The Watergate complex is a set of five buildings – three luxury apartment blocks, an office building and a hotel-office hybrid – built on the banks of the Potomac between 1963 and 1971 in the Foggy Bottom area of Washington DC. Its handy location between the centre of government and the traditional residences of Georgetown proved attractive to congressmen and members of the Nixon administration, who flocked to the new apartments. In 1967, the Democratic National Committee took over the sixth floor of the 11-storey office building. Here, on the night of 17 June 1972, five burglars were caught trying to plant a bug. The group comprised an electronics expert, James McCord, and four Cuban-Americans from Miami.
It didn’t take the police and the FBI long to discover that McCord was the security co-ordinator for the Campaign to Re-Elect the President, known by its acronym – at once sinister and hapless – CREEP. The investigators also obtained warrants to search a room in a Howard Johnson motel across the street from the Watergate complex, which, the authorities surmised, had been used as a lookout by the burglars’ accomplice or accomplices. Here the police found an address book containing a note, ‘HH WH’, next to a telephone number. The investigators quickly suspected Howard Hunt, a former CIA agent who was employed as a consultant on special activities at the White House. Evidence soon pointed to the other accomplice at the lookout, Gordon Liddy, legal counsel to CREEP.
The situation was complicated, because in some respects the Nixon administration was investigating itself. The FBI was a division of the Justice Department, and therefore part of the executive branch of the US government. Henry Petersen, the assistant attorney-general who handled the Watergate investigation, loyally reported his findings to the president and his officials, including the White House counsel, John Dean. As 1972 was an election year, the strategy of the White House focused on containment.
In the short term, at least, the president’s men were successful. The break-in did not become a big story. On 19 June Ron Ziegler, Nixon’s press secretary, called Watergate ‘a third-rate burglary attempt’, and serious political journalists tended to agree. After all, it seemed obvious that Nixon was heading for a landslide victory in November’s election. The episode seemed to be nothing more than a ‘caper’ undertaken by over-enthusiastic underlings. Only Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post, two inexperienced journalists on the local beat, persisted with the story. For the moment, the burglars kept quiet, and no mud stuck. On 7 November Nixon was re-elected in the biggest landslide in American political history, winning 49 states. His Democratic opponent, Senator George McGovern, took only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.
It was in the early months of 1973 that the Watergate scandal assumed political significance. In February the Senate established a committee, chaired by Sam Ervin, a Democrat from North Carolina, to investigate Watergate and other campaign abuses. The judge in the trial of the Watergate burglars, ‘Maximum John’ Sirica, also aired his suspicions that the whole story had still not been told. Faced with the prospect of a lengthy sentence, McCord broke, and wrote a letter to the judge alleging that political pressure had been exerted to secure the silence and perjury of the defendants.
Ziegler announced that all previous White House statements about Watergate were now ‘inoperative’. Nixon – who still denied any knowledge of the break-in – was forced to sacrifice several key officials, including his chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, and the attorney-general, Dick Kleindienst, in an attempt to cordon off the Watergate affair from his presidency. Although one of the scapegoats, Dean, turned against Nixon, the strategy might have worked had it not been for the slip of a White House aide, Alexander Butterfield, who revealed to investigators the existence of a secret taping system in Nixon’s offices. Dean’s televised testimony to the Senate Watergate Committee – which implicated Nixon in the cover-up – was a sensation. It was now Dean’s word against Nixon’s, with an obvious way of proving which man was telling the truth.
Meanwhile, Kleindienst’s replacement, Elliot Richardson, insisted as a condition of taking office that a special prosecutor – at arm’s length from the Justice Department – be appointed to investigate Watergate. The special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, set out to subpoena tapes of certain presidential conversations which seemed relevant to the investigation. Nixon resisted, citing ‘executive privilege’. Cox refused to compromise, and on Saturday, 20 October 1973, Richardson resigned rather than carry out Nixon’s order to fire Cox; Richardson’s deputy, William Ruckelshaus, followed. Eventually Robert Bork, the solicitor-general and next in the chain of command at Justice, sacked Cox. Ziegler announced the abolition of the special prosecutor’s office. But the public outcry at the ‘Saturday Night Massacre’ was so great that Nixon was forced to appoint a new special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski. The Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives also began to consider impeachment proceedings against the president.
Other offences had already come to light, including the burglary of a psychiatrist’s office in California. ‘Watergate’ was no longer a single incident, but shorthand for a set of illegal operations carried out on behalf of the White House. After months of continued lying and foot-dragging over access to the tapes, Nixon was eventually sunk in late July 1974 when all eight Supreme Court justices (one recused) decided that Nixon had to hand over the tapes. The release of the notorious ‘smoking gun’ tape of 23 June 1972 doomed Nixon’s presidency. On it Nixon could be heard endorsing a plan for senior CIA officials to deflect the FBI from its investigation of Watergate on the grounds that it would open up sensitive national security issues. Not only was this an obstruction of justice, it also showed that Nixon had been lying all along. He would no longer have the votes to stave off a conviction should the process go to a Senate trial. He resigned – in the midst of the impeachment process – on 9 August 1974.
