The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew Itby John W. Dean
Based on Nixon’s overlooked recordings, New York Times bestselling author John W. Dean connects the dots between what we’ve come to believe about Watergate and what actually happened
Watergate forever changed American politics, and in light of the revelations about the NSA’s widespread surveillance program, the scandal/b>/i>
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Based on Nixon’s overlooked recordings, New York Times bestselling author John W. Dean connects the dots between what we’ve come to believe about Watergate and what actually happened
Watergate forever changed American politics, and in light of the revelations about the NSA’s widespread surveillance program, the scandal has taken on new significance. Yet remarkably, four decades after Nixon was forced to resign, no one has told the full story of his involvement in Watergate.
In The Nixon Defense, former White House Counsel John W. Dean, one of the last major surviving figures of Watergate, draws on his own transcripts of almost a thousand conversations, a wealth of Nixon’s secretly recorded information, and more than 150,000 pages of documents in the National Archives and the Nixon Library to provide the definitive answer to the question: What did President
Nixon know and when did he know it?
Through narrative and contemporaneous dialogue, Dean connects dots that have never been connected, including revealing how and why the Watergate break-in occurred, what was on the mysterious 18 1/2 minute gap in Nixon’s recorded conversations, and more.
In what will stand as the most authoritative account of one of America’s worst political scandals, The Nixon Defense shows how the disastrous mistakes of Watergate could have been avoided and offers a cautionary tale for our own time.
The secret conversations of President Richard Nixon chronicle an unfolding scandal in intimate detail in this absorbing history of the Watergate cover-up. Dean (Blind Ambition), Nixon's White House counsel and a central figure in events, recaps hundreds of taped recordings of discussions between Nixon and his aides, many never before transcribed, on the brewing Watergate affair from the June, 1972 break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters to the July, 1973 dismantling of the recording system. The discussions transition quickly from confusion over the arrest of Nixon campaign operatives to an improvised plot to conceal the burglars' connections to the White House and other Nixon Administration misdeeds through a farrago of hush-money and perjury whose deceptions compound over time. Dean weaves deftly edited excerpts of dialogue and shrewd commentary into a densely detailed but very readable narrative of the conspiracy as its principals cobble it together. He's hardly a disinterested observer; much of the book centers on Nixon's "defense" against revelations Dean offered to investigators—, culminating in his sensational televised Senate testimony—, and is thus also Dean's defense of his own actions. Still, this is one of the best and fullest accounts of the Watergate cover-up, one that conveys in Nixon's own voice the casual criminality of his troubled presidency. (July 29)
—Robert Dallek, The New York Times
“Dean, as always the model of precision and doggedness, has performed yeoman service . . . even for someone who has covered Watergate for 42 years, from the morning of the burglary through the investigations, confessions, denials, hearings, trials, books and attempts at historical revisionism, Dean’s book has an authoritative ring.”
—Bob Woodward, The Washington Post
“A prodiguous effort.”
—New York Daily News
“Dean shapes those conversations into a readable, dense narrative.”
— Los Angeles Times
“The most intimate, detailed, complex and nuanced portrait of a President and his courtiers that we have ever seen in print . . . Dean is scrupulously fair, but Nixon is undone by his own words. To read them is to be a fly on the wall in the palace court of the Nixon White House, to observe history close up as we have never seen it before . . . the closest we will ever come to knowing the real Richard Nixon. It is a fascinating and very important piece of history, and the stuff of great drama.”
— Huffington Post
Legal counsel to President Richard Nixon, Dean draws on his own transcripts of nearly 1,000 conversations, information secretly recorded by the president, and extensive documents in the National Archives and the Nixon Library to explore the extent of Nixon's involvement in the Watergate scandal. The subtitle poses the crucial question. Just in time for the 40th anniversary of Nixon's resignation; with an eight-city tour.
About that 18-and-a-half minutes oflost tape….In this 40th anniversary year ofRichard Nixon's gloomy evacuation of the White House, former staffer andever since bête noire Dean (Broken Government: HowRepublican Rule Destroyed the Legislative, Executive and Judicial Branches,2007, etc.) defends himself against a category of accusation Tricky Dickfrequently leveled against him: "I'm not going to fire a guy on the basis of acharge made by Dean, who basically is trying to save his ass and get immunity,you see." Well, sure: Dean was and is no dummy, and he saw what was coming inthe grim swirl of the Watergate hearings, during which frequently named figuressuch as Ehrlichman, Haldeman, Hunt, Liddy, Mitchell and Dean himself becamehousehold names. By the author's account, Liddy—never likable but alwayshonorable, in his own way—took the fall for the foiled break-in and offered tohave himself shot on any street corner in Washington at the president'spleasure; the president declined, but he schemed and maneuvered in otherdirections. Sometimes, Dean notes, Nixon was brilliant in that maneuvering,turning potential losses into double-edged wins, usually Pyrrhic but stilldamaging to the opposition. This account, drawing on notes, scrawls on legalpads and transcripts of taped conversations, makes an odd but compelling strolldown Memory Lane for those who remember the time. Dean provides deft portraitsof the likes of the unctuous Kissinger, the exceedingly odd Al Haig ("he's alittle bit obnoxious and doesn't wear well with people, which would be goodfrom our point of view"), and Nixon himself. And as for that missing tape, theone about which so much was made at the Watergate hearings? It would spoil thesurprise to tell it here, but Dean has the answers. Essential to anyone's library ofNixoniana.
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The report of the arrests in the early morning hours of June 17, 1972, of five men who had broken into the Watergate complex offices of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), wearing business suits and surgical gloves, their pockets stuffed with hundred-dollar bills, was something like a scene from a circa 1940s low-budget black-and-white gangsters B movie. This caught-in-the-act stupidity seemed too dumb to be ours, since the undertaking was so conspicuously illegal and inexplicably risky, not to mention obviously bungled. But this political surveillance debacle did turn out to be ours, the work of a ham-fisted team of amateurs assembled by G. Gordon Liddy, a former Nixon White House staff member who was then serving as general counsel of the finance operation of the Committee to Re-elect the President (CRP). This was, in fact, the opening scene of the worst political scandal of the twentieth century and the beginning of the end of the Nixon presidency. It was the start of Watergate, a story that has been told and retold, but never as I am going to tell it in the pages that follow.
The central character in Watergate was, of course, the president of the United States, Richard Nixon. From beginning to end Nixon sought to defend himself and his presidency from the political and legal consequences that followed the arrests at the DNC on June 17, 1972. This is the story of Nixon’s defense, the story I found when trying to understand how someone as politically savvy and intelligent as Richard Nixon, a man who surrounded himself with those he thought the best and brightest, allowed this “third-rate,” bungled burglary to destroy his presidency. The story of the Nixon defense is Richard Nixon’s Watergate story.
Most of Nixon’s Watergate-related activities were secretly self-recorded. These surreptitious recordings eventually revealed that his public Watergate defenses were colossal deceptions, patent lies that eventually forced his resignation. Nixon’s secret recordings provided much of the overwhelming evidence that sent his former top advisers to prison, not to mention forced his own early retirement. So some of this story has been around for several decades. Investigators and prosecutors, however, were not interested in the context and circumstances of Nixon’s ill-conceived defensive efforts; rather, they focused only on select portions of conversations that could provide evidence establishing wrongdoing beyond a reasonable doubt, so as to end any malfeasance and punish malefactors. Historians, in recounting the Watergate story, have relied largely and almost exclusively on the information gathered by the Watergate investigators and prosecutors. Remarkably, historians and other students of the Nixon presidency have chosen to ignore the full collection of secretly recorded White House conversations relating to Watergate, which slowly but surely have become almost fully available over the past four decades.
Before now, no one has attempted to catalog and transcribe all of Nixon’s Watergate conversations, and to examine and reconstruct this history based on this primary source material, the likes of which has never before existed. The account in the pages that follow is based on this unique collection, and it is presented not as transcripts but rather as narrative and dialogue drawn from and based on them. The story that follows is a first-person account of what I found in this unique historical record. In telling this story I have only edited the transcripts to make them readable and understandable, correcting the obvious anomalies that inevitably occur in spontaneous conversations and often compressing material to report its essence.1 Almost all the conversations from which this account is drawn are available online at the Nixon Presidential Library’s Web site: http://nixon.archives.gov/virtuallibrary/tapeexcerpts/index.php; the exceptions are those from June 1972, which are available at the Miller Center, which is devoted to presidential scholarship at the University of Virginia: http://web2.millercenter.org/rmn/audiovisual/whrecordings/ (see chron1).
The Nixon defense—both legal and political, because they were inseparable—was assembled behind closed doors in a process that began in the days following the arrests at the Watergate headquarters of the Democratic Party. The first public statement of a defense was made by Nixon on June 22, 1972—that nobody in his White House was involved in this bizarre incident—and Nixon’s final firewall explanation of his defense was issued eleven months later, on May 22, 1973; the latter followed the firing of his top aides, including your author, who had become the centerpiece of his defense. Because I was deeply involved in and later the focus of the Nixon defense, I always hoped someone else would tell this story. I also understood such an undertaking meant the not easily accomplished task of transcribing all of Richard Nixon’s Watergate conversations. Of course, we knew the broad outlines of his activities that led to his resignation, and he did provide some additional details in his memoir. But he, too, relied primarily on conversations that had been transcribed by investigators and prosecutors, leaving most of the historical facts buried in his secretly recorded conversations. Having now transcribed all those conversations, and grasping the content of the newly transcribed material, I understand why he wanted no more information than was already easily available made public, for while this additional information explains many of the activities he was responsible for, those rationales do not redound to Richard Nixon’s glory.
The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), which Congress charged with the preservation of this historical Nixon material, has prepared, and continues to update and refine as it has released more of the Nixon recordings, a detailed “subject log” highlighting all the content of all the recorded conversations. This can be used to identify topics and the persons addressed, along with times and dates. No one has ever bothered to identify all the Watergate conversations that can be located with these subject logs. Today that can be done digitally. When I did it in 2009, I had to do it manually, which took several months, although given the volume of material, even today it would take almost as long. Depending on how you count them—as it is not always clear when one conversation ends and another begins—there are approximately one thousand Watergate-related conversations. Some of them run only minutes while others run many hours.
After “my” assembling a list, I first determined which of the conversations had previously been transcribed. Virtually all existing transcripts had been prepared from the analog recordings first made available by NARA. However, it is now possible to digitize these recordings, and when that technology became available, NARA began releasing digital editions. When I started this project in 2009, I was way ahead of the NARA release schedule for the Watergate-related material, so I decided to digitize that material before NARA had done so. Because the sound on these is improved, making it easier to understand and transcribe the conversations, my project became somewhat less challenging. But today, the best copies of the recordings are found at NARA, for they prepared copies from the best editions of the analog tapes and have used the latest technology.
For example, the Watergate Special Prosecution Force (WSPF) transcribed all or parts of eighty Watergate-related conversations. When I checked the quality of the transcripts using the digital recordings, I found it was sometimes possible to hear material that those who prepared the WSPF transcripts had been unable to. Also, I found that those used in the cover-up trial, U.S. v. Mitchell et al., were of better quality than those not used in the trial. Clearly the Watergate defendants had taken the time to listen to them carefully, and to make corrections, so those used at trial are more reliable than the drafts prepared by FBI secretaries; often the secretary was not sure who was speaking, so some were identified incorrectly, along with other such conspicuous errors.
Former University of Wisconsin historian Stanley Kutler, working with Alan Morrison’s Public Citizen Litigation Group, successfully sued NARA to make public Nixon’s so-called abuses of government power recordings long before the former president wanted them released, and these covered Watergate as well as earlier abuses of power. Professor Kutler published partial transcripts of 320 Watergate-related conversations from the first release by NARA in 1996, along with portions of hundreds of other unrelated ones, in Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes (New York: Free Press, 1997). These, however, were all based on analog recordings. When I began using modern digital listening equipment for the audio of randomly selected conversations transcribed by Professor Kutler’s team, I discovered I could hear things they had missed. I further found that information I thought important had not, for one reason or another, been included in the transcripts he published. Professor Kutler selected portions of conversations he felt relevant and interesting, and understandably he did not include Nixon’s almost obsessive-compulsive repetition of information related to Watergate; he had to trim many conversations, because there was simply too much material for one book, and he excluded most conversations previously transcribed by others. While I also had to trim material for this book, I focused on abuses that fall within the term “Watergate” (as it was later defined by Congress to mean both the break-in and the cover-up), and I did so only after having examined the entire available conversation.
In addition, in private conversations with his staff Nixon had a highly repetitive nature—and only those who may someday go through all these conversations will ever fully appreciate that my describing it as “obsessive-compulsive” is an understatement—that created something of an editorial problem. I did not want the repetition to become tedious for the reader, yet while drastically digesting and compressing these conversations as I have, it is also my hope to give the reader a feel for Nixon’s behavior, and clearly he was obsessive about Watergate.* And as Nixon obsessed over Watergate, particularly starting in April 1973, as well as later, he was constantly reinventing what happened, and this is vital to understanding the story. Accordingly, I have tried to trim as tightly as possible without removing this very Nixonian character trait in his dealings with Watergate.
Available transcripts also include those transcribed by the Nixon White House and turned over to the House Judiciary Committee’s impeachment inquiry: forty-seven conversations (a collection running thirteen hundred pages) on April 30, 1974, that were published in a document known as the Submission of Recorded Presidential Conversations to the Committee on the Judiciary of the House of Representatives (SRPC). Because of the poor quality of the transcripts prepared by the White House, not to mention selective edits and omissions, many of these were retranscribed by the committee. When working on his memoir, Richard Nixon had one of his longtime secretaries, Mrs. Marjorie Acker, prepare transcripts of all his Watergate-related conversations with aides, chief of staff Bob Haldeman, assistant to the president for domestic affairs John Ehrlichman and special counsel to the president Charles Colson for the first month following his return to the White House after the arrests at the Watergate; that is, from June 20 through July 20, 1972. He included as well transcripts of his conversations with Haldeman in May 1973, but only when they were reconstructing what they remembered about the events of June 23, 1972—the date of the so-called smoking-gun discussion, when Nixon authorized Haldeman to meet with the CIA “to limit the FBI’s investigation of Watergate.”2 Neither Nixon nor his estate has ever made his completed transcripts publicly available, although the material he drew from them is presented in the narrative of his memoir, which I have checked and noted as this book unfolds. By my count, Marjorie Acker transcribed, at most, about forty Watergate-related conversations, based on Nixon’s description of her work.
In summary, I found (roughly) 447 Watergate conversations had been transcribed. Most were only partials, but a few were of complete conversations, plus the material used in Nixon’s memoir. (More specifically, I found 80 Watergate conversations transcribed by WSPF; 47 by the White House, including those retranscribed by the House Judiciary Committee; and 320 by Stanley Kutler.) Based on my list of all Watergate conversations, this meant that 634 conversations had never been transcribed by anyone, nor likely even listened to by anyone outside the NARA staff involved in processing them for public release (i.e., removing information that is classified for national security or designated personal/private, such as most of the conversations between the president and his wife or daughters).
Because all these transcripts were prepared from analog recordings, and most are only partials, I realized I needed to start from scratch and prepare ones of all the conversations to really be sure I understood what had occurred. There are good reasons no one had done this. Not only was it not easy to obtain digital copies of it all, but even with them, it is challenging work.
Most of the audio from telephone conversations is of relatively good quality compared with that obtained in other locations. Telephones in the Oval Office, the Executive Office Building (EOB) and the Lincoln Sitting Room in the residence and the telephones in the president’s study in Aspen Lodge at Camp David created near-broadcast-quality recorded telephone calls. In the Oval Office, if the speakers were seated not too far from the president’s desk, where the microphones were embedded, conversations are discernible with patience. Recordings made in the president’s study at Camp David are similar to those from the Oval Office. But those from the EOB office are consistently challenging, when not totally impossible, because of where people typically sat: They were usually out of the range of the microphones. Similarly with the Cabinet Room: It is possible usually to pick up only the gist of the president’s remarks, while others almost never can be understood.
Because of the poor sound quality, transcribing Nixon’s recordings is extremely arduous and time consuming, sometimes not even possible. It can take many hours to transcribe less than a minute of conversation from the poor-quality recordings in the president’s EOB office; sometimes these efforts are especially essential, as particularly important discussions were often held there. Most people who have transcribed these tapes discover that listening over and over and over enabled them to better understand what is being said, as does listening on different audio equipment, with different digital software, and at different speeds—and I occasionally employed all these techniques to the same conversation to tease out important information.
I found the most efficient, if not most reliable, process was to have someone else prepare a first draft, because it takes far longer to prepare the initial one than to correct someone else’s. Accordingly, in 2010 I hired graduate students and created an evolving team to prepare them. Cherity Bacon, a former legal secretary working on her graduate degree in archival science, worked relentlessly and became the de facto team leader. It required almost four years to transcribe all the Watergate-related conversations, and the project continued when I started writing. And while writing this story, when the material was important I would listen to the conversation myself, for I am often able to hear words and phrases others do not because of my familiarity with the players and the subject matter.
There was far more Watergate material than I expected, for in addition to the Nixon tapes, I pulled over 150,000 pages of related documents from NARA. But had I known what I was getting into with the tapes, I might never have taken on the assignment of transcribing them all. Yet there was no other way to do the project and be sure I knew everything that could be known, so once I committed to it, there was no turning back. Actually, I am not sure which has been more challenging—transcribing about a thousand Watergate conversations or digesting and condensing the four million transcribed words into this story. Suffice it to say, neither could be done quickly.
The conversations fall into four general categories, which give form to this story. While not every conversation is quoted, they were all reviewed to write the following: Part I, Covering Up, is based on 35 conversations that occurred between June 20 and July 1, 1972; Part II, Containing, on 158 conversations held from July 2, 1972, through December 1972; Part III, Unraveling, on 110 conversations from January 1973 to March 23, 1973; and Part IV, The Nixon Defense, on 669 conversations from March 23, 1973, to July 16, 1973, when the recording system was dismantled. To give a full picture, other information relevant to the break-in is reported in the Prologue. The Epilogue summarizes events after the recording system was disconnected, on July 16, 1973, when Watergate became Nixon’s fight to prevent the disclosure of his tapes, among other battles. In telling this story, which has much new information with which I certainly was never familiar, as a general rule I have not tried to highlight it as such; rather, I have allowed the story to unfold as it happened, only occasionally noting extraordinary new material.
These recordings also largely answer the questions regarding what was known by the White House about the reasons for the break-in and bugging at the Democratic National Committee headquarters, as well as what was erased during the infamous 18½-minute gap during the June 20, 1972, conversation and why. Because these questions have had enduring public interest, they are addressed in Appendices A and B. (Appendix C is a listing of Nixon’s Watergate-related recorded conversations, as well as other data. See www.penguin.com/thenixondefense.)
Finally, in assembling this story I have not, except in a few instances, recounted my own involvement in these events, as I already have, first in testimony (in 1973 and 1974) and later in my autobiographical account, Blind Ambition: The White House Years, which was published in 1976. However, when listening to these secretly recorded conversations, or in reading the transcripts, I have recalled countless facts and actions I had forgotten, for the recordings provide information that was not previously available to me. Accordingly, I have, from time to time, flushed out some autobiographical details, usually in endnotes or footnotes, but occasionally in the narrative as well. Other than a meeting on September 15, 1972, I had no Watergate conversations with the president until eight months after the scandal commenced. It was not until late February 1973 that the president started calling on me to discuss it. Alex Butterfield, who knew the workings of the Nixon White House intimately, accurately described where I fit in the pecking order early on to the House Judiciary Committee during its impeachment inquiry, which may add some perspective to the material that follows.
