One of the key things this retrospective has taught me is not just the limitations of Presidents, but the limitations of conspiracies. These posts should be required reading for anyone tempted to believe in a conspiracy theory.
Which isn’t to say conspiracies don’t happen. This is, after all, an actual criminal conspiracy at the highest levels of state power. But that’s the thing... it’s not the moon landing, let alone 9/11 - all they’re scheming over is a few low-rent burglaries/buggings, and then a cover-up of those operations.
But they seem to be terrible at it. Not only do they fail to pull it off and keep their connections to it secret, but as soon as the pressure rises, they all get lawyers and start squealing on each other. They can’t remember what each other know, they probably can’t remember what they themselves knew at which point...they just seem to be really ineffective.
And these are not a bunch of chumps. It’s a President and chief of staff known for being clever, extremely driven, and politically ruthless; and a very competent inner circle.
There’s also very little of the style of imagined conspiracies here. You have moments where Nixon says things like, ‘You're to break into the place, rifle the files, and bring them in.’ But for the most part they do an elaborate dance around the issue at hand, rarely saying exactly what they mean - even those who don’t know they’re being taped. They pretend to know less than they do, they nudge each other towards taking more of the rap, mostly they just fret aimlessly, for months on end. And when they need to lay down the law to someone, like Mitchell for instance, they don’t seem to have the nerve to do it.
Or take something like the situation with Judge Sirica, as JB described it here. When Nixon first airs his frustrations about Sirica to Colson, and asks if he’s waiting for a Democrat to nominate him to the Supreme Court, Colson says:
No, no. He is a Republican. I know him pretty well. I have been with him at various events -- social events. Very decent guy, dedicated to you and to Eisenhower.
Now, in conspiracy land, what happens next is that they arrange for Colson to play a round of golf with him and just tell him, as a loyal soldier, what to do; or if he does balk, they promise him a SCOTUS seat, bribe him with millions, threaten or blackmail him or whatever - and problem solved. But no, in reality, they just speculate about whether he’s doing it because he’s a “hot-headed Italian” and carry on the dance of words. It seems it’s not even remotely on the radar to influence a judge. I mean, what kind of conspiracy is this!?
They also have a hard time raising the money to keep the boys quiet - again, this is a plot run by the White House and senior figures in the GOP, and they can’t get their hands on enough money to keep their conspiracy secret. In the movies and on the net, hush-money is really not a problem for these kind of people.
Now, no doubt a good deal of this is the result of what JB has been explaining about Nixon’s alienation of the rest of government, and presidential weakness in general. I dare say it’s easier to pull off a conspiracy if you’re Stalin than if you’re occupying the White House. And I guess a circle of, say, ‘shadowy’ international financiers, has less institutional barriers facing them. On the other hand, they lack many advantages of being officially in charge of the country. Like being able to offer immunity, or ask the FBI to destroy evidence.
Still, I’d tentatively suggest that on this evidence, to pull off a major conspiracy like an inside-job 9/11 is, if not actually impossible, so incredibly unlikely to succeed that no experienced or competent pol would ever try it.
Back to me: I think that's all exactly right.
One other point, however, worth making is that the Nixon tapes themselves are excellent evidence against ongoing major conspiracy theories, stuff such as faked moon landings or UFO cover-ups, or larger political things such as domination of the government by shadowy outside actors. Basically, we have on tape much of what Richard Nixon said from February 1971 through July 1973, and there's no indication of any of those conspiracies in what we have to date. And yet Nixon was candid enough on these tapes that he was willing to incriminate himself multiple times. His Chief of Staff, too, was candid enough to incriminate himself. And others, who (supposedly?) didn't know about the tapes, were also quite candid about their Watergate-related crimes. And yet none of them happened to mention any of those other conspiracies. Nor, for that matter, do any of the White House tapes of other presidents, for whatever that's worth.
So: maybe these far-reaching conspiracies were nevertheless unknown to the President of the United States and his top aides (depending on the conspiracy theory at issue, that might be absolutely implausible). Maybe, in all those hours, it just happened to never come up -- again, depending on the theory at issue, this might be very plausible or not plausible at all. Maybe Nixon and Haldeman knew that there were certain things that absolutely could not be exposed, but it was perfectly fine to expose their own criminal actions (seems highly improbable to me). Maybe everyone who has reviewed the tapes is in on it -- after all, there are all those things that are blacked out of transcripts for "national security" reasons -- but that's an awful large conspiracy, by now.
Not that any of this will convince anyone who truly wants to believe in conspiracies; hey, maybe I'm in on it! But, yes, the evidence of Watergate -- and, in my view, Iran-Contra, as well -- makes it hard to believe that there are really lots of massive conspiracies that the government has managed to pull off without getting caught.