Friday, June 1, 2012

Why the DNC?

I'll have another 40 years ago update soon, but I'm stepping out of the narrative for a minute, especially for those who are interested but not enough to read all the day-by-day posts, to deal with the question of why the DNC was a target. Mainly because of a month-old article I belatedly saw today in which Ron Rosenbaum argues that Richard Nixon explicitly ordered the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate in order to find out whether DNC Chair Lawrence O'Brien had Howard Hughes related dirt on Nixon. (via Noah, who is correct about the crime vs. the cover-up).

I'm not exactly going to say that Rosenbaum is wrong, but I'm not really convinced that we need a strong explanation for the DNC as a target.

The first and most important thing to remember about this is that up through the first attempt to get into the Watergate, George McGovern's offices were apparently an equal target. The narrative of the week of the break-in, which draws mostly on Gordon Liddy's story but as far as I know is reliable in this respect, seems to imply that the main reason they wound up at the DNC and not at McGovern headquarters was simply that the former proved easier to get into. Again: after midnight on the night of May 26, as the first break-in attempt at the Watergate was turning into a fiasco, Liddy reports that he went over to McGovern HQ and tried there too.

What's more, the Nixon call to John Mitchell (with Jeb Magruder overhearing it) simply could not have been treated as a clear marching orders. It appears to have been at the end of April (Fred Emery says that Magruder told Liddy that O'Brien's office was a prime target at that point with urgency that suggests it was based on orders from above). But the target wasn't fixed in mid-May, at all.

So, some speculation.

First, Nixon's role in all of this. From everything I've seen, what basically happened -- again and again -- is that Nixon would give one of his top lieutenants a half-crazy order (break into Brookings! Take away federal funding from MIT!). Most of the time, these orders would be essentially their particulars. But the orders would hardly be ignored in spirit; they produced the Huston plan, the Plumbers, and eventually the Gemstone plan for political surveillance which in turn produced the Watergate break-in. Critically, once Liddy and Hunt were set up at the Committee to Re-elect and given authority to act and a budget, the thing took on a certain amount of bureaucratic momentum, regardless of any particular need for information.

Second, why did Liddy choose the DNC? From his narrative, again, it just seems to be the easiest way for him to start producing results -- for a project, after all, that had been approved way back at the beginning April.

Remember: in late May 1972, it was far from clear that George McGovern was going to be the Democratic nominee for president. In my view, that's the one important point that just gets overlooked in some of the speculation. On May 16, Nixon's immediate reaction to the George Wallace assassination attempt was that it meant Hubert Humphrey was now assured of the nomination, and two days after that we have Connally and Haldeman talking about Hubert, or McGovern, or whoever will get the nomination. Recall too that the Democrats had a new nomination process that very few people -- perhaps no one -- really understood at the time. It's true that in normal circumstances the DNC is an unlikely target because nothing of consequence happens in the national party committees, but in this particular place and time the rules of the game are very much in question, and the DNC might well have been a logical place to look for guidance about that.

As I move to the more speculative...from the very start in 1969, Nixon was obsessed with Ted Kennedy. He had him tailed, there was a trip up to Chappaquiddick by an operative to see if anything could be learned...a Kennedy candidacy was still, in winter and spring 1972, almost certainly Nixon's worst nightmare. Think about it: in March 2012, with Mitt Romney an almost certain nominee and forty years of evidence that the primaries produce the nominee, there were still people who seriously talked about brokered conventions and late candidacies. Why wouldn't Nixon have taken those possibilities very seriously indeed in April and May 1972 with far more uncertainty in the primaries and far more uncertainty about the process?

O'Brien is both the DNC chair who might be involved in any negotiations over convention and delegate rules, and a longtime Kennedy family operative. It makes perfect sense to me that the campaign -- the president -- would be interested in what he was up to.

Now, that doesn't mean that there couldn't be other, specific, reasons for interest in the DNC and O'Brien. But in terms of what gets them on the list of possible targets...I just don't find it necessary to find additional incentives.

The only thing that really puzzles me over this period is why Humphrey's campaign doesn't appear to have been high on the target list. Very much puzzles me.

But while I know that a lot of people consider it a major mystery why the DNC would be the target of a break in, it just doesn't seem very mysterious to me. To put together several strands:

A major program for political research and espionage is demanded by the White House -- by the president -- back in 1971, when re-election seems not very secure at all.

It takes on bureaucratic momentum, eventually getting attached to Plumbers Liddy and Hunt, over the first months of 1972.

With the Democratic nomination still seemingly wide open, and in fact quite undecided between Humphrey and McGovern, the pressure for information produces a target list that logically includes DNC headquarters and Lawrence O'Brien. When they went in, they weren't looking for anything in particular, just any useful and exploitable information.

On top of that, it's certainly possible that Nixon specifically, at some point along the way, may have blustered that he wanted O'Brien's office searched or bugged, but it wouldn't surprise me at all if he had made similar requests about other players, about other specific pieces of information. And it wouldn't surprise me if in fact the O'Brien "order" wound up having at least a bit of influence on the list of finalists and the eventual choice, but in my opinion -- and I underline that this is certainly all speculative -- it was mostly likely as an influence. It wasn't treated as an order.

At the same time: Richard Nixon certainly gave the orders that put the whole thing in motion and gave it bureaucratic clout within the White House and campaign operations. Even if there's only a tenuous connection between any particular presidential edict and what wound up actually being done.

If that's correct, I have no idea whether that makes Nixon criminally culpable. I'm not a lawyer. But there's no question in my mind that he is responsible in a historical or political sense, whether or not he gave a specific targeting order.


  1. Dr. B,

    I'd further point out that the 72 Dem nomination did, in fact, come down to a ruling from the O'Brien at the convention. Perhaps, even in hindsight, it was a good place to look.

  2. Loving this series, thanks for the further background. As I was born in November of '73, I've always felt a certain kinship to the story arc, and these posts put things in an interesting light.


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