Now, Mr. Dean . . . was the counsel to the president, but I must say the president never did know this. The President may have heard his name, the President may possibly have seen him in one or two meetings prior to the summer or fall of 1972, but I would rather doubt it. Dean was young, he was very bright. I speak of him as though he were no longer with us, but he is. He is young, he is bright, affable, highly intelligent, gets along well with everyone, and was very effective. But he just could not, through no fault of his own, penetrate the system. He could not get close to the President. I don’t think he tried. . . . And the President never stopped looking to John Ehrlichman as his counsel on legal matters, or on matters which bordered on or which involved legal matters or had some legal aspect. He called on John Ehrlichman. . . . John Dean . . . was put into a somewhat untenable situation at times, because he did have two masters; he was responding to both Haldeman and Ehrlichman.3
While this is my account of what I found in Nixon’s recorded conversations, I have tried to stay out of the way and let that information speak for itself. These recordings certainly answer Senator Howard Baker’s question about what the president knew and when he knew it. Behind the closed doors of the president’s office we also learn most of the details of what happened, when it happened and how it happened, not to mention how I became the centerpiece of the Nixon defense. Fortunately for everyone, his defense failed.
List of Principal Characters
Although President Richard Nixon was enjoying the best days of his presidency, he was looking forward to a few days of rest from his busy schedule as he departed from the South Grounds of the White House for the Bahamas on an early Friday afternoon, June 16, 1972.1 The president had reason to feel good about his accomplishments, both foreign and domestic, not to mention his prospects for reelection, since it had become increasingly clear that his opponent would likely be South Dakota senator George McGovern; he had all but locked down the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. McGovern was Nixon’s challenger of choice, given the senator’s hard-left positions on many issues, and the president did not want the Vietnam war any more than McGovern did, but Nixon wanted to resolve it with honor rather than merely quit, which the president felt would have long-term negative consequences for the nation.2
When Air Force One landed at Grand Bahama Island the president was met by his close friend Charles G. “Bebe” Rebozo, owner and president of the Key Biscayne Bank and Trust Company, and together they climbed into the president’s awaiting helicopter for a brief flight over to the smaller Grand Cay Island. There they would stay with their mutual friend Robert “Bob” Abplanalp, founder of Precision Valve Corporation (inventor of the aerosol valve), who owned the 125-acre island and had refurbished a separate house just for the president’s use. It would be a relaxing stag weekend of walking, swimming, boating (Abplanalp’s fifty-five-foot yacht was docked there), good food and a few movies, courtesy of the motion picture industry. Other than the usual retinue of Secret Service agents and a White House physician, who always accompanied the traveling president, the only other aides on the trip were White House chief of staff H. R. “Bob” Haldeman, accompanied by his wife and daughter, and the president’s press secretary, Ron Ziegler. The White House staff would take up residence for the extended weekend over on the mainland, at the Key Biscayne Hotel near the president’s Florida vacation home where both Rebozo and Abplanalp also had homes.
The White House Communications Agency (a special unit of the Army Signal Corps) had set up a secure telephone line from the president’s study in the Abplanalp house to the living room of his chief of staff’s villa at the Key Biscayne Hotel, but there had been no communication until the president called upon his return to his Key Biscayne home on Sunday morning, June 18, 1972, and even then they did not discuss the breaking news of the weekend. Haldeman called the story “the big flap” in his contemporaneous diary, a record that would not be published until some two decades later.3 His diary entry for that Sunday evening noted that he had spoken briefly with the president that morning, but not about the news reported to him “last night [Saturday, June 17, 1972], then followed up with further information today, that a group of five people have been caught breaking into the Democratic headquarters (at the Watergate). Actually to plant bugs and photograph materials.”4 Haldeman learned the details about what had transpired at the upscale Watergate hotel, office and apartment complex from John Ehrlichman, his longtime friend (Ehrlichman had been a classmate of Haldeman’s at UCLA, and both were veterans of two Nixon campaigns) and professional peer on the White House staff, where he served as assistant to the president for domestic affairs. Haldeman also spoke with Jeb Magruder, a former member of his staff at the White House, whom he had sent over to serve as the deputy director of the Committee to Re-elect the President (also known as “CRP,” “reelection committee” or, because the offices were located across the street from the White House at 1701 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, “1701”).
Ehrlichman, who had remained in Washington, had himself learned on Saturday evening, June 17, 1972, of the arrests of the five men shortly after midnight that day by the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police at the offices of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in the Watergate complex, first from Lilburn E. “Pat” Boggs, an assistant director of the U.S. Secret Service. Boggs reported that the men had electronic surveillance and photographic equipment in their possession. He also said that the FBI had found White House consultant E. Howard Hunt’s name with a White House telephone number in an address book, as well as a check drawn on Hunt’s bank account, on one of the burglars.5 Ehrlichman asked Boggs if anybody from the White House was involved, and Boggs responded that, as far as he knew, the only connection to the White House was the material relating to Hunt.6
Boggs also informed him that one of the men arrested was James McCord, the chief of security at the reelection committee and the Republican National Committee. Boggs had earlier shared this information with Ehrlichman’s former White House aide John “Jack” Caulfield, a retired New York Police Department detective, who had undertaken countless clandestine investigations for Ehrlichman, including several wiretappings, while working at the Nixon White House.7 (Caulfield had wanted to be in charge of the 1972 campaign’s political intelligence operation, but he was passed over for the job.8) It was Caulfield who suggested that Boggs call Ehrlichman to report this “fucking disaster.”9 Caulfield himself later called Ehrlichman to assure him, as he did others, that the Watergate matter was not his operation, although he had, in fact, recruited McCord for his position as head of security not only for the CRP but also for the Republican National Committee. He was also planning on going into business with McCord after the election.10 Notwithstanding later statements to the contrary by McCord, Caulfield claimed he had no knowledge of McCord’s involvement in the bungled break-in.
While Ehrlichman was doubtless relieved that Caulfield was not implicated, and that to Caulfield’s knowledge no one in the White House had any relationship with McCord, Howard Hunt was another story. Hunt’s involvement raised serious potential problems for the White House and Ehrlichman. Both Ehrlichman and Haldeman had been directly involved in Hunt’s coming to the White House, at the urging of Charles W. “Chuck” Colson, the latter’s friend and fellow Brown alumni. Colson, a special counsel to the president (a title that enabled lawyers to keep their law licenses active when not practicing at the White House), was actually the president’s special political handyman; he worked at building good relationships with friends while trying to destroy the president’s perceived political enemies. It was Ehrlichman who had assigned Hunt to the Special Investigations Unit, which was created in July 1971 to investigate sensitive information leaks in general and that of the so-called Pentagon Papers (a top secret study of the origins of the Vietnam War prepared for the Johnson administration) in particular. Leaks had long plagued the Nixon presidency, and the disclosure of the Pentagon Papers in June 1971 had pushed the president to take action. When the FBI failed to investigate the matter aggressively, the president created his own clandestine unit within the White House, which later became known as “the plumbers.”11 Ehrlichman had once called the deputy director of the CIA to request that the agency “assist” Hunt (who wanted false identification and disguises as part of his work for Colson and the plumbers), notwithstanding the fact that such domestic activity was a violation of the CIA’s charter.
But Ehrlichman had a far more troubling potential problem involving Hunt: Ehrlichman had approved—for reasons of “national security,” he later claimed—a botched and illegal operation undertaken by Hunt with another White House plumber, G. Gordon Liddy, to obtain information from a psychiatrist (who had turned down the FBI’s inquiries) who had treated the man who had leaked the Pentagon Papers, Daniel Ellsberg. This supposedly covert operation, which took place on September 3, 1971, had been a debacle, a conspicuously overt and unusually sloppy break-in at the offices of Dr. Lewis Fielding in Beverly Hills, California, that had produced nothing while putting the White House at considerable risk. After this fiasco Ehrlichman closed down the plumbers’ covert operations and quietly found propitious ways to move both Hunt and Liddy out of the White House.12
After his conversations with Pat Boggs and Jack Caulfield, Ehrlichman called Chuck Colson, because he considered Hunt to be Colson’s man. Or, more specifically, as he later explained, Hunt was a fellow who would do dirty deeds for Colson, and since Colson did dirty deeds for the president, Ehrlichman could not rule out the possibility of Nixon’s involvement.13 But Colson protested innocence regarding Hunt and the Watergate break-in, claiming that Hunt had departed the White House in April, although he could not explain why Hunt still had a White House telephone number and an office in the Executive Office Building (EOB), which was part of the White House complex.
Later on that Saturday evening of June 17, Ehrlichman telephoned Haldeman in Florida to share the facts he had gathered. But Haldeman was out, so he gave Ron Ziegler a bare-bones report so the president’s press secretary would be prepared to handle any news media inquiries.*14
Alex Butterfield, a deputy assistant to the president and Haldeman aide who handled administrative and management matters, such as liaising with the Secret Service, also learned of the arrests on Saturday, June 17, 1972. He was first notified by Secret Service Agent Al Wong, who was in charge of the service’s Technical Security Division, which comprised the electronics experts who made certain no one was bugging the White House or wiretapping its telephone system, and who installed and maintained Nixon’s secret recording system. As it happened, it was Al Wong who had recommended James McCord to Jack Caulfield as someone who could provide security for the CRP and the Republican National Committee, because McCord had held a job similar to Wong’s at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, before his recent retirement. Wong, understandably, was troubled that McCord had been arrested in the DNC and was now in jail.
As the day progressed, Butterfield learned more. Late Saturday afternoon the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia obtained a subpoena to search the Watergate Hotel rooms occupied by the burglary team, and it was there they found the address book with Hunt’s name and White House telephone number, as well as a sealed envelope addressed to the Lakewood Country Club, Rockville, Maryland, with a $6.36 check drawn by Hunt (to pay far less costly his out-of-state dues; because he lived in-state he had given one of the burglars the check to mail from Miami). The FBI’s Washington Field Office (WFO) quickly found Hunt’s name in their indices, signaling that they had recently completed a background check on him for a staff position at the White House. This prompted the FBI WFO supervisor to contact Butterfield at 7:11 P.M., according to the FBI’s records, to advise him of Hunt’s possible connection to one of the men arrested at the DNC. Butterfield, who was home by this hour, knew that Hunt had been a consultant but thought he no longer worked at the White House.15
On Sunday morning, June 18, 1972, The Washington Post front-page headline reported 5 HELD IN PLOT TO BUG DEMOCRATS’ OFFICE HERE. The Post story had the names of the men arrested and said that they had all been wearing rubber surgical gloves and were carrying lock-picking equipment, a walkie-talkie, forty rolls of unexposed film, two 35 millimeter cameras and twenty-three hundred dollars in cash, most in sequentially numbered one-hundred-dollar bills. The story further reported that four of the men arrested had rented rooms 214 and 314 at the Watergate Hotel around noon on Friday using fictitious names. They had all dined on lobster at the Watergate Restaurant on Friday night, and after the U.S. Attorney’s Office obtained search warrants, the FBI “found another $4,200 in $100 bills of the same serial number sequence as the money taken from the suspects, [and] more burglary tools and electronic bugging equipment stashed in six suitcases.”16 At the end of the account, inside the Post on page 23, another headline read INTRUDERS FOILED BY SECURITY GUARD. This second story reported that Frank Wills, a security guard, noticed two doors had been taped so the latches would not lock. He removed the tape. When he rechecked ten minutes later, new tape had been placed on the doors, so he went to the lobby and telephoned the police, who arrived fifteen minutes later.17
Ehrlichman read the Post’s accounts, and after church, he called Haldeman.18 According to Haldeman’s diary, “Ehrlichman was very concerned about the whole thing.” At Ehrlichman’s suggestion, Haldeman spoke with Magruder, who was in California for a CRP event with its director, former attorney general John Mitchell, and other CRP officials, including First Lady Pat Nixon. Haldeman learned from Magruder that an Associated Press (AP) reporter had told the CRP’s press man that McCord had been identified as their chief of security, so a public statement was being prepared by Mitchell. Magruder said it “was not a good one,” although it would distance the CRP from McCord and condemn such illegal behavior as having “no place” in a campaign. Jeb said the “real problem” was the fact that the break-in and bugging operation was the work of the CRP’s finance committee general counsel, G. Gordon Liddy (a former White House plumber), and they were worried that it was “traceable to Liddy.” Liddy claimed it was not, but “Magruder is not too confident,” Haldeman noted. Magruder said their plan was for former assistant attorney general Robert Mardian, a Mitchell campaign assistant with them in California, to return to Washington to keep an eye on Liddy.19 Haldeman, not a Mardian fan, instructed Magruder to get back to Washington immediately to deal with the problem.20
Haldeman and Ehrlichman discussed and approved the statement released by Mitchell on behalf of the CRP, which (falsely) denied any knowledge of or involvement with the illegal entry at the DNC. Ehrlichman later recalled that “we discussed the public statement that was going to be made on it.”21 Haldeman added in his diary that Ehrlichman thought “the statement is OK and we should get it out.”22 Haldeman said he also talked with Colson and told him “to keep quiet.” He noted that Howard Hunt had been implicated, identifying Hunt as “the guy Colson was using on some of his Pentagon Papers and other research type stuff.” He further wrote, “Colson agreed to stay out of it and I think maybe he really will. I don’t think he is actually involved, so that helps.” Finally, he added that the president was “not aware of all this, unless he read something in the paper, but he didn’t mention it to me.”23
President Nixon returned to his Key Biscayne compound from Grand Cay by helicopter on Sunday morning, June 18, 1972, touching down at 11:51 A.M. Rebozo returned with him, and they went to their nearby residences. In his memoir, Nixon recalled that when he arrived at his home he could smell coffee brewing in the kitchen, so he went to get a cup. There he noticed the Miami Herald front page, with a small story in the middle on the left side: MIAMIANS HELD IN D.C. TRY TO BUG DEMO HEADQUARTERS. He scanned the opening paragraphs, which said that four of the five men arrested in the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate were from Miami. After reading that they had all been wearing surgical gloves, he “dismissed it as some sort of prank.”24
Absent from his memoir, however, is what appears to have been his delayed reaction to the Watergate story, which occurred a few hours later, when he learned more from Rebozo and then spoke with Colson. After an hour and a half of telephone calls on other business and lunch, Nixon strolled over to Rebozo’s house at 2:45 P.M. But they visited for only fifteen minutes before returning to the president’s house to call Colson. Rebozo, who was very active with the Miami Cuban community, knew most, if not all, of the men arrested at the Watergate, for their names had been listed in the Herald story: Bernard L. Barker, a real-estate broker; Eugenio Martinez, one of Barker’s salesmen; Virgilio Gonzales, a locksmith; and Frank Sturgis, a soldier of fortune—all well-known anti-Castro activists who were respected in the Cuban community. After talking with Rebozo, Nixon understood that this was no prank.
Colson was later unable to recall either of his two conversations with Nixon on June 18, 1972, but he did testify that one of his assistants recalled what was said, because Colson had told him about it after he talked to Nixon. Nixon, he said, “was so furious that he had thrown an ashtray across the room at Key Biscayne and thought it was the dumbest thing he had ever heard of and was just outraged over the fact that anybody even remotely connected with the campaign organization would have anything to do . . . with something like Watergate.”25 Colson was mistaken when he also testified he believed Nixon had learned of McCord’s role from the newspaper on June 18, 1972, for that information was not publicly reported until Monday, June 19, 1972. It is more likely that Colson, who learned from Ehrlichman, told the president about McCord and Nixon exploded. Although when Nixon later thought about his reaction, he walked it back to a nonreaction, so that he appeared unconcerned, as his later behavior showed. But in the larger picture, Nixon’s first reaction is not particularly important. No doubt he was trying to establish for doubters that he had no direct connection with the Watergate break-in, which I am confident was true.
Because of a passing hurricane late Sunday afternoon, the president decided to not return to Washington until Monday, June 19, 1972, but when the weather turned beautiful Monday morning, he decided to spend the day in Key Biscayne, for more boating and swimming, and to return to the White House that evening. Given the limited information the president had received, there was no reason he would have been particularly concerned about the events at the Watergate. So Nixon spent that Monday morning on the telephone with his personal secretary, Rose Mary Woods, and his daughters, Tricia and Julie; he called Haldeman to advise him of his decision to spend the day in Key Biscayne; he talked with Kissinger’s assistant Al Haig, and then with Reverend Billy Graham—which was the longest of his calls—discussing efforts to keep Governor George Wallace from undertaking a third-party run for the presidency, which posed a threat to Nixon’s reelection, as it could split the conservative vote. Reverend Graham was close to Wallace’s wife and thought he could help out.26 At 11:50 A.M. the president met with Haldeman for an hour and fifteen minutes to discuss campaign logistics and the need to place someone in the CRP to handle the administrative details for Mitchell, but there is no evidence that Watergate was discussed.
Back in Washington, Ehrlichman was further assessing the problem. He called me, requesting I speak with Chuck Colson to see what I could learn, and he asked me to talk with Attorney General Dick Kleindienst to see if he knew where all the Watergate investigation leaks in The Washington Post had come from. I told Ehrlichman that Magruder had called me to tell me that the break-in was Liddy’s work and that Magruder had requested I meet with Liddy, since they could barely communicate (Magruder claimed Liddy had threatened to kill him). Ehrlichman instructed me to do so and report back to him.
In a walk down Seventeenth Street NW (which is on the west side of the White House grounds), a shaken, slightly disheveled-looking Liddy apologized for his team’s arrest at the Watergate, explaining that they had gone back into the DNC to fix bugs that were not working properly, because Magruder had pushed him for more and better information. He also apologized for using McCord, since he had promised that none of his activities would ever be traceable. He said that with Howard Hunt’s assistance he had recruited the team in Miami, and he was concerned that they were now in jail, although he assured me they would not talk. Liddy said I needed to know that two of the men in jail had been used in an earlier effort—a “national security operation” at Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office in California. I asked him if anyone from the White House was involved; he said that no one at the White House had knowledge of his activities, with the possible exception of Haldeman’s aide and liaison to the CRP, Gordon Strachan. As our walk ended, Liddy offered to have himself shot on any street corner if the White House wished to take him out. I told him I did not think that would be necessary.27
At noon I met with Ehrlichman to report all I had learned. Concerned with my own exposure, I also told Ehrlichman that I had been asked to attend two meetings in Mitchell’s office, while he was still attorney general, at which Liddy had presented absurd plans for campaign intelligence gathering that involved kidnapping, prostitutes, chase planes and electronic surveillance. I said Mitchell had turned him down at the first meeting. I arrived late to the second, and when I heard talk of illegal activities, I had thrown cold water on it all by saying I did not believe such matters should be discussed in the office of the attorney general.28 I told Ehrlichman I had reported this information to Haldeman, who had instructed me to have nothing further to do with these activities. I assured Ehrlichman that I believed Liddy’s scheme had been turned off but clearly that had not happened. It was at this time I mentioned in passing that maybe we should hire an experienced criminal law attorney for the staff, for I had no such experience and was unaware of anyone on the staff who did, but he completely dismissed the idea with a wave of his hand.
At 1:45 P.M. Ehrlichman met with Attorney General Dick Kleindienst, who was in a mild state of panic. On Sunday, June 18, 1972, after he played in a golf tournament at Burning Tree Country Club in Maryland, Liddy had interrupted his lunch. He caught Kleindienst’s eye, signaling that he needed to speak with him, and then told him he had a personal message from John Mitchell, and they needed privacy. They went to the men’s locker room, where Liddy asked if he’d heard about the arrests the night before at the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate. Kleindienst said that Henry Petersen, the head of the Criminal Division at the Department of Justice, had called him about it that morning. Liddy then told Kleindienst that the break-in was an operation of the Nixon reelection committee and that the men arrested were people working under his direction. He said they would keep their mouths shut, but one of the men, James McCord, was an employee at the CRP. “Jesus Christ!” Kleindienst responded, and Liddy proceeded to explain that he wanted to get McCord out of jail right away, before he was identified. Kleindienst said that that would be impossible, that he had no such authority, and that it would be terrible for the president for him to even try. Kleindienst concluded the conversation by telling Liddy to tell Mitchell that if he wanted to call him, he knew where to reach him, and ended the visit. Neither Ehrlichman nor Kleindienst has ever testified about this June 19, 1972, meeting. I do not know if Kleindienst also told Ehrlichman what he told me about his meeting with Liddy and his reaction to what Liddy had told him: As long as he was attorney general he would never prosecute John Mitchell.
