Extract 2: The Great Cover-Up

by Barry Sussman

Page 86

In the summer of 1973, when John Dean made public the enemies list with the names of 21 organizations and more than 200 people on it, it became natural to think of Nixon politics as the politics of revenge. The enemies list was part of a plan to “use the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies,” as Dean explained it. The concept, involving fundamental abuse of government power for the basest ends, was obviously repugnant and offended many Americans. But it would be a mistake to reason that Nixon considered Congress as loaded with his enemies. Exactly the opposite is true.

Very few senators and congressmen were considered enemies. The list included mainly representatives of the media, civil rights or citizens group activists, labor leaders, celebrities, academics, businessmen, and antiwar leaders. There were only ten U.S. senators on the list, and, aside from the black members of the House only six representatives. Those whose names were not on the enemies list were not necessarily considered friends. But most assuredly, with few exceptions they were considered politicians who could be reasoned with in a normal manner. So one implication of the list was that, by their absence on it, 90 senators and 417 representatives were not thought of as enemies by Richard Nixon.

Perhaps nothing better illustrates the relationship between Nixon and those supposedly partisan politicians, the Democrats on Capitol Hill, than the public testimony of White House aide Gordon Strachan at the Senate Watergate hearings on July 23, 1973. Strachan said that the White House had a list of one hundred Democratic members of the House and Senate who were running for re-election in 1972 “who would not receive very strong opposition from Republicans….The goal was not to give a tremendous amount of support to Republicans that would oppose these congressmen.”

In 1972, a total of 10 Democratic senators and 235 Democrats in the House ran for re-election nationwide. If Strachan’s figure was correct—and he was questioned about it repeatedly by Senator Lowell Weicker of the Watergate Committee—then Nixon was lending encouragement or support to 42.5 percent of the opposition party’s incumbent candidates. The Democrats favored, Strachan said, were selected for having supported Nixon’s Indochina policies or because they had won the backing of labor interests that also were aiding Nixon.

Weicker was so upset at Strachan’s testimony that he reflected on “Republicans doing in Republicans” and asked rhetorically, “Did we have any sort of an election contest…was there a contest in 1972 for the House or Senate?” Throughout the Watergate scandal, Nixon sought assistance from more or less friendly members of both parties. And from the moment Wright Patman announced his plans to investigate Watergate, through the most intensive states of the Senate Watergate Committee hearings and the later drive for his impeachment, the President time after time was rescued by leaders of both political parties.

Watergate was first and foremost the scandal of Richard Nixon, but it was a scandal that could have ended quickly if not for the help powerful men on Capitol Hill extended to their president.

Page 100

By the end of September, 1972, Woodward and Bernstein took the trail of Watergate funding all the way up to John Mitchell. Bernstein called the former campaign director at home late on the night of September 29 to ask his comments on a report that he controlled the “secret fund” while he was Attorney General. Bernstein read aloud the first several paragraphs.

“All that crap you’re putting in the paper!” Mitchell said. “It’s all been denied. Katie Graham’s gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that’s published. Good Christ! That’s the most sickening thing I’ve ever heard.”

Bernstein said he wanted to ask Mitchell a few questions.

“What time is it?” Mitchell asked.

“Eleven-thirty. I’m sorry to call so late,” Bernstein said.

“Eleven thirty? Eleven-thirty when?”

“Eleven-thirty at night.”

“Oh.”

Page 131

John J. Sirica
John J. Sirica, the chief U.S. District Court judge who liked to take the big cases himself, and who became a key figure in exposing the great cover up.
(ASSOCIATED PRESS)

On Monday, January 8, 1973, some 250 potential jurors were gathered in the U.S. District Courthouse in Washington. The Watergate trial was about to get under way. On the first day Judge John J. Sirica excused more than 150 people who said that a lengthy trial would cause them personal hardship. On the second morning Sirica asked those remaining to stand if they had heard, read, or seen anything about the Watergate case, and eight people remained seated. The judge asked one of them, “You didn’t hear about the Watergate case?” She said, “No.”

“Incredible,” Sirica said.

He then proceeded to select twelve jurors and six alternates before the day was out, and had marshals accompany them home for some belongings and return them to the courthouse. They were sequestered on upper floors in modest rooms with windows they could not see through for the following three weeks, the length of the trial.

