Sunday, April 14, 2013

April 13, 1973

"Another long Watergate day."

That's how Haldeman's diary begins for this Friday. It's really the beginning of four very long Watergate days, days which ended the limbo the case had been in for the last several days, and really since Pat Gray and then James McCord began the unraveling of everything.

The main developments aren't in the Ervin Committee, but it continues to chug along, with McCord meeting with committee staff, a "secret" meeting which was promptly leaked to the press. At this point, the Watergate Committee is still a good ways behind everyone else, but they're getting to work and getting ready.

At the White House, it begins with a conversation between Chuck Colson and John Erhlichman. Colson, now outside the White House, tells Ehrlichman that he's found out what Jeb Magruder has been up to: the trip to Bermuda to hire an outside lawyer, and that Magruder has also been talking to reporters. Colson's worry? That Magruder is now working with John Mitchell, and the Committee to Re-elect the President faction is about to try to blame everything on the White House.

Ehrlichman tells Bob Haldeman, who has his own assistant, Larry Higby, place what are eventually three calls to Magruder.


I had Larry check with Magruder, and he came back with an extremely interesting telephone conversation which fortunately he taped, in which Magruder denied meeting with the reporters, denied having talked with Mitchell yet, but then spelled out his position, which is the recognition that he's had it and the decision to tell the story, or, at least, probably to. He hasn't made the final decision, but if he talks at all, he will tell the true story, which will be rough for Mitchell, but it will, of course, clear the White House, specifically me.[...]

The thing was boiling along in that direction, with the Magruder tape being the best thing we've gotten yet on clearing things up at our end, although he does say he will, to a degree, implicate Dean, and to a minor degree, Strachan, and, of course, to a major degree, Mitchell.


The next shoe to drop is a report that Howard Hunt is going to talk to the prosecutors and tell his true story on Monday -- something particularly frightening to Ehrlichman, who still feels personally safe from Watergate but knows that Hunt could sink him for his involvement in the Plumbers (none of them, still, quite realize how vulnerable they all are for the "post" obstruction of justice; the continue, even now, to spend most of their thoughts on the responsibility for the break-in). But while the White House scrambles to figure out a strategy to deal with that, the reality is that Jeb Magruder is in fact meeting with the prosecutors. Now, suddenly, they have confirmation of what John Dean has been telling them.

But the White House is still worried about Hunt, and now Colson comes up with another plan: they should offer Gordon Liddy clemency on the condition that he now testifies to the truth -- or at least, the part of the truth that has Mitchell personally ordering the second Watergate break-in.

Generally, Ehrlichman's plan, whether with this Colson scheme or otherwise, is to get ahead of the prosecutors: Ehrlichman should deliver a case to them, at this point looking like a case mainly against the CRP faction, so that Nixon can take credit for "breaking" the case. That there had been a cover-up -- but Ehrlichman, Haldeman, and Nixon had been ignorant of it until now, but that they've now learned of it and exposed it, even at the cost of sending John Mitchell to jail.

Ehrlichman lays this all out in an evening phone call with the president.

Before that, there's a curious phone conversation between Nixon and Haldeman. If there's one conversation that may have been staged for the tapes, this one might be it.


President Nixon: [...] We thought it [the Watergate break-in] was some screwballs. I mean, that was -- in fact, if I thought about it at all -- and I'm afraid I didn't think enough about it -- but remember, I saw that: Oh, this is just nuts, you know. Of course, I didn't dream that Mitchell knew anything about it.

Haldeamn: No, I'm talking about after the election. Back at the beginning, I think that's right. But as --

President Nixon: No, no, no. I mean when we first heard about it.

Haldeman: Oh yeah, that's right.

President Nixon: When Dean had his conversation [unclear which conversation this refers to]. Oh, after the election we all know, yeah. I mean, we all had a pretty good idea. But I mean right after, in June for example, when we first heard about it and Dean had his meeting, I don't think any of us really thought that Mitchell could possibly be involved, did we?

Haldeman: I think that's right.

President Nixon: Or Magruder, for that matter.

Haldeman: That's right.

President Nixon: We thought that these guys [the men arrested] just went off on a caper.


None of that, if you recall, is true; they knew right away (if not prior to the break-ins) that Liddy was working for Magruder and Mitchell; they may have been unclear on some of the details (and, after all, the details are still contested between the conspirators) but they knew very well that the idea of Liddy and Hunt just going off on their own was a concocted story. So why say it on the phone to each other? Perhaps they're just rehearsing their story, but as I said it's probably for the tapes.

Here's how Haldeman ends his entry for the day, after discussing Henry Kissinger's urgent feeling that Haldeman keep his job:


In any event, I don't see how there's any way that they can gain anything by dropping me anyway, because the case simply does not hold, especially now, of course, but I mean even before the developments of today. Today's developments pretty well lock the thing on Magruder and Mitchell, with a few others possibly falling with them.[...]

As everybody's been saying, we come closer and closer to the moment of truth, and this finally may well be it. We'll determine tomorrow morning what immediate steps to take, and there's a strong feeling that now is the time to take them.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Jonathan, for delving into the not-so-distant past for these slices of history.

    I remember that sense of daily revelation, but in 1973 we never got all these details, we got them in pieces over the next few years, yet certainly not at the level of concentrated, inside, top-level detail that you are presenting.

    That sense that the walls of the fortress were breaking before our eyes, the hopefulness is what sticks in the emotional memory.


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