50 Years Ago Today

It kind of strikes me as if one reason folks were reluctant to believe how far up the chain the problems ran was that, logically, and without Nixonian levels of paranoia, there was not reason for any of the Watergate stuff to happen at all, much less happen with the knowledge or approval of the president. And if some underlings did something like that, people who were not Nixon probably thought a sitting president would have no practical choice other than to immediately throw them under the bus.

But I guess Nixon was operating in his own private Idaho as it were, Nixon being Nixon. He seems to have had a strong if warped sense of personal loyalty even when it was manifestly the wrong thing to do.

Really interesting thread. Only about halfway through it, but it reminded me of something I found when organizing the mountain of random stuff in my girlfriend’s father’s basement some time back


That’s pretty neat.

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The scary part is at the bottom: “Kissinger Agrees to Stay On.” Sort of like the end of Diablo 2.

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That actually made me laugh out loud, well played sir :D

The Aftermath of March 23

It’s April 3, 1973 – 50 years ago today – and John Dean has an appointment with a guy named Charles Shaffer. The two men have blocked out a couple of hours for this get-together, and though the two know of one another (and Shaffer comes highly recommended as an expert in his field), this is their first face-to-face meeting. Dean is somewhat chagrined, even embarrassed about needing this meeting at all…but he’s decided that it is time to have it.

Charles Shaffer is a criminal defense attorney. And as of a day or two ago, he now represents a new client: John Wesley Dean III.

It’s been less than two weeks since James McCord’s letter was read to open court by Judge Sirica. John Dean spent some of that time at Camp David, as directed. There, he started on one version of the “Dean Report” that explicitly followed the instructions given to him by Nixon and Haldeman – the Dean Report should put everything onto Liddy and Hunt and absolutely STOP right there.

Dean starts that version, but then has a change of heart. That version of a report is going to be nonsense, he knows. The press (and frankly, the American public) will laugh at its fiction. He also knows that it’s likely to make him even more liable for obstruction of justice than he already is.

So Dean starts on a second report that will be far more revealing and less of a whitewash. For one thing, this new version is going to throw a bunch of people under the bus, including Mitchell and Magruder, but along with them, the entire corps of “The Plumbers”, including dirty tricks expert Donald Segretti, and one-time presidential campaign aides Dwight Chapin and Bart Porter. This new report still isn’t going to tell the whole story. Far from it. Really, really far from it, in fact! But it will at least be a little closer to the truth, Dean thinks, maybe just close enough to allow him to avoid additional potential criminal exposure.

And the White House receives news that Dean is going to write a different report with surprising aplomb. After considering it, both Haldeman and Nixon agree that it’s probably the wiser play at this juncture of things. The takeaway from the Oval Office is: Special Advisor and White House Counsel John Dean is willing to think outside the box to help this Administration. What they should’ve been thinking is: Special Advisor and White House Counsel John Dean, when push comes to shove, is very likely spill his guts to save his own skin.

But there’s another reason why Dean and the White House are now thinking that trying to say that Watergate “ends” with Liddy is no longer viable. John Dean isn’t the only person having a busy weekend that first weekend.

James McCord is telling anyone who asks, well, everything.

(Next up, Aftermath, part 2)

Actually, next up will be a brief diversion to help make the next bit more understandable.

Plus, we’ve got a timely new trailer for the HBO limited miniseries The White House Plumbers, and it continues to look excellent:

And this post is gonna be about that. Take it on account that this helps set up Aftermath, part 2.


Way back in late January, early February of 1972, Gordon Liddy strolled into the Department of Justice HQ Main Building (then known as “Main Justice”, later renamed the Robert F. Kennedy Building in 2001). He was carrying some posterboard, and hustled up an easel from somewhere on the floor with the Attorney General’s office.

The United States Attorney General was still, for a little bit long, John Mitchell, serving dual roles as AG and also the chairman of the Committee to Re-elect. That afternoon, Mitchell, Magruder, and John Dean would witness one of the most astonishing presentations any of them had ever seen.

You see, Gordon Liddy had been put in charge of a new sort of operational task force to seek out leakers from within the campaign in the wake of the Pentagon Papers…but with campaign season beginning for 1972, he was given a new job as head of a sort of fast-response group. Or, fast-instigating group.

It was a Dirty Tricks squad.

And since the Nixon Campaign expected to have almost more money than they’d know what to do with, Liddy was told (probably by Magruder, but maybe also Dean) he’d have what in 1972 dollars was an almost ridiculous budget. Maybe even $1 million. Maybe.

But first, Liddy needed to outline what he needed the money for. And so that afternoon in the winter of 1972, Liddy was going to make his pitch. He called it Operation Gemstone, and it was a multifaceted, modular set of operations, each with a mineral name.