After the president completed his meeting with Haldeman on June 19, he headed out for a relaxing afternoon in the sun, starting with a cruise on the Coco Lobo III, Rebozo’s houseboat. Nixon found it pleasurable to simply motor around Biscayne Bay reading or simply thinking.29 This excursion was followed by a swim at their favorite beach, to which a crew of strong Secret Service swimmers drove them and then watched over them as lifeguards. After dinner with Rebozo, the president took a short helicopter ride from his compound to Homestead Air Force Base, and got on Air Force One for the trip back to Washington. During the last half hour of the flight the president met with Haldeman, which, Nixon later noted in his diary (contradicting Colson’s testimony), was when he first received “the disturbing news from Bob Haldeman that the break-in of the Democratic National Committee involved someone who is on the payroll of the committee to reelect the president.”30
More important, during this June 19, 1972, meeting on Air Force One the president agreed with the feelings of Ehrlichman and Haldeman, and the advice of John Mitchell, that the White House, if possible, must stay away from Watergate. Nixon wrote in his diary: “Mitchell had told Bob on the phone enigmatically not to get involved in it, and I told Bob that I simply hoped that none of our people were involved for two reasons—one, because it was stupid in the way it was handled; and two, because I could see no reason whatever for trying to bug the national committee.” Nixon added, “I also urged Bob to keep Colson and Ehrlichman from getting obsessed with the thing so they were unable to spend their time on other jobs. Looking back, the fact that Colson got so deeply involved in the ITT was a mistake because it kept him from doing other things that in retrospect were more important to do. The best thing probably to have done with ITT was just to let it run its course without having the whole staff in constant uproar about it. I hope we can handle this one in that way.”31
The International Telephone and Telegraph Company (ITT) scandal had erupted in March 1972 and gone on for months. It was triggered by a story on leap-year day, February 29, 1972, by syndicated columnist Jack Anderson claiming that ITT, a multinational conglomerate, had settled a major antitrust lawsuit filed by Nixon’s Department of Justice in exchange for a four-hundred-thousand-dollar, quid pro quo pledge to the city of San Diego, where the 1972 GOP convention was scheduled although later moved to Miami. More specifically, Anderson claimed that ITT’s Washington lobbyist, the “crusty, capable Dita Beard, [had] acknowledged the secret deal after we obtained a highly incriminating memo, written by her, from ITT’s files.” Anderson’s column detailed how Dita Beard and Attorney General John Mitchell had negotiated the terms of the settlement during a lengthy conversation at a dinner party following the Kentucky Derby, given by Kentucky governor Louie Nunn, in May 1971.32
Democrats had jumped on the charge, led by DNC chairman Larry O’Brien and Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA), who made the ITT settlement central to the Senate’s approval of the pending confirmation of Richard Kleindienst to be attorney general. Although Kleindienst’s nomination had cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee, he insisted the hearings be reopened so he could clear his name. It proved a disaster, for he lied when he said the White House had no input into the decision to settle the ITT case, as did John Mitchell on the same matter. Nixon had personally called Kleindienst on April 19, 1971, to tell him to settle the case because the Antitrust Division of the Justice Department was taking a position contrary to his philosophy on antitrust law, not to mention contrary to the positions candidate Nixon had taken during his 1968 presidential campaign. He certainly had no knowledge of ITT’s pledge to San Diego (it was actually only one hundred thousand dollars), for it was made after the president’s call, as was Dita Beard’s purported deal with Mitchell.33 Dita Beard told many different stories about why, or if, she had written her infamous memo.34 In fact, it appears that she did, but she was trying to take credit for something she had not actually accomplished, and when her faux boasting became public, she disowned it, but lost her job anyway, and then lied about it all.
At the time, no one took more effective political advantage of the Anderson charges than Larry O’Brien, which particularly angered Nixon because they effectively removed the luster from the aftermath of his historic trip to China, replacing it with a sleazy government corruption sandal. Even more frustrating, the charges were unfounded.35 Notwithstanding considerable efforts by Nixon’s staff, we were unable to knock down the ITT scandal. Behind closed doors, however, Nixon renewed calls for the head of his longtime foe, hoping to expose O’Brien’s hypocrisy when he learned in early 1972 that O’Brien was on the payroll of billionaire Howard Hughes.36 The president protested to Haldeman, in words to the effect that O’Brien’s not going to get away with it, certain that they were going to get proof (O’Brien’s tax returns) of this relationship with Hughes.37 Nixon had been after O’Brien since at least March 1970, when O’Brien became chairman of the DNC and the president began worrying about O’Brien’s political skills; he created something he called “Operation O’Brien” to discredit him. But nothing had been done.38 The ITT attacks on the Nixon administration renewed his interest in discrediting O’Brien, for, as Haldeman later described it, Nixon was convinced O’Brien was somehow breaking the law with a “fantastically large ($180,000-a-year) Howard Hughes retainer for a part-time job.”39 Nixon had Ehrlichman personally reviewing O’Brien’s tax returns and pushing the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to audit him.40
When in prison because of Watergate, Haldeman opined that Nixon had provoked the DNC break-in because of his orders to nail O’Brien, “to get the goods on O’Brien’s connection with Hughes,” and because he was “infuriated with O’Brien’s success in using the ITT case against them.” Haldeman speculated that Nixon had told Colson, who in turn instructed Hunt, to get information on O’Brien. Although I did not find a recorded conversation corroborating Haldeman’s conclusion, this is not to say that the widespread efforts in the White House “to nail” O’Brien was not a significant factor leading up to the Watergate break-in, for I believe Nixon’s demands for information were clearly the catalyst that resulted in seeking information at the DNC offices in the Watergate. There are clear clues in the recorded conversations as to why they broke in and bugged the DNC, for those who mistakenly believe this remains a significant mystery.*
An overreaction to the ITT scandal would result in an underreaction to the unfolding Watergate scandal. By the time the president returned to the White House from his extended weekend in the Bahamas and Florida, Haldeman and Ehrlichman were fully aware of the problems. Ehrlichman was certainly aware of Hunt and Liddy’s activities when they were working for the Special Investigations Unit, of which he was the titular head. Haldeman had been aware of the development of a campaign-intelligence operation from the start.41 He knew the Watergate break-in was the work of the Liddy campaign political-intelligence operation, which had a budget of three hundred thousand dollars that he had accepted, after being informed by Gordon Strachan in a written memorandum in early April 1972 that Mitchell had approved it. Indeed, Haldeman had instructed Strachan to tell Liddy in early April 1972 to transfer his intelligence capabilities from Senator Edmund Muskie, who had been the Democratic front-runner, to George McGovern when McGovern appeared to become the leading candidate. (Had Liddy’s team not been arrested at the Watergate they had planned to proceed that night to McGovern’s headquarters on Capitol Hill.42 Should they have been arrested in McGovern’s offices, their orders would have been traceable as follows: Nixon → Haldeman → Strachan → Liddy → Hunt, McCord and the Miami burglary team. Although when Nixon called for moving the “plant” from Muskie to McGovern, it is not clear that he was referring to the planting of an electronic listening device; that was precisely the kind of order Liddy would have twisted, so the responsibility would have come back to Nixon.43
Frankly, the actual story, as revealed in Nixon’s recorded conversations, of the way the events unfolded in the first two weeks following the break-in, and then in the months that followed, surprised me. While I knew the gist of the story from information that has long been available, what actually happened behind closed doors was often not as I had thought. But I am getting ahead of myself. This story speaks for itself.
June 20 to July 1, 1972
June 20, 1972 (Tuesday)
Before and After the 18½-Minute Gap
On June 20 President Nixon’s day began as did most throughout his presidency. He had breakfast in the residence, on this morning at 8:40 A.M., where he scanned The Washington Post and the New York Times, both of which had front-page headlines on the Watergate incident: The Times’s was EX-G.O.P. AIDE LINKED TO POLITICAL RAID, by Tad Szulc, and the Post had WHITE HOUSE CONSULTANT TIED TO BUGGING FIGURE, by Bob Woodward and E. J. Bachinski. Both reported Hunt’s connection to the break-in, the Times connecting him through his ties with the Miami Cubans and the Post reporting that Hunt’s name and White House phone number had been found in the address books of two of the arrested men. Both stories reported that Hunt had been a consultant to Chuck Colson and that White House spokesman Ron Ziegler had said from Florida that he would not comment on “a third-rate burglary attempt.” But Ken Clawson, a former Washington Post reporter who now worked for Colson, told the Post that Hunt had left the White House and Colson had no knowledge of his Watergate-related activities. The Post account also noted that Larry O’Brien said the Democrats were considering a lawsuit.
When the president arrived in the Oval Office at 9:00 A.M., he signed a few documents and then scanned his news summary, a document prepared every weekday by White House aides containing highlights of the coverage of the Nixon administration by network television news, wire services and newsmagazines, with occasional special issues on media coverage of issues of interest to the president, who was not a television viewer. The document summarized a vast amount of information from the preceding twenty-four-hour news cycle (or for forty-eight hours over weekends) and served as both an information and a management tool. When the president finished reading it, the staff secretary reviewed his marginal notes and directives and prepared an “administratively confidential” memorandum to inform various staffers of the president’s requests or directives. Because the summary could become voluminous, Haldeman often reviewed it beforehand, underlining with a blue felt-tipped pen the material that he thought might be of particular interest to Nixon.
Watergate was a lead item in that day’s summary (with Haldeman’s underlining reproduced here): “3-4 minutes on all nets on what [NBC’s John] Chancellor called ‘1 of the most fascinating and exotic stories ever out of DC.’ The GOP, said Chancellor, is ‘scandalized and fit to be tied.’ McG[overn] and [the Republican National Committee chairman, Senator Robert] Dole on all nets; O’Brien on 2 shows w/HHH [former vice president and again senator Hubert Humphrey (D-MN)] and [Senator Edmund] Muskie [D-ME] getting in their licks as well on CBS. Dems will file a court suit Tues.”
On page 16, under the heading POLITICS and the subheading “DNC Break-In,” the following item caught the president’s attention: “On CBS Hubert Humphrey said RN and cabinet ‘owed country an apology and explanation for this incredible act’ although he had no evidence GOP behind the incident. Humphrey acknowledged such things can happen in US politics, he discounted a Democratic investigation because it would be politically motivated and said the Department of Justice would have to be trusted.”
After reading this, the president wrote questions for White House aide Pat Buchanan: “Haven’t there been some other break-ins in political and government offices? Where were the cries of anguish when the [New York] Times and [Jack] Anderson got [Pulitzer] prizes for publicizing stolen top-secret government documents [referring to the Pentagon Papers]?”
As Nixon was reading the summary, Bob Haldeman and John Mitchell were joining John Ehrlichman in his office, on the second floor of the West Wing, directly over the Oval Office. I was asked to join this meeting, which was in progress when I arrived. I was told that Attorney General Richard Kleindienst was in the West Wing lobby and would soon be joining us.1 Kleindienst would later adamantly claim that he had never attended this meeting, and Mitchell, Haldeman and Ehrlichman would later claim that they could not recall what had transpired during the forty-five minutes before I arrived, although they did not dispute my recollections, or that Kleindienst had attended as well. As I later summarized:
I expected some weighty decisions to be made in this company. Wrong. All parties were guarded. The White House faction did not trust the Justice Department faction, and, moreover, no one wanted to acknowledge how serious the problem might be. . . . Ehrlichman raised the only matters of substance, and even they were marginal. He told Mitchell that the White House would steer all Watergate press inquiries to the Re-election Committee. Mitchell nodded, not happy, not objecting. Then Ehrlichman asked Kleindienst about the Watergate leaks. Kleindienst replied that they were coming from the Metropolitan Police. He said the problem would soon be solved, since the FBI was assuming jurisdiction over the investigation.2
Haldeman, however, did record in his diary that evening: “I had a long meeting with Ehrlichman and Mitchell. We added Kleindienst for a little while and John Dean for quite a while. The conclusion was that we’ve got to hope the FBI doesn’t go beyond what’s necessary in developing evidence and that we can keep a lid on that, as well as keeping all the characters involved from getting carried away with any unnecessary testimony.”3
Ehrlichman went from our meeting to the president’s EOB office, where they talked from 10:25 until 11:20 A.M. Honoring the president’s request, Ehrlichman did not mention Watergate, but just as they were parting, the president made the point to Ehrlichman that he had noted on his news summary that the press was all excited about the Watergate break-in but that they passed out Pulitzer Prizes to the Times and Anderson for stealing documents.4 He would repeat that complaint in later conversations throughout the day.
After Ehrlichman departed the EOB office, the president ordered a bowl of soup for lunch and complained to a Secret Service agent about the dictating equipment he had used in the Bahamas and on Air Force One over the weekend. From 11:26 A.M. until 12:45 P.M. the president met with Haldeman.5 While Watergate was not the focus of their discussion, the subject did arise in passing early on and again at the end. But this June 20, 1972, conversation lives in infamy because when the recording of it was later subpoenaed by the Watergate special prosecutor, it contained an 18½-minute gap consisting of a buzzing sound that experts determined had been caused by five to nine deliberate erasures of the tape. This gap created a media frenzy when it was revealed, and it was the basis for a mystery that has lasted to this day.*
The conversation began with talk of the good weather they had left behind in Florida, followed by a discussion of the president’s schedule. Because Nixon expected poor weather in July, when they were to be in California, he told Haldeman he would return to the Bahamas in August. After going over routine matters, Haldeman mentioned that the Republican governor of South Dakota was having some political trouble, and the president began to dictate the outline of a letter. South Dakota was, of course, the home base of his likely reelection opponent, Senator George McGovern. It was while discussing this letter to the governor, some seven minutes into the conversation, that the 18½-minute buzzing begins.
The fact that they next spoke about Watergate can be determined by notes Haldeman made during the meeting; read as a record of the meeting they do not reveal anything of particular importance.6 Haldeman’s note-taking procedures have been misunderstood; he did not make a record of or even cite the highlights of what was said at any given session but instead recorded only matters that called for further attention and follow-up. It was in his diary he made an effort to record the actual gist of meetings and events, or of matters he thought of importance on any given day. Haldeman made his diary entries at the end of each day with uncanny discipline and regularity, and given the often highly incriminating information they contain, it does not appear he filtered information if he remembered it. Accordingly, Haldeman’s diary entry is often more revealing but adds little to his notes for June 20, 1972.
Per Haldeman’s notes (which I have translated from his abbreviated shorthand7), the following Watergate matters were raised during that morning’s meeting: The president instructed Haldeman to be sure his EOB office was thoroughly checked for bugs at all times. He wanted to know what the White House “counter-attack” to Watergate would be. He wanted to launch a public relations offensive that would undermine Watergate by charging his opponents with their own questionable activities. Nixon had always been annoyed by the well-known fact that Jack Anderson had gotten away with bugging (and at the time of Watergate there was a rumor that McGovern’s staff had tried to bug Nixon’s reelection committee). The president wanted to point out that libertarians had created a callous public attitude toward bugging and wiretapping, and “the public didn’t give a shit about it.” Finally, he repeated to Haldeman the complaint that his detractors were making a big deal out of stealing information from the DNC while justifying the theft of the Pentagon Papers and Anderson’s publishing of national security secrets. He told Haldeman that they “should be on the attack” regarding Watergate, if for no other reason than diversion. The 18½-minute gap also covered material unrelated to Watergate, according to Haldeman’s notes, for the president asked him to find out the schedule of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings on the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) agreement, and they discussed details of an upcoming trip to California.
After listening to countless hours of Nixon’s conversation, I can confirm what he wrote in his memoir about the gap in the June 20 conversation: “It has always been my habit to discuss problems a number of times, often in almost the same terms and usually with the same people. This is the way I tried to elicit every possible piece of information and advice and examine every possible angle of a situation before making this decision.”8
I would add that Nixon also had the habit of ending a discussion by going over key points he had made during it, and that appears to have been the case for this June 20 conversation. At its conclusion he returns to the subject of Watergate, as Haldeman’s notes recorded, but in a slightly different form: “If I can come back on this thing more intently, I can be very, very serious on the hypocrisy. There’s no question there’s a double standard here.” Haldeman agreed and made an inaudible counterpoint, which Nixon dismissed. “I don’t give a shit about that. Also regarding political money, and contributions, too. They’re all doing it. That’s the standard thing. Why the Christ do we have to hire people to sweep our rooms?”
“Because we know they’re—”
Nixon finished Haldeman’s sentence, “Yeah, they’re bugging. And why—”
“Sue ’em,” Haldeman quietly interjected, as the president was making his point.
“We have been bugged in the past, haven’t we?”
With this question the recording ends abruptly, and it is followed by 2 minutes and 53 seconds of a specific tone added throughout the recordings by NARA to indicate that personal material was withdrawn. The NARA Tape Subject Log for this conversation (No. 342-16), prepared by people who listened to this redacted portion, indicates that Nixon’s rhetorical question referred to his “previous campaigns”—namely, the 1968 presidential campaign. Nixon raised this particular topic throughout Watergate, believing that if he could make an issue of what had been done to him, it would place the DNC break-in in context.
Haldeman’s diary entry about this June 20 conversation is consistent with Nixon’s account of it in his memoir (which undoubtedly his postpresidency staff checked) concerning the information missing in the 18½-minute gap: “The P was concerned about what our counterattack is, our PR offensive to top this. He felt we have to hit the opposition with their activities. Also put out the point that the libertarians have created public callousness. Do they justify this kind of thing less than stealing the Pentagon papers, or Anderson’s files, and so on. He feels we should be on the attack for diversion, and not just take it lying down.”
Nixon further explained in his memoir: “I am confident that our discussion about the break-in covered much the same points at 11:26 in the morning as it did just five hours later at 4:35 in the afternoon: that if any of our people, at any level, had embroiled us in such an embarrassing situation; and that the investigations and depositions, if they went too far in pursuing all angles available, would hand the Democrats a major campaign issue.”9 Haldeman’s diary confirmed that Nixon raised the subject again several times during the day, “and it is obviously bothering him. He had Colson over to talk about it, and then later called me a couple times on various specifics. He called me at home tonight, saying he wanted to change the plans for his press conference and have it on Thursday instead of tomorrow, so it won’t look like he’s reacting to the Democratic break-in thing.”10
At 2:16 P.M. Nixon called Colson, whose office was right beside his in the EOB, and asked him to come over. They met from 2:20 P.M. to 3:30 P.M.11 Watergate was discussed for approximately twelve minutes at the outset, and then fleetingly at the end. The president tried to boost Colson’s spirits—he was already being implicated in Watergate by news accounts—while sharing his thoughts about how the White House should deal with the problem.
“Now, I hope everybody is not going to get into a tizzy about the Democratic Committee,” Nixon said, sounding as if he is stretched out in his favorite easy chair, beside his desk.
“It’s a little frustrating. Disheartening, I guess, is the right word,” Colson replied, with something of a pained tone, adding, “Pick up that God damn Washington Post. See you’re guilty by association.” Colson was annoyed about the story linking him to the Watergate break-in because Hunt had worked for him, although he had been off the White House payroll for three months.
The president listened to Colson complain about how his family wondered if he had been involved but dismissed such speculation, because Nixon said he would not have someone that careless on his White House staff; “A lot of people think you ought to wiretap. Or knew why the hell we’re doing it. They probably figure they’re doing it to us.” Then Nixon added, “Which they are.” When Colson concurred, the president asked, “That’s why they hired this guy [McCord] in the first place, to sweep the rooms, didn’t they?”
“Yes, sir. Frankly, sir, I haven’t gotten into all the details that we want to on this. But I assume he was hired to protect their offices,” Colson added regarding CRP offices.
“Well, they’d better. Better have someone.” With political espionage on his mind, the president told Colson that Haldeman was working with Nixon’s political mentor, Murray Chotiner, who had a political operative known only as “Chapman’s Friend.” This individual, posing as a journalist, was in fact a spy at the McGovern campaign reporting to Chotiner, and his information was shared only with Haldeman and Mitchell. The president explained, “Chotiner has some guy with McGovern, aides he had on the road, the plane, the bus. I just said to Bob: Get it out, make a good story. Get it out.” Nixon wanted to leak some of the gathered material to go after McGovern. Then, after speculating on whether they had spies in their own ranks, Nixon returned to Watergate. “On this thing here,” he declared, but then, apparently reconsidering, said in a near whisper, “I’ve got to, well, it’s a dangerous job.”