‘What did the president know? And when did he know it?’ These were the central questions, according to Howard Baker, the most influential Republican on the Senate Watergate Committee. In The Nixon Defence, John Dean attempts to answer them using additional tapes that have become available since Watergate. For the connoisseur of casuistry Dean quotes numerous ‘protracted exchanges searching for less than truthful solutions to ever-growing problems’. Nixon is caught on tape trying to triangulate knowledge of his criminality with a wished-for innocence. As soon as he realises he’s been caught acknowledging on his own taping system that he knew all along about the cover-up, he quickly backtracks: ‘Well I knew it … I must say though, I didn’t know it.’ As a participant in the early stages of Watergate – which he distinguishes clearly from the later ‘cover-up of the cover-up’ in 1973-4 – Dean is able to bring perspective and discrimination to what he calls ‘conspiracy by circumstances’. Nobody, he says, considered ‘the criminal implications of our actions, only the political consequences of inaction’. Obstruction of justice happened, but largely by accident, because day-to-day politicking and public relations obscured the legal issues at stake.
But what about morals and plain decency? In a series of articles that first appeared in the New Yorker as Watergate unfolded, Elizabeth Drew confesses a hardened journalist’s shock at ‘the contempt for everyone – the public, the Congress, their colleagues, each other’ the transcripts reveal. ‘He seems to be trying to be candid, but he hasn’t had much experience in that area,’ a fellow Republican says of the testimony of Nixon’s thuggish aide, Charles Colson (post-Watergate, an evangelical minister). Obfuscation was second nature – to the very end. In his resignation speech, Nixon, wily as ever, seemed to suggest that he was stepping down because he had lost the support of Congress. This puzzles Drew. Did this mean that the United States had, after all, ‘a parliamentary system’ of government? ‘Perhaps, in extremis, we do.’
At the time, the Nixon administration scared liberals, but looking back at Watergate Drew is struck by the ineptitude of Nixon’s special operations team. The Watergate break-in of 17 June 1972 was, she notes, the fourth attempt by Nixon’s men to bug the DNC offices in the Watergate. On the first occasion, they dined in the building, lurked on the premises and ended up locked in a closet overnight. On the second, they got as far as the DNC offices, but had forgotten the tools with which to pick the lock on the door. On the next attempt they got in, but the fourth operation on 17 June was required to fix some problems with the bugs they had planted.
Forty years on, the emphasis in the literature on Watergate is changing from forensic to historical: from an examination of the crimes of Nixon and his subordinates to a more rounded appreciation of the political context in which they were operating. Over the past thirty years, Robert Caro’s multi-volume Life of Lyndon Johnson, Nixon’s predecessor, has exposed some of the corruption behind the white picket frontage of postwar American democracy. In some districts of LBJ’s home state of Texas, ballots – many in suspiciously similar handwriting – might not be returned to the election count until the total number of votes required to win was known, as happened when Johnson won his own notorious ‘landslide’ of 87 votes across the whole state in the Texas Senatorial primary of 1948.
In the presidential election of 1960, Nixon was outmanoeuvred at the count in several states by his ballot-stuffing opponents: John F. Kennedy, his running mate, Johnson, and their partisan crony, Mayor Daley of Chicago. Nixon was ahead in the vast majority of precincts in Illinois, but still lost the state because of an immense surge of votes for Kennedy in Daley’s fiefdom. In some parts of Texas there were more votes cast – predominantly, of course, for the Kennedy-Johnson ticket – than there were registered voters, and rumours circulated of voter fraud elsewhere. In 1960 Nixon took defeat on the chin, but he was determined never to be done over again.
For all his cynicism, Nixon was an ingénu when it came to the dark arts, and certainly clumsier than LBJ and the Kennedys. The most skilled practitioner in Washington was a mere bureaucrat, J. Edgar Hoover, who headed the FBI for 48 years between 1924 and his unexpected death on 2 May 1972. For decades before Watergate every president came into office determined to usher Hoover into retirement; on every occasion Hoover was able to convey that he held materials in the FBI files that could damage the new president, and that he could only guarantee their suppression if he continued in office. Investigations into the Watergate burglary began a mere month and a half after Hoover’s death, and soon became entangled in the struggle for succession to the FBI directorship. Nixon appointed a loyal colleague and FBI outsider, Pat Gray, as acting director, but the post needed Senate confirmation, and Gray’s subordinates conspired against him. In 2005 it was revealed that Woodward and Bernstein’s source, Deep Throat, was Mark Felt, a Hoover loyalist and associate director of the FBI.
Hoover plays a central role in Ken Hughes’s gripping investigation, Chasing Shadows, which takes as its point of departure the only break-in ordered by Nixon on 2658 hours of tape: not at Watergate, but at a liberal think-tank, the Brookings Institution. The burglary never took place, despite Nixon’s command. Hughes contends that the Watergate affair wasn’t about the cover-up of the Watergate burglary itself, but about the cover-up of other crimes which led further back to the breach of a cardinal taboo, which Nixon knew even his most committed supporters could never forgive.
