I thought I knew all about political hardball. Hardball was ballot-stuffing in Illinois during the 1960 presidential election. Hardball was when you pressured somebody to make a donation on the basis of your friendship. Hardball was when organizations feuded and tried to destroy each other. Hardball was repeat voters being run in and out of the polls in Boston.
In 1972, I learned about a new kind of dirty politics in the Republican camp through an early warning from, of all people, George Steinbrenner, the owner of the New York Yankees. Once I was convinced that something was rotten in Washington, I became an active, behind-the-scenes player in the long, slow series of events that led from Richard Nixon's landslide victory in 1972 to his resignation less than two years later.
"Tip, it's terrible. They're holding the lumber over my head," Steinbrenner said.
"Who is?" I asked.
"Everybody. The government has been giving me problems ever since I became a Democrat. I've got the Labor Department investigating safety standards and working conditions. I've got the Justice Department looking at antitrust. I've got problems with a big cost-overrun on a government contract. I'm having all kinds of difficulties, and they're driving me nuts."
Steinbrenner's company's lawyer, Thomas Evans, was a strong supporter of Nixon and was the deputy finance chairman of the Committee to Re-Elect the President, and George was told that his problems with the government might disappear if he paid a visit to Maurice Stans, finance chairman for CREEP.
Stans sent George to see Herb Kalmbach, a fund-raiser for CREEP who also happened to be the President's personal attorney.
"So you'll be helping us?" said Kalmbach.
"I'm a Democrat," replied Steinbrenner. "But I'll give you 25 thou."
"Twenty-five is not satisfactory," said Kalmbach. Then he took out a piece of paper and wrote some numbers on it: "33 at 3; 1 at 1." Steinbrenner got the message: Kalmbach wanted him to come up with $100,000. To get around the campaign-contribution laws, he was being asked to write 33 checks for $3,000 each, and one check for $1,000. At the time, $3,000 was the maximum amount you could donate without having your name listed. Each check would be made out to a different committee that was eligible to receive contributions to help re-elect President Nixon.
Steinbrenner came up with the money.
Around the time Steinbrenner came to see me, I noticed that I wasn't getting my phone calls returned by several other donors who normally gave money to the Democratic party. I knew this wasn't an accident -- especially when I saw their names turning up in political advertisements as Democrats for Nixon. When I finally tracked them down, they told me that they, too, were running into problems on government contracts, or with Internal Revenue. Like Steinbrenner, they had been led to understand that if they signed up with the Nixon campaign, everything would be taken care of.
In addition to my Democratic friends, I also had a source in the Republican camp -- Tom Pappas. He told me proudly that the Republicans were raising a lot of money from Democrats, that the minimum contribution was $25,000, and that they were grabbing most people for $100,000. Tom didn't reveal any dirty secrets, but he didn't have to. A $25,000 minimum? That was unheard-of.
These stories were more than enough to trigger my alarm. If I was picking up deals like this without even looking for them, then we had a real problem on our hands. I thought I had seen it all, but never in my life had I seen outright blackmail.
What really scared me was that all of this funny business and intimidation was being carried out before an election that the Republicans couldn't lose even if they tried. If this was how these guys played the game in a campaign they had already won, what would they try if they ever found themselves in a really tough fight?
At this stage, I had no idea whether Nixon himself was involved.
The irony about Nixon is that his pre-Watergate record is a lot better than most liberals realize. It was Nixon, after all, who opened the door to China and who eventually brought American troops home from Vietnam. On the domestic front, too, he was considerably more moderate than his image would suggest. For example, many of the poverty programs that had been passed under Johnson were actually implemented and funded under Nixon. And while Nixon did impound some of those funds, he could have brought these programs to a virtual halt if that had been his intention.
When the Watergate burglars were caught, nobody paid much attention. I thought the incident was stupid, and that a few dumb bunnies were trying to ingratiate themselves with the White House. But a few weeks later, when I put the break-in together with what Steinbrenner and Pappas had told me, I started to wonder. These guys weren't asking for contributions; they were demanding them. That disturbed me tremendously. I was going on political intuition, and I just knew something was fishy.
In January 1973, I went to see Carl Albert, the Speaker, to tell him what was on my mind. "We better start getting ready," I said. "This guy is going to be impeached before we're through."
The first time I approached Carl about Watergate, he thought I was talking nonsense. And he wasn't the only one. When I shared my suspicions with Peter Rodino, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Peter just shook his head. "You're not a lawyer," he said. "You're only going on intuition, and you can't prove a thing you're saying."
In retrospect, of course, we still wouldn't know very much if the President had followed his instincts and destroyed the tapes.
I've always believed that he held on to them because he was greedy. He wanted to use them to write his memoirs, and he expected to make a fortune from them.
On Jan. 23, 1973, the President went on television to announce a cease-fire and a settlement with the North Vietnamese, which he said would bring the war to an end. Earlier that same evening, the congressional leadership had been invited to a dinner in the Executive Office Building.
I had never seen the President so exuberant.
Over coffee and dessert, the President asked Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to brief us on the various developments that had led to the Paris agreements. Among other things, Kissinger mentioned the decision to mine Haiphong harbor in April of 1972, in response to a massive North Vietnamese offensive, as well as the more recent bombing of Hanoi.
When Kissinger was finished, I asked him the following question: "In 1967, when I changed my mind about this war, I went to see Lyndon Johnson in the White House. I asked Johnson how he could justify fighting a war if we couldn't mine their harbors and knock out their power plants and hit their cities. And Johnson said, 'The reason we're not doing these things is that the risk is too great. I can't get any agreement from the Russians and the Chinese, and I don't want to bring on World War Three.'
"Therefore," I asked Kissinger, "can we assume that you had an agreement with the Russians and the Chinese?"
Kissinger cleared his throat, but before he could utter a word, Nixon broke in. "I'll answer that one, Henry," said the President. Then Nixon did something very strange: he paused, raised his voice, and looked up at the ceiling. I looked up, too, to see who he was talking to, but the only thing up there was the chandelier. "I want you all to know," he announced, "that as President of the United States, this was my decision. I'm the one who decided to mine the harbor last spring. It was a calculated risk, and I took it alone. There were no discussions with the Chinese. There were no discussions with the Soviets."
From the way the President moved his head, I realized that his real audience wasn't us at all, but rather a microphone that must have been hidden in the chandelier.
The truth about the Soviets and the Chinese came out a few months later.
This time, Nixon was full of praise for the way the Russians had cooperated in making possible a peace settlement between the Israelis and the Egyptians following the 1973 war. "We couldn't have done it without them," he said. "It was just like in Vietnam. We couldn't have made any deals with the North Vietnamese unless we had had the cooperation of the Russians and the Chinese as we stepped up our offensive. Without their help, we could never have ended the war."
That was a more likely version. And that was when I realized that Nixon had probably intended to use the tapes to compose his own version of history -- a version in which he would be the hero. He was going to put together a story that showed that he, Richard Nixon, was the greatest President in our history. And he planned to prove it all with his tapes.
Tomorrow: Why I broke with LBJ on Vietnam.
From the book "Man of the House: The Life and Political Memoirs of Speaker Tip O'Neill" by Tip O'Neill with William Novak.
1987 by Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Random House Inc. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate.