This post originally appeared on "The New Nixon" on February 22, 2008.
Though the Nixon Presidency foundered on two famous break-ins, President Nixon denied that he knew about either in advance. Scholars and journalists have been trying to prove him wrong ever since. As the Nixon Foundation first charged, in his 1997 book of Watergate tape transcripts Stanley Kutler edited the transcript of one conversation misleadingly, so that it suggested that the President had had foreknowledge of the 1971 break-in at the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist. Kutler seemed to make his intentions clear when he insisted to an Orange County Register reporter that he’d proven that Mr. Nixon knew about the break-in. According to Max Holland’s “Washington Decoded” website, scholar Joan Hoff seconded our criticism. Kutler fixed the problem in the paperback edition of his book Abuse of Power.
Six years later, hoping to demonstrate that Mr. Nixon had known about the June 1972 Watergate break-in in advance, public television documentary producers exploited the confusion of a troubled Watergate figure, Jeb Magruder. Contradicting his earlier testimony and statements, Magruder told the TV team that on March 30, 1972 he’d heard Mr. Nixon’s voice (coming over a phone reciever held by John Mitchell) approving the fateful break-in at the Democratic National Committee. Since Mr. Nixon was in the White House that day, such a conversation would have been caught on tape. It wasn’t. The White House Daily Diary would have disclosed that he spoke with Mitchell. It didn’t. Mitchell aide Fred LaRue was in the meeting with Magruder; he said the Nixon-Mitchell conversation never took place and that PBS never contacted him. PBS disclosed none of this evidence in its broadcast. In a July 2007 Associated Press article detailing Magruder’s personal setbacks, historian Kutler dismissed the charge. “There is just no evidence that Richard Nixon directly ordered the Watergate break-in,” Kutler said. “Did Magruder hear otherwise? I doubt it.”
Veteran journalist and historian Ron Rosenbaum isn’t so sure. Writing in “Slate” on Valentine’s Day about correlations he sees between Mr. Nixon and Sen. Clinton — an unlikely couple indeed — he again raised what he calls “Nixon’s last lie.” His “Slate” post contains a link to a 2005 New York Observer article in which he claims to have discovered the proof that RN had known about the June 17, 1972 break-in in advance. His argument hinges on an exchange between Mr. Nixon and his chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, three days after the break-in. (Our criticism of Stanley Kutler notwithstanding, the exchange below comes from a transcript in his Abuse of Power, the only book available with a broad range of Watergate chatter, rushed out by Kutler and his team after his successful effort to force the National Archives to open the recordings.) Here’s what Rosenbaum identifies as the key exchange:
NIXON: My God, the committee isn’t worth bugging, in my opinion. That’s my public line.
HALDEMAN: Except for this financial thing. They thought they had something going on that.
NIXON: Yes, I suppose.
Rosenbaum argues that Haldeman means that “they,” the burglars, had been after financial intelligence on the activities of DNC chairman Larry O’Brien. Mr. Nixon’s off-handed acquiescence would show that he must’ve known why the burglars had gone in all along. But it’s hard to argue that Haldeman is talking about the burglars or O’Brien when we look at the whole conversation as well as Haldeman’s next comment, which Rosenbaum doesn’t address:
HALDEMAN: But I asked the question: If we were going to all that trouble, why in the world would we pick the Democratic National Committee to do it to? It’s the least fruitful source–
A few moments before, Haldeman had been talking about what “they,” meaning reporters, had been saying about burglar E. Howard Hunt and his check for $690 found in the possession of another burglar. So Mr. Nixon and Haldeman were actually talking about what “they,” the press, were saying about Hunt’s finances. When Mr. Nixon says his public line is going to be that the Watergate wasn’t worth bugging, Haldeman gently implies that the President’s line is bit too absolutist since “they,” the reporters, “thought they had something going on [this financial thing]” — that is, the seeming financial link between the burglars and Hunt, whose association with the White House had already been established. Bugging the Watergate was obviously worth Hunt’s money. Then Haldeman alludes to conversations he’s been having with others about the silliness of bugging the Watergate. Spinning gears? Certainly. Smoking gun? Seemingly not. And yet the Nixon tapes, with their undefined demonstrative articles, endless inside baseball, and sometimes indecipherable mumbling, can be a canvas on which a Nixon critic sees collusion, an advocate confusion. Telling the Watergate story on a strictly factual basis, as the federal Nixon Library has pledged to do, won’t be as easy as it sounds.
Rosenbaum’s “Slate” article principally concerns Sen. Clinton’s Watergate days, not Mr. Nixon’s. He revisits charges by Jerome Zeifman, Clinton’s boss on the staff of the House Judiciary Committee in 1974, that she was carrying water for the Kennedy family by participating in efforts to keep Mr. Nixon in office until the end of his term in the hope that another Camelot President would move back into the White House as the man from Yorba Linda moved out. Rosenbaum suggests that the senator hasn’t talked much during the campaign about her true political initiation — helping prepare to impeach a President — for fear that Zeiftman’s charges will receive wider play. Returning to Mr. Nixon, Rosenbaum writes that the 37th President “never recovered from being — as it turned out — right about [Soviet spy] Alger Hiss…I believe this incident — in which he was pilloried when he knew he was right — probably helped endanger the paranoia that we have come to call ‘Nixonian’ and that ultimately led Nixon to believe he needed to pre-empt his enemies through the schemes that have come to be grouped under the term Watergate.”
Rosenbaum’s armchair lay diagnosis aside, Mr. Nixon offered a measured critique of his adversarial mind-set in his 1990 book, In the Arena:
In retrospect…I should have set a higher standard for the conduct of the people who participated in my campaign and administration. I should have established a moral tone that would have made such actions unthinkable. I did not. I played by the rules of politics as I found them. Not taking the higher road than my predecessors and my adversaries was my central mistake.
Mr. Nixon atoned for his errors. If Rosenbaum is right — that many journalists and politicians got Hiss wrong and therefore Nixon wrong, contributing to his lifelong assumptions about how to conduct politics — when will they be atoning?