Saturday, August 7, 2010


I'm really not pleased at all with Adam Nagourney's NYT story about the fight between Nixon loyalists and the National Archives over how Watergate should be portrayed at the Nixon Library.  Someone reading the story without knowing anything about Watergate would get the sense that the scandal was about surreptitious taping of White House conversations.  That's about the equivalent of saying that the OJ Simpson case was about gloves, not murder, or that (to bring it slightly more up to date) the Mark Foley case was about phone company records. 

In case you're wondering whether Richard Nixon was a crook, imagine the following:

Suppose that Barack Obama was convinced that Marc Thiessen, John Bolton, and Paul Wolfowitz had removed important secret files from their various government offices when they left the Bush administration, files that revealed embarrassing, and perhaps illegal, actions by the administration.  Suppose further that Obama believed that Wolfowitz et al. had secured those files at AEI

With me so far?  Now suppose that Obama repeatedly ordered Rahm Emanuel and other top White House officials to break into AEI in order to get those files back, either in order to leak them to embarrass the Republicans or, perhaps, to blackmail George W. Bush.  That is, suppose that Emanuel suggested to the president that perhaps they could blackmail Bush, and Obama responded by continuing to order the break-in.

That's one of the things that happened in Watergate (substituting Nixon for Obama, Haldeman for Emanuel, and Brookings for AEI).  The orders, that is; as it turned out, the president's men never quite did get around to breaking into Brookings, although they did hire and assign people to do it, and scheme and plot about it quite a bit.  The president's men, sometimes at Nixon's instructions, sometimes with his knowledge, and sometimes perhaps without his direct instructions or knowledge but always in keeping with his general orders to his stop staff, also planted spies in the camp of Democratic campaigns; broke into Democratic headquarters, photographed documents, and planted bugs; broke into the the office of a Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist in order to learn things that could be used to destroy his image in the press; attempted to plant left-wing materials in the home of the guy who shot George Wallace; planned to (and perhaps did) selectively leak classified materials about foreign policy in order to hurt the Democrats; forged materials about foreign policy (the death of South Vietnam's President Diem) in order to plant false stories in the press that would hurt the Democrats; wiretapped government officials; paid a private investigator to tail Ted Kennedy; performed other dirty tricks such as forged letters intended to manipulate the Democratic presidential nomination process (efforts that may indeed have been successful); and other illegal, abuse and unethical actions -- this is not a comprehensive list.

Those were the original crimes.  What followed was obstruction of justice as the White House, with the active leadership of the president, lied to FBI investigators and grand juries, destroyed evidence, suborned perjury by prearranging false testimony; suborned perjury by paying off witnesses and either promising or at least hinting at the promise of presidential pardons in exchange for false testimony, and using the authority of the presidency to derail and undermine FBI investigators and prosecutors.  Again, the president was personally actively involved in all of those things. 

(And that's not counting other important abuses of power such as waging war without the authorization of Congress and illegally disrupting the legal disbursement of government funds, and also not counting the president's purely personal possible crimes involving his taxes).

Oh, and for what it's worth...Nagourney writes that Nixon resigned "in the face of likely impeachment."  That's too weak.  It was certain impeachment, and virtually certain conviction.  The House Judiciary Committee had voted in favor of impeachment while Nixon was still fighting against turning over several (additional) tapes of White House conversations; when those tapes were released, each of the Republicans on the Committee declared that he would now flip and support impeachment on the House floor.  As far as the trial, Nixon's congressional liaison estimated that only seven Senators still supported the president.  I can't imagine any combination of circumstances that would have prevented impeachment, and while there's always uncertainty in human affairs, it's very difficult to imagine how Nixon could have escaped conviction.  It's worth mentioning too that all of that was the case even though plenty of incriminating evidence was still unknown to Congress at the time.

Richard Nixon announced his resignation on August 8, 1974, so it's been 36 years.  The paper of record should do a better job of getting these things right.