“Well, Bob is pulling it all together. Thus far, I think we’ve done the right things to date,” Colson reassured him.
The president raised a central issue with respect to what would become a quickly developing cover-up: “I think the real question is whether we want it to remain with the people charged, whether they’ll hold up. I understand, basically, they’re all pretty hard-line guys.” Colson agreed that was correct. “Or if we are going to have this funny guy take credit for that,” Nixon wondered, probably thinking of Liddy, whom he later characterized as “a nut,” or perhaps McCord. He often confused the two men in the early days, and it is not clear if he knew of Liddy’s role until the following morning.
Colson, however, thought Nixon was referring to Hunt, and became defensive. “’Course, I can’t believe he’s involved. I think he’s too smart to do it this way, he’s just too damned shrewd. Too much sophisticated techniques. You don’t have to get into [unclear] with heavy equipment like that, put it in the ceiling. Hell of a lot easier way.”
“It doesn’t sound like a skillful job,” the president noted. “If we didn’t know better, we’d have thought it was deliberately botched.”
“Yeah, I thought of that this weekend,” Colson said. “And then I figured, maybe it’s the Cubans that did it. Organizing it on their own, because, you know, they had good reason.” Mention of the Cubans immediately caught the president’s attention, not as an explanation of what had actually happened but as a way to cover it up. He told Colson about having seen a Cuban newspaper, on Bebe Rebozo’s desk in Key Biscayne, with an article headlined TED KENNEDY, PUBLIC ENEMY NUMBER ONE, which Colson made a note to obtain. He then explained to the president that the Cubans in Miami hated McGovern, because they saw him as a Kennedy stand-in. They were concerned that the United States might recognize Castro, and if so, all Cuban nationals would be considered fugitives and returned to their homeland, with no possibility of political asylum in the United States. This information surprised and interested Nixon, and Colson concluded by saying that they would therefore be willing “to resort to something pretty serious.” Since Nixon was now well aware that this had not been a Cuban operation, but rather one initiated by his own CRP, he cut Colson off, bringing the conversation back to the real world and a discussion of the hostile press coverage, complaining again about the Pentagon Papers and Jack Anderson.
Before turning to other matters, he wanted Colson to understand that, concerning responsibility for the Watergate break-in, “We are just going to leave this where it is, with the Cubans.”
“I think that’s the only thing you can do,” Colson agreed. In an effort to exonerate Hunt, he added, “The fact that they had Hunt’s name was the most logical thing in the world, because he ran and trained the chief of brigade that went to the Bay of Pigs. He’s the fellow that came up and cried at John Kennedy’s office to send a second wave. Conservative syndicated columnist Bill Buckley is his children’s godfather. He’s a very hard-right, hard-running guy.”
Nixon played the matter down, saying he hoped Hunt would not have a problem, and explained, “I’m not going to worry about it. I’ve—shit, the hell with it. We’ll let it fly, we’re not going to react to it.”
Colson mentioned Larry O’Brien filing a lawsuit but had no further information on it. After a discussion of leaks, Chuck wanted Nixon to know he understood that they were not going to deal with Watergate the way they had ITT: “Back then, we were riding so damned high, and I guess we couldn’t do much about it, but they dragged us into it.” Then, referring to Watergate, he added, “But the press, the media and the Democrats are so God damn desperate for any issue that they can lay their hands on that it’s something which normally wouldn’t amount to that much. They’re just going to blow the hell out of it, because they haven’t got any other place they can lay a glove on us. And that was the case with ITT, which came after China, the economy was picking up, wage-price controls were working, they had nothing, so they went into ITT viciously.” When Nixon agreed, Colson added, “I think they’ll try to,” but noted, “You can’t make a case out of this the way you could out of ITT. The weakness in ITT was that it fed the public suspicion that the Republicans are dedicated to big business.”
“Oh shit, that’s right,” Nixon said. “I couldn’t agree more. You’ve got to keep all your people away from it.”
The conversation went on for almost another hour, addressing matters such as Colson’s suggestion of using the Securities and Exchange Commission to make life difficult for The Washington Post Company, because he believed that Katharine Graham, the publisher and head of the company, was a “vicious” woman who was primarily interested in her social status in Washington, DC, and who wanted someone in the White House who would “kiss her ass.” Watergate came up again toward the end of the conversation, and the president labeled it “the dumbest thing,” but he said he understood that “there are going to be all sorts of things in the campaign.” Most important, he did not want anyone to think the Watergate situation meant the “world’s coming to an end.” Rather, it was merely “a development,” not a scandal that was going to lose them the election. While he was concerned about the Democrats possibly filing a lawsuit, he did not think any judge would force his campaign manager, John Mitchell, to give “a deposition in the middle of the campaign.” Chuck agreed and departed.
Haldeman returned to the president’s EOB office at 4:35 P.M. and remained for almost an hour.12 Although Nixon writes that “Haldeman ran through some of the other information he had picked up during the day,”13 Haldeman told him nothing that he could not have recounted earlier during the 18½-minute gap. Nixon asked, “Have you gotten any further on that Mitchell operation?”
“No,” Haldeman answered softly, and they began to talk over each other, about Mitchell, speculating about his knowledge of the bugging operation at the DNC. Clearly audible is the fact that neither of them thought that Mitchell had advance knowledge. “I think he was surprised,” the president said. “I think that’s right,” Haldeman said, cautiously adding a qualification: “I don’t think he knew they were going to break in.” Haldeman’s tone suggested that Mitchell knew generally about such intelligence-gathering activities, as in fact he did, but not specifically about the DNC matter. Notwithstanding the bungled nature of the operation, Haldeman assured the president, “these guys apparently are a pretty competent bunch of people, and they’ve been doing other things very well, apparently.” Haldeman proceeded to provide Nixon with a strikingly detailed account of the break-in: “My goodness, the stuff, all they had in there. They had a three-channel transmitter. Two of the channels went out. They went in to get those untangled, and get the pictures of stuff.”*
The president, still thinking about Mitchell, said coldly, “It’s his problem.”
Haldeman had more information about the Democrats’ lawsuit: “They directly sued the committee for re-election and the Republican National Committee for a million dollars. One hundred thousand dollars damages and nine hundred thousand dollars punitive. Quite a sum. They want to take depositions on all this crap. Dean said that’s the kind of thing, once they file and a judge orders, sets the thing, and starts the suit going and all, you could stall it for a couple of months, probably down to the election, with technical delays and pleadings.”
Nixon remained concerned about Colson being attacked by The Washington Post and thought the situation called for “a little more sympathy.” Haldeman agreed, noting, “I know he’s sensitive, hypersensitive.” But Haldeman wanted it understood that Colson did, in fact, have ties to Hunt, so the story was not baseless. With the point noted, the president said, “It’s fortunately a bizarre story. Don’t you agree?” Haldeman did, and added, “Its bizarreness almost helped to discredit it.”
“On McCord, how was he employed?” Nixon now asked.
“He was on a regular monthly retainer fee,” Haldeman replied.
“Does he have other clients?”
“He had a regular monthly fee at the [Republican] National Committee also,” Haldeman said.
Nixon wanted to know about McCord’s relationship to the Cubans: who was working for whom; what McCord might say, if he said anything; and how Howard Hunt fit in the picture. Haldeman speculated, “McCord, I guess, will say that he was working with the Cubans, who wanted to put this in for their own political reasons.” As for Hunt, Haldeman had some new intelligence. “Hunt’s disappeared, or is in the process of disappearing. He can undisappear if we want him to do so. He’s planned for this day all along and has a whole process set up to disappear to a Latin American country. At least, the original thought was that that was good, that he might want to disappear, mainly because he can, on the basis that the Cubans see he was in the Bay of Pigs thing. One of the Cubans, Barker, the guy with the American name, was his deputy in the Bay of Pigs operation, and so they’re kind of trying to tie it to the Cuban nationalists business.”
“We are?” Nixon asked, surprised, and Haldeman explained that this was originally the press’s doing. “Now, of course, they’re uncovering these ties to Colson, to the White House. The closest they come was that Hunt was a consultant to Colson.”
“Do we know what Hunt did, somewhat the nature of his consulting fee?” Nixon asked. The usually well-informed chief of staff did not know of, or perhaps decided not to report, Ehrlichman’s relationship with Hunt, and replied, “I don’t know about this.”
“You don’t know what he did, then?” the president asked, with a tone of displeasure in his voice. In fact, there was probably no information Richard Nixon needed more at that time. But with Haldeman pleading ignorance, both men speculated a bit on Hunt, and then the president reported, “Colson’s protested his innocence in this. As I’ve told you, I’ve come to the conclusion that Colson’s not that dumb.”
Haldeman agreed, “In fact, we all knew that there were some—”
“—intelligence things,” the president finished the sentence.
“Some activities, and we were getting reports, or some input here and there. But I don’t think Chuck knew specifically that this project was under way or that these people were involved.”
“But Mitchell, if he did—ah, well, I’m second-guessing,” the president said, checking his thoughts about the obvious.
“Mitchell seems to take all the blame himself,” Haldeman added.
“Did he? Good.”
“He was saying this morning that it was damn stupid for him to not learn about the details and know exactly what was going on.”
After a brief tangent, the president inquired again about White House security protection against eavesdropping, just as he had during the 18½-minute gap. Haldeman advised him that the Secret Service swept his office and telephones twice a week. As for their own secret recording system, the president told Haldeman that the Oval Office conversations were the most important. “They say it’s extremely good. I haven’t listened to the tapes,” Haldeman said, to which Nixon explained, “They’re just kept for our future purposes.” Haldeman reassured him, “Nobody monitors those tapes, obviously. They are kept stacked up and locked up in a supersecure area, and there are only three people that know they exist.”* “There’s nothing we can do to help Mitchell out,” the president said plaintively, returning to their previous topic, and said he thought that Mitchell was “in for a fall” because of the arrests.
“I feel like this is a nightmare,” Haldeman said. “When you think about it, you think it can’t be true. Something like this just doesn’t happen.” He worried that Mitchell might “perjure himself” and “end up part of it,” although that was not inevitable. “As is, fortunately, John [Ehrlichman]* thinks, circumstantially, Mitchell hasn’t done the specifics.” Haldeman believed that the best evidence of that was that “if he had, it probably wouldn’t have happened.”
As the president attempted to piece together everyone who might have been involved, Haldeman responded, “It’s everybody with any knowledge all the way through. It may be it’s better to plead guilty, saying we were spying on the Democrats. Just let the Cubans say, we are with McCord because we’re with the Republicans. We figured he was a safe guy for us to use.”
“Well, they’ve got to plead guilty and get this stuff behind them, as fast as they can,” the president said, with a tone of frustration. The conversation turned back to Howard Hunt and some of his activities for the White House, such as interviewing Lucien Conein, a former CIA compatriot of his who had been deeply involved in the CIA’s activities in Vietnam and was believed to have knowledge of the assassination of Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem.
“How was Hunt directly involved at the Watergate?” the president asked.
“He was in the Howard Johnson Motel with a direct-line-of-sight room, observing across the street. And that was the room in which they had the receiving equipment for the bugs.”*
“Well, does Hunt work for McCord, or what?”
“No. Oh, we don’t know. Something I haven’t gotten into is how, apparently, McCord had Hunt working with him, or Hunt had McCord working with him, and with these Cubans. They’re all tied together. Hunt, when he ran the Bay of Pigs thing, was working with this guy Barker, one of the Cubans who was arrested.”
“How does the press know about this?”
“They don’t. Oh, they know Hunt’s involved, because they found his name in the address book of two of the Cubans, Barker’s book and one of the other guy’s books. He’s identified as ‘White House.’ And also because one of the Cubans had a check from Hunt, a check for six dollars and ninety [sic]* cents, or something like that, which Hunt had given to this Cuban to take back to Miami with him and mail. It was to pay his country club bill. And one of his identities is a Cuban base, or I mean, a Miami base, and he uses. Probably so he can pay nonresident dues at the country club, or something. But anyway, they had that check, so that was another tie.”
Maybe this was not too bad, the president thought aloud: “Well, in a sense, people won’t be surprised by the fact that Hunt’s involved with the Cubans, or McCord’s involved with the Cubans, and so forth, here are the Cuban people [who don’t like McGovern].”
As the conversation wound down, Nixon returned to the subject of Colson, who he did not think should be concerned; they would get someone to defend him in the media. Both felt Colson could take care of himself. “If Colson knew about it, he was not involved with it, I’m sure,” Haldeman said, and Nixon agreed. The only note that Haldeman would make of this discussion is from an inaudible or withdrawn portion of the tape, in which the president ordered: “Colson stay away from [the] press.” It was a telling instruction, and he added: “[D]on’t give P[resident] details.”14
“My God, the Democratic National Committee isn’t worth bugging, in my opinion. That’s my public line,” Nixon declared. Haldeman, however, reminded him, “Except for this financial thing. They thought they had something going on that.” Wearily, Nixon conceded this point: “Yeah, I suppose, I suppose.”*
Haldeman assured the president that his point was well taken, adding, “I’ve asked that question: If we were going to all that trouble, why in the world would we pick the Democratic National Committee to do it to? It’s the least fruitful source.” On this note the conversation ended, and at 5:25 P.M. Haldeman and the president left the EOB office together, with the president heading for the barber.
At 6:08 P.M. the president called John Mitchell. The conversation lasted only four minutes, and the recording system was not used. When the president returned to his EOB office after dinner, he phoned Haldeman, at 7:52 P.M. Inexplicably, all of the conversations he had made on the EOB office telephone on June 20 were inaudible, but the room recording equipment did pick up the president’s report to Haldeman, and Haldeman made notes of this rather significant conversation.15
“I gave Mitchell a call,” Nixon told him, after asking if he had interrupted Haldeman’s dinner. “Cheered him up a little bit. I told him not to worry, that we might be able to control this Watergate thing. He’s obviously quite chagrined.” Years later Nixon would write that “Mitchell sounded so embarrassed by the whole thing that I was convinced more than ever that it had come as a complete surprise to them. He also sounded completely tired and worn out.”16
As Haldeman took notes, the president continued, “I had one thought on the Cuban thing, on the Cuban angle, if that’s the way it starts to bounce. I’d give a call to Bebe. The Cuban community down there is very much against McGovern. They could raise money for the purpose of paying these fines, and all, and so forth.” Whatever Haldeman said about such a fund led Nixon to add, “I’m thinking, though, of having it publicized. Not something in private. In other words, making an issue of the fact that, given the politics of these people, there’s real concern in the Cuban community about the importance of this election, which is why they’re doing it. You know, there’s an anti-McGovern attitude in Miami.”
Explaining the logical connection between the Cuban community and the men arrested at the DNC’s Watergate office, the president explained, “They are all tied in, apparently, with the Bay of Pigs.” Nixon reminded Haldeman that Miami’s anti-Castro community was, as the news accounts of the arrested Cubans had reported, “all anticommunists.”
Haldeman recorded the president’s thoughts and added a note to himself to “talk to E[hrlichman].” Years later Haldeman explained that Nixon had instructed him, “Tell Ehrlichman this whole group of Cubans is tied to the Bay of Pigs.” Haldeman said he had asked for clarification but that Nixon only said, “Ehrlichman will know what I mean” and dropped the subject. Haldeman later wrote that he followed the president’s instructions and told Ehrlichman the following morning after the staff meeting. Ehrlichman took this to mean that the president was referring to a disagreement he was having with CIA director Richard Helms over getting the CIA’s complete records on the Bay of Pigs invasion, a matter in which Ehrlichman wanted no further part.17
It was now clear to Haldeman that Nixon wanted the White House to think about how to help Mitchell. He also realized that Nixon was thinking in very human ways about the Cuban Americans who had been arrested and that they would need money to survive the ordeal ahead. Haldeman felt there was a touch of political genius as well, typical of Nixon, in the way he saw the opportunity to counterattack when he was in trouble and to effectively “kill two birds with one stone. Get money to the boys to help them, and maybe pick up some points against McGovern on the Cuban angle.”18
After a brief conversation with Colson and another with Haldeman, the president worked until 11:22 P.M., including updating his personal diary, in which he wrote that he felt reassured by Haldeman and Colson that no one at the White House had been involved in the break-in. Watergate, he concluded, was “an annoying problem, but it was still just a minor one among many.”19
June 21, 1972 (Wednesday)
Creating the Cover-up Scenario
In the New York Times of June 21 the Watergate story had moved below the fold on the front page. Tad Szulc’s report offered nothing new: EX-G.O.P. AIDE REBUFFS F.B.I. QUERIES ON BREAK-IN.1 The Washington Post coverage, meanwhile, was escalating, with another front-page headline and story by Bob Woodward: O’BRIEN SUES GOP CAMPAIGN: LAYS BLAME FOR BUGGING ON WHITE HOUSE. On page A-7 the Post featured the CAST OF CHARACTERS INVOLVED IN DEMOCRATIC OFFICE BUGGING CASE, which listed Charles Colson (and characterized him as “a specialist in delicate assignments for the President”) after Howard Hunt and the men arrested at the DNC, plus a lawyer, Douglas Caddy, who had shown up to try to bail the burglars out despite the fact that those arrested had made no telephone calls to anyone.2 (Hunt had retained Caddy and given him this assignment.3) Another Post story reported ESPIONAGE POSSIBILITY PROBED IN 2D BREAK-IN AT WATERGATE, and described an earlier break-in attempt at the complex, noting that the men arrested on June 17 had been registered at the Watergate Hotel on another night when a break-in had been tried at two other offices in the Watergate Hotel. On May 28, 1972, “the police records show someone attempted to unscrew the locks on the offices of the Democratic National Committee [but had been] unable to gain entry, investigators said.”4 A Post editorial titled MISSION INCREDIBLE opined: “Mission Impossible it wasn’t; experts in these matters all agree the job was bungled at almost every stage of the way. Mission Incredible it certainly is, both in terms of the execution and, more important, in terms of the motives that could conceivably have prompted so crude an escapade by such a motley crew.” The piece questioned whether the Nixon administration could “bring itself to use every means at its command to prosecute perpetrators of the Watergate raid.”
That day’s presidential news summary contained disquieting information. NBC News had reported that those arrested at the Watergate “may have been involved in [an] earlier DNC break-in (May 28)” and “DNC lawyer Edward Bennett Williams plans to take depositions from [Nixon’s reelection committee] and White House staffers next week.” CBS and ABC quoted Larry O’Brien boldly claiming, “[T]here’s a clear line of direction to the Committee for Re-election and a developing clear line to the White House.”5
According to the desk diary log kept for Haldeman by his secretary, Mitchell and Ehrlichman returned with him after the 8:15 morning staff session to his office, where they spoke from 8:45 A.M. to 9:25 A.M., when the president buzzed for Haldeman. Although none of the three men could later recall much about it, their meeting that morning was a pivotal one, for it was here that they concocted the first scenario for a Watergate cover story. Haldeman, however, described it in his June 21 diary entry: “The bugging deal at the Democratic headquarters is still the main issue of the day. Mitchell and Ehrlichman and I talked about the whole thing again this morning and Ehrlichman came up with the possible scenario of moving the guilt level up to Liddy. Having him confess and going from there.* The problem is apparently we can’t pull that off because Liddy doesn’t have the authority to come up with the amount of money that was involved and that’s now under the campaign spending act requirements. So it would have to go up to Magruder in order to reach a responsible point. And that they, I’m sure, won’t want to do.”6 Haldeman shared some of this information in his subsequent briefing with the president.
