50 Years Ago Today

Imagine what would happen today if, say, Biden took off for Delaware (or someplace warmer, given today’s weather!) to meet with a bevy of political hatchet men and cronies. The social media feeds would be exploding.

That didn’t even occur to me, but yeah, you’re right. Social media would be buzzing, and we’d absolutely have front page stories in the Times and Post, both, I’d imagine.

I wonder still what was going through Nixon’s mind. I think he still didn’t fully grasp the seriousness of the trouble he and his compatriots were in. But surely the others did realize it, and it’s crazy to me that Haldeman or Ehrlichman or both acting together didn’t put the heavy press on Nixon to authorize pardons for the Watergate burglars in exchange for their silence.

I think the promise of pardons might have kept inside people from blowing the lid off the thing a bit longer, but actual pardons would have produced a shitstorm every bit as big as the actual Watergate hearings. It’s true that maybe it would have kept people out of jail, but no way it doesn’t completely derail the second term agenda. The moment Nixon pardons someone for breaking into the DNC headquarters, the shit would hit the fan.

They were basically in a lose-lose situation once Congress really got interested in the story. At least Nixon’s agenda was.

Well, yeah. Thus a super long post using Apollo 13 and the moment when they realized that their agenda (getting to the moon) was toast, and that everything had to be drastic measures to save what they could. :)

aw, man, this thread isn’t going to be resolved for another 15 months? I wanna know what happens now! ;)

I have to think that Nixon is impeached either way. No?

Maybe! It’s definitely a possibility, for sure. But it also seems completely clear to me that of all the people at that point in time, just before sentencing the Watergate burglars, Nixon seemed to just not grasp how close to the end it was for him and his presidency.

(And weirdly, even though everyone else in the La Costa meeting seemed to grasp the severity within the moment, there are a lot of times to come where they don’t seem to have fully understood that Dean wasn’t just getting exciteable – that things really were very, very serious.)

Oh, yeah. He definitely thinks he’s going to come through. Denial is a powerful force.

I don’t think Nixon’s goose was cooked until Butterfield testifies about the tapes. You can’t deny things you are heard saying on tape.

Well, you can, but “the devil made me do it” usually isn’t a viable defense.

Big day tomorrow, so a quick catchup.

St. Patrick’s Day

On Saturday, March 17 1973, John Dean and Richard Nixon have a one on one sitdown in the Oval Office. Despite how crappy his past two weeks have been going (really, since the La Costa meeting), Dean is a little optimistic.

The first reason for his optimism is that it’s a Saturday sitdown. That means casual, which for Dean means he’ll wear a nice sportcoat, but not a suit and tie. The other reason though, is that Nixon wants to walk his counsel through the “strategy” (he doesn’t need to call it a “Watergate strategy” when he phones Dean to schedule the meeting – Dean understands that part) that he and Haldeman and maybe Colson and Ehrlichman have come up with.

Dean is hoping they’ve got a good play drawn up.

In the meeting, Nixon lays it out. They’re going to go with a two-fold strategy. The first will be to declare Executive Privilege on anything that might put the Ervin Committee near the White House.

The other strategy is going to be Dean’s to execute. Nixon and company want there to be a “Dean Report”: they want an official, on the record report from the White House special counsel John Dean to detail the extensive investigation he’s conducted and fully exonerate everyone in the White House of any Watergate wrongdoing.

There are a few problems with the “Dean Report”. The first of them is that Dean has not conducted any such investigation. At all. Secondly, Dean knows that he can’t exonerate anyone in the White House based upon what he knows, what he’s seen, and what he’s been told. Heck, he perhaps can’t even clear the President on this. Maybe.

Finally, Dean knows that if he were to write such a report, the Ervin Senate Committee would enter it into evidence almost immediately and then subpoena him under oath to swear to the veracity of the report, on national television. If he writes or signs his name to a “Dean Report”, he knows that it’ll easily add multiple years to any sentence he gets if he’s sent to prison over this debacle.

