Saturday, February 9, 2013

February 9, 1973

They're in San Clemente for the weekend; the president wants his men to figure out the strategy for the next step. First, Nixon and Haldeman talk, to be followed by a staff meeting the next day. Haldeman's diary shows them still flailing:


[Nixon] got into Watergate strategy. He wants to get our people to put out that foreign or Communist money came in in support of the demonstrations in the campaign, tie all the '72 demonstrations to McGovern and thus the Democrats as part of the peace movement. Broaden the investigation to include the peace movement and its leaders, McGovern and Teddy Kennedy. To what extent they were responsible for the demonstrations that led to the violence and disruption. We ran a clean campaign compared to their campaign of libel and slander, such as against [the president's friend Bebe] Rebozo, etc. Maybe let Evans and Novak put it out and then we'll be asked about t. Can say that we knew that the P ordered that it not be used under any circumstances. He thinks we should play a hard game on this whole thing regarding the Ervin investigation. Get our investigators going on the FBI investigation, investigating those in the Bureau who tapped Nixon. We should itemize all the disruptions such as the Century Plaza in San Francisco, the burnings, the Statue of Liberty, etc.


I suppose there's two ways of looking at this. One is that Nixon needed to blow off steam regularly; his various fixations, perhaps, weren't doing any harm. That is, it doesn't really matter if at every break in the case for the last eight months he invokes the idea that somehow exposing things that the Democrats have done would get them all off the hook, as if there wasn't a criminal investigation, trials, and now a dedicated Senate investigation that simply weren't going to go away whatever they might have discovered about the past.

The other way of looking at it is that each of these is a missed opportunity to clearly assess where they are and what their options are, and to devise a plan that could actually do them any good.


  1. So in other words, by your first scenario, they were in too deep and ergo, even if they had been the soberest assessors in the world, it wouldn't have mattered. That doesn't quite come through the way you wrote it, it took a while for it to click. And by the other scenario, they should have been more disciplined than they were. As you've ably demonstrated over the past months, what got them into this mess was paranoia and overestimation of the importance of figures like Jack Anderson and Daniel Ellsburg. It's hard for me to see how they could have suddenly cured themselves of that tic. So it's useless to discuss it.

    One thing's for sure. They fancied themselves the hardest of realists, the grown-ups nobody could out-cynic, but they were all fools in the end, without any realistic grasp of what was going on. They may have been many things, but "clear-eyed" ain't one of them.

    1. On the first comment, fair enough. There's a question of whether Nixon could have survived if they had come up with a more plausible (at that point) cover-up story, certainly involving either Mitchell or (less likely) Haldeman...but, yeah, the odds of it working by then are not good.

      OTOH, perhaps better management of Hunt and McCord could have saved them, still. In for a penny, in for a pound.

      Maybe I'll write a post about it.

      On the second point: yes, absolutely.

    2. I don't mean to be dismissive or say that it's not worth thinking about, it's just funny to point out how all the arrows consistently point in the direction of blurry paranoia. Based on what I've read here, there's a lot of "we haven't done anything illegal," "the Dems are worse and the Senate should really investigate THEM," and "we can blackmail people into desisting from using institutional levers against us." At no point does anyone seem to act like an attorney and say, well, what are the likely charges against us and what is the evidence? Also, we readers should keep in mind that we're getting a very selective account of what they said in the Oval Office. I'm sure on other days they were more lucid.

    3. No, I agree with that point.

      On the question of "selective account"...that's a very good question. No question that Kutler, and anyone else going through the tapes and other evidence, was going to select the segments that were "interesting." So there's a real bias in terms of what's easily available. And it certainly applies to me, too; I'm selecting out the most interesting bits of the tapes to quote. I'm certainly trying hard to make sure that what I don't present anything out of context, but I don't worry a lot if I include a damning quote and omit a neutral one.

      I don't think that what results is an inaccurate portrait (and I'm also using Emery and other sources which are based on a full reading of the evidence, so that's a good check on it), but it is a very good point, anyway.

  2. What strikes me is how much Nixon's 'blowing off steam' reflects the mind set that got him in this jam in the first place.

    Think back to the break-in attempt at the DNC. What were they supposed to find there? Proof that the Dems were being stage managed from the Kremlin?

