquiries I made, John, was to you after I talked to John Dean.
E: And you found that I didn’t know just a whole helluva lot.
K: You said this is something I have to do and …
E: Yeah, and the reason that I said that, as you know, was not from any personal inquiry but was on the basis of what had been represented to me.
K: Yeah, and then on — to provide the defense fund and to take care of the families of these fellas who were then …
K: Not then been found guilty or not guilty.
E: And the point being here without attempting to induce them to do a damn thing.
K: Absolutely not and that was never, that was exactly right.
K: Now, can I get in to see you tomorrow before I go in there at two?
E: If you want to. They’ll ask you.
K: Will they?
K: Well, maybe I shouldn’t.
E: They’ll ask you to whom you’ve spoken about your testimony and I would appreciate it if you would say you’ve talked to me in California because at that time I was investigating this thing for the President.
K: And not now?
E: Well, I wouldn’t ask you to lie.
K: No, I know.
E: But the point is …
K: But the testimony was in California.
E: The point is. Well, no, your recollection of facts and so forth.
K: Yes, I agree.
E: See, I don’t think we were ever seen together out there but at some point I’m going to have to say that I talked to O’Brien and Dean and Magruder and Mitchell and you and a whole lot of people about this case.
E: And so it would be consistent.
K: Do you feel, John, that calling it straight shot here, do you feel assured as you did when we were out there that there’s no culpability here?
K: And nothing to worry about?
E: And Herb, from everything I hear they’re not after you.
K: Yes, sir.
E: From everything I hear.
K: Barbara, you know.
E: They’re out to get me and they’re out to get Bob.
K: My God. All right, well, John, it’ll be absolutely clear that there was nothing looking towards any cover-up or anything. It was strictly for the humanitarian and I just want … when I talked to you I just wanted you to advise me that it was all right on that basis.
E: On that basis.
E: To go forward.
E: That it was necessary.
K: And that’ll be precisely the way it is.
E: Yeah, OK. Thanks, Herb. Bye.
* * *
5:00 PM Monday, July 30th
Old Senate Office Building
*Haldeman opening statement
— Terrible heat from TV lights turned back towards press and gallery. Barking (sounds of dog kennel) in press room as Haldeman comes on. Not on Nat. TV, but audible in hallway.
“Nor did I ever suggest … [The Super Eagle Scout wounded tone of voice — ] I had full confidence in Dean as did the President at that time… .”
Haldeman’s 1951 burr-cut seems as out of place — even weird — in this room as a bearded Senator would have seemed in 1951. Or a nigger in Beta Theta Phi fraternity in the late 1940s.
Haldeman’s head on camera looks like he got bashed on the head with a rake.
Total tedium sets in as Haldeman statement drones on … his story is totally different than Dean’s on crucial points … definite perjury here … which one lying?
* * *
“If the recent speech [August 15th] does not produce the results the President wants, he will then do what he has already come to doing. He will use all the awe-inspiring resources of his office to ‘come out swinging with both fists.’ Divisive will be a mild way of describing the predictable results.”
— Joe Alsop, Washington Post 8/17/73
“The clear warning: Mr. Nixon will not do any more to clear himself of the taints of Watergate because he cannot: If the Democrats do not allow him to get back on the job of President, but continue what one high presidential aide called the ‘vendetta’ against him, his next move will be full retaliation.”
— Evans & Novak, Washington Post, 8/17/73
“‘When I am attacked,’ Richard Nixon once remarked to this writer, ‘it is my instinct to strike back.’ The President is now clearly in a mood to obey his instinct… . So on Wednesday, July 18th, at a White House meeting, it was agreed unanimously that the tapes should not be released. This decision, to use the sports cliches to which the President is addicted, meant an entirely new ball game, requiring a new game plan. The new game plan class for a strategy of striking back, in accord with the presidential instinct, rather than a policy of attempted accommodation… .”
— Stewart Alsop, Newsweek, 8/6/73
* * *
Cazart! It is hard to miss the message in those three shots … even out here in Woody Creek, at a distance of 2000 miles from the source, a joint-statement, as it were, from Evans & Novak and both Alsop brothers hits the nerves like a blast of summer lightning across the mountains. Especially when you read them all in the same afternoon, while sifting through the mail-heap that piled up in my box, for three weeks, while I was wasting all that time back in Washington, once again, trying to get a grip on the thing.
