June 23, 2002

Assessing Watergate 30 Years Later


President Richard Nixon would have loved the coverage of the 30th anniversary of the Watergate break-in last week. The scandal that drove him from office has been pretty much reduced to a little guessing game about who did or didn't whisper in the ear of a young Washing- ton Post reporter that there were some bad things going on in the White House. Who was Deep Throat? Who cares? The press cares, that's who.

Nixon wanted Americans to think of Watergate as a third-rate burglary just another White House melodrama, like Bill and Monica and he may get his wish. Journalists' predilection for putting ourselves at the center of history and tacking "gate" onto the names of later scandals, great and small, is gradually trivializing the events of the late 1960's and early 1970's.

Watergate was not just a burglary. It was not about personal finances like Whitewater. It was not about a president's knowledge of clandestine foreign operations as in the U-2 affair or Iran-contra. Watergate was a clandestine domestic operation in which a determined president secretly plotted what amounted to a coup d'état against American constitutional government.

The real story and lessons of Watergate are in peril of being lost or forgotten. Thirty years of research, scholarship and confession millions of documents, thousands of tapes have made it perfectly clear that the botched break-in of June 17, 1972, at the Democratic National Committee offices was actually a small incident in Nixon's deliberate, if sometimes clumsy, effort to secretly create a new kind of all-powerful presidential government that reflected his own contempt for democracy and for the Constitution's checks and balances designed to restrict the power of presidents.

Richard Nixon was a strange and gifted man and, in his own words, an introvert in an extrovert's business. In his years at the White House, he spent more and more time alone, writing out his thoughts and frustrations late at night on yellow legal pads or scheming with the two men he saw most, his chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger. He was not kidding when he said that he envied Mao Zedong because the Chinese Communist dictator could rule a vast country with only two or three other men involved in critical decision making.

If Nixon's personal desire was to be alone with his thoughts, his presidential goal was to decide and act alone. One of the more amazing documents uncovered in recent years was the secret contract he forced Cabinet members to sign after he was re-elected in 1972. He retreated to Camp David to craft a plan to reorganize the executive branch. One of the 15 clauses of the contract read: "No policy-making resides in any Policy Council, Policy Group, Assistant to the President, Counselor to the President, or Cabinet Secretary, except as expressly designated by the President. . . . A Cabinet Secretary should not be encouraged to anticipate either free access or frequent consultation with the President."

He operated behind screens of secrets and layer upon layer of lies, big and small, a strategy that worked in his first term. Nixon was able to make great decisions, world-changing decisions, without the advice or interference of Congress, the courts, the federal bureaucracy, the press and certainly without the knowledge or consent of the governed.

Take two of the great milestones of the Nixon years: the opening to China in 1972 and taking the United States dollar off the gold standard in 1971, which changed the economy of the world. Both of those momentous initiatives were created on his yellow pads or in secret meetings involving fewer than two dozen people. There was no public debate or discussion. Both were presented to the American people as faits accomplis in television announcements by the president.

Nixon had learned to govern by surprise. His most important role model was Charles de Gaulle, another antidemocratic elected president, who governed more or less by edict. But surprise in the American system required enormous secrecy. Protecting the secrecy required lies so many that some of the most important officials of the country had no idea what the truth was and neither, it could be argued, did Nixon at the end. By then the military was tapping White House telephones and sending its own operatives to the building at night to empty wastebaskets, steal documents and photograph National Security Council records.

The baffles of deceptions began not with a burglary, but with a murder in June 1969. Nixon dictated lies to the Central Intelligence Agency to prevent the court-martial of six Green Berets for murdering one of their own spies. It happened that the man, Thai Khac Chuyen, was involved in target selection and damage evaluation for secret bombing in Cambodia. Any legal process would have revealed the bombing, which was being kept secret from Congress and the public by phony Air Force record-keeping ordered by the president.

A year later, Nixon approved a secret plan, the so-called Huston Plan, authorizing domestic electronic surveillance and lifting restrictions on surreptitious entry. He had to back down on that plan because the F.B.I. director, J. Edgar Hoover, refused to cooperate, saying the press or Congress would eventually discover what was happening. Then Nixon decided to do the same thing from inside the White House in 1971, creating an extra-legal secret operation that included the unit called the Plumbers. By early 1972, Nixon, his re-election committee and the Republican National Committee were using illegally collected cash to pay the Plumbers, a group of low-lifes capable of breaking into offices and embassies to plant telephone taps and to photograph papers.

Three years after the Green Beret cover-up, the Plumbers were caught in the Watergate building. Whether Nixon himself ordered that particular operation may never be known, but he tried to use the Central Intelligence Agency to cover up the incident. The details of what he knew don't matter that much now. He was the one who made the decision to pay off the burglars for their silence in court, committing the crime that eventually crushed him.

There will always be political scandal revealed in a country with a healthy free press. But Watergate was unique as the climax of a presidency that believed that governance required lies and deception. Though Nixon was pardoned, his legacy was the destruction of American faith in government and its elected leaders. And that not the heroics of the press is what should be remembered about the episode called Watergate.

Richard Reeves is the author of, most recently, ``President Nixon: Alone in the White House.''

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company


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