One of the first books I remember reading as a child was a lengthy tome dedicated to the U.S. presidents. It detailed the highlights of their terms in office along with a portrait of each man. Looking back, the portraits captured these men in dignified, stately poses...almost saintly. It was only as I grew older would I realize that some of these individuals that held the highest office in the land were no saints.
This past August marked the 40th anniversary of one of the worst chapters in American history - the resignation of a president due in large part to criminal activity. The Watergate break-in two years earlier and the efforts to cover it up sealed Richard Nixon's fate. Up and to the point of Nixon's resignation, I was taught to view the presidency in the highest regard. And besides, I was in awe of the power they held or with my six year old mind perceived they held. Of course the Vietnam War was in full throttle, but I knew and heard little of it. I do remember Walter Cronkite reporting from time to time on events in those faraway jungles, but Vietnam for the most part escaped my family. My dad was from another era. He was a WWII vet. And anyway LBJ was one of us, a man of humble origins (although I don't believe he lived in a log cabin, but he had dirt floors) from central Texas who happened to make it to the highest office in the land.
But before you knew it, Johnson was out and Nixon was in. Cronkite declared the Vietnam War unwinnable and with that, Johnson knew he had lost middle America and his chance of winning reelection. It seems Cronkite was always the bearer of bad news. It was that way again when I remember seeing him using visual aids to describe the key players involved in Watergate. Even my then ten- year old mind could figure out the gig would soon be up. Nixon resigned, gave that famous and often ridiculed victory wave and took that helicopter ride away from one of the most powerful positions this world has to offer.
But so many years later, what have we learned? What has the history of Watergate taught us besides adding the suffix gate to every political scandal that has materialized in its aftermath? In my lifetime, I've heard every presidency that has followed Nixon described at one time or another as being the absolute worst, most despised, and the most scandalous/corrupt in history.
President Carter seemed to escape personal scandal but relatives and close advisors dogged him with their own set of misadventures. Then there was Reagan with his Iran Contra debacle. Bush-1 had lesser sins, and then the Clintons. Whitewater, Vince Foster' s suicide, Travelgate, and Monica Lewinski (try explaining that to your young child) in the end barely registered a yawn. Nothing seemed to stick to the Clintons. And they called Reagan the Teflon president! Even now, Obama's penchant for bypassing congress by resolving matters with executive action has the opposing party foaming at the mouth. But really I never thought any of these infamous undertakings were impeachable offences. They all paled in comparison to the criminal acts foisted upon the American people by the Nixon administration.
In The Nixon Defense (What He Knew and When He Knew It), John Dean as White House counsel was a central figure in Watergate lays out his analysis of nearly one thousand Watergate recordings held by the National Archives and Records Administration. Nixon's secret taping system installed by the Secret Service early in his first term would be a means to burnish his legacy. Ironically it led to his downfall and being regarded as the most reviled figure to hold the office of president.
The totality of the Watergate related recordings paint a far more devastating portrait than has been previously made known to historians and the general public. It's clear from these tapes, that Nixon had made broad directives to go after enemies - real and imagined. Of course, it was the "smoking gun" tape of June 23. 1972 in which Nixon unequivocally calls for the CIA to put pressure on the FBI to rein in the Watergate investigation that got him in the end. The ineffective and feckless acting FBI director Patrick Gray was of little use to the pro-Nixon as well as the anti-Nixon forces. In fact Dean reveals that Mark Felt's (assistant FBI director and Deep Throat) motives for leaking information were less than altruistic. Felt wanted to embarrass Gray so he could land the top job. Just as disturbing, other recordings deal with Nixon instructing aides to go after detractors’ tax returns, to tear down The New York Times and The Washington Post "brick by brick", and planting spies within the press corp and secret service details of political foes. And when Nixon is referring to John, to whom is he referring? There was John Mitchell - former attorney General and head of Nixon' s re-election committee ( The source of most of the illegalities can be traced back here.), John Ehrlichman - chief domestic advisor, and Dean himself. Fortunately, Dean clears up any confusion as he wades into these recordings.
And while Nixon clearly wanted to get something on his old nemesis DNC chief Larry O'Brien, he seems exasperated at the level of stupidity exercised in the bungled break-in. He was also equally shaken by the increasing number of people tainted by the break-in. But the president only had himself to blame. He unleashed a beast that he couldn't control. Chief of staff Bob Haldeman, special counsel Charles Colson, Mitchell, and Erlichman all had separate shops for black bag operations and dirty tricks. Some conversations leave the president wondering who was working for whom. There were also break-ins at the Brookings Institute and Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office that would soon be exposed as the work of Nixon's henchmen.
The tapes also reveal the inordinate amount of time Nixon had to spend on Watergate and its cover-up. The economy went into free fall and other domestic matters went unattended. Toward the end, Defense Secretary James Schlesinger reportedly drew up contingency plans for an emergency military deployment in the event an impeached Nixon refused to step down.
It's a lot for a ten-year old to take in. It's a lot for an adult to take in. We survived...but just barely.