2005-06-10 / Editorial/Opinion

From the Editor’s Desk

By Howard Schwach

Those who were not yet politically aware in June of 1972 (that probably includes every body younger than 50 years of age), are most likely wondering what all this “Deep Throat” stuff is all about.

What it is about, is the President of The United States covering up a massive plan by his Committee To Reelect The President (CREEP) to steal the presidential election.

It doesn’t get any better than that. Even President Bill Clinton’s peccadilloes were more personal than political. The Nixon era crimes were much deeper and went to the heart of democracy itself.

The basic facts of what has come to be called “Watergate” are well known, even though some of Nixon’s ex-aides went on television this week to deny that it every happened and to tell the world that W. Mark Felt, the man who Woodward and Bernstein dubbed “Deep Throat” after a popular porn movie, was a traitor and was wrong in what he told the two reporters.

Even after 35 years, they are still involved in denying history.

On June 17, 1972, a group of strange burglars broke into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee’s situated in the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C. They were caught. One of them had on his person a telephone book with a few White House names and telephone numbers.

From such a humble beginning, a President was toppled.

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, then two young reporters for the Washington Post, were assigned to the story. Woodward had a standing relationship with Felt, who was the number two man at the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Felt began to feed Woodward information and often pointed him in the right direction in Woodward’s investigation into Watergate.

To hide Felt’s identity, the reporters called him “Deep Throat.” Only their Managing Editor knew the tipster’s real identity.

Eventually, it was disclosed that Nixon’s men had committed the crime and that the FBI was urged to put the investigation on the back burner by Nixon and his aides. When one of his aides blurted out that there was a taping system in Nixon’s office that taped all his calls and conversations, Nixon’s fate was sealed and he eventually resigned.

Although it is clear that Nixon covered up the fact that his own people committed the crime, there are still many unsettled questions about Watergate.

Nixon always claimed that he did not order the break-in at the Watergate complex. In one tape-recorded conversation with H. R. Halderman, his chief of staff, he said, “My God, the committee is not worth bugging.” In 2003, however, Jeb McGruder, a high-ranking Nixon aide, said that he heard Nixon on the phone with John Mitchell (Nixon’s campaign chair and former Attorney General) authorizing the break-in. In fact, the “dirty tricks” wing of Nixon’s campaign was authorized to do just about anything it wanted to disrupt the Democrats.

To add to the mystery, it has never been determined with any certainty as to what the burglars were looking for at the Democratic Headquarters.

Some argue that Nixon believed that the Democrats had proof that Nixon had financial dealings with Howard Hughes that could be damaging to the president. Others say that the break-in was simply part of a larger intelligence-gathering program launched by the “plumbers” in Nixon’s campaign.

Still others say that the break-in was an attempt to get embarrassing information on Larry O’Brien, the party’s chair.

Some say that Nixon believed that O’Brien had information about the aborted attack on Cuba that would embarrass the Democrats.

From a very real point of view, it was not Deep Throat or the team of journalists who brought down Nixon, but his own aide, Alexander Butterfield, who disclosed, almost as an aside, that the existence of the Nixon tapes. Those tapes, more than anything else, provided the “smoking gun” that led to his impeachment and resignation.

The tapes also provided one of the more interesting puzzles in the whole Watergate affair – who erased the famous 18 ½ minutes of the tape just when it was getting interesting to investigators?

Months after investigators subpoenaed the tapes, it was found that 18 ½ minutes of a June 20, 1972 conversation between Nixon and Halderman was wiped out. Audio experts concluded that the tape had been purposely erased.

Halderman later said that the conversation might have been about the effort to stop the FBI investigation.

Nixon’s long-time secretary, Rosemary Woods, claimed that she had inadvertently wiped out the tape while reaching for a telephone call. A famous picture that attempted to recreate the accidental erasure has been dubbed the “Rosemary Stretch” because it seemed to experts that it would have been impossible to wipe out the tape in the way she indicated.

Since nobody had access to those tapes but Nixon and Woods, it seems clear that she wiped the segment at his behest.

The question that many asked at the time was why Nixon did not simply wipe out all of the tapes and then defy investigators to do anything about it.

The easy answer is that Nixon believed that the tapes where his personal property and that his executive privilege would keep him from giving them to investigators.

He was enough of an egotist to believe that keeping the tapes would preserve his posterity.

Instead, the tapes guaranteed his fall.

There will now be an attempt by Nixon’s supporters to vilify Felt, to show that the FBI agent was a traitor. That has already begun. John Dean, a lawyer who was intricately entwined in the cover-up said last Sunday that Felt should have gone to the courts rather than to Woodward. He said that Felt and Woodward were wrong in many of the things that were published about the affair.

Ben Bradlee, the Post’s Managing Editor, defended the stories that ran in his paper. He said that he would rather trust Felt and the information his reporters came up with than the memories of one who was indicted for the cover-up. He clearly believed that Nixon’s ex-henchman were still involved in a move to protect his reputation, even in death. Bradlee says that all of the information that was printed was verified with at least one other source. Information that could not be independently verified was not used in published reports, Bradlee says.

The entire Watergate affair, from the arrest of McGruder and the others, to Nixon’s resignation, will continue to sit in the consciousness of those who lived through it despite the unmasking of Deep Throat.

The Watergate affair is one of those political stories that will not go away. It is one of those political stories that the present administration should study for its own good.

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