THE U.S. COAST GUARD STATION IN SAN CLEMENTE, CALIF., is abandoned now. A sign on the gate warns trespassers of dire consequences if they enter, but no one is around to execute the sentence. Inside is the peculiar desolation one finds in once frenetically active places that history has passed by. The unsecured door of one building stands open; trash blows around inside.
Ten years ago this little promontory on the Pacific was the Western White House, the paradise into which Richard Nixon repaired when he had had enough of the Washington he detested. Then there were uniformed guards and Secret Service agents and all the trappings that follow the Most Powerful Man in the Free World. The Marine Sikorsky VH-3 carrying the president from the Marine Corps Air Station at El Toro would land with a flurry on the asphalt helipad constructed on the site. This is the spot where Richard Nixon bid farewell to Leonid Brezhnev at the conclusion of his trip to the United States in 1973. Now weeds grow around and in the middle of the helipad. The temporary buildings that served as Western Oval Office have been packed up and carted away by the General Services Administration.
Next door, a hundred yards away, is Nixon's former estate, Casa Pacifica, the Masada where he withstood the final onslaught on his presidency and the Elba to which he retreated when it was all over. The gate that once gave him easy access from house to office now is barred and the new owner-- Nixon has long since departed for New York and Saddle River, N.J.--has no interest in showing the former presidential residence to curiosity-seekers.
It was the nature of the Watergate scandal that ultimately the 10-room house itself and even the government- planted flower beds became a matter of controversy. Watergate had a way of spilling over the original issues of who ordered the break-in at the offices of the Democratic National Committee on June 17, 1972. Before it was over, the old scandals of Richard Nixon's life-- the slush fund and Checkers, the Hughes loan-- had been dragged out for a reprise along with a seemingly endless list of new scandals: the White House tapes, Nixon's tax returns, the properties at San Clemente and Key Biscayne, the break-in, dirty tricks and hush money paid to the seven Watergate defendants, Nixon's vice presidential papers, the secret war in Cambodia, the Huston Plan, the Ellsberg break-in, ITT and the milk fund. Not only Nixon and the men around him who were convicted of crimes were tainted, but dozens of others, some guilty, others decidedly innocent, were splashed as the captain was forced to abandon the ship of state.
In other times, working in the White House was a launching pad, a kind of badge that gave its bearer entree into elite circles even after the White House years were over. In the Nixon White House, though, presidential proximity was dangerous to one's future, disrupting rather than enlarging lives, circumscribing rather than expanding horizons, branding rather than certifying.
For those who only read about Watergate, it is a fading memory. For those who wrote about it, other stories have taken its place. But for some of those who lived it, who were ensnared by it, the story has not ended.
The end of Watergate for John Dean--or the beginning of the end--may not have been that March 21 Oval Office conversation with Richard Nixon or that April 30 day he was fired, but one morning months earlier, in January 1973. "I remember driving into the White House to work and actually having the thought, 'It would be better to go to prison than to work here.'"
His hair is longer and thinner than it was 10 years ago. The round tortoise- shell glasses have been traded in for more stylish rectangular frames. The three-button suit and pin collar have given way to a more laid-back California wardrobe. He wears a V-neck brown sweater and striped blue shirt open at the collar.
John Wesley Dean III, the man with the phenomenal memory who accused a sitting president of participating in a criminal conspiracy, now works in what was once the living room of a two-story brick and stucco house just off Sunset Boulevard, below the Hollywood Hills. He sits behind a large desk placed in front of a bay window, opposite an unused fireplace. French doors lead to a small patio and crowded parking area. He makes his living producing radio and television programs, a long way from the corridors of power that once attracted him.
Dean says he got into the entertainment industry because he always had been drawn to writing and the media and "because of the reception I got in this community" after Watergate. "I wasn't a pariah. My past didn't weigh against me. To the contrary, a lot of people in this town appreciated what I had done, or at least understood."
His friends include a community cross-section of doctors, lawyers, people from the movie business and some in politics. He rides a 10-speed Sears bike, swims, goes to movies, has friends over. He is a producer now, a facilitator who prefers to keep a low profile--though his role is no secret to clients--to avoid calling unwanted attention to his company because of his presence.