  1. Superb and very useful summary. I well remember that the effort to minimize and whitewash all this was well underway already in '74-'75, and it's been remarkably successful. And while I don't generally expect much from mainstream journalists anymore, it's kind of amazing that Nagourney would get this wrong considering that (a) he's even older than me and ought to remember these events too, and (b) the press, including the NY Times, played a role in bringing these crimes to light, and you'd think they'd take a little institutional pride in that.

  2. Interesting to bring up Watergate on the heels of an "Its the economy, and only the economy, stupid" series on this blog. Nixon's listed crimes, while no doubt offensive, have little or no impact on the economy, so therefore no impact on the nation's political structure, and thus - arguably - no material relevance (to the extent that "high" crimes and misdemeanors are defined as those reserved for officials elected to high office, not us common folk).

    Even before you reminded us of the prominence of economic matters in election results, I've long been surprised by the relative lack of interest in Nixon's crass imposition of wage and price controls in August 1971. His administration was rather open in its acknowledgement that it was doing so in order to control inflation without damaging jobs in the short run; to my knowledge virtually no one believes Nixon did so for any reason other than to juice his re-election chances in November 1972.

    Given what we've established regarding the effects of economic matters on national elections, isn't that period of wage and price controls the highest of Nixon's high crimes? A B&E here, a cover-up there - by comparison, isn't everything else Nixon did relatively banal?

  3. No, but it must be noted that national journalists today, including at the New York Times, really don't think the kinds of things that Nixon did are crimes any more, but just political acts and differences in policy, especially when committed by Republicans.

    In fact, there is evidently no criminal act that a Republican politician can commit that can not be rationalized and smoothed over and dismissed by the political press as "just politics" or "policy differences." After all, the bushies did much, much worse than this, in the past decade. And the New York Times and the Washington Post and ABC, CBS, NBC and virtually every major media outlet continue to revere and provide respectful, unchallenged platforms for the odious Kissinger, Dick Cheney, and their spokespersons, and others who were involved in Nixon's crimes as well as those committed by the Bush Administration. In fact many of them continued with their government career undisturbed, to commit similar crimes again and again. Those who didn't, have careers in radio or journalism or conservative "think" tanks or other conservative venues. In fact, they are even now members in good standing of the Washington political/media elite.

    You are correct in noting that if a Democrat like Obama had done the things you describe, there would be major, major uproar. The Republicans are simply held to a different standard by the national press, and they have been since the time of Gerald Ford. The Republicans literally get away with war crimes, to great apathy and apology in the national press.

    Witness the apologetic Chuck Todd musing about whether Republicans should be held accountable for what he believes is 'policy differences' with respect to the Bush Administration's program of approved torture of prisoners. Witness the great relief among the political press when poor, poor Cap Weinberger was pardoned, when poor Scooter Libby didn't have to go to jail for obstruction of justice. In fact, a number of journalists noted at the time that Libby wasn't convicted of a "real crime." Witness the difference in press for the ethical and legal difficulties of John Ensign versus Maxine Waters (who has denied wrongdoing.) Or Vitter versus Spitzer. Vitter escaped unscathed, Spitzer they never *stop* talking about.

    True, Foley resigned and went into real estate. But he wasn't found to have committed actual crimes.

  4. You neglected to mention what event and which person sparked this chain of events. It was the leak of the Pentagon Papers. When the papers were leaked Nixon did not care because the papers were about what happened under his predecessors. Kissinger went ballistic and eventually talked Nixon into investigating the leak and setting up the Plumbers. Watergate would not have happened if Kissinger had not made such a stink about the Pentagon Papers. Why has this not effected Kissinger's reputation as some great wise statesman?

  5. Mercer,

    While I don't think Kissinger was a hero, by any means -- and don't forget that the "Kissinger taps" preceded any of this -- I think you exaggerate his role. Nixon didn't need anyone to egg him on; while the Pentagon Papers definitely was the thing that finally got the specific ball rolling that resulted in the Plumbers and then Watergate proper, Nixon had been pushing for "Watergate"-like stuff for some time, and some of the events in my list above preceded the PP.

  6. what do others think is the best book written about Watergate? Maybe John Dean's "Blind Ambition"?

  7. Any suggestions re above, if you can reply to, that would be appreciated...


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Who links to my website?