Liddy began his presentation by outlining his group. It would have a political operative, sure (E. Howard Hunt). But also Cubans who were Bay of Pigs veterans. “These guys can kill,” Liddy said; “They have killed. By my count, they’ve got 22 kills between them all.” He also had a lockpicker/safecracker, and an ex-CIA guy who was a security expert (McCord). Liddy was gleeful about his band of mercenaries. Mitchell, Magruder, and Dean were already fully in “What the fuuuuu…” mode.

Liddy started turning over various charts on the easel, each with an “operation” that was a part of Gemstone. Operation Diamond, for instance, would involve kidnapping and drugging possible resistance leaders who might demonstrate against the Republican National Convention. They’d drug those leaders and send them to Mexico and leave them there to find their way back.

Mitchell interrupted on that one. Kidnapping he asked, his omnipresent pipe nearly dropping from his mouth.

Sure, Liddy assured him, once again talking about his hit team of political mercenaries.

“Uh, where would one find men like that?” Mitchell asked.

Liddy – answering to the Attorney General of the United States responded: “I understand and believe that most of them are members of organized crime groups.”

Perhaps, the Attorney General said, shaking out and reloading his pipe, it would be best if the effort to re-elect the president wasn’t enriching organized crime syndicates.

Liddy continued with his presentation. Some of his ideas were clever (“Operation Sapphire” would’ve sent fake maintenance workers into the bowels of the Miami Convention Center the night the eventual nominee would give his acceptance speech and disable all the air conditioning). Some were eminently illegal, but very do-able and devious and un-trackable (“Operation Ruby” was going to put Republican operatives into sensitive positions as drivers, couriers, and even office workers to collect intel.) Some were out and out racist (“Operation Coal” – not a mistake in the naming convention – would’ve secretly funneled laundered funds into the campaign of Shirley Chisholm, the historic black woman campaigning for President.)

And there was Operation Opal. Opal was a scheme to break into the offices of various candidates and plant listening devices and surveillance equipment.

After the long meeting, the feeling in the room was, well, awkward to say the least. Finally Mitchell spoke. He told Liddy that the amount of money (Liddy had budgeted well over $1 million for every part of Gemstone) was too rich for the campaign’s blood. It wasn’t, not really, but that let Mitchell make his second point: “Come up with some things that are maybe scaled down. More realistic.”

“And Gordon? Burn those charts before anyone sees them.”

That was the end of Gemstone. Kind of. Except Liddy would indeed execute Operation Ruby and plant a campaign assistant with the Muskie camp, and then switch him to McGovern’s offices in DC.

But it also caused Liddy to revise Opal. Instead of a bunch of candidates, instead they might bug the phones and offices of DNC chairman Larry O’Brien. Which, said offices were at the Watergate Hotel.

And Magruder surely knew about this revised plan. John Dean probably did as well, although whether he thought it was serious is up to debate. John Mitchell probably knew something of that sort was being done, if not knowing it was specifically the Watergate.

The whole problem with all of these is that no one, not ever, really said “No.” It was at worst “Scale it back”, and then no one would say anything, so tacit approval was believed to have been given by Liddy and Hunt. And so…that’s kinda how we got here.

Now then. Aftermath, Part 2…

Aftermath, part 2

Where were we? Dean writing a report that goes beyond Liddy to name Magruder and Mitchell. The White House, seeing the sense of that, approving.

There’s a reason that Dean wants to expand the scope of the report past Liddy. And that has to do with Watergate burglar James McCord. He’s been busy since Judge Sirica read his letter in court. That entire weekend he’s spent time with Sam Dash (the lead Democratic investigator for the Ervin Committee) and Fred Thompson (same role, but for the Republicans). Both Dash and Thompson are stunned by what they hear.

McCord tells them everything he knows. Including a meaty tidbit: John Dean, Jeb Magruder, and John Mitchell ALL new about Watergate before it happened (and here, he’s referring to Gemstone, and the revised Operation Opal). McCord and his lawyer want to go public – it’ll take some of the pressure off McCord and put it squarely on the White House and the former Committee to Re-elect. Neither Dash nor Thompson thinks that’s a good idea. Instead, they call US attorney Earl Silbert, who still has the original Watergate grand jury empaneled. They tell Silbert: we have a doozy of a witness for you. Silbert’s been expecting the call since the 23rd of March sentencing hearing. And to Silbert’s credit, he and his team of prosecutors are finally going to start acting the part now.

And on the Sunday that John Dean is writing his report, he gets a call from White House press secretary Ron Ziegler. He’s been asked to comment on a story that will run on Monday in the LA Times that will state that Dean and Magruder knew about Watergate before the break-in occurred. McCord, despite the urging of Dash and Thompson, has leaked the story to the newspaper.

And so now Dean is writing a new “Dean Report”. One that exonerates him, but throws Magruder and Mitchell under the bus. But as he writes – and even after returning from Washington that last week of March – he’s feeling increasingly uneasy.

