Miller Center

Watergate: “Above the Law”

[Essay published at HNN]

It wasn’t the crime, but it wasn’t the cover-up, either. Something more basic took down a president 33 years ago. Long before prosecutors identified him as an unindicted coconspirator, Richard Nixon was a conspiracy theorist. In the last 10 years, the government has systematically declassified hundreds of hours of White House tapes recorded on a voice-activated system that President Nixon had the Secret Service install in the oval office. They reveal a textbook example of what historian Richard Hofstadter called “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.”

Any group can be the target of a conspiracy theory. Nixon targeted three—Jews, intellectuals, and Ivy Leaguers. Their connection wasn’t logical, but political. Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., summarized the reaction of the Republican bureaucratic old guard federal bureaucracy in the 1930s, when Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal brought new kids to town: “There were too many Ivy League men, too many intellectuals, too many radicals, too many Jews.” So when Congressman Dick Nixon, a young Republican from California on the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1940s, played a prominent role in exposing the Alger Hiss spy ring (which contained the tiniest fraction of the Jews, intellectuals and Ivy Leaguers who worked in the New Deal, but more than enough to make the right wing feel vindicated) Nixon rocketed to political stardom. As Garry Wills has noted, Nixon entered his 30s having never held public office and exited his 30s having been elected Vice President of the United States. The Hiss case made him. Later it would unmake him.

Nixon drew lessons from the Hiss case about Jews, intellectuals and the Ivy League.

What’s important is that Nixon said the same thing about all three groups –- that they were arrogant and put themselves above the law. Hofstadter would have seen what was coming next. “A fundamental paradox of the paranoid style,” he wrote, “is the imitation of the enemy.” His examples include anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klansmen “donning priestly vestments” and the anti-Communist John Birch Society forming cells and employing front groups. Had he lived long enough to hear the Nixon tapes, Hofstadter could added to the list an anti-Semitic, anti-intellectual, anti-Ivy League president arrogantly putting himself above the law. The Nixon quotes above come from June and July of 1971, when he was on the verge of creating a secret police organization, the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), without congressional authority. The SIU is better known as “The Plumbers,” since one of its purposes was to plug “leaks” like that of the Pentagon Papers, a classified multi-volume Defense study of Vietnam War decision-making that the New York Times had begun publishing on June 13, 1971.

By coincidence (a common phenomenon conspiracy theorists have a hard time accepting), the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers, Daniel Ellsberg, had Jewish ancestors, a career as a defense intellectual, and a degree from Harvard. By further coincidence, the man who conducted the Pentagon study, Leslie H. Gelb, and the man who recruited Gelb to the Defense Department, Morton H. Halperin, were also Jewish intellectuals with Ivy League degrees. While Halperin and Gelb let Ellsberg see a copy of the Pentagon Papers, at a time when Ellsberg had a security clearance and needed the study for Vietnam research, no investigation, legal or illegal, ever found evidence that either Halperin or Gelb took part in the leak. But political paranoids don’t need evidence. Nixon quickly formed a conspiracy theory and never let it go. In the privacy of the oval office, he lumped Halperin and Gelb together with Ellsberg as “the three Jews.”

It’s not like no one warned Nixon. The day the Times started publishing, former national security adviser Walt Rostow, after talking it over with Lyndon Johnson, called the White House and fingered Ellsberg. Alexander M. Haig, Nixon’s deputy national security adviser, asked about Halperin and Gelb, but Rostow didn’t think either would do it. “He said whoever did this could not be a good Democrat,” Haig reported to Nixon the next day. “He said he would have to be a radicalized individual.” Anyone leaking thousands of pages of classified documents must abandon all hope of future government employment. Ellsberg burned that bridge, but Gelb would later work for President Carter, Halperin for President Clinton.

Like other political paranoids, Nixon did have some real worries. Not necessarily the ones he put in his memoirs, about potential leaks threatening his diplomatic opening to China or nuclear arms negotiations. Both of these initiatives involved legitimate national security secrets. But the tapes show that Nixon’s first concern was with the potential exposure of an illegitimate secret, his bombing of Cambodia.

It’s questionable whether Nixon ever had the right to keep the bombing of North Vietnamese infiltration routes through Cambodia secret. He claimed later it was necessary for Cambodian Prince Sihanouk to preserve his public neutrality regarding the Vietnam War. By the time the Pentagon Papers were published in 1971, however, Sihanouk had been overthrown, and Cambodia’s government was no longer officially neutral, but pro-American. The foreign policy rationale for secrecy was gone, but a pressing political one remained. The bombing of Cambodia, once revealed, was bound to cause controversy. Nixon had won the 1968 election only after publicly pledging support for Lyndon Johnson’s decision to halt the bombing of North Vietnam. How would he explain that in his first months in office he had secretly started bombing another country?

