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Watergate Would Have Been a Bump in the Road

June 17th will be the 50th anniversary of the Watergate burglary, the poorly-executed crime that eventually led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation in lieu of impeachment. Margaret Sullivan of The Washington Post points out Nixon would have easily finished his second term if his “plumbers” had been discovered nowadays:

Thinking about Watergate saddens me these days. The nation that came together to force a corrupt president from office and send many of his co-conspirator aides to prison is a nation that no longer exists.

It’s not just our politics that have changed. It’s also our radically transformed media environment.

“The national newspapers mattered in a way that is unimaginable to us today, and even the regional newspapers were incredibly strong,” Garrett Graff, author of “Watergate: A New History,” told me last week. I have been immersed in his nearly 800-page history . . . that sets out to retell the entire story.

Graff depicts Watergate not as a singular event but as the entire mind-set of the Nixon presidency — “a shaggy umbrella of a dozen distinct scandals,” as he told me. By the time the break-in captured the attention of the most Americans, they were essentially “walking into the second or third act of a play.”

Woodward and Bernstein were almost alone on the story for months. But eventually the leading newspapers of the nation started to cover the hell out of the burgeoning scandal and the percolating questions of what — and when — the president knew about the burglary plot.

Americans read this coverage in their local papers; many cities still had two or more dailies at that point. Later, they were riveted by the proceedings of the Senate Watergate Committee, whose hearings were aired live on the three big television networks during the summer of 1973. Graff reports that the average American household watched 30 hours of the hearings, which were also rebroadcast at night by PBS. (“The best thing that has happened to public television since ‘Sesame Street,’” one Los Angeles Times TV critic noted.)

Still, “we forget how close Nixon came to surviving Watergate,” Graff told me. “Even at the end of the hearings, there was no guarantee that Nixon was out of office.”

What changed that? The increasing public awareness of the president’s wrongdoing and the coverup. “The sheer accumulation of the lies,” he said, “at a time when the idea that a president could lie to America was unthinkable.”

Flash-forward to today. The House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection will hold hearings beginning early next month, some of which will be televised during prime-time hours. Rep. Jamie Raskin, the Maryland Democrat who is a prominent member, predicts the revelations will “blow the roof off the House” — offering evidence, he promises, of an organized coup attempt involving Trump, his closest allies and the supporters who attacked the Capitol as they tried to overturn the 2020 presidential election results.

I’m willing to believe that the hearings will be dramatic. They might even change some people’s minds. But the amount of public attention they get will be minuscule compared with what happened when the folksy Sen. Sam Ervin of North Carolina presided over the Senate Watergate Committee.

Our media environment is far more fractured, and news organizations are far less trusted.

And in part, we can blame the rise of a right-wing media system. At its heart is Fox News, which was founded in 1996, nearly a quarter century after the break-in, with a purported mission to provide a “fair and balanced” counterpoint to the mainstream media. Of course, that message often manifested in relentless and damaging criticism of its news rivals. Meanwhile, Fox and company have served as a highly effective laundry service for T____’s lies. With that network’s help, his tens of thousands of false or misleading claims have found fertile ground among his fervent supporters — oblivious to the skillful reporting elsewhere that has called out and debunked those lies.

As Graff sees it, the growth of right-wing media has enabled many Republican members of Congress to turn a blind eye to the malfeasance of Team T____. Not so during the Watergate investigation; after all, it was Sen. Howard Baker, the Tennessee Republican, who posed the immortal question, “What did the President know and when did he know it?” Even the stalwart conservative Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona was among those who, at the end, managed to convince Nixon that he must resign.

“Republican members of Congress understood that they had a unique and important role as the legislative branch to hold the abuses of the executive branch in check,” Graff said. “That freedom of action was made possible because there was no right-wing media ecosystem.”

Not everything was good about the media world of the 1970s. . . . But it was a time when we had a news media that commanded the trust of the general public, a necessity in helping bring Nixon to justice. That, at least during his presidency, was never possible with D____ T____.

As we remember Watergate, we ought to remember how very unlikely its righteous conclusion would be today.

Richard M. Nixon’s presidency would have survived.

They Wanted To Assassinate a Troublesome Reporter

President Richard Nixon avoided impeachment or a jail cell by resigning. This strange story from 50 years ago made me wonder what plots were discussed in the White House more recently and whether that president will ever be punished. From The Washington Post:

Nixon’s hatred for the news media long predated his election as president. Where other politicians shrugged off public criticism, Nixon believed he was uniquely the target of journalistic vilification. When he entered the White House in 1969, he vowed revenge.

As president, Nixon ordered illegal wiretaps on newsmen who criticized his administration and instructed FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to compile a dossier on “homosexuals known and suspected in the Washington press corps.” Nixon’s Justice Department filed antitrust charges against television networks that criticized him and went to court in an unprecedented attempt to legalize government censorship. Nixon’s aides even put together a list of “enemies,” including journalists, to be secretly targeted for government retaliation.

The journalist Nixon despised most was crusading columnist Jack Anderson, then the most famous and feared investigative reporter in the country. Anderson had a hand in exposing virtually every Nixon scandal since he first entered politics, and he escalated his attacks once Nixon was president, uncovering Nixon’s deceit in foreign policy, and his political and personal corruption.

Nixon railed that “we’ve got to do something with this son of a bitch,” but nothing seemed to stop Anderson. The president’s reelection campaign planted a mole in the newsman’s office, but Anderson’s secretary discovered the snooping and ejected the infiltrator. A top White House adviser tried to discredit Anderson by leaking him forged documents, but he figured out they were bogus and didn’t fall for the ruse. The CIA illegally wiretapped and surveilled Anderson, but his nine children chased the spies away and Anderson mocked their incompetence in his column. The president even ordered his staff to smear Anderson as gay, but the allegation was as false as it was ridiculous and went nowhere.

