50 Years Ago Today

And it now occurs to me that we’re going to need a sort of “Dramatis Personae” for the first year of this thing. So many names and such. So here goes:

Nixon’s inner circle

John Mitchell: Attorney General of the US from 1969 until January of 1972. Resigned that position to focus on running the 1972 re-election campaign. Prior to Watergate, Nixon’s closest friend and confidante. Between running the Committee and having to babysit his wife, Martha, he kind of let things get away from him.

HR Haldeman: Chief of Staff and Nixon’s true right-hand man. In many ways, he ran the presidency for Nixon. One of three senior aides nicknamed “The Berlin Wall” – as in, they stood between Nixon and anyone else. Before his White House days, Haldeman had been a PR guy in California and had helped resuscitate Nixon’s political career.

John Ehrlichman: Chief domestic advisor to the president, and one of the inner circle and closest advisors to the president. One of The Berlin Wall guys.

Henry Kissinger: National Security Advisor, largely out of the loop on Watergate (but not other wrongdoings). Also sometimes considered one of the Berlin Wall guys. Simultaneously part of the inner circle, and also inherently mistrusted by Nixon because Kissinger was Jewish and Nixon was a raging anti-semite.

The not-quite-as-inner-circle, but still fairly close

Chuck Colson: special counsel and advisor to Nixon. Not typically considered in the innermost ring of Nixon’s inner circle, but close to it. Amoral, driven, and responsible for the atmosphere of “Ends justifies the means” dirty tricks that came to be part of CRP. Remarkably: had nothing to do with Watergate. Initially. As in, not his idea.

John Dean: Originally the senior legal counsel for CRP, became Nixon’s White House counsel for a time. Managed to simultaneously participate in the cover-up, while also issuing dire warnings about legal repercussions of cover-up activities.

Jeb Stuart Magruder: An amoral empty vessel of a human who served directly under John Mitchell as the Deputy committee chair of the Committee to Re-elect. Possibly one of the lyingest liars to ever serve in the White House (which is saying something) motivated solely out of self-interest and self-promotion.

Maurice Stans: CRP Finance chairman. Vehemently denied being a criminal, even as he was being sentenced to jail. My dude, there’s a taping system, so do shut up.

Herb Kalmbach: Nixon’s personal attorney, deputy director of finance at CRP.

Hugh Sloan: CRP Treasurer. Constant buzzkill for the rest of these jokers for insisting on legal bookkeeping practices, and constantly warning about various initiatives being potentially illegal. Resigned from CRP when it became clear to him what campaign funds were being used for.

Alexander Butterfield: Deputy Assistant to the President. Kind of like a mix between the modern gig of “body man” and appointments and administrative aide.

The Justice department and federal investigators

Richard Kleindienst: Attorney General of the US, replacing John Mitchell.

Henry Peterson: Deputy AG to Kleindienst and head of the DC US Attorney’s criminal investigations.

L. Patrick Gray: Nixon’s eventual choice to replace J. Edgar Hoover at the FBI

Mark Felt: Deputy director of the FBI under Hoover and Gray. Also: Deep Throat

Angelo Lano: FBI agent assigned to investigate Watergate

Earl Silbert, Don Campbell, Seymour Glanzer: the three attorneys assigned by the US Attorney for DC to prosecute Watergate. All were hilariously incompetent.

The burglary team

G. Gordon Liddy: Officially “Finance Aide” on the Committee to Re-elect. Unofficially, the guy who was charged with putting together an intel operation for the President’s campaign to try to spy on the opposition and what they might know, as well as initiating a series of dirty tricks.

E. Howard Hunt: Officially “Consultant to the White House”. Unofficially, Chuck Colson’s right-hand man. Part of Liddy’s hand-picked intel team. Ex-CIA.

Al Baldwin: the comically inept lookout

James McCord: “Security consultant” for CRP, ex-CIA. Served briefly as Martha Mitchell’s personal bodyguard.

Frank Sturgis, Bernard Barker, Virgilio Gonzalez, Eugenio Martinez: Watergate break-in team

You are killing this, trig.

First-ever statement to the press

So thankfully…we get to a slower pace now. Whew. Thanks for sticking with this.