Dean is 43, no longer the boy lawyer who kept America glued to its television sets for a solid week in June 1973, while he opened the seamy side of the Oval Office for inspection. He has been disbarred and says he has no desire to go back to the law. In the years since, he has been to prison (after pleading guilty to a single count of conspiracy to obstruct justice and defraud the United States in connection with his own participation in the cover-up), written a best-selling book about his Watergate experience in and out of the White House (a docudrama series based on the book was serialized on television) and become a big draw on the lecture circuit. Dean has embarked on a new life, a new career in a new setting and perhaps, although time really will tell, new values.
The changes that he says he has made did not come at the predictable moments. He paints no pictures of lying on a bunk in a jail cell, a cigarette slowly burning in the corner of his mouth while he stares at the ceiling and goes over the derailment of his life and career. Writing Blind Ambition was not a catharsis for him. That came later, gradually, and may still be going on.
Though he still smokes heavily, he says he has given up drinking completely, a major change, since Blind Ambition makes clear that Dean was used to reaching for a scotch as easily as a telephone. Dean and his wife, Maureen, are still together, a fact that seems to surprise both persons who knew them before Watergate and those who didn't. She helps out in his office occasionally, reminding him--inter alia--of calls he has to make, greeting a visitor with a firm handshake.
Dean speaks of his White House days with a certain detachment. "I think it was just totally pragmatic. What's going to help my career? How much of a world view did I need to have?--a good, fast-rising young man on the make, not too blatantly career."
From one perspective Dean prospered because of Watergate: the book, the paperback, the television series, the speaking engagements so frequent that he says he has to restrain his agent. The lecture bookings are no longer a major source of income, according to Dean, but he continues them now as a way to "keep in touch." In his own assessment, considering the opportunities and time he lost, Watergate was not a financial windfall. "If I had to say, 'Am I richer because of Watergate?' I'd have to say no."
If he has changed, and Dean believes he has, it is in ways that cannot be seen. "There was a whole period that I had to work out getting away from Watergate and trying to get out from the shadow of it. And those were tough times. There's no doubt about it. I felt a lot of guilt. I felt a lot of shame. I felt a lot of embarrassment, and I had to sort that all out and work it all out."
In Blind Ambition Dean describes his first interview for the White House counsel job with chief of staff H. R. (Bob) Haldeman: "I watched as he checked me out and saw a reflection of his own taste in clothes. I was wearing black wing-tip shoes; he was wearing brown wing-tips. He had on a white button-down-collar shirt; mine was blue. My suit was as conservative as his. Later I discovered that he and I shopped at the same men's store in Washington."
Now Dean says he is no longer interested "in cosmetics," in mere appearances. "Too much of my life had really been guided by how others perceived me, instead of how I perceived myself. And the day that got sorted out and straightened out, I really felt a lot different about things."
Whether Watergate is over for Dean, though, is another question. "I don't think I ever can put it behind me," he says. "I hope that it will be. To me, the book I'm working on now has been a catharsis, certainly more than writing Blind Ambition."
Dean's new book has the working title Lost Honor. In a broad, somewhat reluctant way, Dean describes it: " I've often wondered what happens when a guy comes out of prison. Do they have any sort of counseling for somebody like that who must feel that stigma of his mistakes?"
Dean did not have professional counseling. He did not see a psychiatrist, take up "est" or discover a guru. After he got out of prison in early 1975, he went through a difficult period that lasted, by his description, a couple of years.
He recalls making an entry in his journal during that period. "As an undergraduate, I wrote a paper called 'The Conscience of Lost Honor,' . .. about Conrad's book, 814 Lord Jim. And I started thinking, 'John, you're acting like old Lord Jim after he jumped ship and made his mistake. He just started running from his past.'
"Not long after that . . . I was doing a signing at a bookstore . . . And at the conclusion of the signing, the first book I ran into was a little paperback of Lord Jim . . . I reread the book on the rest of the trip, and I was amazed at Conrad's perception of someone going through what I had been going through."
