by Barry Sussman
On the 21st of March, 1973, John Dean attempted to explain to Richard Nixon that the Watergate coverup had become more dangerous to the President than the crime itself, that some way had to be found to bring the affair to a close, not because of its illegality and immorality but because it was about to collapse under its own weight.
The edited transcript of that conversation, made public on April 30, 1974, shows that Nixon time and again turned his back on Dean’s pleas to stop the payment of blackmail to Howard Hunt. But it was not until later that several congressmen on the House Judiciary Committee, angered by Nixon’s editing of those transcripts, revealed the final frantic order issued by Nixon to Dean and H.R. Haldeman on the need to pay Hunt: “For Christ’s sakes, get the money!”
Gordon Liddy was a strange, awesome man who had long since settled into a stance of silence. His constant grin made it appear that his mind was somewhere else, always pondering a happy secret. After the trial and before the sentencing he had begun to get into fights with black inmates at the District of Columbia jail. He feared no man, always held his own, and in a short time had gained great respect for his courage and for the fact that he had put his legal training to use, becoming the chief jailhouse lawyer.
One uneducated inmate astounded a prosecutor when he explained to a grand jury that no case could be pressed against him because he had “transactional immunity.”
“Where did you hear that?” the prosecutor asked.
“My lawyer told me,” the inmate said.
“Who’s your lawyer?”
Liddy’s wife, a schoolteacher in the District of Columbia, said she regarded Liddy as a prisoner of war, that what he had done was in the service of his country. But there was a darker side to Liddy. One of the Watergate prosecutors despised him, seeing in him the mentality and nature of a man who sends people into gas ovens.
[On April 15, 1973, John Dean told prosecutors about a White House campaign against Daniel Ellsberg, who had given over the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times in 1971.]
The Ellsberg disclosures had the effect of linking Watergate to secret, repugnant White House activities, most of which were aimed at weakening the antiwar movement. When Richard Nixon first took the oath of office on January 20, 1969, he understood very well that antiwar protest had destroyed the political career of his predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, and he was determined not to fall victim to the same fate. Talking publicly about bringing “peace with honor,” Nixon embarked on a wide-ranging campaign aimed at discrediting leaders of the movement and finding what his speech writers called the “silent American majority,” all those good citizens who were humble, hardworking, law-abiding, and unquestioning of the motives of their government.
Through Vice-President Agnew, Nixon vilified the so-called Eastern establishment press and the TV networks, the main disseminators of news and pictures that challenged U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia and brought home the horrors of the war.
The public effort was buttressed by the infiltration of FBI agents into the more extreme antiwar groups, clandestine intelligence-gathering on particular individuals who were opposed to the war, and wiretapping of government officials and newsmen. These activities, initiated by Nixon and undertaken in the name of national security, eventually led to the creation of the White House secret agents called “the plumbers,” whose projects included some that conceivably could be considered national security matters but others that seemed pure political dirty work, aimed ultimately at insuring Nixon’s re-election. When the time came, two of these plumbers, Howard Hunt and Gordon Liddy, were shifted to the re-election committee. For them, the Watergate bugging and other illegal campaign activities were perfectly natural things to do, no different from activities they had been engaged in at the White House. The bugging was simply the carrying out to an absurd extreme the principle that the ends—in this case Nixon’s re-election—justified the means. One of the most perplexing questions about Watergate has always been, why did these men raid Democratic headquarters? Given their background and previous work history for Nixon, an answer that makes as much sense as any is, why not raid Democratic headquarters? Breaking and entering was their line of work.
…It seems certain that if not for Nixon’s appetite for political gain out of Ellsberg, there never would have been a Watergate affair, for Nixon’s prompting led Charles Colson to telephone his good friend, Howard Hunt, and ask about the possibilities of “nailing” Ellsberg. Colson taped the call, and on July 2, 1971, he gave a transcript of it to John Ehrlichman with the recommendation that Hunt be hired to work at the White House.
The transcript shows the nature of the attack planned:
“Let me ask you this, Howard, this question: Do you think with the right resources employed that this thing could be turned into a major public case against Ellsberg and co-conspirators?” Hunt said yes.
Colson said, “It also has to be this case won’t be tried in court, it will be tried in the newspapers. So it’s going to take some resourceful engineering.”
[Hunt was hired to work at the White House. One of his main efforts, conducted in September, 1971, had the code name Hunt- Liddy Special Project #1. It was the break-in at the Los Angeles office of Lewis Fielding, Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist. To assist, Hunt called on old associates with ties to Cuba, two of whom were later to be used in the Watergate break-in. The Fielding break-in failed, as no material that could be used against Ellsberg was found. But it served pretty much as a dress rehearsal for the Watergate break-in nine months later.]
From the moment Sam Ervin, the chairman of the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities of 1972, first banged his gavel, the Senate Watergate hearings, through television, were imbued with the exciting sense of the hunt, and with long spells of deepening mystery broken by rich comic relief.
Ervin, a palsy-tongued orator, set the tone himself in an eloquent opening statement in which he spoke of the “atmosphere of utmost gravity” that had befallen the nation, of questions that “strike at the very undergirding of our democracy.” If many of the allegations already made proved to be true, the North Carolinian said, then what the Watergate burglars “were seeking to steal was not the jewels, money, or other property of American citizens, but something much more valuable—their precious heritage, the right to vote in a free election. Since that day, a mood of incredulity has prevailed among our populace.”
As he spoke these fine phrases, the Senator began stumbling over the word “incredulity.” Six or seven times he attacked it, bumbling, his whole head involved in the act of speech, eyebrows lifting high and descending, ears twitching, his mouth sometimes moving without a sound coming out. Millions of people held their breath as Ervin’s whole body and mind did battle with his tongue until finally the Senator gave up on the word and continued.
No scriptwriter could have created a Sam Ervin. He was a throwback, the twentieth-century American equivalent of Samuel Johnson, who shared the same type of physical affliction and the same ability to regale an audience with grand incontrovertible statements of principle while lesser men haggled over what they had heard. It was Dr. Johnson who 210 years earlier had maintained, according to his diarist, Boswell, that the King can do no wrong, that “it is better in general that a nation should have a supreme legislative power, although it may at times be abused.” But, added Dr. Johnson, “there is this consideration, that if the abuse be enormous, Nature will rise up, and claiming her original rights, overturn a corrupt political system.”
Such was Ervin’s philosophy exactly. He was never the one to favor revolution or expect perfection from government institutions; he was quite at home with the politics of cooperation and accommodation, for he had practiced them all his life. At seventy-six years of age, he had no further political ambition and was from the outset probably less inclined than any man to strike at the President. But in his homey way he began to savage Nixon, as when he asked Maurice Stans, “Do you not think that men who have been honored by the American people as you have, ought to have their course of action guided by ethical principles which are superior to the minimum requirements of the criminal laws?” Ervin, with clarity and conviction, would tolerate no quibbling from Stans, who pointed to earlier transgressions in American politics. “You know,” Ervin said, “there has been murder and larceny in every generation, but that hasn’t made murder meritorious or larceny legal.”
With Ervin at the helm and a galaxy of Nixon aides as witnesses, the Watergate hearings became a spectacle unlike any other political event in the history of this or any other country. A nation became riveted to its TV screens. Some people would watch the hearings all day on the commercial TV networks and then again at night on public broadcasting stations. Television made Ervin an immediate folk hero, Senator Howard Baker a possible presidential candidate, and Watergate the central experience of an entire population.