But there is one thing that happens on Sunday, June 18, 50 years ago today: a morning AP wire story reveals that a routine check of campaign expenditure reports has shown that one of the Watergate burglars, James W. McCord, was employed by CREEP. Uh oh.

CREEP chairman John Mitchell rushed a statement into the press:

“The person involved is a proprietor of a private security agency who was employed by our committee months ago to assist with the installation of our security system. We want to emphasize that this man and the other people involved were not operating on our behalf or with our consent.”

“There is no place in our campaign or in the electoral process for this type of activity, and we will not permit or condone it.”

I imagine that sounded pretty good to a lot of Americans on that Sunday in June in 1972. It’s certainly a categorical denial! However, along with it being total bullshit, there’s something else that statement did.

Anyone within the White House inner circle, almost inner circle, or high up in the campaign would’ve read that statement and known it was a complete and total lie. James McCord had been Martha Mitchell’s (oh, we’ll get to her) personal bodyguard for a few weeks, and Martha disliked him enough to constantly call her husband John to bitch about it. And everyone knew about that.

And now, all of those folks knew one other thing: this was the beginning of a coverup. And many of them were going to be dragged into it.

No, thank you for sticking with it. Really great stuff.

When discussing watergate an important fact that usually gets lost, especially considering the shameless whitewashing of Nixon in the following decades, is that the watergate cover up is really among the least of Nixon’s crimes. Watergate in a way gave him a free pass on all the other criming.

You also forgot to mention in the Kissinger profile that he had nicer legs than Hitler and bigger tits than Cher.

Really enjoying this!

I was around when it happened, but my interest level in at the time was a sincere wish that the hearings would end ASAP so they would stop pre-empting all of the good TV shows. Because I was 6.

As someone the same age, I felt the same! It’s the earliest major news story I can remember living in.

I was in high school, I couldn’t watch the hearings but I was amazed by the characters and personalities involved. It was amazing to me even then to see republicans outraged by what a republican president might have done. It gave the republicans a semblance of actually caring, unlike now with Trump,

Yeah, I was like eleven or something. I watched some of the hearings, but didn’t quite “get” all of it. Can’t recall what my parents felt about it either, really. But indeed, it was a different era in terms of where people drew lines.

I was ten at the time and the only thing I remember from Watergate is Nixon leaving the WH on a helicopter. Oddly enough the only thing I remember about Vietnam was the embassy evacuations from Saigon, also on helicopters. Must’ve been something about helicopters that imprinted itself on my child brain. (My parents were apolitical and I don’t recall them every watching the news when we returned to the US. Shortly thereafter I started watching Nova and PBS by myself, and that’s when I became indoctrinated into the far left. ;) )

So PBS is a leftist organization. :)

"Just tell me which corner to stand on"

It has become fodder for conspiracy theorists on both the Left and the Right that when the Watergate burglary went down overnight on the 16th and 17th of June, pretty much everyone and anyone connected to the President or his Committee to Re-Elect was out of town.

But that just seems like a normal facet of Washington DC political life before the 24-hour news cycle to me, and I personally think that it’s a red herring. But in any event, in Florida the Presidential party flew back to DC on Sunday night, the 18th. And out in California, the CRP executive staff – Mitchell, Magruder, LaRue, and others – had changed plans and boarded planes throughout the day on Sunday.

And young CRP counsel John Dean had returned from a 2-day conference in the Philippines with the Marcos government on anti-drug initiatives. He went in to work at the White House feeling fatigued and jet-lagged, but figured the Watergate break-in meant he’d need to be at work early.

Indeed, his White House boss, John Ehrlichman, who along with Chuck Colson were the two senior White House aides who’d stayed in DC that weekend, told Dean to go have a talk with Gordon Liddy. Find out what the hell was going on with that stupid burglary thing, he was told.

Dean and Liddy met mid-morning on the 19th and took a walk outside. Dean asked his most pressing question first: “Was this a Colson gig?” No, Liddy replied. Improbably it wasn’t. “This was all that bastard Magruder,” Liddy replied. (Worth noting that in the accounts of Dean, Liddy and Magruder, we’re dealing with three guys who are absolutely allergic to telling the truth, even in the decades after. Thus I will point out that Magruder vehemently denied that Watergate was “his”. We’ll get into the weeds on that later.)