The White House wanted a patsy for the Watergate break-in, and got a willing one in G. Gordon Liddy. But it occurs to Dean that they’ll want a patsy for the coverup. And Dean is feeling very much like he might be that guy. In fact, he thinks that time is coming sooner than later – he’ll be cut loose to dangle in the wind, and leaks certifying his own culpability and guilt will start to flow in a river from the White House.

And a funny lecture from a class he once took on criminal defense in college comes back to him. If your client is in a conspiracy and is arrested, it’s better to be the first person to talk to the prosecutors, rather than the second or third to do so.

With all this in mind, and with all the pressures and his name in the papers now, Dean finally picks up the phone to call Charles Shaffer.

Which brings things back to where it started today on April 3rd. Dean is meeting with his newly-retained criminal defense attorney at Shaffer’s office. And Dean spills everything to his new lawyer.

Shaffer takes it all in, and then lays it down squarely for his client: “John, I think you’re guilty as hell on at least one, if not multiple counts of conspiracy to obstruct justice.” It’s serious stuff, maybe 7-10 years in federal prison serious.

The two lawyers are of like minds on it all, too. When Dean leaves Shaffer’s office, it is with the knowledge that he has instructed his criminal defense attorney to reach out to the Silbert and his prosecution team to extend some feelers about cooperating.

*The ironic side note to all this: when Silbert and his assistant prosecutor Glanzer hear from Shaffer about possible cooperation, they’re jubilant. It turns out McCord was a spectacularly BAD witness in front of the grand jury. Yes, he testified that Dean and Magruder and Mitchell knew about Watergate. But when pressed on that, he admitted that he “knew” this because Gordon Liddy had told him. Meaning it was very weak, probably inadmissible hearsay because Liddy wouldn’t confirm and would happily take contempt charges instead. The prosecution essentially had very little actual useful new information to work with after McCord’s spectacular courtroom bombshell letter…but now a lawyer representing John Dean was reaching out to discuss a loose framework for some possible cooperation.


It’s Easter Eve on Saturday April 8, 50 years ago. It’s nearly 9 am, California time where Nixon and senior White House staff (Haldeman and Ehrlichman most importantly) have been taking a bit of a respite from Washington. They’re headed back that day so that Nixon and First Lady Pat Nixon can do church in DC in the morning the next day, as well as hosting the White House Easter Egg Roll stuff on the White House lawn.

Haldeman knows the White House group is running late, as limos await them outside the spa complex back at La Costa. He’s moving through the lobby of the place quickly when someone at the desk waves him down. Phone call.

The White House Chief of Staff doesn’t have time for such things. They’re late as it is, and he doesn’t want to hold things up. “Ask who it is,” he barks at the desk manager.

“It’s a Mr. John Dean for you, specifically.”

Haldeman was likely thinking “What now?” but if Dean was calling it was probably important. Haldeman had enjoyed being in California. They’d barely brought up Watergate at all. It had been a good few days.

Now his temples were throbbing. He could feel the migraine on its way.

The White House Chief of Staff grabbed the phone and told Dean he had to be quick – they were on their way to Air Force One. Dean said he’d try.

“Look, I’m currently sitting in the law offices of Charles Shaffer, my attorney,” he began. Haldeman could feel his blood pressure going up. “And I wanted to make sure you were informed – that someone was informed officially, I guess – that we’re, uh, going to be meeting with the prosecutors. With Silbert and Glanzer. They’re going to be here in a few minutes.”

Haldeman isn’t as shocked as you’d maybe expect. Dean had informed Haldeman and Nixon the previous week – just before they’d left for California – that he’d hired Shaffer. At the time, Dean assured his superiors at the White House that since Shaffer was a criminal defense specialist who had handled government-related cases before, it only made sense to meet with him to find out what kind of criminal exposure various members of the cabinet and CREEP had, with relation to Watergate.

Haldeman had been dubious, but Nixon was all for it, apparently. He’d been thumping the notion that they couldn’t really “clean things up” until they knew at least somewhat closely who might be in trouble, and for what. Asking an expert defense attorney made sense to him. And so Dean had the White House blessing.

But Haldeman had thought all the way on the trip to California that if Dean found out that he himself, the White House counsel, was likely to face heavy criminal charges that it wouldn’t take much of a push for Dean to flip.

And now, it sure sounded like Dean was about to flip. Or at least was standing at that precipice. Haldeman kept it short, and terse: “You let that toothpaste out of the tube, it’s going to be very tough to put it back in, John.”

Dean quickly assured Haldeman he understood. And that he also understood he was still White House Counsel and had attorney-client privilege and executive privilege reasons to be “careful” about anything he might say.

The two hung up, and Haldeman got into the motorcade to head to Air Force One.

For his part, back in DC, Dean sat down in a conference room at Shaffer’s offices with Silbert and Glanzer, the two federal prosecutors who’d bungled the Watergate break-in investigation, but now had much bigger game in their sights.