Crouse had warned me, by phone, about the hazards of coming east. “I know you won’t believe this,” he said, “so you might as well just get on a plane and find out for yourself — but the weird truth is that Washington is the only place in the country where the Watergate story seems dull. I can sit up here in Boston and get totally locked into it, on the tube, but when I go down there to that goddamn Hearing Room I get so bored and depressed I can’t think.”
Now, after almost a month in that treacherous swamp of a town, I understand what Crouse was trying to tell me. After a day or so in the hearing room, hunkered down at a press table in the sweaty glare of those blinding TV lights, I discovered a TV set in the bar of the Capitol Hill Hotel just across the street from the Old Senate Office Building, about a three-minute sprint from the Hearing Room itself … so I could watch the action on TV, sipping a Carlsberg until something looked about to happen, then dash across the street and up the stairs to the Hearing Room to see whatever it was that seemed interesting.
After three or four days of this scam, however, I realized that there was really no point in going to the Hearing Room at all. Every time I came speeding down the hall and across the crowded floor of the high-domed, white-marble rotunda where a cordon of cops kept hundreds of waiting spectators penned up behind velvet ropes, I felt guilty … Here was some ill-dressed geek with a bottle of Carlsberg in his hand, waving a press pass and running right through a whole army of cops, then through the tall oak doors and into a front row seat just behind the witness chair — while this mob of poor bastards who’d been waiting since early morning, in some cases, for a seat to open up in the SRO gallery.
After a few more days of this madness, I closed up the National Affairs Desk and went back home to brood.
To the Mattresses … Nixon Faces History, and to Hell with the Washington Post … The Hazy Emergence of a New and Cheaper Strategy … John Wilson Draws “The Line” … Strange Troika & a Balance of Terror … McGovern Was Right
“When democracy granted democratic methods to us in times of opposition, this was bound to happen in a democratic system. However, we National Socialists never asserted that we represented a democratic point of view, but we have declared openly that we used the democratic methods only in order to gain power and that, after assuming the power, we would deny to our adversaries without any consideration the means which were granted to us in times of our opposition.”
— Josef Goebbels
What will Nixon do now? That is the question that has every Wizard in Washington hanging by his or her fingernails — from the bar of the National Press Club to the redwood sauna in the Senate Gymnasium to the hundreds of high-powered cocktail parties in suburbs like Bethesda, MacLean, Arlington, Cabin John and especially in the leafy white ghetto of the District’s Northwest quadrant. You can wander into Nathan’s tavern at the corner of M Street & Wisconsin in Georgetown and get an argument about “Nixon’s strategy” without even mentioning the subject. All you have to do is stand at the bar, order a Bass Ale, and look interested: The hassle will take care of itself; the very air in Washington is electric with the vast implications of “Watergate.”
Thousands of big-money jobs depend on what Nixon does next; on what Archibald Cox has in mind; on whether “Uncle Sam’s” TV hearings will resume full-bore after Labor Day, or be either telescoped or terminated like Nixon says they should be.
The smart money says the “Watergate Hearings,” as such, are effectively over — not only because Nixon is preparing to mount a popular crusade against, them, but because every elected politician in Washington is afraid of what the Ervin committee has already scheduled for the “third phase” of the hearings.
Phase Two, as originally planned, would focus on “dirty tricks” — a colorful, shocking and essentially minor area of inquiry, but one with plenty of action and a guaranteed audience appeal. A long and serious look at the “dirty tricks” aspect of national campaigning would be a death-blow to the daily soap-opera syndrome that apparently grips most of the nation’s housewives. The cast of characters, and the twisted tales they could tell, would shame every soap-opera scriptwriter in America.
Phase Three Campaign Financing is the one both the White House and the Senate would prefer to avoid — and, given this mutual distaste for exposing the public to the realities of Campaign Financing, this is the phase of the Watergate Hearings most likely to be cut from the schedule. “Jesus Christ,” said one Ervin committee investigator, “we’ll have Fortune’s 500 in that chair, and every one of those bastards will take at least one Congressman or Senator down with him.”
At the end of Phase One — the facts & realities of the Watergate affair itself — the seven Senators on the Ervin committee took an informal vote among themselves, before adjourning to a birthday party for Senator Herman Talmadge, and the tally was 4-3 against resuming the hearings in their current format. Talmadge cast the deciding vote, joining the three Republicans — Gurney, Baker and Weicker — in voting to wrap the Hearings up as soon as possible. Their reasons were the same ones Nixon gave in his long-awaited TV speech on August 15th, when he said the time had come to end this Daily Bummer and get back to “The business of the people.”