Nixon mistakes Dean’s hesitancy for the size of the task, and reassures his lawyer that he can detail staffers from the White House to work on it. (What Dean doesn’t know is that there’s a strong probability that a couple of people working for Haldeman have already started to sketch out and outline the Dean Report for him.)

Dean is crestfallen. There’s no secret, brilliant hail mary plan. There’s this thing, which puts him in more legal jeopardy than he’s already in. He makes some excuses about looking at ideas for the report and excuses himself.

The Night Before

And so we’re caught up. It’s the evening of Tuesday, March 20th. John Dean sits in his study at home, working on his second drink of the night already when the phone rings. It’s a late call, and it’s from the White House operator, who puts President Nixon on the line.

Nixon has some more ideas about the Dean Report. He has some more ideas about executive privilege. He lays those ideas out in detail for a half hour or so.

At the end of the call, Dean tells Nixon that he has some things of his own he wants to cover with the President. Can they set up a one-on-one meeting? The sooner the better.

Nixon agrees that it will be a good idea to get together. He’s got some free time the next day, Wednesday the 21st.

And so just like that, one of the most consequential, remarkable moments in US history goes onto both men’s planners for 10:00 am the next morning.

100 Minutes

John Dean is seated in a White House waiting room of sorts, having arrived early for his 10:00 am meeting with the President in the Oval Office. Dean was up late the night before, practicing the things he’d tell Nixon, preparing the way he’d prepare to give a closing argument in court.

It’s been a rough couple of days for Dean since the Saturday meeting on St. Patrick’s Day. Dean felt like he needed to be clear with the President just how badly things were going, and how dreadful they might get at that earlier sit-down, but the President had strayed off the subject pretty quickly and the White House counsel felt like he maybe hadn’t fully made clear what he’d meant to say.

Dean had seen the initial list of subpoenas that Sam Dash intended to call for questioning before the Ervin Committee, and it caused him anguish. Many of those who’d be called were “civilians” – low level staffers and office workers – who were fiercely loyal to the President or to their direct reports (Mitchell and Magruder at CREEP, Ehrlichman, Haldeman, Stans, Colson, etc. in the White House). Many of them were true believers in Nixon and his agenda, and truly believed – without knowing the full truth – that Watergate was some liberal Democratic dirty trick, perpetrated with the aid of those disloyal intellectuals at the Post and the Times. And so (again without knowing the full story), they were prepared to perjure themselves, to mislead under oath if necessary, not fully grasping that just because the Ervin Committee was headed by a Democrat, an oath to testify under subpoena was covered by laws that applied in all cases, to everyone.

And so Dean knew that nice people, people who didn’t realize the absolute mudhole that the White House was sitting in, were going to expose themselves to criminal indictments out of a misguided sense of loyalty. He’d tried to press the point with the President on March 17th, telling him that the time was coming when Nixon would need to cut some people loose. Haldeman, Dean told him; Ehrlichman, Mitchell and Colson as well.

“And Dean.”

That name had shocked the President, and Dean had hoped it would. Dean calmly explained that even he had criminal exposure – and lots of it – on Watergate. Nixon blew it off, not fully understanding it and the conversation moved on.

And now that conversation needed to drill down completely on what Nixon was facing. And at 10:12 am on March 21st, 100 fascinating minutes in American history begins as Dean sits down across from Nixon at the President’s desk in the Oval Office.

Dean: “The reason I thought we ought to talk this morning is because, in our conversations, I have the impression that you don’t know everything I know, and it makes it very difficult for you to make judgments that only you can make.”

Nixon: “…that we shouldn’t unravel something…”

Dean: “Let me give you my overall, first.”

Nixon: “In other words, your judgment as to where it stands and where we ought to go.”

Dean proceeds:

"I think that there’s no doubt about the seriousness of the problem we’ve got. We have a cancer within – close to the presidency, that’s growing. It’s growing daily. It’s compounding. It grows geometrically now, because it compounds itself.