    1. Agree on the first point.

      On the second point...I think it's better to think of it in terms of bureaucratic politics. The boss keeps asking for more information. The project workers do whatever they can to get "more" without worrying too much about the point of it all -- and they wind up choosing the specific project because it's manageable, or at least more manageable then the next option (if you go back to the June 1972 posts, the most likely story seems to be that they went to the DNC because they couldn't figure out how to get into McGovern HQ).

      So, yes, but in that the combination of Nixon's mind set plus organizational politics.

    2. The boss keeps asking for more information. Devil's advocacy: what if, by more information, Nixon intended for someone to sleep with the mistress of some higher-up in McGovern's campaign, in the process finding out how those guys hoped to close the gap in the last five months. Instead he gets the bungled effort to pinch a few memos, and he feels a lot like this guy.

      So he thinks about fessing up, but there's an election soon (in which the other guy otherwise has no chance), and anyway, no one's gonna sympathize with Dark Helmet because of the losers he has to work with. So Nixon keeps it quiet, and soon everything goes to heck.

      If we were Nixon supporters, we might argue then that his involvement in the Watergate cover-up had no bearing on the political scene, it changed virtually nothing, and while it was *bad* sure, we all understand exactly why he behaved that way.

      Isn't that precisely the defense of Clinton against his impeachment?

    3. Remember, the "get more information" drive preceded, by several months, the point at which the election was a done deal.

      As far as the last point...I don't follow. The defense of Clinton was that even if you stipulate that he committed perjury to the grand jury that it wasn't anywhere close to "high crimes and misdemeanors." In Watergate, the original crimes and the cover-up were clearly massive abuses of power.

      If you want to argue that the cover-up was understandable given the circumstances, yes, I can see that; but that's because the circumstances included the White House Horrors in general, which included felonious behavior and abuse of power by most of the WH senior staff and almost certainly the president. There's nothing remotely comparable in the Lewinsky scandal.

    4. But following the Rick Moranis example, surely every President facing re-election seeks valuable, decisive information that is obtained (at least mostly) legally. Presumably no one smart enough to get to the WH would have something like Watergate in mind, given its low probability of reward and high potential for damage. So I don't follow how "stupid operatives breaking into/attempting to wiretap an office (when the Prez clearly meant something legal, if distasteful)" is several degrees worse of an abuse of power than denying another citizen discovery in an otherwise legitimate civil case in order to protect your reputation. Either is kind of funny, actually, and either can be made into a big deal if you wish to see the world that way, it seems to me.

      Which brings us to the "White House Horrors in general". Two thoughts: first, there's an inherent disconnect between the Keystone Kops quality of the break-in and the meme that Nixon was some Sauron-like character with an evil eye that saw everything, everywhere. Surely Sauron needed better people around him than that!

      Second, let's say Tower was right when he told the Ervin Committee that the illegal surveillance in Watergate was of a type also attempted by Humphrey in 1968 and Johnson in 1964. We blanch at that: because history is written by the winners? In particular, LBJ: didn't he used to keep a dilapidated voting box in the Oval Office, which he proudly told visitors was the one that kept the stuffed ballots from his first thrown Congressional election? Even if that story is apocryphal, what about LBJ's life and political career suggests he was above the sorts of things Tower implied?

      Nixon lost. That's a lot of Watergate, it seems to me.

    5. I think it's absolutely clear that Nixon was willing to break the law in order to get what he wanted, and that he encouraged those around him to do so.

      Nixon absolutely, repeatedly ordered his men to break into Brookings for information that was hardly game-changing, for example.

      Now, was Nixon doing things that LBJ wouldn't do? That's a harder question. But it's also the wrong standard. We don't really have evidence that *most* presidents were lawbreakers of this kind.

      But there are other pieces of it, too. I've argued that the Keystone Kops element of it comes from the Imperial Presidency -- from using the White House. And, Nelson Polsby argued, and I agree, that a good part of the reason that Nixon was destroyed by Watergate is also Imperial Presidency related; Nixon did not respect the basic legitimacy of the other players in the system, and so when things went bad he had no allies. That's certainly not the case for most presidents.

    6. That's a great clarification; thanks for doing so a second time. I take your (and Polsby's) point: its one thing to break the rules, its another to have no friends left who feel their interest is served in defending you.

  3. Oh, I understand that Nixon didn't personally order the specific Watergate break-in. It's just that his rant made me reflect, really for the first time, how much the entire exercise was not just odious but detached from reality.


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