Finally, in March 1972, the Nixon White House turned to the one method guaranteed to silence Anderson permanently: assassination. After meeting with the president in his hideaway office in the Old Executive Office Building, White House special counsel Charles Colson contacted his top White House operative, E. Howard Hunt. The “son of a bitch” Anderson “had become a great thorn in the side of the president,” Colson told Hunt, according to Hunt’s later Senate testimony, and the White House had to “stop Anderson at all costs.” (Hunt also corroborated this story in a 2003 interview.)

According to Hunt, Colson proposed assassinating Anderson by using an untraceable poison, perhaps a high dose of a hallucinogen like LSD. Colson instructed Hunt to “explore the matter with the CIA,” where Hunt had previously worked as a spy. Although he never explicitly stated that Nixon gave the order, Colson told Hunt that he was “authorized to do whatever was necessary” to eliminate the reporter.

Hunt brought in his White House sidekick, G. Gordon Liddy, who was “forever volunteering to rub people out,” as Hunt put it. Liddy was enthusiastic: It would be a “justifiable homicide,” he later said in media interviews, because Anderson was a “mutant” journalist who had “gone too far” and “had to be stopped.”

On March 24, 1972, Hunt and Liddy met with a veteran CIA poison expert, Edward T. Gunn, in the basement of the Hay-Adams Hotel, a block from the White House. Gunn and Liddy, who didn’t know each other, used aliases.

Gunn later told Watergate prosecutors that Hunt said someone “was giving them trouble” and wanted an untraceable poison “that would get him out of the way.” Gunn replied that no poison was completely undetectable. But he said the CIA had success painting LSD on a car’s steering wheel; the drug was then absorbed while driving and could cause a fatal car crash. However, there was also the risk that others — such as Anderson’s wife or children — would be poisoned if they drove the car instead.

Of course, there’s always the old simple method of simply dropping a pill in a guy’s cocktail,” Gunn suggested. But Hunt pointed out that as a Mormon, Anderson was a teetotaler.

Aspirin roulette” was another option, Liddy said: slipping a “poisoned replica” of his headache tablet into his medicine bottle. Liddy and Hunt had already cased Anderson’s house for a possible break-in. But it would be “highly impractical,” Hunt argued, to “go clandestinely into a medicine cabinet with a household full of people and pore over all of the drugs … until you found the one that Jack Anderson normally administered to himself.”

Besides, Liddy realized, it would take too long: “Months could go by before [Anderson] swallowed it.” Not to mention the “danger than an innocent member of his family might take the pill” instead.

It might be simpler, Gunn suggested, to make Anderson’s car crash by ramming into it. Hunt and Liddy had already tailed Anderson as he drove between his home and office, and Gunn suggested a specific location along the route that was “ideal” because it was already “notorious as the scene of fatal auto accidents” in Washington.

But Liddy thought this method was “too chancy” and argued for simplicity: Anderson “should just become a fatal victim of the notorious Washington street-crime rate.” Liddy offered to stab Anderson to death and make it look like a routine robbery by stealing Anderson’s watch and wallet. “I know it violates the sensibilities of the innocent and tender-minded,” Liddy later told Playboy, “but in the real world, you sometimes have to employ extreme and extralegal methods to preserve the very system whose laws you’re violating.”

Hunt briefed Colson about these various assassination options. But a few days later, the hit was canceled. The White House had a more urgent assignment: bugging the Democratic Party’s headquarters in the Watergate office building.

A few weeks later, Hunt and Liddy were arrested for their role in the Watergate burglary. The scandal that toppled Nixon’s presidency began unraveling.

In the aftermath, a Senate committee investigated and confirmed the plot to poison Anderson. Liddy and Hunt eventually acknowledged their participation in the conspiracyColson never did. All three went to prison for Watergate-related crimes.

But not Nixon, whose role in the Anderson plot has never been definitively established. Hunt believed that Colson didn’t have the “balls” to order the assassination on his own and had acted at Nixon’s behest. Colson denied that. But it is hard to imagine Nixon’s closest advisers plotting to execute America’s leading investigative reporter without the tacit — if not explicit — authorization of the president.

One of the Men Who Brought Down Nixon Reacts to the New Tape

A CNN host spoke to Carl Bernstein, one of the reporters who broke the Watergate story, to get his reaction to today’s news:

CNN:  Carl, is this deja vu for you to hear this kind of audiotape of the president of the United States, the sitting president … ?

Bernstein: It’s not deja vu. This is something far worse than what occurred in Watergate. We have both a criminal president of the United States . . . and a subversive president of the United States at the same time. This one person subverting the very basis of our democracy and willing to act criminally in that subversion. But more important, what we hear on this tape — this is the ultimate smoking gun tape — it is . . . the evidence of what this president is willing to do to undermine the electoral system and illegally, improperly and immorally try to instigate a coup in which he remains the president of the United States. 

And in any other presidency, any other presidency, this tape would be evidence enough to result in the impeachment of the president of the United States, his conviction in the Senate of the United States, and, really, an immediate call by the members of Congress, including the members of his own party, that he resign immediately. That’s really what we ought to be hearing from Republicans at this moment. Mr. President, resign. Leave the White House. This is unconscionable, it is wrong and we of your party will not permit it. We’re not going to hear that. We might from a few Republicans, but that’s what’s really called for here.

And the one thing we should recall from Watergate, it is that the heroes of Watergate were Republicans who would not tolerate Richard Nixon’s conduct.

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