Watching Nixon’s speech in hazy color on the Owl Farm tube with New York Mayor John Lindsay, Wisconsin Congressman Les Aspin and former Bobby Kennedy speechwriter Adam Wolinsky, I half expected to hear that fine old Calvin Coolidge quote: “The business of America is business.”
And it only occurred to me later that Nixon wouldn’t have dared to use that one, because no president since Herbert Hoover has been forced to explain away the kind of root-structural damage to the national economy that Nixon is trying to explain today. And Hoover at least had the excuse that he “inherited his problems” from somebody else — which Nixon can’t claim, because he is now in his fifth year as president, and when he goes on TV to explain himself he is facing an audience of 50 to 60 million who can’t afford steaks or even hamburger in the supermarkets, who can’t buy gasoline for their cars, who are paying 15 and 20% interest rates for bank loans, and who are being told now that there may not be enough fuel oil to heat their homes through the coming winter.
This is not the ideal audience for a second-term president, fresh from a landslide victory, to confront with 29 minutes of lame gibberish about mean nit-pickers in Congress, the good ole American way, and Let’s Get on with Business.
Indeed. That’s the first thing Richard Nixon and I have ever agreed on, politically — and what we are dealing with now is no longer hard ideology, but a matter of simple competence. What we are looking at on all our TV sets is a man who finally, after 24 years of frenzied effort, became the President of the United States with a personal salary of $200,000 a year and an unlimited expense account including a fleet of private helicopters, jetliners, armored cars, personal mansions and estates on both coasts and control over a budget beyond the wildest dreams of King Midas … and all the dumb bastard can show us, after five years of total freedom to do anything he wants with all this power, is a shattered national economy, disastrous defeat in a war he could have ended four years ago on far better terms than he finally came around to, and a hand-picked personal staff put together through five years of screening, whose collective criminal record will blow the minds of high-school American History students for the next 100 years. Nixon’s hand-picked Vice President is about to be indicted for Extortion and Bribery; his former campaign manager and his former Secretary of Commerce & personal fund-raiser have already been indicted for Perjury, two of his ranking campaign managers have already pleaded guilty to Obstruction of Justice, the White House counsel is headed for prison on more felony counts than I have room to list here, and before the trials are finished …
* * *
Sen. Talmadge: “Now, if the President could authorize a covert break-in and you do not know exactly where that power would be limited, you do not think it could include murder, do you?”
John Ehrlichman: “I do not know where the line is, Senator.”
With the first phase of the Watergate hearings more or less ended, one of the few things now unmistakably clear, as it were, is that nobody in Nixon’s White House was willing to “draw the line” anywhere short of re-electing the President in 1972. Even John Mitchell — whose reputation as a supershrewd lawyer ran afoul of the Peter Principle just as soon as he became Nixon’s first Attorney General — lost his temper in an exchange with Sen. Talmadge at the Watergate hearings and said, with the whole world watching, that he considered the re-election of Richard Nixon in ’72 “so important” that it out-weighed all other considerations.
It was a classic affirmation of the “attorney-client relationship” — or at least a warped mixture of that and the relationship between an ad agency executive and a client with a product to sell — but when Mitchell uttered those lines in the hearing room, losing control of himself just long enough to fatally confuse “executive loyalty” with “executive privilege,” it’s fair to assume that he knew he was already doomed… . He had already been indicted for perjury in the Vesco case, he was facing almost certain indictment by Archibald Cox, and previous testimony by John Dean had made it perfectly clear that Nixon was prepared to throw John Mitchell to the wolves, to save his own ass.
This ominous truth was quickly reinforced by the testimony of John Ehrlichman and Harry “Bob” Haldeman, whose back-to-back testimony told most of the other witnesses (and potential defendants) all they needed to know. By the time Haldeman had finished testifying — under the direction of the same criminal lawyer who had earlier represented Ehrlichman — it was clear that somebody in the White House had finally seen fit to “draw the line.”
It was not quite the same line Mitchell and Ehrlichman had refused to acknowledge on TV, but in the final analysis it will be far more critical to the fate of Richard Nixon’s presidency … and, given Mitchell’s long personal relationship with Nixon, it is hard to believe he didn’t understand his role in the “new strategy” well before he drove down from New York to Washington, by chauffeured limousine, for his gig in the witness chair.