According to Hughes, Nixon’s Brookings obsession went back to the latter stages of the 1968 election campaign, which was dominated by the need to find a resolution to the Vietnam conflict. Five days before election day, LBJ ordered a bombing halt, intended (suspicious Republicans believed) to hand the presidency to his vice-president, Hubert Humphrey. But America’s allies, the South Vietnamese under President Thieu, were unwilling to support the peace plan. Nixon had almost certainly asked an intermediary – Anna Chennault, a wealthy Asian-American – to persuade Thieu to spurn the Democrats’ peace offer in the hope of a better deal from the Republicans. Incensed that Nixon had scuppered peace initiatives for the sake of domestic political advantage, LBJ ordered the FBI to eavesdrop on Chennault’s apartment – at Watergate.
Nixon duly made it to the White House in a tight three-way contest against Humphrey and the right-wing Southern populist George Wallace of Alabama, with a precarious 43 per cent of the popular vote. But there were other anxieties. Nixon was never quite sure whether he or his acolytes had been caught out frustrating Johnson’s peace initiative. When in 1971 the former security analyst Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers – which set out high-level policymaking on Vietnam – Nixon became increasingly anxious about preserving his own secrets. He came to believe there was documentary evidence of his own perfidy in a file at Brookings. But was it all a figment of his imagination encouraged by Hoover’s insinuation that Nixon had been bugged on LBJ’s orders? Hoover, Hughes suspects, made it up. The evidence that Nixon had obstructed the peace process was wispy at best; but enough to drive the paranoid president to self-destruction.
It transpires that Watergate – as The Nixon Tapes show – was not Nixon’s first major cover-up. In December 1971, he and his aides became aware of a concerted domestic espionage programme directed at the White House by his own chiefs of staff. While investigating leaks to the influential muckraking journalist Jack Anderson, agents discovered that the naval yeoman Charles Radford, who was assigned to the joint chiefs’ liaison office of the National Security Council, had been pillaging the desks, briefcases and burn bags of Henry Kissinger and his colleagues, and sending his findings back to the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Admiral Thomas Moorer. Why did Moorer and the rest of the top brass feel so uninformed about national security? The reason was simple: Nixon and Kissinger had been running grand strategy – not least, the openings to China and the Soviet Union – out of the White House without reference to the State Department or the Pentagon. Indeed, Nixon is recorded on tape describing his own secretary of defence, Mel Laird, as a mere ‘procurement officer. That’s what he is and not another goddamn thing.’
The Moorer-Radford affair proved to be a dress rehearsal for Watergate. John Mitchell, the attorney-general, recommended against prosecution, suggesting instead a judicious cover-up: ‘The important thing is to paper this thing over.’ Nixon agreed. In protecting the military leaders from the consequences of their own folly, he was also, of course, covering up the awkward fact that his generals distrusted their own commander-in-chief. From today’s perspective, the notion of senior military figures spying on a democratically elected civilian leadership seems as bad as Watergate itself; but when Congress did eventually hold hearings on Moorer-Radford in 1974, the public and media were Watergate-weary, and the scandal fizzled out.
Rick Perlstein, in The Invisible Bridge, focuses on the unintended consequences of Watergate, most notably the shortcomings of campaign finance reform: independent political organisations, it transpired, were able to raise unlimited amounts of cash so long as they were not co-ordinated with a particular candidate’s campaign. This loophole allowed the emergence of the conservative direct-mail operations that in due course would drive post-Watergate America further than ever to the right. Perlstein’s book is a sequel to his chilling Nixonland (2008), in which he showed how an opportunistic Nixon exploited the race riots and counter-cultural weirdness of the mid-1960s to develop the wedge politics which still obtain in today’s culture wars. Wallace’s attack on liberal progressives was obtuse, embarrassing and boorish, but Nixon managed to occupy the high ground of conservative respectability, delivering a subdued, collar-and-tie version of Wallace’s pitch.
If Watergate destroyed Nixon’s credibility, why are Americans still living in Nixonland? Botched campaign finance reform is only part of the answer. There is also, Perlstein argues, the gravity-defying rise of Ronald Reagan. At the height of the Watergate crisis, most Republicans were compelled to cede ground to the Democrats. But not Reagan, who stood out for the sunny perversity of his ‘refusal to wax morose’. The Watergate conspirators, he claimed, were not ‘criminals at heart’: gaffes like that, you might think, should have finished his political career.
Perlstein ends The Invisible Bridge with the elderly Reagan’s narrow defeat by the incumbent president, Gerald Ford, at the Republican Convention in 1976. America was not, it seemed, in the mood for Reagan’s triteness. Nixon-Kissinger realpolitik, the Watergate mess and Carter’s management of diminished expectations, in their various ways, forced Americans of the 1970s to jettison ‘silly’ notions about their country’s evergreen innocence and exceptionalism. Perlstein quotes the New York Times’s assessment that ‘at 65 years of age’ Reagan was ‘too old to consider seriously another run at the presidency’. But Reagan thwarted the turn to realism. A decade after Watergate, Perlstein laments, America succumbed to something more insidious than the bungled tyranny of the Nixon regime: an ‘official cult of optimism’.