Although Dean says that he still feels embarrassed on occasion for the role that he played in the Watergate cover- up, he says he has largely dealt with the guilt and shame he felt. "Time softened it, the feeling of it, and second, I felt in my own mind that I had done more things right in my life than I had done wrong so that I didn't feel myself an inherently evil person . . . Third, I did a tremendous amount of self-searching analysis of what was important, what wasn't, who I was, why I had done the things I'd done, and then stated them in many instances not only to the public, but in the first instance to myself. And that's a cleansing process in itself. I don't know therapeutically whether that works--if that's something a psychologist would advise someone to do or that's what happens or not--but it's certainly worked for me.
"And lastly, I got into other things. And all of us are constantly tempted, everyday I suppose, to whether we do things right or wrong, and I've made damn sure I did everything right."
Alexander Butterfield was hardly a household name on July 16, 1973. He was administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, not a high-profile agency. And he had been a second-echelon aide in the White House during the first Nixon administration. During Nixon's first term, Butterfield was generally the first man the president saw in the morning (aside from his valet, Manolo Sanchez) and often the last man Nixon saw at night. The job of FAA administrator had come to Butterfield in the second Nixon term as a reward for loyal and diligent service. He did not seek the position, though he had--as had others in the White House--turned in his wish-list to White House chief of staff Haldeman when told to do so.
During Nixon's first term, Butterfield had a variety of jobs in the White House, mostly administrative rather than policy-oriented. He was secretary to the Cabinet, in charge of security in the White House, the liaison with the president for planning state dinners, and he carried papers in and out of the Oval Office. (His mother understood that to mean that her middle-aged son, a full colonel in the U.S. Air Force, carried newspapers into the president.)
Butterfield had one other job. Sometime in the summer of 1970, Richard Milhous Nixon decided that he wanted his conversations in the Oval Office and elsewhere recorded for posterity, an oral record of the great moments of his presidency. To Butterfield's other duties was added the job of steward of the tapes.
In that Watergate summer of 1973, Butterfield was one of a fortunate few who had not been touched by the scandal. His professional world was taken up with issues such as the ground proximity warning system, the problems of traffic control for New York and the futuristic microwave landing system. Others could wallow in Watergate. Alexander Porter Butterfield was running the Federal Aviation Administration and, once that segment of his career had ended, he was looking forward to his life in the upper stratosphere of the corporate world.
It all might have worked that way but for Butterfield's session with the staff of the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities--the Senate Watergate Committee--on Friday, July 13, 1973. Butterfield was called to explain to the committee staff how the White House staff system worked and to speculate on the origin of a memo that the White House had sent to the committee--a memo that purported to summarize conversations between Nixon and his chief accuser, John Dean.
Although not happy about being called to testify, Butterfield answered staff questions truthfully on Friday, and then on Monday, July 16, he reluctantly testified in public before the full committee:
Mr. Thompson (minority counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee): "Mr. Butterfield, are you aware of the installation of any listening devices in the Oval Office of the president?"
Mr. Butterfield: "I was aware of listening devices, yes, sir."
If one factor can be isolated as leading to Nixon's demise, it was the tapes. Even before the tapes' contents were known, all the battles fought with Congress and the courts over the tapes had wounded Nixon, made him look guilty long before the reels of evidence were threaded onto machines and played. Revelation of the tapes' contents forced Congress to confront Nixon. And, it turned out in the end, the tapes contained the smoking gun that Nixon diehards insisted had to be found to justify his impeachment.
Butterfield was not the only one who knew of the tapes, but he was the one who revealed their existence. From the time of his testimony on, he could feel the frost coming from the Oval Office, the "inner sanctum," as Butterfield calls it. "I got this very clear feeling that I was really on the outs with the inner sanctum, although I hear there was a great outpouring of letters from all over the country, from all departments of the government . . . but not from the inner sanctum."
Butterfield says he still is paying for having told the truth. When Gerald Ford became president, he sought-- and received--Butterfield's resignation as head of the FAA, a move that Butterfield acknowledges was Ford's prerogative, but was nevertheless a move that Butterfield says was politically motivated.
But it is not as though Butterfield is an outcast in his new world. He mentions proudly that he is on the board of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. He was on the board of Aloha Airlines. And it is not that Butterfield was blacklisted and could not find a job. Right now he is establishing a business-consulting firm that he says will do well. "Out here," he says, "things are good and I have a leg up on getting back into it."