Two defense attorneys charged that Sirica had ignored standard procedures in selecting a jury so rapidly, without giving them an adequate chance to ask questions. They said his actions would be grounds for appeal if their clients were convicted. But Sirica did things his own way and refused to be disturbed by such criticism; he had established quite a record for receiving criticism long before the trial began.

Sirica’s reputation was that of a very tough sentencer, something of a publicity hound. In a court noted for its thoughtful and progressive jurists, he was regarded near the bottom in depth of legal knowledge, more a Sancho Panza than a Solomon. The son of an Italian immigrant, Sirica had the looks, manner, and speech mannerisms of a bus driver.

By 1972, Sirica’s court had begun following new guidelines recommended by Chief Justice Warren Burger on the handling of major cases. Included was a procedure through which the chief judge was to assign the best available jurist, replacing the previous practice of selecting a judge at random. Sirica proceeded to assign himself to Watergate, saying it would be a time-consuming case and that while other judges had a backlog to contend with, he didn’t. He had appointed himself to the last sensational case in his court, a bizarre murder that captured the attention of a blasé city. So it was not a total surprise that Sirica chose to try he liked the big ones. Nevertheless, because of the political overtones, one of the first questions asked about Sirica’s conduct had to do with why he took the Watergate case.

On October 4, 1972, Sirica issued a broad, possibly unprecedented order prohibiting all law enforcement agencies, the defendants, witnesses, potential witnesses “including complaining witnesses and alleged victims, their attorneys and all persons acting for or with them in connection with this case” from making statements about the matter to anyone outside the court. The motion requesting the order had been filed by defense attorneys and approved by prosecutor Earl Silbert, with both sides doing their best to end all Watergate publicity at the time. Sirica, who was ill when the order was prepared, signed it at home. It was so sweeping yet so vague that the judge couldn’t explain exactly who was restricted by it and was himself uncertain of its legality.

Lawrence Meyer of the Post called the judge to ask whether the order meant that George McGovern could no longer discuss Watergate in campaign speeches. “That’s a good question,” Sirica said. “I tried to make it as broad as I could. I hadn’t thought about it. I frankly hadn’t given that a thought. I’ll have to deal with that at some time, I suppose, but I’d rather not answer that question now.”

Sirica agreed that the order might create problems where “we get into free speech and all that business,” but he said that “was something we have to meet at the proper time. I have no comment. It may be raised, it may never be raised.”

Compliance with Sirica’s order would have forced the Post and other news agencies to stop reporting all Watergate developments except those that took place in court. By not talking to investigators, witnesses, or potential witnesses, reporters would be left to talk only to themselves. They could write columns of opinion, but they couldn’t investigate.

Two days later, under widespread criticism, Sirica modified his order, striking the restrictions on witnesses, potential witnesses, and alleged victims. This action was proper, but it made the judge subject to the charge that he was erratic and hadn’t really know what he was doing in the first place.

In December, 1972, Sirica jailed the Washington bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times when that newspaper refused to turn over to the court the tapes of an interview two of its reporters had conducted with Alfred Baldwin, the man who had monitored the Democrats’ telephones form the Howard Johnson’s across from the Watergate. The editor, John Lawrence, was the second person Sirica had jailed for contempt, the first being attorney Douglas Caddy, who had refused to testify before the grand jury.

Both the newspaperman and the attorney had noted an appeal of Sirica’s ruling to a higher court before he ordered them incarcerated, and there were many who felt that Sirica had acted with improper haste. Neither man was detained more than a few hours, but, especially in the case of Lawrence, there was a sense that Sirica was unnecessarily exacerbating tension, felt highly at the time, over the rights of a free press.

The courtroom was Sirica’s bus, and he did what he wanted with the passengers. His conduct of the Watergate trial in January, 1973, was every bit as arbitrary as his handling of pretrial activities. Had the trial of the Watergate Seven been a sensational civil rights case instead, Sirica probably would have been criticized as much as was Chicago federal judge Julius Hoffman for his handling of the Chicago Eight, which involved nationally known antiwar and civil rights leaders.

But the Watergate was not such a trial, and many who otherwise would have lashed out at Sirica for his bluster on the bench or his disregard for normal courtroom procedures were hushed by his obvious sincerity, his disgust at the coverup, and his incontrovertible leading role in bringing to light the enormity of the Watergate scandal.

Print Friendly