“That’ll be clear as I explain, you know, some of the details of why it is, and it basically is because one, we’re being blackmailed (Chris’s note: by ‘blackmail’, Dean is referring to the increasingly high demands coming from the Watergate 7 who are to be sentenced on Friday the 23rd), and two, people are going to start perjuring themselves very quickly that have not had to perjure themselves to protect other people, and the like. And that is just…and there is no assurance --”

Nixon: “That it won’t bust.”

Dean: “That that won’t bust.”

And so Dean lays out Watergate as he knows it, from an operation to find out what the Democrats might know about Nixon. How putting Liddy in charge of it had yielded this wildly expensive plan to entrap Democrats with hookers and drugs at the Democratic convention, kidnapping them, and all sorts of wild other plans that Liddy dreamed up. Dean thought it was a joke at first, but later Mitchell assured him that Liddy was serious. Both men laughed about it, but then a few months later, Watergate happened – and that was one of the ideas that Liddy had had – to bug Larry O’Brien’s phone at the DNC headquarters.

The conversation goes on, and finally Nixon becomes curious about the “blackmail” demands coming from the Watergate 7. Dean tells him that he thinks McCord still wants some kind of jail time relief. But maybe he’ll accept clemency instead of a pardon. And E. Howard Hunt has demanded almost double the money he’s already received.

Nixon doubles down on the no pardons and no clemency stance he’s made. But the money. That’s interesting.

Nixon: “How much money do you need?”

Dean tells him it might be as much as $1 million total across the next couple of years.

Nixon: “We could get that. On the money, if you need the money you could get that. You could get a million dollars. You could get it in cash. I know where it could be gotten. It is not easy, but it could be done.”

The two then discuss details of how the money could be gotten, through a Greek-American multi-millionaire named Tom Pappas. The detail of this discussion makes it very clear: Nixon wasn’t just flippantly, sarcastically suggesting payouts. He was working through ways and means the million dollars could be procured without having it land on any investigator’s radar.

Nixon eventually calls Haldeman into the room and the meeting with the three goes on a bit longer with Haldeman and Nixon explaining to Dean that they HAVE to stonewall things on Watergate. Nixon and Haldeman mention that everyone in the White House knows things about Watergate, from secretaries to couriers. If they don’t just stonewall this thing, they’ll all be implicated.

Which is exactly the opposite message that Dean had hoped to convey, but Dean takes it in stride. He wasn’t expecting miracles. But now he’s at least allayed one part of his conscience and laid everything out for Nixon.

Later, Nixon will claim (despite plenty of evidence to the contrary) that this March 21st meeting was the first he’d heard the full scope of the Watergate crisis and the involvement of senior White House aides.

He’ll also claim that when he, the Chief Executive of the United States, suggested buying off witnesses who could implicate everyone, he not seriously suggesting it. But Howard Hunt would claim under oath to the Ervin Committee with the bank receipts to match, that he received $75,000 two days after the Nixon/Dean meeting.

This would be a conversation that would come to greatly haunt Nixon across the next 17 months.

The Grass is No Greener on the Other Side of the Fence

If things seem to be getting awfully difficult for the White House on Watergate in March of 1973, well, things are at least as bad, if not worse on the other side. Sam Dash is the chief Democratic counsel (and investigator) for the Ervin Committee, and in the 5 or 6 weeks he’s been working for the committee, he’s had a bit of a rough ride.

It’s not that there aren’t any leads. There are plenty of them to follow. But every lead they follow goes into a stonewall that shows no cracks. And so everything seems to go to Liddy and Hunt and stop. Which Dash knows is nonsense. Someone besides those two helped arrange a lot of money for their little break-in operation. But whom? Dash can guess, but guesses mean nothing. It’s what he can prove, and he can’t prove very much.

And Dash knows he’s short on one particular precious commodity: time. If he were conducting a regular investigation, he’d have 6 months, 12 months, maybe double that. He knew with that kind of time and the senate committee’s subpoena powers, he’d crack Watergate wide open.