Shaffer laid down the ground rules: no notes would be taken. Dean would not say anything to self-incriminate. And nothing, not anything about Nixon, or even close aides. Dean was still White House Counsel, and attorney-client privilege and executive privilege (for now at least) would be maintained.

And then Dean launched into activities at CREEP. He outlined Gemstone, and that crazy presentation by Liddy. He talked about warning Magruder and Mitchell of the illegality of those “operations”, talked about reminding them of campaign finance issues, all of it.

This all went on for a few hours, when Shaffer’s secretary came in. There was a call, for Mr. Dean.

It was a radio-relay call from Air Force One. Haldeman aide Larry Higby was on the line to inform Dean that his presence was requested at a meeting the next afternoon with Haldeman and Ehrlichman. Dean said he’d be there, and hung up and went to spend another 3-4 hours talking to the Watergate prosecutors.

You know what’s great about men’s suits? They don’t change so much. Lapels and ties change, but they’re essentially the same. But women’s clothing is a different thing. You can pretty much tell the year by the dress style.

Not Great, Bob

Spare a thought for the week that H.R. “Bob” Haldeman has been having, 50 years ago this past week. It’s started off bad – the call from Dean with Dean all but declaring he’ll soon be cooperating with prosecutors. It’s gone downhill from there.

First, there’s that meeting that Haldeman and Ehrlichman called with Dean.

That ended up being pretty anticlimactic. Given some time to think on it, both Haldeman and Ehrlichman agreed that Dean was going to do what Dean was going to do regardless of whether they dressed him down and threatened him. Instead, they’ve decided that if Dean does flip and things get too close to the top of the White House, they’ll discredit him. For now? They just want to see if they can get Dean to tip his hand on what he’s telling the prosecutors.

And Dean seems to realize that, and so he basically dances around the questions of the two senior Nixon advisors. Haldeman does give him a stern warning that Dean (for now) remains the White House counsel and that matters of attorney-client privilege and executive privilege apply to him. Dean says he understands, and notes that the White House seems like it’s fine in all this. The questions he’s answering concern the dirty tricks squad (Donald Segretti, Dwight Chapin, Bart Porter, etc. etc.) and the senior members of the campaign hierarchy (John Mitchell and Jeb Magruder).

Dean knows he’s not telling them the full story, because there are things that the other dirty tricksters – Hunt and Liddy – have done that could be a major headache for the White House. And Dean is planning to spill those things soon.

By the middle of the week, Haldeman has come up with a loose strategy framework. The White House will “give up” John Mitchell, Magruder, Dean and the other dirty tricksters. (He figures they don’t really need to “give up” Dean – Dean’s likely to cut his own deal and cop to something lesser eventually).

What Bob Haldeman doesn’t know is that he doesn’t just have one potential rat in Dean. He’s now got two.

Life hasn’t been real great for Jeb Stuart Magruder since the wild March 27th sentencing hearing for the Watergate 7. His name has been in the paper, in stories that accurately maintain that Magruder knew about Watergate before it happened, and that he’d perjured himself in his testimony in the trial back in January. His phone rings constantly with calls from both Sam Dash (the Democrats lead investigator on the senate committee) and Fred Thompson (Dash’s counterpart as lead investigator for the Republicans). He also gets frequent calls from the prosecutors. And the press.

And the walls are closing in on him. He’s hired a defense attorney, and that attorney tells Magruder that if he’d like to avoid spending a decade or so in jail, he’d better cooperate. Magruder talks it over with his wife first. Then he pays a courtesy call to Mitchell to give him a heads-up. Then he thinks about it some more.

Finally, after a week of thinking about it, Magruder sits down to cooperate fully with prosecutors. And it doesn’t go quite the way he or his attorney expects.

For one thing, Magruder is ready to spill a TON of dirt on John Dean. But the prosecutors don’t seem to care. Magruder is also ready to spill on his own actions – to an extent – but again, the interest in his own activities seems perfunctory at best.

What the prosecutors really want to hear is anything Magruder can give them on John Mitchell. He’s the big fish. And Magruder realizes that while he’s willing to fully cooperate, these prosecutors are really only interested in his partial cooperation at most.

In a few weeks or so, Magruder and his attorney will realize that John Dean has already begun cooperation. And he’s already given himself up, and given them Magruder on a shiny platter. When Magruder turns to cooperating himself, all the prosecutors are really interested in him is filling in some gaps on Mitchell that they couldn’t get from Dean. (In later years, Magruder will lament that Dean was about 10 days smarter than he was.)

Mitchell has also let Haldeman know about Magruder flipping. In addition, Attorney General Richard Kleindeinst calls Haldeman to tell him that he’s now been fully briefed by the prosecutors, and things might get into the White House. He informs Haldeman that he’ll be recusing himself from the investigation – another blow. Kleindeinst does say that if the White House is truly above all this, bringing on a special prosecutor might be the best way forward. Haldeman reluctantly agrees that the Attorney General might be correct on that.

