Paper this thing over

Colin Kidd

  • The Nixon Tapes: 1971-72 by Douglas Brinkley and Luke Nichter
    Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 758 pp, $35.00, July 2014, ISBN 978 0 544 27415 0
  • The Nixon Defence: What He Knew and When He Knew It by John W. Dean
    Penguin, 784 pp, £14.99, June 2015, ISBN 978 0 14 312738 3
  • Washington Journal: Reporting Watergate and Richard Nixon’s Downfall by Elizabeth Drew
    Duckworth Overlook, 450 pp, £20.00, August 2014, ISBN 978 0 7156 4916 9
  • Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair and the Origins of Watergate by Ken Hughes
    Virginia, 228 pp, $16.95, August 2015, ISBN 978 0 8139 3664 2
  • The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan by Rick Perlstein
    Simon and Schuster, 860 pp, £25.00, August 2014, ISBN 978 1 4767 8241 6

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.

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