Then Liddy spilled everything to Dean – not just Watergate, but other “ops” his team had done for CREEP since he’d put together the intel-gathering, dirty tricks squad just months earlier. The CREEP counsel was taken aback by the scope and funding of Liddy’s operation, and Liddy seemed to already have a sense that he was going to be one of the guys who was going to need to take one for the team on Watergate.

At the end of their conversation, as the two men parted, Liddy had one more thing to say. “John, if it’s decided that I need to be killed, just tell me which street corner to stand on, and I’ll be there.” Dean drew up short, wondering if Liddy was kidding. He wasn’t, because G. Gordon Liddy is an absolute narcissistic, crazyshines moron who had fully absorbed every 1960s spy movie and was essentially play acting at being in one now.

“Uh, I don’t think we’re quite at that point yet, Gordon,” said a baffled Dean, who returned to the White House to brief Ehrlichman.

Out in California, John Mitchell was one of the last to depart to head back to Washington late in the evening of the 18th. He had an additional problem to try to deal with first, one unique to him.

The Mouth of the South

It’s difficult to know where to land on Martha Mitchell, the outspoken, celebrity wife of John Mitchell. On the one hand, she absolutely was the eventual victim of a smear campaign conducted by the White House and CREEP to discredit her completely as a crazy, unhinged drunk. On the other hand, however, it should be noted that Mrs. Mitchell did have a drinking problem and had checked herself into a rehab facility at one point – though it didn’t take. And her observable behavior as noted even by sympathetic friends who knew her sounds like someone who might’ve been diagnosed these days as bipolar.

What we do know is that Martha Mitchell really liked to listen to things she wasn’t supposed to listen to, and then really liked to talk to people she wasn’t supposed to talk to. And her doting, indulgent, very-much-in-love husband John was seemingly powerless to stop her from doing either of these things.

Typically, Martha would eavesdrop on personal meetings at the Watergate penthouse she and John owned (the Mitchells and Nixon secretary Rose Mary Woods were two of the folks in this story who actually lived at The Watergate; at the time, it was considered a pretty spiffy address.) She’d also listen in on phone calls on another extension.

And then at night, her exhausted husband would head to bed about 9pm, and Martha would stay up, pour herself a double gin martini or two, and start calling her journalist “friends”, who were more than happy to hear from Martha. Sure, they’d have to indulge her stories which could often take hours to tumble out. But often enough to make it worth a reporter’s time, she’d spill some kind of juicy story, sometimes that had information involved with it that was often something the White House didn’t want publicly known.

She was also a favorite of the talk-show circuit, and even did a bit on Laugh In with Lily Tomlin.

And now she was a problem for her husband John to solve. Mitchell had given his “We don’t know those guys” statement about McCord and the other burglars on Sunday the 18th, while Martha was being shuttled from brunch to afternoon social to cocktail mixer. Mitchell knew that once his wife saw McCord’s picture, she was going to have questions. Lots of questions. Like how John Mitchell could say that the guy who’d driven their daughter to school three weeks earlier was completely unknown to the campaign.

When Mitchell left on Sunday night, it wasn’t without a lot of acrimony. Martha wanted to come with her husband back home. He told her to stay in California for a few days to “relax”, and finally convinced her, sort of. He then left explicit instructions with the campaign security staff left behind in California with Martha – do NOT let her watch the news. Keep newspapers away from her. The CREEP chairman knew he couldn’t keep McCord’s involvement in things a secret from his talkative wife forever, but he sure wanted to keep it on the down-low until he and the others could sort out a plan.

Somehow, on Monday the 19th, Martha got access to the LA Times, and saw James McCord’s face in it. And thus throughout the day as the various senior CREEP officials and White House officials conferred on things, John Mitchell would often be called away to talk to his increasingly agitated (and probably inebriated) wife.

I always thought of Liddy as a character out of the Dr. Strangelove movie. And I never understood Dean’s revival on CNN as some kind of political expert.

I have a rather basic question–what were they actually trying to find in the DNC headquarters? I always assumed it was just oppo research, but what kind of stuff would you actually expect to find there?

I don’t know much about it, being born well into the Reagan administration and only having read All the President’s Men, and that quite a while ago.