On April 14, Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Nixon all meet to go over strategy. Haldeman mentions that AG Kleindeinst is recusing himself. The three agree that Mitchell needs to be told that this investigation is going to take him down, and with the cooperation of the White House. They also agree that Dean will need to resign.

But, Haldeman notes, maybe that’s not enough. He wants the president to consider a potentiality in which he, Haldeman, would also resign at some point if the situation kept growing. Significantly, this is the first time Haldeman has broached that subject. And also interestingly, he’s still at that point viewing Watergate as a political (and not criminal) problem for the White House.

Oh, for the simple, halcyon days of yore, when good old fashioned political skullduggery and clean, all-American obstruction of justice were the lifeblood of our democracy.

Wait. They did What?!?

It’s tax day in America, on Sunday April 15. And obviously, not really – everyone’s getting a one-day extension until Monday the 16th, because the traditional deadline falls on a weekend.

John Dean is having an extensive, multi-hour meeting with the three Watergate prosecutors that day. It’s going OK for the prosecutors – who have finally stepped up to the realization that they are on the verge of uncovering some pretty major crimes by some pretty important individuals.

They’ve already taken the step of briefing their boss, Henry Peterson, who is in charge of criminal prosecutions at the DOJ. Peterson was the guy who originally had told them to pull in their nets and keep the original Watergate prosecution focused. But now there’s just too much, and Peterson has realized that he has to take the brakes off, or he’ll be exposed to malpractice at best, and criminality at worst. Peterson has told the prosecutors (Silbert, Glanzer, and Cunningham) to go where the evidence takes them. And then Peterson calls Attorney General Richard Kleindienst to alert HIS boss of what’s going on.

Kleindienst is taken aback when Peterson fills him in on what the three prosecutors are uncovering. Peterson mentions that not only Dean, but also Magruder, are cooperating with the investigation. For his part, Kleindienst had always assumed that the Nixon campaign engaged in bare-knuckles, no-holds-barred campaigning. But he’d always assumed that – with so many lawyers involved (Liddy, Dean, Mitchell, et al) – that the campaign walked right up to the line of legality without actually crossing over. Now he knows that this wasn’t the case, and that his own position – which amounted to a sort of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” laissez-faire attitude towards those campaign goings-on was a fatal mistake.

But lets get back to Sunday, April 15. It’s the early afternoon. Dean and his attorney and the three prosecutors and their aides are getting ready to take a little break. Silbert’s headed to another room to get some notes. Offhandedly, he says, for maybe the umpteenth time, words to the effect of “I still don’t understand why the White House went to bat for those Watergate guys,” (meaning the burglars). “Why not just let them take all the heat?”

Dean has decided it’s time to drop a bomb. “Well, it’s probably to do with the Fielding thing.”

Silbert stops halfway to the next room, dead in his tracks. “What Fielding thing?”

The “Fielding thing”, Dean explains, is the break-in of the offices of Dr. Lewis Fielding, a psychoanalyst in Los Angeles who among other patients was treating Daniel Ellsberg. Yes, the Daniel Ellsberg who’d leaked the Pentagon Papers.

Now Silbert is completely agog. “Wait. What?” Dean fills in the entire team – Hunt, Liddy and at least two others, including White House aide Egil Krogh, had planned and carried out the break-in of Dr. Fielding’s offices to look for Ellsberg’s files. The idea was to discredit Ellsberg completely before he leaked any other secrets.

Silbert feels like the world has begun to spin faster and faster. He grabs a phone and calls an aide at Main Justice to get all the info available on the Fielding break-in. Then he returns to Dean. “So these guys, Liddy and Hunt and whomever…they just did the break-in out in California.”

“Well, they did it, yes,” Dean responds. “But not on their own. No way. Someone would have ordered them to do it. Someone pretty high up.”

Silbert feels like adrenaline is about to explode out of his ears as he and Glanzer and Cunningham all scribble notes and shout various questions at Dean in a rush of excitement.

“What do you mean high up? Like…Haldeman? Ehrlichman?”

Dean shrugs. “At least.” The implication hangs in the air. Nixon? “But look,” Dean qualifies. This is all before my time in the White House, he explains. He’s 99% sure of what “Pretty high” means here, but it’s hearsay. The prosecutors will need more to help them connect those dots.

Still, now Glanzer understands almost everything. The Watergate coverup – the paying of defense fees for the burglars, the clandestine payoffs to the 7 accused, all of the perjury and lies and half-truths to cover things up – all of it was because the White House knew that an investigation was going to turn over some rocks that they didn’t want touched.

