Monday, October 31, 2011

A Cancer Close To The Presidency: The Watergate Scandal

I am coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled “American Dreams and Reality: A Retelling of the American Story.” Here, I describe the unraveling of Richard Nixon’s administration and Gerald Ford’s rise to the Vice Presidency.

The cluster of scandals that became known by the shorthand phrase “Watergate” started well before the morning of June 17, 1960, when Washington, D.C. police arrested five men employed by Nixon’s Committee to Re-Elect the President after they broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters located in the Watergate Hotel (just one mile from the White House.) As already noted, by the time of the break-in, Nixon’s campaign had engaged in extensive “dirty tricks” targeting the Muskie campaign. Nixon had already violated the law by authorizing illegal wiretaps to determine who had leaked the information on American bombing in Cambodia and Laos and had formed the “Plumbers Unit.” It was the White House Plumbers Unit that broke into the Watergate Hotel in order to repair bugging devices planted there during an earlier break-in.

The Plumbers Unit included several bizarre characters including the former FBI agent and one-time assistant district attorney G. Gordon Liddy who once conquered a fear of fire by holding his hand in the flame of a candle until the skin of his palm reportedly burned black. Nixon wanted the Plumbers to reveal what he thought was a criminal relationship between Democratic National Chair Lawrence O’Brien and the reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes, who also had contributed money to Nixon. Discovering those theoretical links was the original purpose of bugging O’Brien’s Washington headquarters.

When police nabbed the five Watergate burglars, the Plumbers – including former CIA agent Bernard Barker and James W. McCord (a security coordinator for the Republican National Committee and CREEP) -- wore business suits and carried the bugging equipment and $2,300 in cash in a series of $100 bills with sequential serial numbers. Sensing something unusual about this break-in, newly hired Washington Post police reporter Bob Woodward attended the burglars’ arraignment and was startled to hear McCord tell the judge about his former job at the CIA. Woodward also discovered that the burglars carried address books that listed the name and phone number of Howard Hunt, another former CIA agent and a Nixon White House consultant. Woodward called Hunt’s number and asked what he had to do with the burglars. “Good God,” Hunt exclaimed before he hung up.

White House Press Secretary Ron Zeigler dismissed the incident as a “third rate” burglary. Woodward and another Washington Post reporter, Carl Bernstein, turned Watergate into a full-time beat. The pair of investigative journalists demonstrated that the Nixon campaign had created an illegal $350,000 election “slush fund” in which money from donors was “laundered” through Mexican bank accounts to conceal the source of the money. The money was then used to pay for dirty tricks. Woodward and Bernstein proved a connection between the break-in and the president’s re-election campaign, but still Watergate had no effect on the 1972 election.

The scandal grabbed the public’s attention in January 1973 when a Washington jury convicted the Watergate burglars, Howard Hunt and Liddy, of conspiracy and burglary charges. Threatened with a long prison term, McCord began to provide the court details about the Plumbers and other illegal White House operations. The Senate empanelled a Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities chaired by the colorful, story-telling, longtime segregationist North Carolina Sen. Sam Ervin. The Watergate suspects began to talk to investigators. White House Counsel John Dean warned Nixon on March 21, 1973 that, “We have a cancer within, close to the presidency, that's growing. It's growing daily. It's compounding. It grows geometrically now, because it compounds itself.”


Speaking with the president, Dean laid out the financial demands from the Watergate burglars. “Hunt is now demanding another $72,000 for his own personal expenses; $50,000 to pay his attorney’s fees . . . wanted it by the close of business yesterday,” Dean said. The White House lawyer hoped to alert Nixon to the dangers of the White House submitting to blackmail. Instead, Nixon asked, ‘How much money do you need?” Hoping to scare the president off from committing bribery, Dean said, “I would say that these people are going to cost a million dollars over the next two years.” Nixon didn’t blanch. “We could get that . . . If you need the money, you could get the money. I know where it could be gotten.”

The president eventually authorized his legal advisor to raise $75,000 in “hush money” to ensure Hunt would remain silent about criminal acts and White House involvement. Nixon told other aides on March 22, “I want you all to stonewall it, let them plead the Fifth Amendment, cover up, anything else.” Unknown to Dean and others, Nixon had been secretly audiotaping his Oval Office conversations. Convinced that he was making history, Nixon had requested systematic taping of his conversations so he could retrieve every word he uttered in the Oval Office. The secret taping indeed preserved his place in history, but not in the way Nixon imagined. The recordings had just caught the president ordering an aide to bribe witnesses in a criminal case.

Federal Judge John Sirica pressured McCord to cooperate with investigators and McCord accused Dean and others of ordering a cover-up to conceal the White House connection to Watergate. Dean, in turn, implicated more White House officials including top Nixon lieutenants Haldeman and Ehrlichman. On April 30, 1973, Nixon went on television to address the widening Watergate scandal and to announce the resignation of Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Dean. Nixon privately told staffers that he thought his administration was doomed and hinted darkly at suicide. The day of Haldeman and Ehrlichman’s resignations, he looked at press secretary Zeigler and said, “It’s all over, Ron, do you know that?” He told another aide preparing his public statement on the departures, “Maybe I should resign . . If you think so just put it in.”

Sadly for the country, the drama dragged on for more than another year. Hoping he could convince the public that he wanted to get to the bottom of the matter, Nixon appointed Archibald Cox as special prosecutor to investigate the Watergate matter. That summer, Ervin’s committee held televised hearings. Commercial networks broadcast five hours of the hearings each day. About 85 percent of the American public told pollsters that they watched some part of the hearings. Even Republican senators began to criticize the president, with moderate Sen. Howard Baker of Tennessee famously asking, “What did the president know and when did he know it?” A turning point came in July 1973 when former White House staffer Alexander Butterfield revealed the existence of the White House tapes.

An unrelated scandal involving Vice President Spiro Agnew further tarred the administration. Agnew had been the administration’s conservative lightning rod, making fiery speeches attacking the supposedly liberal media, war protestors and black radicals. But now he faced charges that while Baltimore County executive and governor of Maryland he had accepted $147,500 in bribes, sometimes delivered to the governor’s mansion in brown paper bags, from businesses seeking state contracts. He continued to accept the bribes when he assumed the vice presidency. He had also failed to report the illegal income on his tax forms. Shortly after pledging in a speech that he would not “resign if indicted,” Agnew stepped down on October 10, 1973, after pleading no contest to one count of tax evasion.

For the first time ever, the Twenty-Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, ratified in 1967 and adopted in the wake of President Kennedy’s assassination, required a president to appoint and the Senate and House to confirm a replacement vice president. (Previously, if a vice president vacated the office through death, sucession to the presidency or some other reason, the office remained open until the next presidential election.) Nixon sought a non-controversial replacement and selected House Minority Leader Gerald Ford of Grand Rapids, Michigan, to serve as the next vice president. Bland but pleasant and not heavily ideological, Ford struck many as a feasible president and he was approved by the Senate 92-3 and the House by a 387-35 margin. Democrats would not have wanted to place Agnew in the White House through impeaching Nixon, but Ford’s appointment emboldened the Democrats’ investigation of presidential wrongdoing.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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