Forty years ago, I sat alone in the White House briefing room wiped out mentally and physically by the nearly unrelenting pressure of two years of covering the scandal that has come to symbolize the worst and the best in America’s history. The worst because of its enormous assault on our democracy and the best because our institutions, including the press, stood up to the assault.
Richard Nixon had just resigned, and I now was vowing silently never to write another word about the event which had become universally known as just “Watergate,” although it covered far more than the break-in at the Democratic National Headquarters in the office building of that name. I pretty much kept my pledge even to the extent of refusing to watch the movie “All the President’s Men” – Hollywood’s version of the drama that shook the foundation of our Constitution and based on the book by The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.
The other day I heard an acquaintance allege that it was after all just a third-rate burglary undertaken by rogue political operatives without the president’s knowledge or implied consent. Nothing could be further from the truth.
It was, in fact, not a burglary at all as we define the word. Nothing material was being stolen unless one counts the precious gift of privacy and the sanctity of our political system, which is a far worse theft than anything heretofore imagined.
It was an intrusion carried out by morally and ethically challenged presidential operatives at the top of his campaign organization to glean information through eavesdropping devices installed in an earlier beak-in for the purpose of political leverage in the 1972 presidential election as though Nixon had any actual fear of losing to a badly divided Democratic Party. In other words, for blackmail.
What the “bugs” revealed from the conversations they recorded at least from the DNC desk where visiting Democrats were accommodated on trips to Washington never has been revealed. And for good reason. In the end, of course, it became clear through Oval Office tape recordings that while Nixon may not have known of plans for the actual break-in before it took place, he did afterwards and participated in the attempted cover-up of the scandal.
The revelation of those now infamous tapes during the Senate’s prolonged investigation of Watergate was the beginning of the end for Nixon. They have over the decades been endlessly perused by some of the world’s leading historians who seem to find new material each time.
Two books now in circulation – one by historians Douglas Brinkley and Luke Nichter and another from a leading Watergate figure, former presidential council John Dean – mark this anniversary of the Nixon’s resignation. I was amused to see a headline over a column about the Dean book that stated “Legacy Tarnished by His Own Words.” To which one could only reply. You think?
Over the 40 years since his decision that the jig was up and resignation was the only escape from impeachment and probable conviction by the Senate there has been some rehabilitation based on both his undisputed brilliance as a political analyst and his breakthrough with China, among other things. But it is the words on those tapes he once confided he should have burned that in the end haunt his image.
Whether destroying the tapes was even possible considering they were under the control of the Technical Services Division of the Secret Service without creating even more loss of credibility is problematic. The disclosure came from White House aide Alexander Butterfield during a pre-appearance interrogation by Republican Senate Investigator Don Sanders.
Sanders once confided to me and a colleague Jim Squires of the Chicago Tribune that he believed that Butterfield was anxious to reveal their existence. This, of course, has generated considerable speculation about Butterfield’s motivations.
In the end, it was the official investigatory agencies, including the FBI and the CIA and the Senate committee, leaking to an unswerving band of reporters, of which I was proud to have been one, that nailed shut the lid on the Nixon presidency. It was a tragic conclusion to what could have been a brilliant legacy, was destroyed by a White House culture of paranoia and moral decay.
What was gained for a time at least was a new awareness of what we almost lost.
Dan Thomasson is an op-ed columnist for McClatchy-Tribune and a former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers. Email him at email@example.com.