The signs were all there. For one, it had been Haldeman and Ehrlichman — with Nixon’s tacit approval — who had eased Mitchell out of his “Number One” role at the White House. John Mitchell, a millionaire Wall Street lawyer until he got into politics, was more responsible than any other single person for the long come-back that landed Nixon in the White House in 1968. It was Mitchell who rescued Nixon from oblivion in the mid-Sixties when Nixon moved east to become a Wall Street lawyer himself — after losing the presidency to John Kennedy in 1960 and then the Governorship of California to Pat Brown in ’62, a humiliating defeat that ended with his “You won’t have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore” outburst at the traditional loser’s press conference.
When Nixon went east to lick his wounds he moved into a Fifth Avenue apartment building shared by Nelson Rockefeller, a former political enemy who would soon become a staunch ally. And when he went to work on Wall Street he met John Mitchell, who told Dick he was the natural man to re-unite the GOP and win the presidency in 1968, in the wake of Barry Goldwater’s debacle in ’64.
Nixon was easily convinced; he made Mitchell his campaign manager for that race … and when he squeezed out a narrow victory over Hubert Humphrey he appointed John Mitchell as his Attorney General, the one Cabinet post every president wants to fill with a man he trusts entirely. John Kennedy had set the precedent eight years earlier: His campaign manager and first AG was his brother, Robert — who listed among his achievements in that job: The jailing of Teamster president James Hoffa, and the bugging of almost every telephone and hotel room used by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Whether John Mitchell was guided by his own instincts or Bobby Kennedy’s precedents is a moot point now — but there is a harsh kind of irony in the fact that his zeal for electronic surveillance and his willingness to use the vast Harass & Punish facilities of the Justice Dept. on an “Ends Justifies Means” basis was precisely the kind of thinking that led to “the Watergate scandal.”
The big difference, however, is that Mitchell got caught. Another difference is that he had a raving juice-head for a wife. Martha’s late-night phone calls to newspapers and wire-service reporters were not taken seriously at first, but in the end they contributed just as surely to Mitchell’s downfall as Jim McCord’s letter to Judge Sirica.
His wife and his bugger: McCord’s letter from jail about “higher-ups” involved in the Watergate affair was not much different from Martha’s ranting about “dirty business” in the White House … and, taken together, they lent the weight of headlines to a supposedly secret grand jury investigation that was already turning up more bomb-shell evidence than Nixon’s Justice Dept. wanted to handle.
* * *
Mitchell had already resigned at this point, claiming marital difficulties with Martha. But his resignation came almost immediately after the Watergate burglars were arrested — shortly after he’d officially given up his AG’s job to become Nixon’s campaign manager once again — and he must have known at the time that he had drifted into big trouble. Haldeman and Ehrlichman had already moved between him and his one-time protege, The President, and whatever happened next was beyond his control.
Which gets back to his “defense,” based on Executive Loyalty, in front of the Ervin committee — which was no real defense at all, because Mitchell realized, at that point, that he had no defense. And he also must have realized that his name was on the low side of the line that Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Nixon, along with defense attorney John Wilson, had already drawn between those who were “necessary to the defense of the presidency,” and those who weren’t.
Mitchell wasn’t. He was headed for jail. Or, failing that, he would spend the rest of his life testifying in various courtrooms. (Looking back on the infamous “Teapot Dome” scandal under President Harding’s administration in the early Twenties, it is worth remembering that the main figure — Interior Secretary Albert Fall — fought his case through the courts for ten years before he finally went to prison in 1931.)
John Mitchell is 59 years old. His reputation is shattered, his career is finished, his wife has publicly shunned him — and his only hope now is Executive Clemency, which depends entirely on Nixon’s survival in office. If “The Boss” can hang on for three more years, he’ll be in a position to keep whatever commitments he’s made to those who Kept the Faith — Pardons, Clemency, Writs of Absolution or whatever; if Nixon survives this crisis he will owe a lot of favors.
* * *
The axis of Nixon’s new and perhaps final strategy began to surface with the first mention of “the tapes,” and it has developed with the inevitability of either desperation or inspired strategy ever since. The key question is whether the “constitutional crisis” Nixon seems determined to bring down on himself by forcing the Tape Issue all the way to the Supreme Court is a crisis that was genuinely forced on him, by accident — or whether it is a masterpiece of legal cynicism that bubbled up at some midnight hour many weeks ago from the depths of attorney John Wilson’s legendary legal mind.
The conventional press wisdom — backed up by what would normally be considered “good evidence” or at least reliable leaks from the Ervin committee — holds that the existence of the Presidential Tapes & the fact that Nixon has been systematically bugging every conversation he’s ever had with anybody, in any of his offices, ever since he got elected, was a secret that was only unearthed by luck, shrewdness and high-powered sleuth-work. According to unofficial but consistently reliable sources, Alex Butterfield — current head of the Federal Aviation Administration and former “chief for internal security” at the White House — was privately interviewed “more or less on a hunch” by Ervin committee investigators, and during the course of this interview talked himself into such an untenable position while trying to explain the verbatim-accuracy of some Oval Office logs that he finally caved in and spilled the whole story about Nixon’s taping apparatus.
According to one of the investigators who conducted the private interview — in the ground-floor bowels of the Ervin committee’s “boiler room” in the Old Senate Office Building — Butterfield couldn’t explain why the logs of Nixon’s conversations in his own office were so precise that they included pauses, digressions, half-sentences and even personal speech-patterns.
“When I finally asked him if maybe these logs had been transcribed from tapes,” said the investigator, “he sort of slumped back in his chair and said, ‘I wish you hadn’t asked me that.’ And then he told us the whole thing.”
* * *
I was sitting in the hearing room about 24 hours later when word began buzzing around the press tables, just before lunch, that the next person to face the committee would be an unscheduled “mystery witness” — instead of Nixon’s personal attorney, Herbert Kalmbach, who was officially scheduled to appear when Ervin and his cohorts came back from lunch. I walked across the street to the air-conditioned bar in the Capitol Hill Hotel and heard some of the press people speculating about a man named Alex Butterfield who was going to tell the committee that Nixon had made tape recordings of all the disputed conversations referred to in John Dean’s testimony.
“Well, that should just about wrap it up,” somebody said.
“Bullshit,” said another voice. “He’ll burn those tapes before he gives them to Ervin.”
“Shit, if he thought they’d be any good to him, the committee would have had them a long time ago. Buzhardt would have turned them over personally to Sam Dash five minutes after Dean finished reading his opening statement.”
The conversation rambled on, punctuated by the arrival of beer and sandwiches. The only other comment that sticks in my head from that lunch break before Butterfield came on was a rumor that the “mystery witness” had been “dug up” by staffers on the Republican side of the Ervin committee. It hardly seemed worth wondering about, at the time … but that was before either Butterfield or Haldeman had testified about the tapes, and also before Nixon’s carefully considered announcement that he couldn’t release the tapes to anybody — despite subpoenas from both the Ervin committee and the Special Prosecutor — for fear of undermining the whole foundation of American government.
The President has made it absolutely clear that he has no intention of releasing those tapes — not even to an elite panel of judges who would hear them in strict privacy to determine their relevance — unless the US Supreme Court compels him to do so, with a “definitive order.”
Nobody seems to know what he means by “definitive,” and there is no precedent in US history for the Supreme Court “compelling” a President to do anything. But Richard Nixon is not acting with presidential style and elan these days; his recent behavior is more reminiscent of ex-Mafia boss Lucky Luciano during his long legal fight with US Immigration authorities who eventually succeeded in having him deported to Italy.
This may be the key to Nixon’s defiant and strangely obtuse stance with regard to the tapes. His decision to hang onto them was not universally admired for its wisdom — not even by Henry Kissinger, General Haig, Ron Ziegler and Melvin Laird. The names of these four, along with at least three other ranking White House advisers, were aggressively leaked on the Washington press cocktail circuit as the ones who tried to convince Nixon to release the tapes — if only because of the fearful, long-term implications of his disastrous slump in the public opinion polls. If the Nixon-McGovern election were held today, the consensus among pollsters is that McGovern would win by anywhere from one to five points — a fantastic jump from his 23 point loss last November.
The polls, however, are not the worst of Nixon’s problem. At least not yet. Garry Wills, an editor of the arch-conservative National Review, has come up with a deeper and dirtier angle — the idea that Nixon has dug his own grave by forcing the Supreme Court to rule “definitively” on the Tapes Issue: Because, as Wills sees it, Nixon will be mired in deep shit whether the court rules for or against him.
Wills’s argument assumes — contrary to the wisdom of most press wizards — that the tapes will confirm Nixon’s guilt: So it will be all over for him, if and when he finally yields them up. This line of thinking is bolstered by John Dean’s apparent eagerness to make the tapes public … or, in the words of CBS’s Dan Rather: “Dean says, ‘Let the tapes roll.”‘
The kicker in Wills’s argument, however, is based on the possibility that the Supreme Court will uphold Nixon’s executive privilege (or presidential privacy) argument, and allow him to keep the tapes to himself. At this point, says Wills, Nixon will have won his Separation of Powers argument and established the principle he claims to be defending — which will neutralize his legal reasons for refusing to release the tapes either to Ervin’s committee or Cox’s grand jury.
