Things have been growing dangerously dull in the capital of late. The president's away getting his picture taken with popes and prime ministers, another steamy Washington summer approaches, Congress continues to bicker over the budget and the latest diverting little war draws to a close in the South Atlantic.
Stale Washington badly needs a boost. Now we've got it, and just in time.
What more perfect antidote to the doldrums: we've got Richard Nixon to kick around again. Better yet, we'll have him around for weeks to come while we relive Watergate.
In this most political of cities, where Nixon-Watergate junkies abound, that's a better fix than a 5-cent cigar any day, any season.
To turn on the TV these recent mornings is to tune back into the past. There sits Nixon, speaking confidently to Diane Sawyer of CBS, with his remembered mannerisms and familiar subjects: the press, the politicians, the pollsters, the imagery, the PR of it all.
He remains, as ever, both above it and down in the pit, the statesman as president and the political gut fighter as Tricky Dick. Slyly, he offers seemingly detached comments about the political scene while at the same time getting in his personal digs. Teddy Kennedy will be the Democratic presidential nominee, but he better start losing 20 pounds fast. Fritz Mondale is a swell fellow, awfully nice, you know, but it's too bad he doesn't have it. Women reporters are great, but they just shouldn't try to be like men.
All this comes as a prelude to the 10th anniversary (that's right, a decade already) of the break-in June 17, 1972, at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex by those ham-handed burglars wearing rubber surgical gloves.
Before we wallow again in Watergate, as critics said we used to do, here's a connoisseur's guide to the game. It is offered for two purposes: to instruct those who have no idea what it was all about, and to save them from the ordeal of laboring through the groaning library shelves containing the millions of words, and theories, and interpretations, and psycho-interpretations of the re-intepretations written so far about Watergate.
All you need to know about Richard Nixon and Watergate will be found in one place. It is easily obtained and quickly assimilated.
I refer to the few pages of transcripts from secret recordings released by the White House Aug. 5, 1974. Those were the ones the Supreme Court unanimously ordered Nixon to turn over as vital evidence in criminal proceedings. Four days later Nixon resigned in disgrace.
Rereading them now, it all comes back, and so does something else. There you will find starkly revealed the cast of mind that prevailed at the top inside the Nixon White House during Watergate.
To sketch the scene: It is June 23, 1972, six days after the Watergate break-in. H.R. Haldeman explains to the 37th president of the United States, Richard Milhous Nixon, that they have problems.
While the secret Oval Office tape recorders fatefully whirr along, Haldeman warns the president that on "the Democratic break-in thing, we're back in the problem area because the FBI is not under control."
He means the FBI was doing its job, earnestly investigating the crime, and that it was imperiling the Nixon White House and the president.
As Haldeman delicately put it, "Their investigation is now leading into some productive areas." They were tracing the money and "it goes in some directions we don't want it to go."
Together, Nixon and his top aide hatch a plan to cover up White House involvement. They will call off the FBI by using the CIA as a national security smoke screen. CIA's Vernon Walters, for years close to Nixon, will telephone L. Patrick Gray, whom Nixon appointed to head the FBI, and say, in Haldeman's words: "Stay to hell out of this. This is ah, business here we don't want you to go any further on it."
Nixon asks: "What about Pat Gray? You mean Pat Gray doesn't want to?"
Haldeman replies: "Pat does want to do. He doesn't know how to, and he doesn't have any basis for doing it. Given this, he will then have the basis. He'll call them in and say, 'We've got the signal from across the river to put the hold on this.' And that will fit rather well because the FBI agents who are working the case, at this point, feel that's what it is."
In other words, that the break-in was a CIA covert operation, a matter of national security, which it wasn't.
Nixon approves the cover-up plan and instructs Haldeman how to do it.
"You call them in," he orders his aide, referring to the FBI. "Play it tough. That's the way they play it and that's the way we are going to play it."
After they finish their cover-up business, Haldeman tries to brief Nixon on other important matters of state.
The following dialogue ensues:
H. Did you get the report that the British floated the pound?
P. No. I don't think so.
H. They did.
P. That's devaluation?
H. Yeah. White House aide Peter Flanigan's got a report on it here.
P. I don't care about it. Nothing we can do about it.
H. You want a run-down?
P. No, I don't.
Still, Haldeman tries to brief him.
"He argues it shows the wisdom of our refusal to consider convertibility until we get a new monetary system."
The president shrugs it off. "Good. I think he's right. It's too complicated for me to get into. (Unintelligible). I understand."
Despite such presidential candor, or indifference, Haldeman continues trying to fill in the chief executive on other important economic developments.
H. Federal Reserve Chairman Arthur Burns is concerned about speculation about the lira. The dollar.
P. Yeah. O.K. Fine.
Again, Haldeman tries to break through.
"Burns is concerned about speculation about the lira," he repeats.
Nixon angrily responds:
"Well, I don't give a (expletive deleted) about the lira. (Unintelligible)."
Finally, Haldeman gives up. "That's the substance of that."
Much more is packed into those brief pages.
The preoccupation with appearances, the obsession with press and polls, the concern about PR and how it will play on TV, the secret plotting, the cynicism and the prejudices (don't let his daughter Julie waste time with political appearances at museums, he says, "The arts, you know, they're Jews, they're left wing, in other words, stay away"), the strangely unconvincing tough-guy talk, the expletives deleted and unintelligible remarks uttered between "P" and "H," the desperate attempts to cover up crimes, the Nixon need to keep urging his staff to reread his book, "Six Crises" ("a damned good book . . . reads like a novel"), the indifference to other questions of significance, such as changes in the international monetary structure.
Others will draw the great lessons of Watergate, seen from the perspective of a decade later. But if you didn't know anything else about Watergate, those few pages would illuminate the character, attitudes and behavior of Richard Nixon as president. They also explain why Watergate spread such a pall over the American political landscape.