But he doesn’t have time because this isn’t a normal investigation. It runs off of the power of political capital, and while the Ervin Committee was initially flush with that, the Watergate fervor has seemed to cool noticeably in recent weeks. Nixon’s poll numbers have bounced back. Dash and his many assistant counsels spent much of their first two or three weeks just trying to get a handle on who worked for whom at CREEP and at the White House. The few witnesses called to testify haven’t offered much of anything of note.

And so Dash has heard that there may be some oncoming political pressure to shut the investigation down in a month or so if nothing else comes of it. He’ll be asked to recommend whatever charges he can on a couple of lower level guys like dirty tricksters Donald Segretti and Dwight Chapin and write a report to wrap things up.

Doing that will be super disappointing to Sam Dash. His 6th sense tells him that Watergate and the associated cover up might go deep into the White House itself. And what he needs most of all is something – anything – to help put Watergate back on the front pages of newspapers and into the lead story on the evening network news. If he can get something to make a crack in the coverup, he’s pretty sure that will give him the time he needs to make a much better case than he has now.

For now, though, Dash is focused on what he can control. And early in the week 50 years ago, he’s gotten a phone call from none other than Judge John J. Sirica, inviting Dash to the courtroom for the Friday sentencing of the Watergate 7.

“I think you should be present in the courtroom when I sentence them. What I plan to do should be of special interest to you and the committee.”

Dash doesn’t know what to make of that cryptic message. He’s got a full Friday with some preliminary interviews and such, plus he’s scheduled to brief Ervin and the other Democrats on the committee that day on the current state of his investigation and upcoming testimony for the committee.

But Sirica’s message has intrigued him. Something might be up. Dash and his team have worked on trying to flip any of the 7, but found each of the men to be extremely unreceptive, so he’s not sure what thing that Sirica will do would be of special interest to the committee, but he’s willing to find out.

What Kind of Day Has It Been?

So here we are, March 23, 1973. A Friday. 50 years ago today. The Watergate 7 – consisting of the 5 burglars arrested during the break-in at DNC Headquarters, plus the ringleaders E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy.

It’s been no secret that Judge Sirica is going to go maximum sentences on each man. So there’s little drama to be found there. Still, the courtroom is packed as Judge Sirica enters, promptly on time at 10:00 AM.

Now, I realize that everyone reading this probably already knows this, but just for reinforcement: courtroom proceedings are dull affairs at their most exciting, usually. And this courtroom proceeding promises to be especially dull. Everyone knows that the sentences will be the maximum allowed by law. Mostly the court is full for posterity. And maybe also there’s some who hope that the flamboyant Sirica will berate the guilty men first before passing the sentence; that could be fun.

Sirica takes his seat behind the bench and calls things to order. And then he begins.

“Prior to the beginning of this sentencing schedule for this morning, I wish to put a certain important matter on record in open court.”

There’s some audible buzz, as reporters packed into the court start frantically taking notes. This…might be interesting.

“On Tuesday, March 20 of this week, a letter addressed to me from one of the defendants, James McCord, was delivered to me by a probation officer.”

Now there’s definitely audible commotion. And a few gasps. In the courtroom, Sam Dash can feel his pulse quickening. Of all the men convicted in the Watergate break-in, McCord was the guy that Dash and his colleagues thought they might have the best chance to flip.

McCord was the oddball in the group – he really wasn’t a Nixon true believer like the others. Sure, he was a Republican and happily voted that way for president. But McCord was an ex-CIA guy and a security specialist who’d been recruited from outside the Nixon circle for his specific skills and experience. And McCord had a young family and didn’t want to go to jail. McCord had been surprisingly resolute when Dash had contacted him, though. But now? Maybe…

Sirica began to read McCord’s letter, which expressed the regret at the incredible pressure he was under from further investigations, by the senate, the house, and even the DoJ. And he was worried about both his safety and that of his family. However, McCord wanted to air 6 points of contention now, before he was sent to jail.

“I will state the following to you at this time, which I hope may be of help to you.”