In other words, if the Supreme Court rules for him, Nixon will be left with only one reason for hanging onto the tapes — self-preservation. If he prevails in the “constitutional crisis,” if his lawyers pursuade the nine-man Court — including the four new Justices who owe their jobs to Nixon — that the president has a constitutional right to keep his private seal on conversations taped secretly in his White House office, then he’s going to have a hell of a hard time explaining to Congress and the public why he still refuses to let anybody except Harry “Bob” Haldeman listen to the goddamn things.
On the day after US District Court Judge John Sirica ruled against Nixon’s argument for holding onto the tapes, CBS correspondent Fred Graham observed on the Morning News that, “President Nixon seems to have very strong reasons for not ever letting these tapes see the light of day.”
Indeed. Judge Sirica’s ruling was only the first leg of the trip that will eventually force the Supreme Court to deal with the question of a “definitive order” with regard to “the tapes.” Nixon immediately appealed Sirica’s ruling, which gives his lawyers time to prepare a new argument for the Appeals Court — and if they lose that one, too, they’ll have another breathing spell to revise and polish their case for a final decision by the US Supreme Court. There is no way this could happen before early October, and that gives Nixon the time he desperately needs for a campaign to turn public opinion around on the Watergate issue.
His 11th-hour strategy — according to those simultaneous leaks to Evans & Novak and both Alsop brothers — is to take the offensive at full gallop while the Watergate hearings are still in recess, and somehow convince public opinion that the whole thing is some kind of nefarious plot to “get” him.
Which is true, in a sense — but only because a lot of people who’ve been asleep for a long time, like Senators Sam Ervin and Lowell Weicker, suddenly woke up to the fact that a gang of crude salesmen using a Los Angeles ad agency for a power base came very, very close to seizing long-term control of the entire United States government. That list of “White House enemies” is a national joke now — but the fascist thinking behind it was no joke to all the people who had their phones tapped, their mail opened and their tax returns pulled out of the pile for “special auditing.” Nixon himself — along with John Dean and Tom Charles Huston — is on record (not denied by any of the three) as a strong advocate of the idea that the White House should keep a constantly updated list of “people who are giving us trouble,” so they could all be properly “screwed” just as soon as this nasty little Watergate problem simmers down and things get back to normal.
But things are never going to “get back to normal” for Richard Nixon — particularly when the Supreme Court rules either for or against him, and he still refuses to give up the tapes. At that point, public opinion polls on the question of Impeachment will start getting nasty. Given the make-up and collective personality of the US Supreme Court, it is no more likely to issue a “definitive order” than they are to rule blatantly in Nixon’s favor on the tape question. No less a Nixon spokesman than Pat Buchanan has argued, on national TV, that a President’s right to safeguard his private (and even taped) conversations is on the same level as a journalist’s right to refuse to testify about his talks with alleged felons … but what Buchanan failed to mention was that The Court recently ruled against journalists on that question: The majority opinion, by Justice Byron White, quoted an old legal principle to the effect that “the court has a right to any man’s evidence.” Which would seem to include Presidents potentially involved in a criminal conspiracy, as well as journalists who get personally involved with criminals in the course of their work.
Looking back on its own decisions — denying special privilege to the press (Caldwell) or executive privilege to a Senator (Gravel), the Court will have to bend over backwards to give Nixon room to maneuver with the tapes. Nobody with good sense would put money on the chance of a “definitive order.” That is not The Court’s style, these days.
So the odds are better than even that Nixon’s lawyers will contrive to give The Court an opening to make a very narrow ruling — nothing even approaching a “definitive order” — and that Nixon will use that decision to bury the tapes even deeper in his private vault. Cox and Ervin will immediately call press conferences to denounce the President’s “arrogant and irresponsible behavior” — but Nixon will hang tough and exhaust all his options.
— 000 —
First he will fly to Steubenville, Ohio, for a ticker-tape parade down Main Street — gallantly defying a well-publicized “assassination plot” — to make a nationally televised fire & brimstone speech to a cheering, overflow crowd of 350 or so at Steubenville’s American Legion Post No. 007 … And when that bombs, he’ll turn up in the Emergency Ward of the Bethesda Naval Hospital with an acute case of Balderson’s Tremor, requiring a long and extremely private rest … and finally, if the tide of public opinion is still running against him when he struts out of the hospital, he will go back to the White House and arrange for a prime-time TV speech to announce that “Three minutes ago, on orders from Dr. Kissinger and myself, US Air Force B-52s commenced saturation bombing of Libya and Egypt, in order to disintegrate a communist plot to deprive US citizens of heating fuel for their homes in the depths of this brutal winter.”