Glanzer gives that hypothesis back to Dean. “So the reason to cover up is that everyone is worried that Hunt and Liddy will talk about the Ellsberg psychiatrist break-in if they feel like they’re being hung out to dry?” Dean doesn’t confirm that hypothesis (which was accurate), but neither does he deny it. He shrugs noncommittally and reaffirms that it would be speculation and hearsay for him to firmly state it either way. But also, he’s giving off “Yes, probably” vibes to the room.

Silbert and Glanzer know that the trial of Daniel Ellsberg is scheduled to start in a week or two. They’ll need to prepare an official letter to the judge in that case, and also need to send memoranda to Peterson to keep their boss in the loop. And the whole while, all three prosecutors are at various times thinking “Holy shit, what in the world?”

The Last Meeting

I’ve been a bit behind in updating this, but a few things have happened heading into April 26, 1973. Let’s catch up.

First, one thing that’s important to note – after Dean notifies Haldeman that he (Dean) is talking to the prosecutors, the President and his two top aides still don’t know whether Dean is going full on rat or not. Haldeman thinks he is. Nixon doesn’t think so. Ehrlichman is somewhere between those two.

But on April 16, Dean and the president have a meeting that dispels all doubts. It’s a one-on-one meeting between Nixon and Dean in the president’s private office. Nixon doesn’t seem too agitated. When Dean talks, it confirms to him that there’s no point in histrionics – Dean has fully flipped.

For his part, Dean tells the president that he’s talking to prosecutors to protect Nixon. He explains that the cover-up was going to be discovered, and the longer it was allowed to go, the more likely it was to get innocent people committing crimes, perhaps unknowingly.

Nixon also asks Dean – since he knows that Dean is now probably an expert on such things – who Dean thinks might be in trouble with the law. Dean doesn’t hesitate to tell him that he, Mitchell, and Magruder, as well as perhaps Colson are in deep shit. So too are all the dirty tricks plumbers guys from earlier in the campaign, pre-Liddy and Hunt; guys like Donald Segretti, Dwight Chapin, and Bart Porter. But most disturbing to the president is that Dean thinks both Haldeman and Ehrlichman should probably be seeking out lawyers, too.

The conversation goes on a while longer, with Nixon warning Dean to stay away from stuff that falls under national security and executive privilege – likely a backhanded way to tell him to not divulge anything about Ellsberg, which, too late. Finally things draw to a head. Nixon asks the question.

“John, are you prepared to resign?”

Dean says he is, and in fact the President had better get used to asking that question.

Dean notices something else in this meeting. Throughout the time that Dean is going into detail about who might be in trouble with the law, Nixon keeps persisting in saying things like “…And this would have been part of what you told me in our meeting last month? Which was the first time you told me this…” Meaning the March 21 meeting, which Dean thinks is important for Nixon.

And something about the way Nixon asks those weird, rhetorical questions. At a couple of points, Dean could almost swear that the president is turning his head and speaking louder – as if shouting to a microphone or something. It’s odd, and Dean makes a mental note of it.

After a while, they say cordial goodbyes.

And that’s it. John Dean and Richard Nixon will never meet again together. The next day, Dean is presented with a pre-written letter of resignation, which he refuses to sign and alerts Ehrlichman that he has some things to tie up first, and will submit his resignation within the week.

The Motherlode

While all of this drama is taking place, Sam Dash and Fred Thompson are doing preparatory work for what both expect will be televised Senate Watergate hearings. They expect those to begin sometime around the 2nd week of May. And while technically, Dash and Thompson are adversarial in veiwpoints (representing different political parties) they do get along quite well, and seem to have a good relationship.

And so one afternoon in mid-April, Dash and two of his assistants take a meeting at the National Archives. They’re looking for transcripts of a couple of Nixon speeches. It’s a perfunctory check. It’s not even really part of any main evidence – just something that Dash wants to check.

But the problem is, Dash isn’t sure exactly of the date of the speech (there’s no Google, and even in newspapers they can find references in past tense to what they’re looking for, but not the exact date.)

And the fine folks at the National Archives tell Dash and his team,“Well, we’ve got everything.”

“Oh,” says Sam Dash, “You mean you’ve got all the President’s campaign speeches?”

No, they tell him. They’ve got everything. Maybe a thousand boxes. Something like 30-35,000 pages. Everything.

“What do you mean by everything?” Dash asks. “Speeches? Surely not that much?”

Oh no, they tell him. The campaign was really great about it. They sorted and boxed up everything from strategy notes to interoffice memoranda to telephone transcriptions to ledgers. Everything.

Dash nearly swallows his tongue, but he’s immediately on the phone to the senate and to Thompson to let him know too. Pretty soon both Dash and Thompson’s staffers are poring over the voluminous document trove, cataloging everything, and, Dash’s staff sees, noticing that nothing appears to have been redacted or excised before it was turned over to the Archives “For posterity.”