  1. There was political pressure applied to the defendants to plead guilty and remain silent.

  2. Perjury occurred during the trial in matters highly material to the very structure, orientation, and impact of the government’s case, and to the motivation and intent of the defendants.

  3. Others involved in the Watergate operation were not identified during the trial, when they could have been by those testifying.

  4. The Watergate operation was not a CIA operation. The Cubans may have been misled by others into believing that it was a CIA operation. I know for a fact that it was not.

  5. Some statements were unfortunately made by a witness which left the Court with the impression that he was stating untruths, or withholding facts of his knowledge, when in fact only honest errors of memory were involved.

  6. My motivations were different than those of the others involved, but were not limited to, or simply those offered in my defense during the trial. This is no fault of my attorneys, but of the circumstances under which we had to prepare my defense."




The courtroom fairly exploded as groups of reporters ran out of the room, still scribbling looking for phones.

Dash was stunned. Although McCord hadn’t explicitly said he’d cooperate, it sure sounded like he was ready to do just that.

In all the ruckus, Judge Sirica hastily banged his gavel to bring order to the room. Then he calmly sentenced the other 6 men convicted to maximum sentences, with the proviso that if they wanted to talk, he’d be willing to listen and adjust as needed on those sentences. And then he suspended a sentencing hearing on McCord so that more “research” could be done on the matter which might impact the sentencing.

Sam Dash walked out of the courtroom and rushed back to his temporary offices on Capitol Hill almost in a daze. He was not a bit surprised when on arrival at his office, a secretary gave Dash a message that Bernard Fensterwald – McCord’s attorney – had called and wanted to talk.

Dash had the secretary cancel everything that was previously scheduled that afternoon and grabbed one of his assistants and headed across town to Fensterwald’s offices to talk cooperation. The lid was off. Watergate had just gone nuclear.

Why Don’t You Take a Few Days, John?

John Dean’s day was a nightmarish blur. He’d awoken to discover that in his confirmation hearing the night before, acting FBI Director (whose confirmation was spiraling into the dirt) said that he suspected that White House counsel John Dean had “probably lied” to FBI investigators the previous summer.

And now Dean’s heard about McCord’s letter, and seemed likely to be cooperating. And Dean knows that McCord is very likely burst the dam, and that everything will crumble in due course. And more than likely, eventually he’ll be going to jail.

Shortly after lunch time, Dean gets a call from the President. Earlier in the week, they’d discussed Dean taking a weekend off to write out the “Dean Report”. Now Nixon suggested it be this weekend. Take the wife, he said. Head off to Camp David. Whole place is yours.

In Dean’s memoir, he writes that on that trip, multiple scenarios and fantasies crossed his mind. He wondered what the standard was for disbarment, for instance. He wondered what kind of prison sentence he might get, and where he’d serve it. He wondered in his most ludicrous fantasy if he and his wife Maureen couldn’t just flee the country and spend years away. Something. Anything. But reality sets in. He and Mo get to Camp David.

It won’t be a very relaxing getaway.

Amazing moment. I’ve always wondered what it must’ve been like to have been in that courtroom when the judge said that.

Probably outrage over all of the passive voice?

It’s absolutely the inflection point on Watergate going forward. After the McCord letter, coverage of outrage over the use of passive voice didn’t let up until Nixon resigned. ;)

In all seriousness, yeah, after the letter in court, there’s going to be Watergate stories on the national network news and in Time and Newsweek and in everyone’s local newspapers on the front page pretty much constantly.

And no wonder. It was sort of a “wtf?” moment before “wtf?” was invented. That sort of thing didn’t exactly happen every day, even when you were talking about lower profile cases.

There’s a story that in one of the first meetings of the Ervin Committee in one of the senate offices, liberal Republican senator Lowell Weicker was making a joke and said something about “What if this goes all the way to Haldeman?”

And it was like a record scratch moment in the room with the other senators who were like “Don’t make jokes, Lowell, we’re trying to run a serious investigation here.”

And that was maybe the attitude before March 23rd. After March 23rd? More like “Yeah, I suppose that might be possible.”