Nixon approved the scheme and ordered Haldeman to call in CIA Director Richard Helms and his deputy Vernon Walters. “Play it tough,” the president directed. “That’s the way they play it, and that’s the way we are going to play it.”
The contents of the tape were made public on Aug. 5, 1974. Four days later, Nixon resigned.
Another tape captured discussions in the Oval Office on Aug. 1, 1972, six weeks after the burglars’ arrest, and the day on which The Post published our first story showing that Nixon campaign funds had gone into the bank account of one of the burglars.
Nixon and Haldeman discussed paying off the burglars and their leaders to keep them from talking to federal investigators. “They have to be paid,” Nixon said. “That’s all there is to that.”
On March 21, 1973, in one of the most memorable Watergate exchanges caught on tape, Nixon met with his counsel, John W. Dean, who since the break-in had been tasked with coordinating the coverup.
“We’re being blackmailed” by Hunt and the burglars, Dean reported, and more people “are going to start perjuring themselves.”
“How much money do you need?” Nixon asked.
“I would say these people are going to cost a million dollars over the next two years,” Dean replied.
“And you could get it in cash,” the president said. “I, I know where it could be gotten. I mean, it’s not easy, but it could be done.”
Hunt was demanding $120,000 immediately. They discussed executive clemency for him and the burglars.
“I am not sure that you will ever be able to deliver on the clemency,” Dean said. “It may just be too hot.”
“You can’t do it till after the ’74 election, that’s for sure,” Nixon declared.
Haldeman then entered the room, and Nixon led the search for ways “to take care of the jackasses who are in jail.”
They discussed a secret $350,000 stash of cash kept in the White House, the possibility of using priests to help hide payments to the burglars, “washing” the money though Las Vegas or New York bookmakers, and empaneling a new grand jury so everyone could plead the Fifth Amendment or claim memory failure. Finally, they decided to send Mitchell on an emergency fundraising mission.
The president praised Dean’s efforts. “You handled it just right. You contained it. Now after the election, we’ve got to have another plan.”
5. The war on history
Nixon’s final war, waged even to this day by some former aides and historical revisionists, aims to play down the significance of Watergate and present it as a blip on the president’s record. Nixon lived for 20 years after his resignation and worked tirelessly to minimize the scandal.
Though he accepted a full pardon from President Gerald Ford, Nixon insisted that he had not participated in any crimes. In his 1977 television interviews with British journalist David Frost, he said that he had “let the American people down” but that he had not obstructed justice. “I didn’t think of it as a coverup. I didn’t intend a coverup. Let me say, if I intended the coverup, believe me, I would have done it.”
In his 1978 memoir “RN,” Nixon addressed his role in Watergate: “My actions and omissions, while regrettable and possibly indefensible, were not impeachable.” Twelve years later, in his book “In the Arena,” he decried a dozen “myths” about Watergate and claimed that he was innocent of many of the charges made against him. One myth, he said, was that he ordered the payment of hush money to Hunt and others. Yet, the March 21, 1973, tape shows that he ordered Dean to get the money 12 times.
Even now, there are old Nixon hands and defenders who dismiss the importance of Watergate or claim that key questions remain unanswered. This year, Thomas Mallon, director of the creative writing program at George Washington University, published a novel called “Watergate,” a sometimes witty and entirely fictional story featuring many of the real players. Frank Gannon, a former Nixon White House aide who now works for the Nixon Foundation, reviewed the book for the Wall Street Journal.
“What emerges from ‘Watergate’ is an acute sense of how much we still don’t know about the events of June 17, 1972,” Gannon wrote. “Who ordered the break-in? . . . What was its real purpose? Was it purposely botched? How much was the CIA involved? . . . And how did a politician as tough and canny as Richard Nixon allow himself to be brought down by a ‘third rate burglary?’
“Your guess is as good as mine.”
Of course, Gannon is correct in noting that there are some unanswered questions — but not the big ones. By focusing on the supposed paucity of details concerning the burglary of June 17, 1972, he would divert us from the larger story.
And about that story, there is no need to guess.
In the summer of 1974, it was neither the press nor the Democrats who rose up against Nixon, but the president’s own Republican Party.
On July 24, the Supreme Court ruled 8 to 0 that Nixon would have to turn over the secret tapes demanded by the Watergate special prosecutor. Three of the president’s appointees to the court — Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, Justice Harry Blackmun and Justice Lewis Powell — joined that opinion. The other Nixon appointee, Justice William Rehnquist, recused himself.
Three days later, six Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee joined the Democrats in voting, 27 to 11, to recommend Nixon’s impeachment for nine acts of obstruction of justice in the Watergate coverup.
By August, Nixon’s impending impeachment in the House was a certainty, and a group of Republicans led by Sen. Barry Goldwater banded together to declare his presidency over. “Too many lies, too many crimes,” Goldwater said.
On Aug. 7, the group visited Nixon at the White House.
How many votes would he have in a Senate trial? the president asked.
“I took kind of a nose count today,” Goldwater replied, “and I couldn’t find more than four very firm votes, and those would be from older Southerners. Some are very worried about what’s been going on, and are undecided, and I’m one of them.”
The next day, Nixon went on national television and announced that he would resign.
In his last remarks about Watergate as a senator, 77-year-old Sam Ervin, a revered constitutionalist respected by both parties, posed a final question: “Why was Watergate?”
The president and his aides, Ervin answered, had “a lust for political power.” That lust, he explained, “blinded them to ethical considerations and legal requirements; to Aristotle’s aphorism that the good of man must be the end of politics.”
Nixon had lost his moral authority as president. His secret tapes — and what they reveal — will probably be his most lasting legacy. On them, he is heard talking almost endlessly about what would be good for him, his place in history and, above all, his grudges, animosities and schemes for revenge. The dog that never seems to bark is any discussion of what is good and necessary for the well-being of the nation.
The Watergate that we wrote about in The Washington Post from 1972 to 1974 is not Watergate as we know it today. It was only a glimpse into something far worse. By the time he was forced to resign, Nixon had turned his White House, to a remarkable extent, into a criminal enterprise.
On the day he left, Aug. 9, 1974, Nixon gave an emotional farewell speech in the East Room to his staff, his friends and his Cabinet. His family stood with him. Near the end of his remarks, he waved his arm, as if to highlight the most important thing he had to say.
“Always remember,” he said, “others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.”
His hatred had brought about his downfall. Nixon apparently grasped this insight, but it was too late. He had already destroyed himself.
Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward are the co-authors of two Watergate books, “All the President’s Men,” published in 1974, and “The Final Days,” published in 1976. This is their first joint byline in 36 years.
Woodward and Bernstein, along with other central figures in Watergate, will be speaking at a Washington Post Live forum Monday evening. Watch the livestream starting at 6:15 p.m. at www.washingtonpost.com/watergate.
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