Still he has not reached the upper levels of the major corporations where he thought he would find his niche. "Those corporate heads that know me so well--they knew me at the FAA, all the airlines--are not going to bring me into their organization. I'm too controversial, I guess, in some people's view. Plus, a company doesn't want one of its executives to be in the news. It's bad form."
It is a matter of more than a little agitation for Butterfield. In his own view, he did no wrong. Although far from eager to testify about the tapes-- he says he felt their revelation would damage relations with foreign heads of state whose conversations might have been recorded--Butterfield did testify, answering truthfully, before the Senate Watergate Committee. Later, he was an important witness before the House Judiciary Committee in its impeachment proceedings. "I never looked on it as a hero-type role. I don't want to intimate that, but I was always very straightforward."
Maybe, as it turns out in terms of his career, a little too straightforward. Sitting in the men's grill of the Bel Air Country Club, looking out the picture window toward Beverly Hills and Westwood, Butterfield recounts the conversation one member of the club told Butterfield he had with another member when Butterfield's name came before the membership. "He said to someone in this club, 'Gee, I'm not sure I want to vote Butterfield into the club. Oh, I guess I will. I guess he's not a bad guy but I sort of feel he let our president down.' That bothers the hell out of me . . . I'm the last guy that let the president down.
"It's dawning on me that my role is vague to people. I've been running around with my head held high. Now I'm not sure if I should--well, really I know I should but . . ." His voice trails off.
How much time does Butterfield spend thinking about Watergate and the misperception of his role, or the hostility--however limited--he encounters?
"Quite a bit. A lot."
How much does he think about it? Daily? Weekly?
"Daily. Most of each day . . . When I'm not occupied by my work, I think about it. It's always there."
When it finally comes out, it comes with a rush, because Butterfield can get very emotional about it even though his wife tells him he should forget it. What difference does it make anymore?
"At the expense of sounding as though I sought press support--although guys like (Lawrence) Spivak said, 'You'll really have it in spades, everybody's behind you'--it was never there. I went down the tubes so fast. In other words, no one ever mentions the honorable role . . . I think this guy (from the country club) thinks I voluntarily went up and tried to do the president in. I served that president better than he has. And my country as well. I've been to war and I've been shot at and all that kind of stuff. I just feel that my whole life has been honorable and straight . . . I don't want to put it in a Boy Scout context, but I just think it's goddamn amazing that somehow the right thing hasn't gotten out and to write about it myself . . . it wouldn't be a crime-tale type of thing but it would take someone else to write it. I can't say, 'Let me tell you what a really good guy I am.'"
The incongruity of Charles Colson's conversion to evangelical Christianity never seems to wear off. Colson cultivated a certain reputation back in his Nixon White House days for recklessness and outrageousness. The stories about Colson in Watergate were legion: recruiting E. Howard Hunt, one of the seven men involved in the Watergate break-in and also in the Ellsberg break- in, to work in the White House; suggesting that the liberal Brookings Institution be firebombed; whipping his staff into shape for the domestic scraps he liked to describe in battlefield terms. "Colson would do anything," Nixon told Dean in one of the taped conversations.
Now here is Charles Colson, Richard Nixon's hatchet man, giving the commencement address at Wheaton College, the Harvard of evangelicalism. Colson, who had his share of nasty newspaper articles written about him, does not mind that the college's newspaper announced his speech with the headline, "Ex-Con Slated to Speak at Commencement." He is an ex-con. That's how he makes his living now, delivering the good news to men still behind bars through the Prison Fellowship, an organization he founded.
Never mind, he tells the college's graduates, that ex-convicts lose their civil rights and that most are branded for life. "Through the cross of Christ, we are all pardoned," he says.
The Christianity that Colson is preaching is the muscular variety of the social gospel. He talks in terms of good works and revolution, managing to take a swipe at some of the born-again marketing going on: "Our bookshelves today are crammed full of puffy testimonies, all with the same victorious, happy endings. While they are written in gospel language, their goal is to sell big to a self-centered, success-oriented culture. And their sales are phenomenal. But they are whipped cream concoctions of cheap grace and false gospel. We need meat, such as the works of Augustine, Calvin, Luther, Edwards and modern-day greats like C. S. Lewis . . ."