It’s…complicated. I promise that I’m going to address some questions that still don’t have ironclad answers once we get off the immediate aftermath and the daily Watergate calendar slows down a bit.

  1. What was the purpose of the Watergate break-in?
  2. Who ordered it?
  3. Did the White House, and specifically Nixon, know in advance?

I would like to formally nominate this for the Thread of the Year Award.

Great, thanks, I just wasn’t sure if it was supposed to be obvious at this point. ;)

I think at the least we know they meant to bug the phones. Specifically the phone of the DNC finance guy, looking for campaign spending info and dirt.

One of the things that is great about this thread is how it gives the lie to the ensuing months, even years of denial. Like everyone in the Nixon campaign knows, the instant the news of the arrests breaks, that this is their dirty operation. The don’t have any doubt they did it, even if they personally were not in the loop on this particular caper.

Yeah, this indeed. Before CNN the pace of things was a lot slower.

A Plan Begins to Take Shape

In the late afternoon of the 19th, Dean had returned to the White House from his weird little talk with Liddy, and briefed Ehrlichman. Ehrlichman then got on the phone with Haldeman to deliver the first piece of surprising news.

“Bob, this wasn’t a Colson operation.”

Haldeman laughed out loud, according to both. “Well I’ll be damned.” Haldeman would write later that he was thinking that Colson had been involved in so, so many things that were like Watergate that when an operation like this had finally blown up…it was the height of irony that Colson had nothing to do with it.

Humor aside, Ehrlichman spoke in deadly earnest with Haldeman about the need to contain the break-in. On Monday night, the 19th of June, 1972, just a shade more than 48 hours after the arrests. Ehrlichman stressed to Haldeman that the strategy should involve containing the fallout from the break-in to CREEP, and avoid letting any of it splash onto the White House; Ehrlichman’s hands were clean of Watergate, but a Watergate investigation that worked its way to the White House could potentially find lots of other bad things that had the domestic policy advisor’s fingerprints all over. And the strategy should also include wrapping up the investigation posthaste.

Haldeman agreed and phoned Nixon, who had just arrived at the residence that evening.

Cometh the Hour, Cometh the John Dean

Haldeman quickly got Nixon up to speed on things from his talk with Ehrlichman, and the President (per Haldeman’s notes) agreed with Ehrlichman’s assessment of containing the damage to CREEP above all else.

Nixon was interested in next operational steps. Over the phone, he surmised to Haldeman that the five burglary suspects would need money for their defense, and Nixon and his chief of staff tossed around some fundraising ideas.

Eventually, in discussing ways to raise that money, Nixon mentioned that if they framed it as an operation with something to do with Cuba, the money might easily be raised from wealthy contacts in Florida. Haldeman thought that was a sound idea. And in thinking about Cuba, Nixon had another idea he wanted put into action as soon as possible.

Noting that all but McCord had Cuban connections, Nixon said “Bob, it occurs to me that if we can get the CIA to wave the FBI off, maybe tell them it’s their operation, that would be the place to start.”

Haldeman agreed it was worth a shot. The two men hung up, and Haldeman called Ehrlichman back. “The boss would like to get the CIA to wave off the FBI…to say this thing at The Watergate was part of something they were doing.”

Ehrlichman was skeptical, and asked not to be the one tasked to make those calls. He suggested John Dean for that task, and Haldeman agreed.

The two hung up, and Ehrlichman called John Dean at home to give him the task: somehow convince the CIA to tell the FBI that the break-in was part of an op of theirs, and to close their investigation. “You probably won’t have any luck with (CIA Director Richard) Helms, but (Deputy Director Vernon) Maxwell might play ball.” Ehrlichman knew that Maxwell had only just begun his job as Deputy Director at The Agency 10 days before, and owed his appointment to the Nixon administration.

Dean – desperate to insinuate himself into the Nixon inner circle – enthusiastically agreed to the task. In the coming days and weeks, Dean would take on more and more tasks involving the response to Watergate, essentially inadvertently walking right into the role of being the main operational architect of the cover-up.

(The plan to keep the break-in restricted to the Committee to Re-elect would take a major hit the next morning in the Washington Post, when a Woodward-bylined story broke the news that the Watergate burglars had the name of E. Howard Hunt in their address books, and that Mr. Hunt had an office down the hall from Chuck Colson at the White House.)