Friday, April 12, 2013

April 12, 1973

I'll start the day, for a little context, with Tom Wicker's NYT op-ed. Wicker was very much an establishment columnist -- a liberal, and no friend of Nixon, to be sure, but still, reading him gives some of the context of what people were thinking at the time:


For by now it is clear that these Nixon men are not merely trying to cover up whatever responsibility they may have for the Watergate affair. They are the same men who have gone to unprecedented lengths to seize the power of the purse from Congress, who are conducting unauthorized war in Cambodia in contradiction of the President's own pledges, who are trying to make it a felony to disclose almost any foreign policy or national defense information and another penalty to publish it.


In these posts, I'm telling the story of Watergate. But to really understand Watergate, you need the full context of the Nixon presidency and his refusal to play by the normal rules of Washington and the US government, as the rest of the people in and around the government understood it. In one sense, Watergate is a crime story: specific criminal acts happened, and when they were uncovered the consequence was indictment and conviction for the presidents men and resignation in the face of certain impeachment and conviction by the president. That's the story I'm telling here. But other presidents have committed crimes. Nixon and his men suffered for their crimes in part because Watergate was also a political story of a president alienating his potential allies and making himself intolerable to his rivals and opponents.

Back to the story.

Ehrlichman has been placed in charge of Watergate by the president, with Dean (who, remember, is still working at the White House and supposedly still one of the team) essentially destroyed as a White House asset by the various revelations. He's working with the Ervin Committee, and he's coordinating strategy. He meets with the president in Nixon's Executive Office Building office in the afternoon:


President Nixon: [...] Let's come back now to the Haldeman business...

Ehrlichman: You did ask me to put the worst face on it. The worst face, of course, would be (unintelligible) little pieces making up a big picture. No one of these is big. Every one of them can be explained, but you've got Haldeman connected to Segretti, Haldeman connected to the bugging through the intelligence reports coming to him.

President Nixon: And through Dean asking him about support for the defendants, which is a small thing (emphasis in Kutler transcript).

Ehrlichman: See, everything is cumulative....You have -- I suspect this. I don't know this. I suspect if you really ride him hard, an interrogator could break Dean down to say that during a period of four meetings, during which the intelligence operation was planned, he was possibly reporting to Haldeman.


They then play act, with Ehrlichman playing the prosecutor and Nixon playing Dean, on the stand. Ehrlichman makes the case that it's just not plausible that Dean sat through Liddy's original presentation of Gemstone without telling Haldeman about it. Nixon's response? "Quite unlikely, actually....[Bob] works like I do. You don't bring up things unless they're matters to act on. We don't come in and gas around about stuff."

Which of course is, well, not consistent with the very conversation they're having, and many others they've had.

Returning to the conversation. They talk about whether Haldeman should leave, which means another round of discussing Ike and his chief of staff -- indeed, the first White House Chief of Staff, Sherman Adams. But Nixon does know the difference:


President Nixon: I think, let me say this. We've got to realize, John, that, much as they're after Mitchell and so forth, they're after Haldeman more because they know it gets to me.

Ehrlichman: Sure.
President Nixon: But let's face it. The amount of time that he's having to spend on this at the present time is tearing him up, and it will tear me up. There's your problem, John. We've got to think the unthinkable sometimes.

Ehrlichman: Yeah, yeah. Well, I don't find that unthinkable.


And on, with both men trying to talk themselves into the idea that it's better for everyone, including Haldeman, for him to be out of the administration.

Meanwhile, John Dean continues to spell out his story to the prosecutors. He won't get to his conversations with Nixon yet, but he's telling everything else -- not just what he knows about the Watergate break-in, but about exactly how the White House, including Haldeman and Ehrlichman, set up the cover-up in the days immediately after the arrests. Yet still the prosecutors keep to their deal, and say nothing to their bosses at the Justice Department. But the more they hear, the more they feel pressured to end the blackout. By Thursday night, April 12, they're getting close.


  1. Reading this, I am sorry that "gassing around about stuff" didn't go public at the time and join the Watergate lexicon, along with "deep six" and "stonewall" and "inoperative" statements and "modified limited hang-out." I could have made good use of this phrase over the years.

    1. Yeah, and I have to apologize: I totally missed "modified limited hang-out" last month.


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