Mitchell, in fact, had totally reversed his opinion regarding the White House and Watergate. He originally urged Haldeman to have nothing to do with the matter. His new position was prompted by what he had learned the preceding evening from his top lieutenants, Bob Mardian and Fred LaRue, who earlier that day had met with Gordon Liddy in LaRue’s Watergate apartment.7 Liddy had confessed to his participation in the Watergate operation, which they already knew about, but also told them of his involvement with Hunt in the White House–sponsored California break-in at Dr. Fielding’s office during the Ellsberg investigation, and he revealed that two of the men involved in that operation were now in the DC jail in connection with Watergate. This disclosure stunned Mardian, who, as assistant attorney general in charge of the Internal Security Division of the Justice Department, had been deeply involved in the Ellsberg investigation and prosecution. Mardian undoubtedly understood that this could result in a mistrial for Ellsberg, who was then being tried in federal court in Los Angeles.
To assure them that he would never get caught over Watergate, Liddy told Mardian and LaRue that, unbeknownst to all, he had worked with Hunt in getting Dita Beard out of Washington during the Kleindienst hearings (Hunt had, in turn, interviewed her to see what she knew wearing a disguise), suggesting he was as elusive as Hunt. Liddy also revealed that he had shredded all the new, serialized one-hundred-dollar bills in his possession, as well as all other evidence relating to the Watergate break-ins, including wrappers from the hotel’s soap that he had brought home for his wife. Liddy also claimed he and his men had commitments for bail money, maintenance and legal fees, and told Mardian and LaRue that Hunt felt this was CRP’s responsibility.*
Mitchell was alarmed by this report, and when later testifying before the Senate Watergate committee would refer to Hunt and Liddy’s activities as the “White House horrors.”8 Based on my meeting and conversation with Mitchell on the evening of June 19, I had thought he might well step forward and admit to his role in the break-in. But in the days and weeks that followed, after I learned what LaRue and Mardian had told him, I noticed Mitchell’s changed attitude.9
Mitchell urged Ehrlichman to call L. Patrick “Pat” Gray, the acting director of the FBI, to get him to rein in the FBI’s investigation. He also enlisted Ehrlichman for assistance in devising an appropriate cover-up scenario.
When Haldeman stepped into the Oval Office at 9:30 A.M. he and the president conducted routine business until Nixon finally asked, “What’s the dope on the Watergate incident? Anything break on that since we talked last night?”10
“No,” Haldeman said flatly. He explained that Watergate was off the table at the senior staff meeting, which was as he wanted it. Haldeman did, however, tell the president he had additional thoughts on the matter as a result of his later discussion with Mitchell. “Mitchell’s concern is the FBI, the question of how far they’re going in the process. And he’s pretty concerned that that be turned off, and John’s [Ehrlichman] working on it.”
“My God, if you are talking to Gray, it’s got to be done by Ehrlichman,” the president insisted.
“Well, we were told yesterday in the discussion on this with Mitchell and Kleindienst that we should not go direct to the FBI. Mitchell said today that we’ve got to, and he asked Ehrlichman to talk to Gray. John’s doing it right now,” Haldeman explained.* He continued, “The question that Ehrlichman and I raised, both of us have been trying to think one step away from it and look at a strategy. See whether there’s something that we can do other than just sitting here and watching it drop on us bit by bit, as it goes along. And it’s pretty tough to think of anything. Ehrlichman laid out a scenario which would involve this guy Liddy, at the committee, confessing and taking the blame, moving the thing up to that level, with him saying, ‘Yeah, I did it, I did it; I hired these guys, sent them over there, because I thought it would be a good move and build me up in the operation; I’m a little guy, that nobody pays any attention to.’”
“Liddy? Who’s he? He the guy with the detective agency?” Nixon asked, confusing him with McCord.
“No. Liddy is the general counsel for the Re-Election Finance Committee. And he is the guy who did this.”
“Oooh,” the president groaned softly. This new fact prompted him to ask again if John Mitchell knew about the Watergate break-in before the arrests.
“Mitchell? I’m not really sure,” Haldeman replied, even more guarded than earlier. “He obviously knew something. I’m not sure how much. He clearly didn’t know any details.”
“Couldn’t have,” Nixon said, dismissing the possibility. If Mitchell was involved, the whole affair was closer to the president, so he asked: “Isn’t there some way you can get a little better protection of the White House?” Before Haldeman could respond, the president repeated his ongoing concern about Colson, who he felt was “taking a bad rap,” and, of course, “if he’s taking the rap, basically the White House is taking the rap, regarding the White House consultant business.” The president noted rhetorically, “Hell, yes, Hunt worked for Kennedy, he worked for Johnson and he worked for the White House. That’s the whole story about him.”
Haldeman advised Nixon that they had been dealing with this situation as best they could, which satisfied the president, who again raised the subject of Colson. “You’re convinced, though, this is a situation where Colson is not involved, aren’t you?”
“Yup, I’m completely convinced of that as anything. As far as I can determine, it is,” Haldeman assured him. Relieved to hear this, the president said, “I’m not concerned at all, I am just concerned, or I just want to be sure we know what the facts are.”
At this point Haldeman cleared his throat, unconsciously telegraphing that he felt he had a duty to convey important information. While it is not clear how much Haldeman actually knew at this stage about Liddy, Hunt, and the Cubans’ prior activities on behalf of the Nixon White House, he had certainly been told by Ehrlichman that they were a potential time bomb, and accordingly decided he must at minimum warn the president: “The problem is that there are all kinds of other involvements, and if they started a fishing thing on this, they’re going to start picking up threads. That’s what appeals to me about trying to get one jump ahead of them.”
The president interrupted to probe for more information, but Haldeman was not inclined to share more bad news, though Haldeman remained in control of the conversation and tried to diminish the problem by quickly adding, “Hopefully, cut the whole thing off and sink all of it. See, Ehrlichman paints a rather attractive picture on that, in that that gives you the opportunity to cut off the civil suit. The civil suit is potentially the most damaging thing to us, in terms of those depositions.” Haldeman apparently believed the FBI could be controlled.
“You mean you’d have Liddy confess and say he did it un-, or authorized?”
“Unauthorized,” Haldeman clarified. “And then, on the civil suit, we’d plead whatever it is, and you get a summary judgment or something. I forget what the legal thing is. But Ehrlichman saw that as the way to cut it off, too, and then let it go to trial on the question of damages, and that would eliminate the need for the depositions.”
The president went silent, digesting “other involvements” and the “unauthorized” Liddy, since he knew that Mitchell typically ran tight operations. When he finally spoke after a long pause he asked, “What do you think that they have to show as far as White House involvement is concerned? I am not too concerned about the committee.”
“Well, we’re getting a bad shot to a degree, because it’s one hundred percent by innuendo. The only tie they’ve got to the White House is that this guy’s name was in their address books, Howard Hunt, and that Hunt used to be a consultant—”
“And he worked for the CIA,” the president added. “He worked in the Bay of Pigs. I mean, he’s done a lot of things.” The president wanted to make Hunt’s activity an “isolated instance.”
Again Haldeman sought vaguely to warn him, without volunteering any hard information. “You’ve got to be careful of pushing that very hard, because he was working on a lot of stuff.”
“For Colson, you mean? Well, the declassification, then?” Nixon was using a code word—declassification—referring to a project that Hunt worked on to declassify national security documents embarrassing to the Democrats.
“No. It was that among other things.”
“Well, did he work on that ITT thing, too?” Nixon asked.
“Yes, see, and if they track that down—”
“He didn’t accomplish anything,” the president added, still apparently unclear about Hunt’s “other involvements” and “a lot of stuff.”
“He’s the guy that went out and talked to Dita Beard, in Denver,” Haldeman offered, as an example of one of Howard Hunt’s less offensive but controversial activities.
“I see, I see. Hunt is the Dita Beard contact,” the president said, acknowledging this problem might resurrect the ITT scandal.
“Among other things. They’ve used him for a lot of stuff, apparently,” Haldeman added darkly. After a pause, though, Haldeman made it clear he was not telling Nixon everything. “It’s like all these other things, it’s all fringe bits and pieces that you don’t want to know, that’s why I’ve challenged this question of Hunt disappearing, and they say there is no question it’s better for Hunt to disappear than for Hunt to be available. And there’s no question that Hunt would be called in this.”
As Nixon responded with a neutral “hmmm,” Haldeman continued, “But the effectiveness of the Ehrlichman scenario or something like it is that you establish the admission of guilt at a low level and get rid of it, rather than letting it imply guilt up to the highest levels, which is, of course, what they’re trying very hard to do. By ‘they,’ I mean the press and the Democrats.”
“Well, sure, that’s the same thing,” Nixon added.
“I think our people deluded themselves, and I have to a degree, in thinking this was a Washington story that would not be of much interest to the networks,” Haldeman said, explaining that, because there was not much news, the media was “investigating those Cubans, and they’re bound to find and follow some of these strings.” They discussed the Cubans’ activities, as they had been reported by the media, on behalf of the Nixon campaign before Watergate, which would help establish the break-in as a Cuban story. But they ultimately agreed that with Ehrlichman’s scenario—having Liddy confess—the Cuban angle was not needed. But losing the Cuban version also presented a problem. “That’s one argument against the Liddy scenario, because you can claim that Howard Hunt and all the other guys have ties to the Cubans,” Haldeman noted, adding that Liddy’s confession would not include everyone involved.
“An elaborate deal, wasn’t it?” Nixon finally noted. “Mum, hmm,” Haldeman agreed. The president added, “Apparently they said or they implied that they had some plans to bug McGovern headquarters, too?”
“Oh, I don’t know. They found a plan of—” Haldeman wanted to correct the news media’s speculation, which was correct, however. “That’s a pretty shitty bit of journalism, incidentally, which they haven’t pointed out and we shouldn’t, but the reelection committee can. They had a plan that showed the layout of the ballroom area at the Doral Hotel, which is going to be McGovern’s headquarters. What the press didn’t point out is, the Doral Hotel is also going to be the Nixon headquarters. And we had a lot of plans of the Doral Hotel all over here, because it happens to be where we’re going on our room arrangements.”
“But who’s over there at the committee that can do a little slam-banging on that sort of thing?” the president inquired. “I think that you ought to chip away at things of that sort that are so obvious.”
“We should and we will. I’ve made a note of that one,” Haldeman responded, yet nobody was ever enlisted for that role. But this prompted further conversation about the press coverage of Watergate, and Haldeman continued to sort out the players; also, the president soon returned to the press coverage of Colson.
“I was not of the opinion that it would just be a Washington story,” Nixon said, but he had had second thoughts. “I think the country doesn’t give much of a shit about it. You see, everybody around here is all mortified by it. It’s a horrible thing to rebut. And the answer, of course, is that most people around the country probably think this is routine, that everybody’s trying to bug everybody else, it’s politics. Now, the purists probably won’t agree with that, but I don’t think they’re going to see a great uproar in the country about the Republicans’ committee trying to bug the Democratic headquarters. At least, that’s my view.”
“Well, that line of reasoning seems to me argues for following the Liddy scenario, saying, ‘Sure, some little lawyer who was trying to make a name for himself did a stupid thing,’” Haldeman suggested.
“Is Liddy willing?” Nixon asked.
“He says he is.* Apparently he is a little bit nuts. I have never met him, so it’s not fair to draw any judgment. But apparently he’s sort of a Tom Huston–type guy.” Haldeman’s reference to Tom Charles Huston, a right-wing zealot who had worked at the White House, was no doubt meant to characterize Liddy as a similar radical, a beat-the-bastards-any-way-and-every-way-possible character. “Well, he sort of likes the dramatic. He said: ‘If you want to put me before a firing squad and shoot me, that’s fine.’ Kind of like to be like Nathan Hale.”
“The beauty of the Liddy scenario is that as far as anybody under him is concerned, he’s where it came from. Even if we can’t count on those guys,” Haldeman continued, referring to the Cubans and McCord, “if Liddy admits guilt, then those guys can think any way they want, and it won’t matter. Because it’ll all tie back to Liddy, and he says: ‘Yeah, I got the money and I paid them the money and I told them to bug the place and I was going to be a hero.’ And then, we ask for compassion: This is a poor misguided kid who read too many spy stories, a little bit nutty, and obviously we’ll have to get rid of him, we made a mistake in having him in there, and that’s too bad.”
“Breaking and entering and so forth, without accomplishing it, is not a hell of a lot of crime,” the president observed. “If somebody was going to ask me whether I agree with Ziegler’s cut, calling it a third-rate burglary, I’d say, no, I disagree; it was a third-rate attempted burglary. That’s what it was. And it failed.” The president suggested checking the law, and based on his earlier conversations with Ehrlichman and Mitchell, Haldeman told him, “Well, they don’t think they can be hurt much on that. If they take a guilty plea, the lawyers all feel that they would get a fine and a suspended sentence, as long as they’re all first offenders.” And Haldeman added, “Which they apparently all are.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. So who’s going to talk to Mitchell today about this?”
“We have,” Haldeman reported.
“He’s thinking about the Liddy thing,” Nixon said, and then continued. “My inclination is, you have to do it, due to the fact that, if that’s the truth, the truth, you always figure, may come out, and you’re a hell of a lot better doing that than to build another tissue around the God damn thing. Let me say this: If it involved Mitchell, then I would think that you couldn’t do it, just because it would destroy him.”
“Well, that’s what bothers Ehrlichman. He’s not sure it doesn’t,” Haldeman noted.
“Does it involve Mitchell?” Nixon asked.
“I put it almost directly to Mitchell this morning, and he didn’t answer, so I don’t know whether it does or not,” Haldeman answered.
“Probably did,” the president surmised, quickly adding, “but don’t tell me about it. But you go ahead and do what you want. But if Liddy’ll take the rap on this, that’s fine.” Nixon would later tell others, and state in his memoir, that he never confronted Mitchell with the direct question of whether he had been involved in or had known about the planning of the Watergate break-in. As he explained, “[Mitchell] was one of my closest friends, and he had issued a public denial. I would never challenge what he had said; I felt that if there were something he thought I should know, he would’ve told me.” (Nixon once told Haldeman, suppose he did call Mitchell and confront him, and Mitchell said, “Yes, I did it.” What would Nixon say and do next?11)
Now that he had more information, Nixon told Haldeman, “I wouldn’t try to shove it in Miami direction,” meaning the Cuban fund-raising approach, “but I think that if you’re going to have Hunt on the lam, that’s going to be quite a story, he’s disappeared and so forth.”
“Except they’ve got no direct tie from Hunt, at least up until now,” Haldeman pointed out.
“The fact that he’s missing bears out the fact that he’s associated with the arrested Cubans, for the man on the street,” the president observed.
“That’s why it’s important to get to the FBI,” Haldeman explained. “There’s, as of now, nothing that puts Hunt into the case except his name in their notebooks, along with a lot of other things,” Haldeman claimed, oblivious to his conflicting conclusion.
“Why did the FBI put out all of that stuff?” Nixon asked. “It seems to me a rather bad thing to do. I mean, when you’re investigating a case, you don’t put out the fact that you found this bit of evidence, you found names and notebooks and the rest.”
“The Bureau didn’t. The DC police did,” Haldeman corrected him.
“Oh, I see. Okay, that would add up. They’re sort of stupid. Some press man gets to them, you know.”
Haldeman told the president that he thought the Democrats had control of the investigation, since Joseph “Califano’s got two men right in the U.S. Attorney’s Office.” Califano was a prominent Democratic attorney and former Lyndon Johnson White House aide. This information had come from John Mitchell, who only a few months earlier had been the attorney general of the United States, so he knew a great deal about all the U.S. Attorney’s Offices throughout the country. Throughout Watergate Mitchell expressed concern that the rank-and-file staff of both the District of Columbia’s U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI were filled with Democrats antagonistic to the Nixon administration. More specifically, Mitchell believed that two top assistant U.S. attorneys in the DC office, Earl Silbert and Seymour Glanzer, were hostile Democrats.12
“Well, we’d do the same thing, wouldn’t we?” Nixon asked.
“Sure. Oh, hell, they’re doing exactly what we’d do, and the lawsuit,” Haldeman said. He added admiringly, “It’s a damn good move. They’ve got Edward Bennett Williams into depositions. [He] is going to press to start immediately. And they’ve made no bones about it. They’ve said the reason they’re doing it is to get the depositions.”
The conversation stopped briefly, and the sound of paper shuffling on the president’s desk can be heard. When the conversation resumed, Nixon, speaking softly, evenly and with no enthusiasm, said, “Well, what you need is, what you can do about it today is, for Ehrlichman to talk to Gray,” tacitly approving the move to curtail the FBI. He then added, “Got to find out what the law is on the depositions, and so forth.” More animatedly, he reminded Haldeman: “They’re going to have Colson, for example, on depositions. And they’d probably try to unravel his whole relationship with Hunt.”
Haldeman suggested, “Which he could say is irrelevant, or his counsel could say is irrelevant, but that doesn’t matter in a deposition. That’s the problem. At least, that’s what Ehrlichman and Mitchell were explaining to me. The problem with a deposition process is that you don’t have the protection like you do in court. You can refuse to answer, but then they can go to the court and get an order for you to answer.”
The president pondered that in silence before responding. “Well, you don’t have much of a choice there, looks like, if the Liddy guy will do this.”
“Mitchell’s rightly, I think, a little afraid, ’cause of Liddy’s instability. Because, obviously, they’ll see that as a way for us to get out of it, and they’re not going to let Liddy off any easier than they have to.”
Nixon groaned, to which Haldeman responded, “For sure, that,” and then reminded the president, “John [Ehrlichman] just developed this scenario as we were talking this morning. And he and Mitchell and I all thought we ought not to move too fast on it. On first blush it looked like it had some possibilities, but we ought to work on what’s wrong with it.”
After another long silence, Nixon said his intuition told him he should not yet hold a press conference, reminding Haldeman that McGovern’s winning another primary would be the big story. The president thought he should learn more about Watergate, and what tactics should be used for dealing with it, before getting out before the press and commenting on it. Haldeman thought that he should not comment on it at all, to which Nixon agreed, but added, “Well, I know, but just no-commenting is hard to do, too.” On this note, the conversation turned to the president’s schedule, and then the decision was made to invite Colson into the conversation, to lift his spirits.
Colson arrived at the Oval Office at 10:13 A.M., and for the next twenty-five minutes, Nixon and Haldeman attempted to boost Colson’s morale and get a sense of his thinking, and then sent him back to battle. “So anyway, don’t let the bastards get you down, Chuck,” the president said, as Colson departed, with Haldeman leaving soon thereafter.
Bob Haldeman returned to the Oval Office at 1:24 P.M. for a conversation that would last an hour and forty-five minutes. Because Watergate had been covered in detail earlier, it came up only tangentially,13 but a discussion on the topic of anonymous campaign contributions foreshadowed the handling of Watergate two days later, during a so-called smoking-gun conversation on June 23 that would eventually prove fatal to the Nixon presidency.
In February 1972 the Congress had passed and the president had signed a new campaign finance law that called for the increased disclosure of campaign contributors. Congress provided a sixty-day grace period before the law went into effect, on April 7, 1972. Both Republican and Democratic presidential hopefuls used this grace period to raise unlimited amounts of new money from contributors who still wanted to remain anonymous, as did Nixon’s own reelection finance committee. George McGovern, however, seeing a political opportunity in what his primary opponents and the president were doing, publicly declared that he would reveal all of his contributors, even before the effective date, and challenged all other candidates to do likewise. Although McGovern actually had few truly large contributors, the news media made his proposal an issue. A few other candidates from both parties agreed to disclose their contributors, but the Nixon campaign, which had raised some $10 million, declined to do so. While this was perfectly legal, the president was being criticized by the news media, which suggested that his donors were special interests who were receiving benefits from his administration.14
On March 13 the president had requested that Haldeman consult with Mitchell about whether there would be “a substantial problem” if they disclosed names of contributors. Mitchell said it would, as they had raised funds from many Democrats on the promise that their contributions to Nixon would not be disclosed. Since they were following the letter of the law, Mitchell told Haldeman, they should “straight-arm” the news media by announcing that “the president’s not involved,” and that this was the work of his reelection committee. He believed that after the grace period expired the issue would go away,15 but instead the pressure had continued to grow, with virtually all the focus on the Nixon campaign.