On this subject Nixon was plagued by another coincidence. Halperin knew about the secret bombing. Henry A. Kissinger, Nixon’s national security adviser, had hired Halperin in 1969 onto the National Security Council staff. (One might wonder how someone with Nixon’s views of Jews, intellectuals and the Ivy League could employ, as his most trusted foreign policy adviser and de facto Secretary of State, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany whose intellectual credentials started with three degrees from Harvard. Bigots can make exceptions for some of their best friends, and Nixon did for Jews, intellectuals and Ivy Leaguers he personally deemed “loyal.” Kissinger, in his judgment, rose to the level of “loyal bastard.”) Kissinger had hired Halperin onto the National Security Council staff at the start of Nixon’s presidency. When someone leaked a story on one of the Cambodian bombing runs to the Times, the president had the FBI tap Halperin’s phone. The wiretap lasted 21 months. The FBI found no evidence that Halperin revealed any classified information. That was not enough for Nixon.

Halperin remained at the top of one enemies list (the Nixon White House had multiple lists) along with Gelb and the Washington think tank where both were scholars, the Brookings Institution. A White House aide claimed that Gelb took a Top Secret report on the 1968 bombing halt with him to Brookings. That was enough for Nixon. It prompted his most bizarre response to the Pentagon Papers: an order to break into Brookings and steal a report whose existence has never been confirmed.

The Brookings break-in never came off. But the Special Investigations Unit, employing CIA assets recruited from Florida’s Cuban American community, did manage to burglarize the Los Angeles office of a psychiatrist who had treated Ellsberg. They were looking for information on the conspiracy. They got nothing. All the president’s men never could make a case against Halperin and Gelb. The Special Investigations Unit disbanded. But some of its members got back together during the campaign for one more job, and then another, and then their luck ran out in and they got themselves arrested breaking into Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate complex.

The president had to make a choice. On the one hand, he could let the criminal investigation proceed unimpeded, knowing it would lead from the Watergate break-in to the earlier break-in at Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office to the impeachable offense of a president establishing a secret police agency that operated outside the Constitution and above the law. On the other hand, he could launch a cover-up. The choice Nixon made destroyed him, but the alternative would have destroyed him, too, and probably quicker.

In his parting remarks to the White House staff, on the day he relinquished the presidency, Nixon drew a simple moral lesson from his downfall: “Always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.” This seeming confession of moral failure cloaked a subtle claim of moral justification: They started it, with their hate; he was only defending himself, fighting fire with fire.

Nixon’s private words, immortalized on tape, offer more complex lessons. Nixon had moral clarity, but it fueled his immorality. His conviction that he was fighting evil became his excuse for doing evil. His attempts to break an imaginary conspiracy ultimately led him to launch the real conspiracy that broke him.

Transcript and Audio Clips:

[click on the titles to open the clip]

When former President Richard Nixon agreed to televised interviews with David Frost in return for $1 million, he didn’t know what he was in for. Three years after Nixon resigned the presidency, the British television personality would confront him on camera with previously unpublished transcripts from his first recorded conversation with White House political operative Charles W. “Chuck” Colson following the Watergate break-in. “The real significance” of the excerpts from the June 20, 1972, conversation, wrote Frost’s researcher, James Reston, Jr., in The Conviction of Richard Nixon (2007), “lay in the chemistry of the interview. Here was Frost at the very outset of the Watergate narrative with new and highly damaging material. What else did he have? How many new tapes would he spring? How sure could Nixon be that his old lines of defense would hold?” The confrontation is memorialized in a current Broadway play, “Frost/Nixon.” In the conversation Frost quoted, Nixon and Colson minimized the importance of Watergate in comparison to another scandal which in the news at the time involving IT&T and expressed the hope that the break-in would soon be forgotten.

 
 

President Richard M. Nixon wanted to delay the Watergate break-in trial until after the 1972 presidential election, and on August 1, 1972, White House Chief of Staff H.R. “Bob” Haldeman informed him that he would get his wish. The lawyers involved all had heavy court calendars that would not be cleared until the end of the year, so there was little chance for a trial to begin before Election Day.

 
 

The moment when Richard Nixon learned that Mark Felt was leaking information to the news media about the FBI’s investigation into the Watergate break-in was captured on the White House tapes. On October 19, 1972, White House Chief of Staff H.R. “Bob” Haldeman informed the president that a confidential source-a former FBI official with strong ties to the Nixon administration-had fingered Felt. Nixon’s anger is audible, but he swiftly concluded that Felt was a man who knew too much to be fired.

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