The evening that Dean and Nixon had their final meeting at the White House, the phone rang at the national desk at the Washington Post. It was the LA Times with a heads-up that their front page the next day was going to be a story that at least one – and likely more – “high level” officials at the White House had been involved in Watergate, or in Watergate-style activities.

This was pretty big stuff. Oh, there were plenty of whispers about what the LAT was going to report. But the big new wrinkle in the Times story was that the White House was going to have to admit to it. The White House admission was going to be new.

And so within a day of the Times story being picked up nationwide, Nixon made a nationally televised speech in which he acknowledged that yes, there had been major developments in the Watergate case, and that on March 21st he, the president, had been made known that there may be individuals at the White House who had involvement.

Nixon pledged full cooperation with the Senate Watergate Committee, and condemned those at the White House who might be involved. Nixon further pledged that “No one” would get immunity from prosecution – those responsible would be held accountable.

Which…sounds good, right? Well, maybe not. Because “No immunity” basically means “None of you guys who know where all the bodies are buried will have incentive to rat me out, because you can’t make a deal for yourself.” No immunity means no deals for talking to prosecutors. Dean (and Sam Dash, and the prosecution team) all realized that this was Nixon trying to buy or even bully the silence of anyone in his administration who might be thinking of cutting a deal for cooperation by taking any such deal off the table.

Later that day, in one of the most infamous statements in White House press corps history, Nixon Press Secretary Ron Ziegler announced that any previous statements made regarding Watergate and the break-in were “inoperable.”

All of this exploded in the media. If Watergate had become a daily story buried in the newspapers, only sometimes on the front page across America before, now it was an everyday, big headline, top of the news situation.

America now had Watergate fever. And events would rise to the occasion to feed that mania.

The Center Cannot Hold

The week leading up to April 26th is just abuzz with Watergate news on every TV channel, in every newspaper, headlining Newsweek and Time. Magruder this, Dean that, Mitchell the other thing, and what about the other folks at the White House? What did they do? What did they know?

For Jeb Magruder, it was finally all too much. He’d been disappointed to be buried with a post-election appointment to undersecretary at Commerce (a position that didn’t require senate confirmation, which the White House was absolutely trying to avoid with Magruder.)

The former 2nd-in-command for the Nixon reelection campaign had felt the walls closing in on him daily. His name was in the papers, like, constantly. And the tone of his interviews with the prosecutors wasn’t what he’d hoped. And so on April 26th, he formally submitted his resignation, which was accepted. He’d end up being the first member of the administration to resign.

(John Dean, after boxing up all his Watergate notes and evidence from his White House office on April 19th, hadn’t returned and never would again. But he hadn’t resigned, either. Believing it might show intent or assist in doing so, he’d decided to wait to get fired instead of cutting the cord himself.)

So, Magruder resigns. Thats…newsy-ish, right?

Well…also this happens. Walter Rugaber (Remember him? He’s the NYT reporter who’d tried to trace the money on the burglars to Mexico, only to get scooped by Woodward and Bernstein, who’d stayed in Florida.) is in his office when he gets a call from Connecticut senator Lowell Weicker.

Weicker is maybe the last part of the liberal wing of the Republican party. He’s a pretty good dude, frankly. And he’s friendly with Rugaber, who occasionally covers the senator from just up the interstate. Rugaber also knows that Weicker is on Sam Ervin’s senate Watergate committee.

And tonight, Weicker has decided to selectively leak a bombshell to the NY Times.

Lowell Weicker is a good dude, generally, but he has one weakness (and it’s something he even acknowledges.) He is loyal to people he feels he knows well, almost to a fault. And in this case, that fault happens to be acting FBI Director L. Patrick Gray.

The two have known each other for years, and Weicker has always been impressed by Gray’s pragmatism and military resume, to the point where during Gray’s failed confirmation hearings in March of 1973 to be named permanent FBI Director, it sometimes seemed like Weicker was the only one willing to go to bat for the embattled Gray.

But over the previous weekend, Gray had heard from Ehrlichman that John Dean had flipped and was dishing EVERYTHING to the prosecutors. Gray hangs up and thinks about it, and remembers that some time after Watergate, John Dean had given him a couple of “too hot” notebooks from E. Howard Hunt’s safe. And the acting FBI Director also knows that a week or two after that, he personally burned those notebooks to smoking ashes.

With this in mind, Gray calls Senator Weicker to tell him all about this. Gray figures it’s all going to come out eventually, and he doesn’t want the senator to sully his good name by zealously defending Gray and then having this evidence destruction come to light.

And so on the evening of the 26th – a few hours after Magruder has submitted his resignation – the NYT makes a courtesy call to the Washington Post. Their next morning’s edition will lead with the banner front page headline that L. Patrick Gray knowingly disposed of Watergate evidence just weeks after the break-in.