As the president prepared for the June 22 press conference, his staff correctly anticipated that he would be questioned on this topic. The finance chairman of the reelection committee, former secretary of commerce Maurice Stans, was, like Mitchell, adamant that they honor their pledges to contributors, and felt that any donations should be returned rather than their donors revealed, but this was not an option anyone at the campaign wanted to consider.
It was during the June 21 conversation that Haldeman explained this problem to Nixon, and that much of the money that had been raised for his reelection was in the form of cash. As they were considering how to deal with this situation, the conversation drifted back to Watergate, first with an odd prediction by Nixon: “You will undoubtedly find that there’s going to be another bugging incident, probably against us, before this is over. I’m sure.” After further discussion of the new campaign law, Nixon had a suggestion: “Thing to do, I’m sure it’s already occurred to you, but on the PR side, every time there’s a leak from the White House or campaign headquarters, [we should] charge that we’re being bugged. Don’t you agree?” When Haldeman concurred, the president pushed the concept even further, explaining that Haldeman should have someone “plant a device,” but cautioned, “Do it if there’s anybody you can trust. Although I think you can trust, apparently, these Cubans. I think they probably are, to Hunt’s credit, pretty reliable characters.” The president took note of “the way they do operate, you know. They swear on this and that, their own blood, and so forth.”
Then Nixon went silent for a moment, before his thoughts turned again to the PR aspects of Watergate. Referring to the overreaction of his staff to the ITT scandal, he warned Haldeman, all the while tapping a finger rhythmically on his desk, not to make the same error regarding Watergate.
At 2:15 Ron Ziegler joined them, which was the press secretary’s first visit with the president since the arrests at the DNC. After discussing the mechanics and frequency of Nixon’s press conferences, the president asked Ziegler, “What do you want me to say about the bugging incident, and so forth?”
Ziegler urged the president to say nothing, for, contrary to the impression in the news summary, television networks were not treating the incident as a major story. “My view is, if they ask you, and they will,” Ziegler noted, “would be simply to say, ‘I have nothing to say about that. The appropriate legal agencies, through the due processes of law, as Attorney General Mitchell has already pointed out, and we pointed out at the White House, obviously this has no place in the political system. Now what is the next question?’” He said the president should not take a hard tone but simply give it the “brush-off.” Nixon made notes as they rehearsed responses, and the conversation moved to other topics.
At 3:11 P.M. the president departed the Oval Office with Haldeman and Ziegler to walk over to his EOB office, and then at 4:00 met with Chuck Colson, with Watergate only a passing topic.16 The president remained concerned about Hunt and what he might have done while working at the White House, and he asked Colson about Hunt’s work on ITT. Colson said he had sent Hunt out to Denver to interview Dita Beard, but it was not a matter he was worried about.
“He didn’t break any rules?” the president asked.
“He did do some stuff for me,” Colson responded, vaguely.
“But not for us?” the president asked, hopefully.
“Oh, all of it was for us,” Colson said, and repeated that he was not worried about Hunt’s other activities. He did offer the president an idea, however: “I think that we could develop a theory as to the CIA, if we wanted to. I’ve not thought that out. We know that Hunt has all these ties with these people.”
“He worked with them,” the president agreed, momentarily warming to the suggestion.
“Oh, he was their boss, and they were all CIA. And you take the cash, you go down to Latin America—”
Nixon, however, was headed in another direction. “I’ll tell you, I think that this has one plus to it, the Cubans thing works for us,” he said, more interested in his own cover story than any CIA proposal. When Nixon ran by Colson the idea of Liddy’s taking the rap and cutting their losses, Colson responded that he was for anything that got them out of it. But he added that he was deliberately staying out of the whole matter so that he could one day make an honest affidavit that he knew nothing about it.17
June 22, 1972 (Thursday)
First Watergate-Related Press Conference
The front-page headline of Thursday’s New York Times read 4 BEING HUNTED IN INQUIRY IN RAID ON DEMOCRATS. The story reported that, in addition to the five men who had been arrested, the investigators were looking for four more who had registered at the Watergate Hotel. (In fact, these were aliases of the Miami men who had been arrested.) It cited “Republican sources” as saying that Mitchell had ordered an investigation to determine the relationship of the CRP to the arrested parties, but that information was a ruse, for Mitchell never undertook such an investigation.1
By now it was clear, however, that The Washington Post was going to make a much larger issue out of Watergate. The city editor of the Post at the time of the arrests was Barry Sussman (who was soon to be appointed its special Watergate editor, and who would lead the paper to win a Pulitzer grand prize for its public service coverage). He was absolutely tantalized by the story as it unfolded, so he assigned two eager young reporters to it: Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Sussman later explained that there was a collective mind-set at the Post, from executive editor Ben Bradlee on down, that Nixon & Company were somehow complicit in Watergate.2
Contrary to popular belief, the White House was not particularly well plugged into the FBI’s investigation, and much of what the public (including Nixon himself) learned about it was from coverage in the Post, which in addition to Woodward and Bernstein had a dozen more reporters busy digging. Typical of the comprehensive coverage in the paper was Woodward’s front-page story on the morning of June 22, DEMOCRATS, GOP TIGHTEN SECURITY AFTER WATERGATE “BUGGING” CASE, in which he reported that Larry O’Brien said that diagrams of his personal offices and living quarters in Miami had been found in the belongings of the five arrested men.3 The Post also had three additional Watergate features, including one about the disappearance of Howard Hunt.4
After eating breakfast and scanning the morning newspapers, the president went directly to his EOB office, arriving at 9:20 A.M., where he planned to spend the day going through Pat Buchanan’s briefing books, in preparation for his press conference at 3:00 P.M., his first in months. At 9:40 he summoned Haldeman, and after a brief discussion about how politically effective the president’s family had become, he turned to Watergate.5
He told Haldeman he would respond to any questions about the matter as he had been advised by Mitchell and Ziegler but was certain he would be asked if there was any White House involvement. Here he needed some further guidance and thought, for the responses drafted by Buchanan sounded too much as if they had been drafted by a lawyer. As he paraphrased them aloud—“Nothing has happened to reduce my confidence in members of the White House staff”—he complained, “Well, that [is] too much of an obvious [reply], in my opinion. I think I should state there’s no White House involvement.” But he wanted to be sure that that was not too broad a statement, since it had not been suggested by whoever had prepared the briefing material.6
“I don’t know what, it may be that their concern is that there is some White House involvement?” the president asked.
“No,” Haldeman answered quickly. “The only question is whether that technically puts you in a—”
“—a position of commenting on it?” the president interrupted.
“Well, no, in a sense that, on a direct basis of White House involvement, I think you’re absolutely clean,” Haldeman replied hesitantly. Only days earlier, on June 20, he had reminded the president that a number of members of the staff—including the president and himself—were aware of the reelection committee’s intelligence operation: “We all knew that there were some,” he had said, a sentence the president had completed with “intelligence things.” Haldeman now rephrased the statement more prudently: “Some activities, and we were getting reports, or some input here and there.” When Haldeman responded to Nixon’s question on June 20, his choice of the words “on a direct basis” regarding the White House was a careful qualification of the potential involvement of the staff, including that of Colson and myself, but particularly his own.
“Hunt’s the only line to the White House,” Haldeman continued, but he raised the concern that both Gordon Liddy and Jeb Magruder had once been members of the White House staff.
“But they aren’t White House now,” Nixon pointed out.
The president now took a call from Ziegler,* and after he hung up summarized for Haldeman the Watergate strategy they had agreed on.
“Well, I think I’ll just say Mr. Ziegler’s covered that, because he said he was asked about Hunt, and he said he left the White House three months ago. He said he was asked about Colson the first day, he checked with Colson, he was not involved. I’ll say Mr. Ziegler has covered that. It keeps me from getting into it, and then they bring up another story, the president says White House was not involved.”
Haldeman did have some good news to report: “We’re in pretty good shape. Today’s news is all good. In the first place, we got Judge Richey for the civil case. The civil case is kind of worrisome. The Democrats outsmarted themselves. They made a fatal legal error. They filed the suit on behalf of all Democrats, thereby disqualifying any Democratic judge from hearing it. And according to [former attorney general and current secretary of state] Bill Rogers, [Richey’s] programmable, and knows exactly what’s going on. Richey’s played it just beautifully.” Haldeman described how the Democrats had planned to “move immediately on depositions,” but Richey would “entertain all sorts of delaying motions.”
“He also knows he has a possibility of moving up in the world,” the president added, and then turned to the fact that security at the Republican National Committee and the CRP had been beefed up, and warned that they needed to be careful, because papers had been stolen from the White House.* Discussing security and leaks brought the president back to reporters who published stolen classified government documents. That morning’s Post editorial gloated over the fact that nothing had gone amiss, no national security calamity had occurred, when the classified Pentagon Papers had been published. Nixon instructed Haldeman to have a story written by at least one columnist critical of Pulitzers being awarded for such reporting. “We’ll get that,” Haldeman assured him. “We’ve got another thing going that’s taken hold a little bit, which is, we’ve started moving on the Hill, letting things come out from there, which is that this whole Watergate thing is a Jack Anderson thing.” Haldeman reported about how members of Congress and their staffs had “started a rumor yesterday morning, and it’s starting to come back already. That Jack Anderson has put all this together. He was bugging the Democratic offices and, you know, because these Cubans are tied to him,” Haldeman explained (which, in fact, was correct with regard to Frank Sturgis). “These are agents he’s used.” Haldeman said the White House had planted the rumor that they had been working for Anderson at the DNC. “So, the great thing about it is, it is so totally fucked up, and so, so badly done, that nobody believes we could have done it. It’s just beyond comprehension.”
“Well, it sounds like a comic opera, really,” the president added. Haldeman agreed, saying, “It really does, it would make a funny God damn movie.” The president responded, “I mean, you know, here’s these Cubans with their accents,” and Nixon began laughing as Haldeman continued the description: “Wearing these rubber gloves, standing there in their expensive, well-made business suits, wearing rubber gloves, and putting their hands up and shouting ‘Don’t shoot’ when the police come in. It really is like a comic opera.” Then, on a serious note, Haldeman added, “Also, they have no case on Hunt.”
“Why?” Nixon asked.
“They have not been able to make him. They can’t put him into the scene at all,” Haldeman explained. “We know where he was, though.”
“But they don’t. The FBI doesn’t?” the president asked.
“That’s right,” Haldeman assured him, and added, “They’ve pursued him and been unable to tie him in at all to the case.”
“What about the disappearance?” which had been reported in the Post. “So, he’ll come back?”
“Well, they’ve got no warrant for him, so they don’t care whether he disappeared,” Haldeman replied. “The legal people, the FBI, who are running the investigation, have no way to fix Hunt in the case. They have issued no warrant for him. They don’t care whether he disappears or not. The only thing there is, his name’s in the guy’s address book. But so is the hotel clerk’s name.”
“Is Rebozo’s name in anyone’s address book?” Nixon asked.
“No, I don’t think so. He told me he doesn’t know any of these guys,” Haldeman said. The president thought Bebe did know Suarez, whose name had come up in Jack Anderson’s commentary on the Watergate break-in and arrests. “But, hell, Suarez is one of the biggest contractors in Florida,” the president noted.
Haldeman had further encouraging news: “Another good break is, they can’t trace the currency.”
“They traced it to a Miami bank,” the president pointed out, again reporting what he had read in the Post.
“They traced it to a Miami bank, which was easily done. But the bank cannot trace the thing beyond that. They’re not required to, and they don’t maintain any record of where, or who takes it, when it’s hundred-dollar bills. When it’s bigger denominations, they have to keep a record, but with hundred-dollar bills, they don’t. Even if there were [a way to trace the source of the funds], it wouldn’t be a very great problem, unless it can go two more steps, because the funds came from a money order from a South American country. They might be able to get to the South American country and find out where the money order came from, and that isn’t good. Up to that point we’re all right, and they can’t even go to the next place.”
Referring to the CRP, Haldeman added, “They’re going to continue to crank up the Cuban operation.”
“How high up?” Nixon interrupted.
“Well, the FBI’s investigation is beginning to look into other Cubans, and that kind of thing. These guys are allied in some other enterprises that we don’t care about.” Haldeman felt this was still a pretty encouraging story, as long as they didn’t dig too deep—though he did not explain what they might dig up, which he apparently felt the president need not consider. “See, the thing we forget is that we know too much, and therefore read too much into what we see that other people can’t read into it. I mean, what seems obvious to us because of what we know is not obvious to other people.”
After a brief discussion of how little attention the networks were paying to the Cuban connection, Haldeman continued, “One thing they are thinking about doing at the CRP, which we could do, and it would be easy to cover it with no problem, just for safety’s sake, is to get Liddy out of the country. They’ll just have him go over to Europe and be checking on some of our financial contributions, the fund-raising drive in Europe.”
“You mean, the idea being, they’re not after him?” Nixon asked.
“Not yet. But they figure, maybe if he’s moved around, it would be good. They’ve sent him to L.A. He’s had some business there. And he can as a routine matter go to Europe, and it’s just as well if something does surface not to have him around, or have to move him after it does. And then they can wait and see; if we want him back, it’s easy to bring him back.
“How the hell can you question him, unless somebody talks?” Nixon asked.
“If somebody talks, which is still a potential,” Haldeman said. “Now, they’re leaving McCord in jail to keep an eye on the other guys and maintain contact with them.”
This situation surprised the president. “The guys there, they don’t want to get them out on bail?”
“Apparently they’d rather leave them in right now.”
“They probably don’t mind,” the president surmised.
“For a lot of reasons, they’re better off in jail,” Haldeman agreed.
The June 22, 1972, press conference was handled as an impromptu event in the Oval Office, where the White House press corps gathered around the president’s desk for an informal question-and-answer session, with no radio or television coverage. A White House stenographer prepared an official transcript of the event, which was also recorded. Ziegler had set the ground rules for the event, which was limited to domestic issues. At 3:04 the president entered, nodding his greetings. Frank Cormier, the senior wire service correspondent, began the session with a loaded Watergate question, just as had been anticipated.
“Mr. O’Brien has said that the people who bugged his headquarters had a direct link to the White House. Have you had any sort of investigation made to determine whether this is true?” Cormier asked.
“Mr. Ziegler, and also Mr. Mitchell, speaking for the campaign committee, have responded to questions on this in great detail,” the president began, then stepped closer to his desk and the gathered reporters. “They have stated my position and have also stated the facts accurately. This kind of activity, as Mr. Ziegler has indicated, has no place whatever in our electoral process, or in our governmental process. And, as Mr. Ziegler has stated, the White House has had no involvement whatever in this particular incident. As far as the matter now is concerned, it is under investigation, as it should be, by the proper legal authorities, by the District of Columbia police, and by the FBI. I will not comment on those matters, particularly since possible criminal charges are involved.”
Two thirds of the way through the press conference the president called on Bonnie Angelo, of Time magazine, who began, “Mr. Mitchell has declined to make public the source of about ten million dollars of contributions to your reelection fund. I know that this is in the letter of the law, but I wonder, in the spirit of the law, of more openness, what you think about that and might you make them public?”
“Mr. Ziegler has, I think, responded to that, and Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Stans. I think it is Mr. Stans who has declined to do that. I support the position that Mr. Stans has taken,” the president said. He was, in fact, making his decision on the issue as he spoke. “When we talk about the spirit of the law and the letter of the law, my evaluation is that it is the responsibility of all individuals, a high moral responsibility, to obey the law and to obey it totally. Now, if the Congress wanted this law to apply to contributions before the date in April that it said the law should take effect, it could have made it apply. The Congress did not apply it before that date, and under the circumstances, Mr. Stans has said we will comply with the law as the Congress has written it, and I support his decision.”7
When Haldeman dictated his diary entry that evening he recorded what he considered positive developments in the Watergate matter. In fact, the investigation had taken a turn for the worst. I tried to call Haldeman that evening to report what I had learned, but he was attending a dinner at the Kennedy Center, as a member of the board of trustees.
June 23, 1972 (Friday)
Firing the “Smoking Gun”
The June 23 New York Times ran a front-page Watergate story focused on the Cuban angle, suggesting that an organization of Cuban veterans who had served in the U.S. Army after the Bay of Pigs had been involved. It included Nixon’s comment at his press conference that “the White House had ‘no involvement whatsoever [sic]’ in the incident at the Democratic headquarters.”1 The Washington Post moved Watergate to the Metro section and featured photos of all the men arrested at the DNC on their way to a bail hearing. An article by Woodward and Jim Mann included President Nixon’s press conference statement, actually tracking what the president had said: “The White House has had no involvement whatever in this particular incident.”2 The Post also had a story on the Cuban exile community’s view of the Watergate incident: They did not understand it.3
Although it was highly unusual for me to call Haldeman on his interoffice phone line, that morning I did so at the request of John Mitchell, with whom I had spoken the preceding evening. Just before that conversation with Mitchell I had met with acting FBI director Pat Gray and learned that he felt the FBI investigation was “out of control,” and there was nothing he could do about it. Gray was candid in admitting that he really did not know how to keep the FBI’s investigation within bounds, but he trusted the man handling the investigation, Assistant Director Mark Felt, to do so. As time and events have revealed, Felt (better know as Bob Woodward’s “Deep Throat”) had his own agenda: Using leaks, he would either embarrass Pat Gray out of the top job, hoping that the president would instead select an old hand like Felt for it because he could control the place, or make Gray appear conspicuously incompetent to the Senate, which would not confirm him, and then Felt would be available to pick up the pieces.4 While Felt and the old Hoover crowd certainly did not want to see Nixon defeated by someone like George McGovern, who might relieve all of them of their jobs, they also did not want an outsider like Gray, a former assistant attorney general of the civil division, not even a law-enforcement type, running their FBI.
As a former attorney general, Mitchell was not surprised that Gray could not control the FBI. I had already told Mitchell that Assistant Attorney General Henry Petersen, the head of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division and the Watergate investigation, said he would not get into unrelated issues, such as campaign contributions.5 But also, based on what Gray had said during our meeting, it was clear that neither Petersen nor U.S. Attorney Harold Titus was providing any guidance to the FBI, which had already begun aggressively tracing the money found on the burglars and digging into campaign contributions. Gray explained that FBI agents had visited arrested DNC burglar Bernard Barker’s bank, a development that had been leaked to The Washington Post the day before. Because of that leak, Haldeman, Ehrlichman and I were told by Mitchell that Liddy had been given checks from two “anonymous” donors—Ken Dahlberg, a CRP fund-raiser, and a Mexican attorney by the name of Manuel Ogarrio—which had arrived in Washington after the April 7, 1972, cutoff date, but which had actually been in the possession of CRP fund-raisers before the cutoff. Finance committee general counsel G. Gordon Liddy had advised that he would solve the problem, which we had now learned he had done by giving the checks to his recruited Watergate burglar Bernard Barker, who had cashed them at his bank, the Republic National Bank of Miami. Although the money had been returned to CRP in early May and commingled with other cash in the committee’s safe, by pure happenstance some of that money had later been given to Liddy for his intelligence-gathering operation. Mitchell, aware of this problem, was deeply concerned that innocent campaign contributors who had been promised anonymity were now going to not only be revealed but become involved in Watergate.
During my conversation with Mitchell, I also told him Gray had said that many in the FBI thought they had run into a CIA operation at the Watergate, because of all the agency connections. This prompted Mitchell, who thought Watergate could embarrass the CIA, to request that I suggest to Haldeman that he call in Vernon “Dick” Walters, the new deputy director of the CIA, to invoke the “delimitation agreement.” Mitchell explained that this was a long-standing understanding between the FBI and the CIA to not investigate each other’s activities.