This is Charles Colson speaking from the other side of the river. He still sees and communicates with his old leader in New York, but Colson, the quintessential political combatant in his White House years, now discusses those days without rancor.
"When I was in government, I saw justice as (51 percent of the vote) imposing their will on the other 49 percent. And I now see justice in a very different way. Justice is the prophets of the Old Testament, Scriptures. I see justice in the eyes of the oppressed. I see justice in the eyes of the fairness of the individual. I thought I did before. I was like every guy who graduates from law school in America and dreams of a $100,000-a-year corporate law practice, who takes his share of court-assigned cases because he has to and who goes on trying to make the big buck as a corporate manipulator. And that's what I was, and I did it very well and made a couple of hundred thousand dollars and ended up in the White House and was very insensitive to that aspect of justice and the law that I now see. So now I have a very different view.
"If I were to look back," he says, "I would not feel shame and disgrace. I did what I did. I paid my debt. I was serving my country. I believed to the best of my ability I made some mistakes, and I was certainly responsible for the moral climate. I had a lot to do with the creating of a moral climate that made Watergate possible."
Colson can analyze himself in those days, dispassionately, without self- flagellation. "I probably was, in truth, too brash," he says, agreeing with an observation made in conversation. "I was made more so by the fact that that was the mark of virility and manhood in the Nixon years and, therefore, I accentuated it."
In his life now, traveling around to prisons all over the country for the Prison Fellowship, he says he is "incomparably better off. I mean, if it took Watergate to bring me to who I am and where I am today and if people think my conversion was inspired by Watergate, and if it was, if it took Watergate to become a Christian, then I thank the Lord for Watergate."
Colson has sold the big house with the swimming pool in McLean and bought something smaller in Florida, where he goes to work and write; he maintains a condominium apartment in Tysons Corner that he uses when in Washington. His relationship with his wife, Patty, is stronger than ever, he says. His daughter wrote him every day he was in prison, "every day," he repeats for emphasis. His son, who was attending Princeton when the Watergate scandal broke, took heat from his classmates because of his father's involvement in Watergate and then had to contend with Colson's well-publicized conversion.
In the gospel according to Colson, prison was the great experience of his life, although his actual conversion from Episcopalianism to evangelicalism actually came in August 1973. He describes the experience with the well-practiced ease of a man who gives 200 speeches a year (proceeds to the Prison Fellowship):
"I'm very much like Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who wrote in The Gulag Archipelago . . . 'Bless you, prison, bless you for having been in my life.' And then he goes on: There, lying on that rotting prison straw, I saw for the first time in my life that the purpose of life is not prosperity but the maturing of the soul.
"The best thing that happened to me was to draw back from Washington. See, I'd been a Washington insider for 20 years . . . I got caught up in the inner politics of Washington, which I thought made the whole world turn around. And I stand back today, and I look at politics today and I realize that 90 percent of it doesn't matter. The stuff that makes the front page of your newspaper is the . . . grist for the mill that the politicians love to read, that the people get all excited about, that isn't going to amount to anything."
Ron Ziegler--press secretary, assistant to the president and, in the final days when most of the original first team had departed, special counsel to the president--does not care to share his analysis of Watergate just now. "I'll state that when I write about the period." He has already done some writing, which he does not care to discuss. At first, there is more than a little touch of d,ej,a vu about this conversation, even though it's been almost eight years since Ziegler flew out of Washington with Richard Nixon.
Did Watergate change anything?
Ziegler: "Nothing. Nothing. Except the people are a little more cautious."
Watergate, Ziegler suggests, was about Nixon and money. How else to explain the press' preoccupation with Nixon's real estate transactions, his tax returns, Tricia's wedding, etc.?
What about the Watergate break-in?
Watergate was not about the break- in. Ziegler is emphatic on the point. He is not embarrassed to recall that he described the break-in as "a third-rate burglary attempt," a characterization that he indicates still fits. "We had an impeachment proceeding in the House of Representatives because of political reasons--and because the president of the United States lied."
