The Check From the World War II Flying Ace
It’s still mid-morning on July 31. Carl Bernstein has just called the Post offices, and Barry Sussman has told him to stay in Miami to see what he can dig up. Bernstein calls Gerstein’s office, and the US Attorney tells the reporter that he’s happy to share what he has already shared with Walter Rugaber at the NYT. Bernstein can come down to his office and meet with Gerstein’s chief investigator, a guy named Martin Dardis.
If you’ve seen All The President’s Men, you know what happens next; it’s one of the signature scenes in the film. Dardis (for whatever reason) keeps Bernstein waiting for hours. Morning turns to noon, and noon becomes mid-afternoon before he finally sneaks in to interrupt Dardis and demand some acknowledgment.
Dardis finally relents, but as far as he’s concerned, this is all spent powder. He goes over the bank drafts from Mexico City, and the withdrawal records from Barker showing a 1:1 match. Yeah, old news. It was all in the Times that morning.
“And that’s about it,” says Dardis, “Except for that Dahlberg check.”
Bernstein asks to see it, and Dardis is reluctant. Bernstein explains: he just wants to get the spelling of the name right. There’s no address printed on the check anyway.
Then Bernstein, rather than rely on Martin Dardis’s crack investigatory skills, instead calls the Washington Post to talk to Bob Woodward.
It should be noted here that “Woodward and Bernstein” aren’t yet a thing. While their names have appeared on a couple of Watergate stories to date, those have been stories with multiple other Post reporters listed as well. If anything, to this stage, Woodward and Bernstein had been in competition with one another, each trying to stay on the Watergate beat and hoping that if the Post has just one reporter covering the story, that they’ll be The One.
But Bernstein has a hunch that whomever “Kenneth Dahlberg” is, he’s probably a hoop-de-do in the Republican Party, and Bob Woodward is a Republican. Maybe he’ll recognize the name.
Woodward is stumped…but intrigued. He tells Bernstein he’ll work on it. The archivists and researchers at the Washington Post after about an hour turn up the name “Kenneth Dahlberg” in a photo caption. It’s with some local Republicans in Minneapolis.
And then it clicks for Woodward. He’s heard the name before. Something with Nixon’s campaign in '68. He calls a friend who is connected with the GOP in in Chicago, and finds out that Ken Dahlberg was a midwest campaign chair for Nixon in 1968. He’s a war hero – a genuine fighter ace from World War II. (I think he had something like a dozen confirmed kills, just in case you were curious.) As far as the friend knows, Dahlberg lives around Minneapolis somewhere.
It takes a while, but by late afternoon Woodward thinks he’s got the home phone number for Dahlberg, who lives in the toney suburb of Orono, Minnesota. He calls and a fairly frantic-sounding guy picks up. Yes, he’s Kenneth Dahlberg. Woodward identifies himself as a Washington Post reporter, and could he ask Dahlberg some questions.
Dahlberg splutters something about timing and hangs up abruptly.
While Woodward is wondering what the hell that was all about, he gets a call back. It’s Dahlberg. He’s contrite, because he didn’t believe the voice on the phone earlier was really a reporter. He’s still pretty shaken, and explains that earlier that day his neighbor was kidnapped from her front yard.
(Yes, that really happened, too. If you’re familiar with the financial firm Piper Jaffray, the kidnapped woman was Virginia Piper, wife of THAT Piper. Thankfully she was found alive two days later.)
Woodward is apologetic and adjusts his tone. Could he just ask a few questions? Yeah? So, uh, does Ken Dahlberg know how a check he’d written ended up in the bank account of a Watergate burglar?
Dahlberg does not, and he’s adamant about that in a tone of voice that feels genuine to Woodward. Of course Dahlberg remembers the check. He’d personally handed it over, in DC, to Maurice Stans himself in first week of April. That check was from bundled contributions throughout the northern midwest area, and what happened to the check after he handed it over is nothing Dahlberg knows anything about.
And in the next morning’s Washington Post, a story detailing that a campaign check from a midwestern fundraiser that was handed to Stans and Magruder (when called for comment, Stans immediately threw Magruder under the bus and said he’d passed the check to the Deputy Campaign Chair) had been deposited into the account of Watergate burglar Bernard Barker. Woodward wrote most of the story, but insisted on giving a shared byline to Bernstein, who’d turned up the clue. From this point forward, for the next two years any Watergate story with one guy’s name on it also had the other reporter’s as well.
But the Dahlberg check story is important for other reasons as well. To this point, the White House believed the damage from Watergate would be contained to the 5 burglars, plus Liddy and Hunt. That becomes impossible with the Dahlberg check. Now Stans and Magruder are probably up for investigation. So to is the recently-resigned Mitchell. And who knew how far it’d go from there?
From the publishing of this August 1st story and going forward, Watergate is going to be an uncontrollable political brushfire that has broken containment and isn’t going to burn out until it takes a White House down.