Until 1997, when told by the BBC during its preparation of a documentary series on Watergate, I was unaware (as were investigators and prosecutors) that Haldeman had made notes of our June 23 conversation, during which I relayed what Gray had told me and Mitchell’s recommendation. Those notes were as follows:
Invest[igation] out of control—Gray doesn’t know what to do
They’ve found Dahlberg
Also $ out of Mex[ican] Bank
W/[ill] know who the depositors were today
informant came into Miami [FBI office]
photog[rapher] devel[oped] film for [arrested Watergate burglar] Barker—pix DNC
Peterson [sic]—Titus—no guidance
Is at brink right now—
Either w/[ill] open all up—or be closed
FBI conv[inced] its CIA—Cols test[imony to FBI] cleared him
Gray looking for way out—called Helms
call Walters in—
say don’t know where going—need some help
have him talk to Gray
When Haldeman arrived in the Oval Office at 10:04 on the morning of June 23, 1972, he was carrying the notes of our conversation. As he seated himself, the president was still reading documents Alex Butterfield had brought in for his signature; his first comment to Haldeman was that he wanted to get up to Camp David as soon as possible.6 Haldeman said that Secretary of State Rogers wanted a quick meeting, and Henry Kissinger was returning from his secret trip to China. Nixon said he would meet them together and invite Henry to join him at Camp David for dinner and a full debriefing. When Butterfield departed, Haldeman turned to Watergate and the latest developments.*
“Now, on the investigation, you know, the Democratic break-in thing,” Haldeman began, “we’re back to the problem area, because the FBI is not under control, because Gray doesn’t exactly know how to control them, and their investigation is now leading into some productive areas.” More specifically, he explained, the FBI had “been able to trace the money” found on the burglars to the bank that issued the new hundred-dollar bills, although not to the individuals to whom the bills had been given. “And, and it goes in some directions we don’t want it to go.”
Haldeman shared other information Gray had given me, including that a photographer who had developed film for Watergate burglar Bernard Barker had gone to the FBI in Miami with photographs of documents on Democratic National Committee letterhead. He then turned to the reason he was raising this matter, although neither Mitchell nor I had suggested it be taken to the president: “Mitchell came up with yesterday, and John Dean analyzed very carefully last night and concludes, concurs now with Mitchell’s recommendation that the only way to solve this . . .” Here he paused and prefaced the recommendation with a bit of selling, telling the president, “We’re set up beautifully to do it, in that the only network that paid any attention to the Watergate story last night was NBC,” and summarized NBC’s coverage as “a massive story on the Cuban thing, and all that.”
Haldeman then continued with his recommendation regarding the out-of-control FBI: “That the way to handle this now is for us to have [CIA deputy director Vernon] Walters call Pat Gray and just say, stay the hell out of this business here, we don’t want you to go any further on it.” Haldeman did not explain what business he was talking about. In fact, I had told Haldeman I was concerned that the out-of-control FBI was going where Henry Petersen had assured me the investigation would not go, and that was into campaign contributions, as I later testified, as did Haldeman.7 Although Haldeman’s comment to the president did not make that clear, I have little doubt that Nixon and Haldeman understood that what they were talking about was perfectly legal anonymous campaign money. Haldeman assured the president that having Walters do this would not be “an unusual development.” The president agreed, and Haldeman added, “And that would take care of it”—the “it” being a campaign contribution.8
“What about Pat Gray, you mean he doesn’t want to?” Nixon asked.
“Pat does want to. He doesn’t know how to, and he doesn’t have any basis for doing it. Given this, he will then have the basis. He’ll call Mark Felt in, and Felt wants to cooperate because he’s ambitious, and say, we’ve got the signal from across the river to put the hold on this. And that will fit rather well, because the FBI agents who are working the case, at this point, feel that it is the CIA.”
“But they’ve traced the money to whom?”
“Well, they’ve traced to a name, but they haven’t gotten to the guy yet.”
Fearing the worst, the president asked: “Who is it, is it somebody here?”
“Ken Dahlberg,” Haldeman said.
“Who the hell is Ken Dahlberg?”
Haldeman explained that Dahlberg had provided twenty-five thousand dollars in Minnesota, and his check ended up with Bernard Barker. But there was more money involved, Haldeman said: Funds from contributors in Texas went to a bank in Mexico, and the FBI would be tracing these names today. Haldeman had been told how Liddy, as general counsel for the CRP finance committee, had passed the checks on to Barker to cash in his Miami bank, which he then returned.
The president’s first reaction was that the FBI would have nothing if these contributors did not cooperate, for he understood from his background and experience that no one had to talk to an FBI agent.9 Sharing his thoughts, he told Haldeman, “Well, I mean, there’s no way, I’m just thinking, if they don’t cooperate, what do they say? They were approached by the Cubans. That’s what Dahlberg has to say, the Texans, too. Is that the idea?”
“Well, if they will. But then we’re relying on more and more people all the time. That’s the problem. And the FBI will stop if we could take this other step.” In short, rather than enlist liars, Haldeman wanted to simply curtail the FBI’s investigation.
“Alright, fine. Right,” the president said, approving the action.
“And they seem to feel the thing to do is get them to stop.” Haldeman’s “they” was an apparent reference to Mitchell and me. Haldeman was usually an honest broker in passing along thoughts from the staff to the president, which suggests that, since he was now calling for a much more aggressive approach than either Mitchell or I had ever proposed, it is possible that Haldeman had discussed this further with Mitchell when they met in Haldeman’s office after we had spoken.10 Mitchell might have suggested that Ehrlichman and Haldeman call Helms in.
“Right, fine,” the president repeated, and Haldeman explained the mechanics of it.
“They say the only way to do that is a White House instruction. And it’s got to be to Helms and, ah, what’s his name? Walters.”
“Walters,” the president echoed.
“And the proposal would be that Ehrlichman and I call them in—”
“All right, fine,” the president said. Having approved the plan, the president now wanted to know how Haldeman was going to deal with Helms and Walters. Given the fact that “we protected Helms from one hell of a lot of things,” Nixon believed he would be receptive.11
“That’s what Ehrlichman says,” Haldeman added, regarding Nixon’s earlier assistance to the CIA.
Nixon thought the way to approach Helms was by mentioning Howard Hunt, who he figured might be a sore spot for the CIA. “Of course, with Hunt, you will uncover a lot of problems,” the president said, when suggesting wording for the approach. “See, you open that scab, there’s a hell of a lot of things, and that we just feel that it would be very detrimental to have this thing go any further. This involves these Cubans, Hunt, and a lot of hanky-panky that we have nothing to do with ourselves.” Having dealt with the FBI question, the president again returned to that of Mitchell’s involvement in the unfolding mess. “One thing I want to know, did Mitchell know about this thing to any much of a degree?”
“I think so,” Haldeman said ambiguously, apparently referring to Watergate, since Haldeman knew Mitchell had no knowledge of the handling of the campaign money. It is at this point that the conversation becomes somewhat difficult when they are clearly talking about different subjects and seamlessly shift between them, but I believe I have sorted it out correctly.
“Ssshiiit,” the president reacted in a hushed, hissing tone.
“I don’t think he knew the details,” Haldeman continued, “but I think he knew,” still apparently talking about Mitchell and the break-in.
But then Nixon made it clear he was talking about campaign contributions when he added, “He didn’t know how it was going to be handled, though, with Dahlberg and the Texans and so forth, did he? Well, who was the asshole that did this thing? Is it Liddy? Is that the fellow? He must be a little nuts.”
“He is,” Haldeman confirmed.
“I mean, he just isn’t well screwed on, is he? Isn’t that the problem?” Nixon asked.
“No, but he was under pressure, apparently, to get more information, and as he got more pressure, he pushed the people harder to move harder on,” Haldeman answered, clearly referring to Watergate.
“Pressure from Mitchell?” Nixon asked, now understanding that Haldeman had changed the topic.
“Mitchell has said that everybody was concerned about ITT, or something, so do something.” The president was trying to understand what had motivated Mitchell, and it appears he was referring to their June 20 conversation, for no one else had spoken to Mitchell about why the break-in had been undertaken.
The president was unhappy to learn these things, and had received enough bad news. “All right, fine, I understand it all. We won’t second-guess Mitchell and the rest. Thank God it wasn’t Colson,” he said, referring again to Watergate.
On Colson, Haldeman had some good news, which I had given him in our earlier conversation. The FBI had interviewed Colson the day before and established that he was not involved. Rather, as Haldeman told the president, “The FBI guys working the case had concluded that there were one or two possibilities, they think it was either a White House operation and they [the White House] had some obscure reasons for it, or it was the Cubans and the CIA. And after their interrogation of Colson yesterday, they concluded it was not the White House but are now convinced it is a CIA thing, so the CIA turnoff would—”
“Well, not sure of their analysis, I must say that. I’m not going to get that involved,” the president noted.
“No, sir. We don’t want you to,” Haldeman told him.
“You call them in.”
“Good,” Haldeman said.
“Good deal. Play it tough. That’s the way they play it, and that’s the way we are going to play it,” which the president later said was a reference to the Democrats, not the CIA.
“Okay, we’ll do it,” Haldeman reassured him, and they moved on to other topics.
As the conversation was coming to a close, the president was still thinking about the plan to call in the CIA. “When you get these people in say, look, the problem is that this will open the whole Bay of Pigs thing, and the president just feels that, I mean, without going into the details, don’t lie to them to the extent to say there is no involvement, but just say this is sort of a comedy of errors, bizarre, without getting into it.” He suggested Haldeman tell them that “the president believes that it is going to open the whole Bay of Pigs thing up again. And because these people [referring to the Democrats] are playing for keeps, that they should call the FBI in and say that we wish for the country, don’t go any further into this case, period! And that destroys the case.” Haldeman agreed, and the president added, “That’s the way to put it, do it straight now.” While Nixon appears to have intended to escalate the use of the CIA beyond merely cutting off the FBI’s pursuit of campaign funds, when Haldeman called in Helms and Walters, he only addressed the Mexican money, so again it is unclear whether they were on the same wavelength.12
Years later, Haldeman admitted he had gone far beyond anything Mitchell and I had recommended. As he explained, “Dean had suggested that I call Walters at the CIA. I knew Walters well. Normally, I would have simply called him over to my office at the White House and asked him if he would help us out. Whether he would have turned me down or not doesn’t matter. The fact is, there never would have been the ‘smoking gun’ conversation in the Oval Office that resulted in Nixon’s resignation if I had just called Walters myself, as I usually would have.” While Haldeman acknowledged that he had done “something I shouldn’t have done,” and that it was “a crucial—even historical—error,” he never did explain why he involved Ehrlichman and Helms, or why he remained silent about his notes of our conversation.
Reporters and historians (as well as Richard Nixon) have also failed to understand the brief exchange, when this matter arose again, in the Oval Office between 1:04 P.M. and 1:13 P.M. on June 23.13 This second conversation has been viewed as further evidence of the president thrusting himself into the Helms and Walters meeting by summoning Haldeman back to the Oval Office just before it took place. Nixon (not to mention his researchers for his memoir) got the facts wrong: The president did not, as he wrote in his memoir, call “for Haldeman to come in again” after a meeting with his economic advisers and two ceremonial meetings to further instruct him on what to say to Helms and Walters.14 Rather, it was Haldeman who initiated the follow-up discussion. He already needed to go to the president’s office in Ehrlichman’s place to edit a statement on higher education legislation to be released later that afternoon. Haldeman was covering this so Ehrlichman could be in his office when Helms and Walters arrived.15
“Okay. Take the God damn thing,” the president said, as he finished the last of the editing of the statement he was going to personally deliver on camera. Then he asked Haldeman where he was meeting with Helms and Walters. When Haldeman told him it would be in Ehrlichman’s office, the president can be heard tapping his finger on his desk, a typical contemplative gesture, before sharing his thoughts about it. “I’d say, the primary reason, you’ve got to cut it the hell off. I just don’t think, ah, it would be very bad to have this fellow Hunt, you know, he knows too damn much. And he was involved [in the Watergate break-in], we happen to know that. And if it gets out, the whole, this is all involved in the Cuban thing, it’s a fiasco, and it’s going to make the FBI”—he had misspoken and corrected himself—“the CIA look bad, it’s going to make Hunt look bad, and it’s likely to blow the whole Bay of Pigs thing, which we think would be very unfortunate for the CIA, and for the country at this time, and for American foreign policy. And he’s just got to tell them, lay off.”
“Yeah, that’s the basis I’m going to do it on. Just leave it at that,” Haldeman said.
“I don’t want them to get any idea that we’re doing it because of our concern about the political, and they know the, I wouldn’t tell them it is not political,” Nixon said. Haldeman agreed, and Nixon continued, “I’d just say, look, it’s because of the Hunt involvement, just say, yeah, Hunt got involved, is involved in this sort of thing.” The president wanted to use Hunt as the excuse because he thought the CIA cover—a seed Colson had planted a few days earlier—was a “good move.” But it is less than clear precisely what he actually had in mind for the CIA to do. Suffice it to say that when this conversation is viewed in the context of what preceded it and what followed, its intent is not as clear as most believed at the time it became public.
Following the discussion with Helms and Walters, Haldeman met with the president in his EOB office, at 2:20 P.M., to give him a report.16 “Well, it’s no problem,” he announced. “Had the two of them in, and—”
“You scare Helms to death, did you?” the president interrupted.
“Well, it’s kind of interesting. Walters just sat there. Made the point, I didn’t mention Hunt at the opening of it, I just said that this thing would lead in the directions that were going to create some very major potential problems, that they were exploring leads that lead back into areas that would be harmful to the CIA, harmful to the government. But Walters didn’t say much.” Haldeman reported that Helms said the CIA had nothing to do with Watergate: “Gray had called [him], told them what he knew, and said, ‘I think we’ve run right into the middle of a CIA covert operation here.’ Helms said, ‘Nothing that we’ve got going at all,’ and that was the end of that conversation.”
Haldeman then turned to what he and Ehrlichman had told Helms. “We said, well, the problem is that it tracks back to the Bay of Pigs. It tracks back to some other stuff, if their leads run out to people who had no involvement in this except by contacts or connections, but it gets to areas that are going to be raised. The whole problem [is] this fellow Hunt, so at that point Helms kind of got the picture, very clearly. He said, ‘We’ll be very happy to be helpful to, you know, we’ll handle everything you want. I would like to know the reason for being helpful.’” But Haldeman said that he was not sharing that information. “And it may have appeared, when he wasn’t going to get such information explicitly but was gonna get it through generality, he said fine. And Walters was ready to do it, Walters said that.” Haldeman chuckled. “And Walters is going to make a call to Gray, I think. That’s the way we put it, that’s the way it was left.”
“How would that work, though?” the president asked, very clearly referring to the campaign contribution money. He wanted to know what would happen if the judge pulled in people from the Miami bank and asked them about Barker’s account. Haldeman conceded this could be a problem. “The point that John [Ehrlichman] made is, the Bureau is going all-out on this because they don’t know what they’re uncovering. Because they think they need to pursue it. And they don’t need to, because they’ve already got their case as far as the charges against these men, or something, so they don’t need anything further on that. And, as they pursue it, they’re uncovering stuff that’s none of their business,” he paraphrased, clearly referring to the campaign contributions, though Ehrlichman, it seems, was also thinking of Hunt’s other activities, ones that predated Watergate.
“One thing Helms did raise,” Haldeman said, “is, he said he asked Gray why he felt they’re going into a CIA thing, and Gray said because of the characters involved and the amount of money involved. He said there’s a lot of dough.”
Just before six o’clock that evening the president was joined by First Lady Pat Nixon, his daughter and son-in-law Julie and David Eisenhower, Henry Kissinger and White House secretary Terry Decker for the thirty-minute helicopter flight from the South Grounds of the White House to Camp David, Maryland, for the weekend. Haldeman would travel by car to Camp David on Saturday, June 24, 1972. The president planned to use the weekend to start preparing for his nationally televised press conference, to be held in the East Room of the White House, on June 29, 1972, which was the last major commitment on his schedule before his departure for California, where the pace of work was cut back at the Western White House in San Clemente, California.
June 24 to July 1, 1972
Martha’s Breakdown, John’s Resignation and Another Scenario
On June 24 Nixon had breakfast in Aspen Lodge, the presidential residence at Camp David. What caught his attention in the papers that morning was a story in The Washington Post by Helen Thomas, a United Press International (UPI) reporter, about another storm brewing. Martha Mitchell had called Thomas from California to announce that she had given her husband, John, an “ultimatum to get out of politics” or she would leave him. Thomas reported that Martha’s call had ended abruptly when someone apparently tried to take the phone away from her as she protested, “You just get away!” With those words the connection was broken. When Thomas called back she was told that “Mrs. Mitchell is indisposed and cannot talk.” Thomas then called John Mitchell at his Watergate apartment, reported the situation and found him amused. He said Martha never liked his being in politics and confided, “We have a compact. We have agreed we’re going to get the hell out of this gambit. We aren’t going to be in Washington after November 7 [the date of the election]. We’re going to leave lock, stock and barrel. We have an understanding. We’re going to get out of this rat race. We have no interest.” Mitchell informed Thomas that his wife was in California with her sister and a secretary, who had probably sought to stop her from calling. Mitchell added, “She’s great. That little sweetheart. I love her so much. She gets a little upset about politics, but she loves me and I love her and that’s what counts.”1
Nixon and his top aides had witnessed such behavior from Martha before, during the previous campaign and periodically during Mitchell’s tenure as attorney general. Martha had gone (either voluntarily or involuntarily committed by John) to Craig House, a psychiatric hospital in Beacon, New York, to deal with a drinking problem before coming to Washington, and while living in the capital she had spent time in the VIP wing of Walter Reed Army Medical Center.2 But Nixon understood that with this latest revelation the responsibilities of the president’s reelection campaign were now more than John Mitchell could handle. It was a situation that had to be addressed quickly.
Haldeman joined the president at 2:29 P.M. in Aspen Lodge, where they talked briefly before continuing out by the swimming pool.3 (The Aspen Lodge recording system had been installed only a month earlier, and it included the president’s study as well as the two telephones in it.) After a brief discussion of Martha Mitchell, Haldeman reported that he had nothing new on Watergate. “We forwarded the message to Vernon Walters, and it was properly received,” Haldeman said. “And no problem with the director.” Somewhat wishfully, Nixon said he felt that some of those involved in the Watergate operation should plead guilty. Haldeman agreed, but wondered, “Who?”
“Fair question,” the president responded. They discussed the civil lawsuit and how the Democrats hoped to move quickly on depositions and to “slap a subpoena on Mitchell,” as Haldeman described it. The president figured they would go after Colson to try to learn about the White House’s political activities. Haldeman was not concerned but rather found it amusing that “nobody believes the truth.” When a surprised Nixon asked, “You don’t think so?” Haldeman explained, “Oh, I don’t think at this point, they don’t. Even our own people don’t think the Cubans did it. You know, the press and the Democrats are trying to push it onto us.” Haldeman’s bemusement belied the situation, for as he wrote in his diary later that day: “The problems on Watergate continue to multiply as John Dean runs into more and more FBI leads that he has to figure out ways to cope with.”