Ziegler now is president of the National Association of Truck Stop Operators, and he can get positively passionate about discussing "one thousand very strong entrepreneurs across the country" in a multi-billion-dollar-a-year industry. "A truck stop is not just hamburgers and french fries. A truck stop fuels the trucks that move the goods across the country."
In his office in Alexandria, Va., Ziegler has the usual mementos of a career in government. His three framed presidential appointments adorn the wall behind him. On other walls are memorabilia from his trip to China, to Europe, pictures of him with Henry Kissinger in the Rose Garden, with Nixon in San Clemente, a dollar bill autographed by Treasury Secretary John Connally.
Ziegler is asked why he has three presidential appointments. His response goes well beyond the question, indicating a raw nerve. "Why do I have three appointments? Because I had three jobs. Why do I have these things on my wall? People come in to my office and get a kick out of looking at them. Am I living in the past? Yes, probably. I've thought about taking them down. Maybe I should take them down, but I'm proud of that period."
Ziegler, who went with Nixon to San Clemente and stayed there nine months after the resignation, stays in touch with his old boss. They talk on the phone occasionally, send cards at the holidays. And Ziegler wants it understood that he harbors no ill will toward anyone from that period.
Why, he is asked, did Watergate happen? "All you have to do is to l of his fatherook at people he (Nixon) had confidence in. Look at the books that have been written." In this context, he mentions Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Dean-- especially the last two. "All I'm saying is the president of the United States had around him people who did not like him. Why didn't someone pound his fist on the desk and say, 'You can't do this! This is wrong!'? They were self-ambitious people, not 'blindly' ambitious. They were self-ambitious."
Ziegler, the consummate loyalist, has read Seymour Hirsch's article about Kissinger and Nixon in The Atlantic and he is deeply troubled by the emphasis on Nixon's drinking. He brings up the subject himself. "If the man walked into a bottle in a crisis, Richard Nixon would have walked into the sea with a bottle of Chivas Regal under his arm three weeks after he returned to San Clemente. He and I sat there for hours in a disciplined fashion. He knew this was something he had to do. If he did have that tendency (to drink), he wouldn't be alive today."
"I'll tell you this," he says of Nixon, "no matter what one says, he is a disciplined man. He is a highly complex man who through his entire career has had a great impact on this nation in a positive fashion (pause) and, of course, he had a great impact on tragedy, both for himself and for the nation."
John J. Sirica still occupies the corner suite on the second floor of the U.S. District Courthouse in Washington, though he is a senior judge now and handles a lighter case load than he did 10 years ago.
At 78, Sirica still is trim and spry, despite having suffered a near-fatal heart attack in 1976. Before Watergate, Sirica's rather mediocre reputation was built on the stiff sentences he handed out and the frequency with which his rulings were reversed on appeal. His ability to function under the extreme pressure of Watergate, disposing of some of the toughest constitutional issues ever dumped in the lap of a federal judge, made him a folk hero and put him on the cover of national magazines. He asserts, however, that Watergate has not changed him. "I don't think all this damn--I shouldn't say damn--I don't think this publicity has changed me one bit."
He certainly seems more worldly than he was before Watergate. His book, To Set the Record Straight, was a best-seller, and now he is well-versed on paperback sales and talk shows. But in other ways, he is much the same. Sirica still comes across like a judge out of a Frank Capra movie, a little slow on the uptake but with a simple, honest directness that ultimately overcomes all obstacles. Sirica is living testament to the faith that believers in democracy place in the ability of the common man to direct their affairs.
Sirica remains untroubled by all the decisions he made. He says he has no malice for the men he sent to prison. "I feel sorry for every one of them who was involved, and if I saw them tomorrow, I'd tell them that. It just shows you I have no hate in my system."
He says he has only one regret about Watergate. A time came when the television networks filed a motion with Sirica to broadcast the tapes used in the Watergate cover-up trial. Sirica denied the motion. "If I had it to do all over again, after reading Mr. Nixon's memoirs, I would have released those tapes so the American people could hear them. I think if they had any doubt, I think they'd have a different idea entirely. So I'm sorry I didn't release them."