Given a choice between launching a half-mad war in the mid-East and resigning for the good of the nation, Richard Nixon will opt for the half-mad war. If nothing else, it would force the press to concentrate on something other than the Watergate Agnew ITT San Clemente scandals … and it would also take the public mind off those goddamn silly tapes.
* * *
Which gets us back to “the line,” and the real reason for — as Fred Graham said — “President Nixon’s very strong reasons for not ever letting those tapes see the light of day.” It also gets back to why Alex Butterfield mentioned the existence of the tapes in the first place (“I wish you hadn’t asked that …”) and why Haldeman stunned the Ervin committee, during his TV appearance, with the casual announcement that he had taken the sacred tapes home, six weeks after he resigned his post at the White House, and kept them there for a period of some 48 hours.
Ervin and his cohorts were deranged by this admission. They’d been working 25 hours a day for more than a week to get hold of the tapes, themselves, but Nixon had turned them down cold … and now here was a key witness and potential defendant in trials with heavy bearing on the question of Presidential Impeachment telling them — and a nationwide TV audience of 30 or 40 million — that Nixon let him take the tapes to his own house so he could “review” them on his own machinery for at least two days.
I was sitting just behind John Wilson, Haldeman’s (and Ehrlichman’s) defense attorney when Harry Bob launched his bombshell, and I noticed that Wilson kept a straight face. The committee, of course, was in chaos. For the first time since Butterfield’s initial mention of the tapes, they seemed to understand that things were not quite what they appeared to be. Somebody was being sandbagged, and the look on Sam Ervin’s face was noticeably different from his expression during all those high, lyrical moments when he was quoting the Bible and the constitution.
Both Ervin and Sam Dash had just been zapped on a fine point of criminal law — a point that even Archibald Cox now defends. The first tip-off had come several days earlier, after Nixon’s first public announcement that he would not release the tapes, when one of John Dean’s attorneys, Robert McCandless, sauntered into a downtown Washington bar frequented by pols and press people, and called for a scotch on the rocks before saying in a loud enough voice that his client was “off the hook,” because there was no way anybody legally linked to “those tapes” could ever be convicted if Nixon refused to release them.
It was a clear case of the Government withholding evidence crucial to the defense, he said, and in virtually every other case where that had happened, the Government had chosen to drop charges rather than make its evidence public … which meant that John Dean, riding a wave of strange circumstance that must have driven Nixon up the wall when John Wilson told him about it, would necessarily join Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Nixon on the small list of legally untouchables — as long as Nixon holds onto the tapes.
This is the line — the only one Nixon and his ranking Gauleiters have ever recognized — and the betting in legal circles is that it will probably hold. There is no judicial precedent in American history for compelling a President to obey a court order — not even from the highest court in the land. If Nixon hangs tough on the tapes, ignoring all subpoenas and court orders on the chance that the House of Representatives doesn’t have the balls to impeach him, the only other alternative is an ancient and untested law that would theoretically enable Congress to place him “under arrest” and “jail” him in the basement of the US Capitol.
I have tried to discuss this with several Senators and Congressmen, but their faces tend to go blank just as soon as they sense what I’m getting at. The idea of locking Nixon in a closet underneath the Capitol has not caught on yet, in Washington.
The “sense of the Congress,” for good or ill, still seems to be that Nixon won’t force the issue quite that far — if only because of the guaranteed drastic effect it would have on his standing in the public opinion polls. He is already looking at between 25 and 30% of the voting populace who think he should be impeached — and even the appearance of telling both the Senate and the Supreme Court to fuck off would be likely to drive that figure up toward the magic 50% mark that even a liberal boomer like Congressman Les Aspin (D-Wisc.) says would be necessary to get the House moving seriously on Impeachment proceedings.
* * *
Defying both the courts and the polls is a long risk for any President to take — and especially long for one who has never been personally popular, anyway. But Nixon seems ready to risk it. He has already defied Judge Sirica, and his programmed leaks to the press leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that he’s gearing up for a serious counter-attack. He has decided, apparently, to move decisively on two fronts at the same time: A holding action in the courts, retreating as slowly as possible from one appeal to the next — and using whatever time he can gain by legal maneuvering to whip up a massive public relations effort to revive his crumbling image.