June 25, 1973, Sunday, Camp David
The president slept late and had breakfast at 10:30 A.M. He went to Birch Lodge to work at 11:26 A.M. and requested that Haldeman join him. They talked for an hour and a half, but there was no recording equipment at that location. According to Haldeman’s diary, they discussed the campaign, which, in turn, led to Martha Mitchell, but Haldeman had little more than what had been reported the day before.4
The president was clearly burned by an op-ed by columnist Joseph Kraft, THE WATERGATE CAPER, in that Sunday’s Washington Post, for he raised it with several of his aides during the day. In his column, Kraft—unaware at the time that the Nixon White House had tried to bug his home and office to uncover his sources within the administration, and that when the first attempt failed the FBI succeeded on a second try, while Kraft was in Paris on assignment, though it ultimately never discovered who was leaking—launched a direct attack on Nixon and Mitchell. While no one believed Nixon and Mitchell were so foolish as to have been directly involved in the Watergate caper, he wrote, “you don’t hear anybody say that President Nixon and John Mitchell couldn’t have been involved because they are too honorable and high-minded, too sensitive to the requirements of decency, fair play and law.” Rather, Kraft argued, “The central fact is that the president and his campaign manager have set a tone that positively encourages dirty work by low-level operators. The president’s record goes back a long way. Every election he has fought since 1946 has featured smear charges, knees in the groin and thumbs in the eye.” Kraft said Nixon had a “special tolerance [for] using unethical means for partisan purposes” and for “[b]ending the law for political advantage.” Whoever had done this deed of “doing the dirty on the Democrats,” Kraft concluded, did so to earn “good marks in high favor” from Nixon and Mitchell.5
Kraft further charged that Mitchell had, in his very brief public career as attorney general, compiled “deep associations in matters involving chicanery and the cutting of corners,” citing high-profile prosecutions undertaken with an “astonishing insufficiency of evidence”; the use of unconstitutional authority (unanimously condemned by the Supreme Court) to bug domestic subversives without judicial approval; and the appointment, as head of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, of Will Wilson, a man who was then forced to resign because of “a gamy Texas scandal involving fraud and bribery.”6
June 26, 1972, Monday, the White House
Martha Mitchell’s threat to leave her husband was now a front-page story in The Washington Post. Helen Thomas reported that she’d received another “tearful telephone call” from Martha, who had relocated to the Westchester Country Club in Rye, New York. Martha claimed she was “a political prisoner” who couldn’t stand the life she’d been living. “It’s horrible to me. I have been through so much. I don’t like it. Martha isn’t going to stand for it,” she announced. “I love my husband very much. But I’m not going to stand for all those dirty things that go on,” she hinted darkly. She told Thomas that a security man for the reelection committee had pulled her telephone out of the wall when they last spoke from California, and they had left her “black and blue.” She said she had been left behind in California “with absolutely no information. They don’t want me to talk.”7
Haldeman noted in his diary that Martha’s situation was the president’s principal concern “throughout the day.”8 John Mitchell, Haldeman told the president when they met in the Oval Office between 9:50 A.M. and 10:45 A.M., had attended the senior staff meeting that morning but told Haldeman he was heading up to New York to get Martha to try to work out their problems.9 “Is it the same story?” the president asked.
When Haldeman recounted the substance of that morning’s coverage, Nixon remarked, “Helen Thomas ought not to be brought into this thing, God damn it, as a matter of decency. The woman’s sick.”
They spoke sympathetically about the situation and how it hit Mitchell harder every time it occurred. “Maybe he should send her abroad,” Nixon thought, adding softly, “You know, Mexico.” Haldeman noted, “Locking her up is a problem, but I think he can make the point that, and get a little sympathy for it, that she’s had a nervous breakdown, or something, that she’s ill.” Nixon pointed out, “Any sophisticated person reading that story will realize she’s sick.” Haldeman agreed.
When the discussion turned to Kraft’s column, Nixon observed that it showed the “left-wingers” were having trouble “laying gloves” on him for the Watergate bugging, ITT and such scandals, which he felt were not “hurting the president.” He was annoyed at the lack of media response to his comments distancing the White House from Watergate: “Well, for Christ sakes, I said I completely shared the stated views of Mitchell and Ziegler that this kind of activity has no place in our political process. What in the name of Christ do they want? I think Ziegler ought to crack somebody on that one, I mean, what the hell, what do they want me to do, jump up and down and say this is a horrifying thing? No, I’ll tell you, there’s a plus side of all this. I’m sure you can see what it is. I think they’re reaching. Do you agree, or not?”
Haldeman agreed, and after making a note, they discussed the absurdity of Larry O’Brien’s calling for the appointment of a special prosecutor, since the matter was being investigated and would be prosecuted. The president again wondered, “Is there any way that Ehrlichman’s crowd can get these people to plead guilty and get the hell out of the case? Or how is it working there? I don’t know what kind of jackassery is going on in the handling of it, you know, because I don’t have much confidence in these lawyers. Who’s watching that end of it? Is that Dean?”
“Dean and Mitchell,” Haldeman answered. “Mitchell, alright,” the president said, satisfied. Haldeman added, “Very closely watching it. Also Mardian.” He awkwardly added, “Unfortunately, I have to agree with you, though it may not be that simple. It would seem to me if they plead them guilty and get them out. But they don’t have an indictment yet. They keep investigating and uncovering new things. Hopefully we’ve got that turned off,” referring to his conversation with Helms and Walters.
This conversation ended with the president’s further thoughts on Martha and John Mitchell, given the unfolding problems with the Watergate investigation. “You realize, you’re looking here at Mitchell’s case, we may be looking at something we may not be able to handle,” the president said. “That’s what I’m concerned about, you know. John is a strong man, and I don’t know how in hell he got—” He did not finish the thought, but added, “This woman, if she goes completely off her rocker, I don’t need that business. She was different before. She wasn’t a national celebrity, but now she’s a national celebrity. I mean, what the hell John’s got to do is put her in rehabilitation—” On that unfinished point the conversation ended and Haldeman departed.
When Haldeman stopped by the Oval Office shortly after noon to discuss other matters, the subject of Mitchell’s resignation as campaign manager arose.10 The president had earlier asked Haldeman to speak to Richard “Dick” Moore, a retired television broadcasting executive who had worked with Mitchell on his public image as attorney general, developed a friendship with him and then joined the White House staff. The president wanted Moore to probe Mitchell’s thinking and see whether he, too, was thinking about resignation.
“I talked to Moore,” Haldeman began. “He said John hasn’t said anything to Moore, and Moore felt he shouldn’t push into it because John knows he can call on him if he wants. But he’s going to do a little checking, see what LaRue might know. Apparently Mitchell’s used LaRue some to keep Martha under control.” Fred LaRue and Martha had developed a special bond, both being committed Southerners in the Nixon administration. “Martha’s very strange,” Nixon added, softly. When this subject was broached again later in the day, it concerned Ziegler, who had been advised of the situation but wanted Haldeman’s judgment on whether he should discuss it publicly, since he would have a press conference in a few days. “The question I have is whether I really ought to speak about it,” the president asked.
“I wouldn’t worry,” Haldeman said, to which Nixon replied, “Well, I naturally worry, not so much because of the effect on me but the effect on him. And on her, too. I don’t want to see them hurt.”
When Haldeman met with Nixon in his EOB office shortly after noon, the conversation quickly turned to Watergate: “[S]omeone raised the point this morning that, although the potential is nowhere near now, but we could get to it, there were real potential problems with Watergate.”11
The someone was myself, for at 9:20 A.M. I had been summoned to Haldeman’s office, where I found Haldeman and Ehrlichman. To my surprise I was asked if I thought both Mitchell and Jeb Magruder should be removed from their posts at the campaign. I felt it presumptuous for me to pass judgment on Mitchell, but I explained why I thought both Mitchell and Magruder might be indicted for their roles in the conspiracy to break into and bug the DNC.12 While Haldeman did not mention my opinion to the president, when Nixon indicated that he understood the scope of the problem, Haldeman continued, “You could use this as a basis for Mitchell pulling out. That means we’re going to have to fix nearly everything all over [at the reelection committee] and at the same time start trying to put a new structure together.” Referring to Watergate, he added, “It isn’t going to turn the other off. So if Mitchell pulls out, he’s still the former attorney general, your former campaign manager, and they’re not going to let up on him just because he’s not the manager now. And then the only way you can do that is to hang him on it, say, well, he did it, and that’s why we have to get rid of him.”
“I can’t do that. I won’t do that to him,” Nixon immediately protested. “I’d rather, shit, lose the election. I really would.” Haldeman countered, “You can’t do that. He won’t let you do that.” Nixon agreed with a somewhat philosophical “no,” and continued, “He [John Mitchell] was supposed to do everything he could to find out what was going on, you know what I mean. I must say, we know that.”
“Apparently, with our limited resources in that area, he used the same people for a wide range of things,” Haldeman explained. “So you’ve got them all, you’ve got crossties, interweaving and all that. And if these guys were only on this thing, you could cut them loose and sink them without a trace.” It appears, based on later conversations, that Haldeman was not fully aware of the illegal activity sponsored by Ehrlichman’s special investigative unit, but he had sufficient information to warn the president there were problems. But either because he did not know or because he felt Nixon should not know, Haldeman remained less than explicit when pressed.
“You mean they’ve been on ITT?” the president asked.
“And other stuff,” Haldeman answered.
“Black holes?” Nixon asked.
“Apparently a lot of stuff. There’s stuff I don’t know anything about,” Haldeman said. “But I’ve been told that the lines run in various directions.”
“Any other candidates?” the president asked.
“Yeah. Apparently, this is part of the apparatus that’s been used for some of these surveillance projects and checking on various things. The trouble is, they’re tied into, in some remote way, the people that have been doing some of the anti activity and other campaign things during the primaries. Apparently there’s various lines of interlinkage in the whole damn business.”
“What can we do, not to borrow trouble?” Nixon asked.
“I don’t know,” Haldeman answered. “Nothing, there are no specifics.” Both men were very unhappy about having to deal with the president’s campaign with Watergate as an issue, since all else had gone so well.
June 28, 1972, Wednesday, the White House
The president did not arrive in the Oval Office until 10:35 A.M., telling Haldeman that he’d had insomnia and not fallen asleep until around 6:00 A.M. He spent much of the morning with Ziegler discussing logistics for his televised press conference, which was to be in the East Room at 9:00 the next evening. Both Nixon and Haldeman had concluded that Mitchell would have to leave as head of the reelection campaign. Haldeman’s diary shows that he had already begun to think about Mitchell’s replacement, and after discussions with others, the consensus was that former Minnesota Republican congressman Clark MacGregor, who then headed the congressional relations staff of the White House, should be given the position.13 According to Haldeman’s office log, he had already met with MacGregor, and they had undoubtedly discussed this possibility.14
Haldeman joined the president in his EOB office at 11:16 A.M. and informed Nixon that Mitchell and Martha were traveling back to Washington.15 The fact that they were returning surprised the president, who was also “surprised at McGovern’s bad taste” in apparently making a disparaging crack about Martha. When Colson arrived early in the course of this conversation, the discussion turned to the press’s handling of the Mitchell situation. Haldeman did not think it was hurting the Nixon campaign, which had been Mitchell’s concern, because there had been “so many political divorces, or marital problems,” over the previous three months. Nixon noted that other people had these kinds of problems, to varying degrees, so most would simply think, “Oh, shit, it could be me.”
When Colson departed, the president wondered if he’d be asked at the press conference about “crap on the bugging and Martha.” Haldeman observed, “Some shit’s going to lob in the bugging thing.” The president then asked, “What’s your honest opinion on the Mitchell thing, do you think he should resign?” When Haldeman said he did, Nixon instructed, “Okay. You and Mitchell talk about it.”
Haldeman then explained, “Mitchell’s come to the same conclusion.” Haldeman said he had been told [by either LaRue or Moore] that Mitchell realized that he could no longer be fully effective, and he did not want to be in a position that in any way jeopardized the full effectiveness of the campaign. “Incidentally,” Haldeman added, “the more I’ve thought about it, I think that maybe it’s all a very good move.”
The president then suggested rotating the secretaries at Camp David; not only did they enjoy going up to the retreat, but it was a nice way to reward the top secretaries, along with trips to California. Haldeman liked this idea, too. The president observed admiringly that Terry Decker, who had traveled to Camp David the previous weekend, was “the most beautiful girl in the White House. She could be in the movies.” Haldeman added that she had a great figure as well, not to mention “spectacular legs.” The president felt that they had many skilled secretaries, and none more reliable than Rose Mary Woods, but noted, “Nobody can do better than Shelley.” He was referring to Shelley Scarney, the West Wing receptionist, who later became Mrs. Patrick Buchanan. Nixon instructed Haldeman to have people like Shelley, who were “good looking” and with “good personalities out front.” And as for “the ones who are not quite so pretty, like Rose and Marge Acker and the rest,” they should be kept working out of sight.
Returning to the subject at hand, Haldeman reported that Mitchell seemed to think he could control the Martha situation, which explained their return to Washington, but what could not be passed over was the Watergate investigation: “I think there’s also lurking down, way behind, there is the question of his involvement in the Watergate caper and the fact that—” Haldeman began, but Nixon interrupted to ask, “And that he does know about it?” Haldeman continued, without addressing the president’s question, “We’ve got a lid on it, but it may not stay on, and his getting out might just be a good move on that, because supposedly it goes to him.”
“But I don’t, I think, as I understand it, and I don’t want to know, because I’ve got to answer at a press conference,” the president again advised. “But as I understand it, John did not know specifically about this crazy thing.”
“As I understand it, that’s right,” Haldeman agreed.
“As far as you know. I mean, if people down the line, the Cubans and others working for us, working for some asshole, and they do something stupid, we can’t be responsible for that.” Nixon had another matter he wanted to raise. “I was glad to see that Kevin Phillips or somebody [brought out] the fact that we were tapped. You know, Lyndon Johnson tapped us, because he told us later.”
“He tapped Mrs. what’s her name,” Haldeman confirmed, not recalling Anna Chennault’s name, but noting a discovery during the 1968 campaign that Nixon believed placed the Watergate bugging in a proper and better context.
“With John Mitchell returning this afternoon,” Haldeman continued, “we’ll want to talk about this, but my view would be to encourage him to resign, on the basis of, it’s a beautiful opportunity. He’ll gain great sympathy.The Martha fans will think, isn’t that a wonderful thing, that the man has given up, you know, it’s kind of like the Duke of Windsor giving up the throne for the woman he loves, this sort of stuff. This has a little of that flavor to it. The poor woman hasn’t been well and all, and he’s going to be by her side, and all of that.”
“And we would leak out the fact that she’s not well, very strongly,” Nixon said, and emphasized, “We’d have to.” He soon added, “Incidentally, he can still do some inside jobs.” Nixon could see the potential of Mitchell’s operating even more effectively by not having to run the entire campaign. “Then you use him for the kinds of things he is indispensable for,” Haldeman agreed. “The Rockefeller, Reagan, Buckley, the Middlebury people, putting the deal together in Missouri, and that kind of stuff.”
Haldeman soon mentioned another positive in getting Mitchell out of the campaign: his record as attorney general. “Well, John’s carrying a lot. He’s tarred with Carswell;* he’s tarred with the failed Berrigan trial;* he’s tarred with the failed Angela Davis;* he’s tarred with the Ellsberg case, that’s going to fail;* he’s tarred with the Watergate caper, in a sense, indirectly, and we know it’s more than that; and he’s tarred with the ITT case and the Kleindienst business; he’s tarred with the Martha Mitchell problem, which is an issue, and there’s just a lot of stuff there—”
“But we don’t lose him, that’s the point,” Nixon noted, and they discussed keeping Mitchell on in an unofficial capacity. After a conversation with Ehrlichman about the press conference, the president, joined by the First Lady, flew to Camp David, where he would continue preparing for the event.
June 29, 1972, Thursday, the White House
The president returned from Camp David at 2:32 P.M., and went shortly thereafter to his EOB office, where Haldeman joined him. While waiting for Henry Kissinger, the president asked, “What is the latest with the deal on Mitchell, and the discussion?”16
“He came in, said he wanted to see me,” Haldeman reported. “And he gave me a very detailed synopsis of his whole situation. It’s a very serious situation. And he said the net result is, there’s no question in his mind, the only thing he can do is step out as campaign manager, because Martha’s very serious, and not solvable.” As soon as Kissinger departed, after a ten-minute discussion about Vietnam, the president returned to the subject of Mitchell, anxious to hear the rest of Haldeman’s report.
“It’s both mental disorder and alcohol, an enormous consumption of alcohol. She’s not an alcoholic. But she gets very, very drunk. The alcohol comes with the mental disorder. It isn’t the cause of it. At least, I think that’s what John thinks. He says she drinks an enormous amount, and she becomes violently irrational, as we know. And she’s past the point of no return. He’s afraid she’s suicidal, and he also has enormous respect for her ability to do what she decides to do and turn out [unclear]. She is devoted to you—”
“Incidentally, is she aware of Watergate?” Nixon asked.
“No,” Haldeman reported, referring to any advance knowledge of her husband’s role, and the fact that it involved people from the CRP. “That’s part of what caused his problem, is that she found out. John didn’t tell her that weekend about the fact that it was out in the papers, and after he left, she found it on television and read about it in the papers, and she blew her stack about that. That was what caused the tantrum, and she started drinking Kahlúa, putting her hand through a window in the hotel, cut her hand all up. They did call a doctor, and they did throw her down in the bed and stick a needle in her ass, because they had to, she was demolishing the hotel. Then they had a couple take her to New York, these friends of his, and he went up and spent the Saturday, he said there’s no way I can do this. And I said, what about putting her where you had her before? I played this all, I saw where he was going, so I went the other way.”
“Absolutely. So it doesn’t appear we’re driving him out,” Nixon said approvingly. Haldeman assured him, “He doesn’t think that at all. He can’t, ’cause I argued the other side.” Nixon was pleased that Martha supported him, and Haldeman continued, “[Mitchell said] the one way we can solve this for now is for the president to call Martha, and say, ‘I know of all the problems and sacrifices, but John is the one indispensable man here, and I’ve got to have him.’ But [Mitchell] said, ‘I don’t want him to do that, it won’t solve the problem long term, and there’s no way of knowing when the next thing will come up, and it’s bound to within a matter of days.’”
“Really?” Nixon was surprised.
“Yeah. And he said there’s no point in trying. [Mitchell] said, she’s told me she’s going to jump off the balcony at the Watergate. Well, you know, I can’t be sure she won’t.”
Haldeman added that Mitchell was very upset, very calm about it all and obviously tired and wrung out. “Martha told him, John you don’t need this. You’re out front, and they’re blaming you for all these things that happened, and I can’t take that. They blame you for breaking into the Watergate, and all this stuff, and she said, we just don’t need it. And you could be just as much help to the president consulting, and help him on the sidelines.”
“That’s pretty good,” Nixon responded.
They went on to discuss how they needed Mitchell for the big plays during the campaign, particularly New Jersey, where the Department of Justice had indicted a number of state officials. As for Mitchell’s departure and Watergate, the president made several points: “We have two things this accomplishes, which is, first, it gets rid of, frankly, a liability, it’s with John, it’s hard to carry John on this. We know it’s not his fault. I frankly believe that if it had not been for Martha, he probably wouldn’t have let this Watergate thing get out of hand.”
“That’s quite possible,” Haldeman agreed.
What People are saying about this
—Robert Dallek, The New York Times
“Dean, as always the model of precision and doggedness, has performed yeoman service . . . even for someone who has covered Watergate for 42 years, from the morning of the burglary through the investigations, confessions, denials, hearings, trials, books and attempts at historical revisionism, Dean’s book has an authoritative ring.”
—Bob Woodward, The Washington Post
“A prodiguous effort.”
—New York Daily News
“Dean shapes those conversations into a readable, dense narrative.”
—Los Angeles Times
“The most intimate, detailed, complex and nuanced portrait of a President and his courtiers that we have ever seen in print . . . Dean is scrupulously fair, but Nixon is undone by his own words. To read them is to be a fly on the wall in the palace court of the Nixon White House, to observe history close up as we have never seen it before . . . the closest we will ever come to knowing the real Richard Nixon. It is a fascinating and very important piece of history, and the stuff of great drama.”
Meet the Author
John W. Dean was legal counsel to president Nixon during the Watergate scandal, and his Senate testimony helped lead to Nixon’s resignation. In 2006, he testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee investigating George W. Bush’s NSA warrantless wiretap program. He is the New York Times bestselling author of Blind Ambition, Broken Government, Conservatives Without Conscience, and Worse Than Watergate.
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Richard Nixon was a study in contradictions. He had a brilliant mind, yet did very dumb things for even dumber reasons. He was a paranoid, yet knowingly taped conversations that implicated him in criminality. In the end, as John Dean effectively shows, Nixon, who dabbled in amateur theater in his early years, was actually playing the role of a president who had forgotten his lines. Dean's book is impressive, especially since the many characters interweave throughout, and not even Dean (who was a major character himself) could have remembered everyone's role and who did what. But his use of documentation is impressive. It's a heavy read, but worthwhile.
Or was this pro bono and for one who was in kindergarten then who was Dean and all those people? The only honest thing about this book was the remark to keep the pretty secretaries up front and keep rose and the rest in the back office. What happened to Rose? Did nixon have a dog? Page counter
Ok my light is dead. Will not be on till i get neww baterys for it. Bye
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