That night, in All The Presidents Men, Woodward and Bernstein recall Post managing editor Howard Simon calling for a full redo of the Post’s front page, crediting the NYT with the scoop but also carrying the news about Gray. At one point, Woodward saw Simon sitting in a chair, looking almost dazed, chainsmoking his way through an entire pack of cigarettes. “A director of the FBI destroying evidence?” said Simon to no one in particular. “I never thought it would happen.”

The Gray story would be huge. Seismic. It seemed to the American public suddenly that it was no longer a question of who in the Nixon orbit was involved in Watergate, but rather, who wasn’t.

And it’s at this point that Nixon realizes that the bottom has fallen out. It’s April 26th, 1973. And we’re on the cusp of a remarkable weekend in history.

Damn, boy, you good. Do they give Pulitzers for forum posts? If not, maybe they should!

So only about 5 1/2 months overdue, it’s time.

The Pentagon Papers, part 1

I have come to believe that The Pentagon Papers is the single thing that contributed MOST to the end of the Nixon Administration and his resignation. It feels (to me) like the predicating event from which everything else descends. Watergate was the coverup that ended the presidency, for sure. But that’s because the Watergate coverup was undertaken to keep anyone from discovering what Nixon and crew had done regarding the Pentagon Papers.

And if it hadn’t been Watergate…it would’ve been something else that the Nixon White House would’ve had to coverup and obstruct to prevent prying eyes from looking at the reaction and actions take due to the Pentagon Papers. They’re super important to understand the rash bumbling and fumbling that happens once reporters and prosecutors and senate investigators start snooping around the White House with scandal in the air.

So first, just what the heck are the Pentagon Papers?

Let’s flash back to 1968. America’s undeclared war in Vietnam is not going well, and the Pentagon can’t really figure out why. And so Defense Secretary Robert McNamara turns to RAND Corporation for help. RAND (which you get from mushing together the letters of “R and D”) was formed after World War II when the Pentagon realized that all the amazing intellect and genius and innovation that had helped deliver VE Day and VJ Day was likely to dissipate into corporations and international business and science. RAND was set up as a private, non-profit and non-partisan think tank to work with the Department of Defense on matters related to anything military: strategy, on-the-ground tactics, political issues related to the military, integrating the military, integrating new technology into existing tactics, or developing new ones.

And so RAND is given this gigantic project. Investigate Vietnam, from the beginnings, pre-World Wars, and also take a close look at things as they existed in contemporary times and give the Pentagon some idea of what’s going wrong and why.

RAND attaches a bunch of very smart, very able, and very incisive analysts to this task. One of those people is a guy named Daniel Ellsberg.


Although Ellsberg’s education and resume is far from typical of the US military, he’s not an outsider there. Yes, he graduated (with honors) with an econ degree from Harvard. Yes, he went to Cambridge post-graduate on a fellowship. But he also enlisted in 1954 in the US Marine Corps, and served for three years as an officer and platoon leader, taking an honorable discharge as a 1st lieutenant in 1957.

Ellsberg had worked at DoD during the early Johnson administration years, and also was attached to a unit in Vietnam as a liaison for a general there. He is not a greenhorn. He understands the military and the Pentagon. And so he’s a natural to be attached to this new Vietnam project.

The extensive, multi-volume report that RAND would eventually deliver in late 1968 (McNamara had intended it to help set a blueprint for Vietnam for the second term of the LBJ Administration, which would never happen) was unsparing and unflinching in casting blame at, well, everyone and everything in the US diplomacy and military spheres post-World War II.

RAND analysts (like Ellsberg) had been on the ground observing in Vietnam. They’d been to the so-called “Peace Talks” that never really developed much. They’d been on the ground at the Pentagon, and at various training bases in the US. They’d also been watching TV and collecting data there, and visiting US college campuses and observing up close the anti-war movement.

Ellsberg was present in all of these data-gathering activities. He saw young American soldiers killed in battle. He saw poorly-trained, poorly disciplined US and South Vietnamese troops commit atrocities in the field. He saw the disconnect between strategy in Washington and tactics on the ground. And he saw up close and personal, the anti-war movement in the US.

And listening to war protesters, Ellsberg – knowing what he knew from firsthand observation and analysis – realized something he never thought he’d might come to think: the protesters were, essentially, right. Vietnam was an unwinnable shitshow that was burning up lives and money hand over fist.

And when it became apparent in the first two years of the new Nixon administration that the war wasn’t just going to continue, but might actually be escalating, Daniel Ellsberg got very, justifiably angry. The RAND report on Vietnam had unconditionally laid out some stark truths for the US government and DoD, and chief among those was that Vietnam was an horrific mess of a military action that should be abandoned as early as possible, even given consequences that would likely result in a victory for North Vietnam and a consolidation of the north and south into a single country entity.

Lots of folks were pissed about the continuing Vietnam War in late 1969. Daniel Ellsberg was fairly unique though: he had the ability, he thought, to do something about that.