The obvious question is why would he take such a risk? And the answer is almost as obvious: The tapes, if they haven’t been altered, will incriminate both Haldeman and Ehrlichman, along with Nixon and perhaps several others. Nixon has already said that the tapes are subject to “misinterpretation,” and the line between that and “obstruction of justice” is dangerously thin — especially if the decision is up to a Grand Jury selected from “typical citizens,” in the District of Columbia, which is definitely not “Nixon country.” In the 1972 election The District and Massachusetts were the only two “states” that went for McGovern. Outside of Cambridge, Berkeley and Aspen, Washington, D.C. is probably the last place in America that Nixon would choose — if he had a choice — to turn tapes admittedly subject to “misinterpretation” over to a Grand Jury. It would be like sending George McGovern out to defend his position on Amnesty before a Grand Jury in Orange County, California.
That is Nixon’s obvious problem with the tapes: He doesn’t dare give them up because he’s afraid — or even knows — that they’ll incriminate him.
That is one possibility — but if the tapes are prima facie incriminating, there is not much chance that any court, committee or grand jury will ever hear them. Anybody who has ever worked with tapes knows how easy it is to alter them, particularly when you’re working with voice-activated microphones and a six-second delay stop mechanism. This means that the tape keeps rolling for six seconds after the last word or long pause in any conversation, and when you play that tape back it will be spotted from start to finish with six-second pauses … and six seconds is easily enough time to lay in a five-word phrase like: “But it would be wrong.”
This is what Haldeman claims Nixon said after telling John Dean that raising a million dollars for the convicted Watergate burglars “would be no problem.” And if the tape supports Haldeman’s version — even if the prosecution could produce an expert witness to say that the voice-track had been altered — no Grand Jury in America would return an indictment. Expert witnesses are easy to come by, especially on technical questions, and the defense would have no trouble finding its own expert to say that the tape sounded just fine, to him.
A conflict like that would render the tapes useless, as evidence — even by the imprecise standards of a Grand Jury proceeding, and certainly in a courtroom where guilt has to be determined “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Nixon has had the tapes long enough now to have done almost anything he wants with them, and his millionaire friends have access to the best experts and equipment money can buy. Failing that, the ultimate and easiest solution to any “tape problem” is a magnet — which will either erase or distort a whole reel in two or three seconds.
There is not a single investigator for either Cox or the Ervin committee for either Cox of the Ervin committee tapes are really worth hearing. When majority counsel Sam Dash was a law professor at Georgetown University he taught a course that included an unforgettable demonstration of how tape recordings can be altered. Taking three separate tapes that one student described as “three guys babbling aimlessly about things like God, Mother and Apple Butter,” Dash had an expert transform them into a single tape of a murder confession.
So the “constitutional crisis” over the tapes is not so much a matter of what they actually say or don’t say, but a question of physical possession and legal jurisdiction. As long as Nixon has the tapes, says Cox, it will be difficult and perhaps impossible for him to prosecute anybody whose name or voice might appear on them, because any defendant whose guilt or innocence may even remotely depend on the contents of the tapes would have grounds to move for dismissal of all charges against him (or her) by accusing the government of “withholding evidence.”
Both Haldeman and Ehrlichman, for instance, could base their whole defense against “obstruction of justice” charges on things they either said or didn’t say in the Oval Office, within range of Nixon’s hidden microphones. They could claim to have said almost anything from “Right on!” to “Fuck you, I quit!” And as long as Nixon refuses to release the tapes, they would probably be immune to prosecution.
(Both Nixon and Ehrlichman, have a different problem, however, with charges connected to the “Ellsberg burglary.” That — like the perjury indictments against Mitchell and Stans in the Vesco case — is an entirely separate case. Head “Plumber” Egil Krogh has said that his authorization for the Ellsberg job came “straight out of the Oval Office.” Since he allegedly made that statement, Krogh has spent most of his time traveling back and forth across the country taking the Fifth Amendment in various courtrooms — but sooner or later he is going to have to say, under oath, exactly who authorized that burglary. Ervin’s investigators say they’ve narrowed it down to two possibilities: Ehrlichman or Nixon, or perhaps both. And this calls up a very strange vision: Ex-President Nixon, babbling hysterically after enduring three months of vicious impeachment proceedings, being led onto a 747 at Dulles airport by two US Marshals vaguely embarrassed at the sound of his jangling handcuffs, to his middle-aisle seat in the tourist compartment for the flight to L.A., to go on trial for burglary — along with Ehrlichman, Krogh, Howard Hunt and six others. How would the other passengers deal with a scene like that? The stewardesses? Would it be a comfortable flight?)