Extract 5: The Great Cover-Up

by Barry Sussman

Page 235

[Alexander Butterfield, a career military officer, was called to work in the White House by H.R. Haldeman, a college classmate at UCLA after World War II. His job was to be Haldeman’s backup, the man closest to Nixon, when Haldeman was elsewhere.]

Since he was to work so closely with the President, Butterfield expected to be introduced to Nixon right away, but Haldeman kept putting it off. Finally, after about ten days, just before Haldeman was to go to California while the President stayed in Washington, Haldeman ushered Butterfield into the Oval Office. Butterfield’s recollection of this meeting was similar to that described by Jeb Magruder, who said that in his own “great-to-have-you-aboard chat” with Nixon, he had been “struck by how ill at ease the President seemed.”

Butterfield said the President stood up, shuffled his feet and dug them into the carpet, had his chin into his chest, looked down at the floor, and didn’t seem to know what to do with his hands—making Butterfield so uncomfortable that he didn’t know what to do with his hands. Haldeman was seated on a couch, and he shrugged as Butterfield looked at him, as if to explain that this was why the introduction had been so delayed.

…One day Haldeman’s aide Lawrence Higby told Butterfield that Nixon wanted to keep an oral record of his conversations, and that Haldeman wanted Butterfield to have a taping system installed. Butterfield passed the message along to the Secret Service, whose technical division installed the system. The only ones who knew of its existence, according to Butterfield, were Nixon, Haldeman, Higby, Butterfield, Butterfield’s secretary, and two or possibly three Secret Service men.

Butterfield monitored the tapes several times to ascertain that the system was adequate, and in his own judgment, the sound was clear. He started to show the President how the system had been installed, he said, but Nixon didn’t seem interested. Butterfield felt Nixon was oblivious to the tapes.

…Shortly after 2 p.m., Monday, July 16, 1973, Alexander P. Butterfield, one of the few surprise witnesses before the Ervin Committee, was asked by minority counsel Fred Thompson, “Mr. Butterfield, are you aware of the installation of any listening devices in the Oval Office of the President?”

“I was aware of listening devices; yes, sir.”

Page 246

In September, 1973, as Congress returned from its midyear recess, the first thing the leadership made clear was that it had no intention of impeaching Nixon. Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield spoke about the need to bring the Watergate hearings to a speedy conclusion, and several of his Republican counterparts insisted the public was bored with Watergate and, as Nixon had said, anxious to get on with the nation’s more important business, such as the battle to stop inflation.

Senator Howard Baker, who on the basis of the Watergate hearings had arranged perhaps the most extensive lecture tour ever undertaken by a member of Congress, had the audacity to say that Watergate was taking so much of his time that his other work was suffering.

It was not the behavior of a leadership that was intent on rooting out the worst corruption in the nation’s history; it seemed more the old politics of rescue at play.

Watergate by then was clearly the ultimate in political crimes. There had been abundant testimony that under Nixon the CIA had been dragged into domestic affairs; the investigation and findings of the FBI had been subverted; the Justice Department had engaged in malicious prosecutions of some people and failed to act in instances where it should have; the Internal Revenue Service had been used to punish the President’s alleged enemies while ignoring transgressions by his friends and by the President himself; the purity of the court system had been violated; congressmen had been seduced to prevent an inquiry into campaign activities before the election; extortion on a massive scale had been practiced in the soliciting of illegal contributions from the nation’s great corporations; the President had secretly engaged in acts of war against a foreign country despite the wording of the Constitution that give Congress the sole power to declare war; and agents of the President were known to have engaged in continued illegal activities for base political ends.

Page 251

On Friday night, October 19, 1973, President Nixon began what many people have since come to regard as the most reckless step of his political career. Plagued by the Watergate and related scandals, and ordered by the courts to relinquish the tapes of nine of his private conversations, Nixon announced that he had effected a “compromise” that would both allow him to maintain the confidentiality his office required and give Special Prosecutor Archibald V. Cox the material he needed to conduct his investigation at the same time.

Under the plan, Nixon would submit summaries of the relevant portions of the tapes to Judge John J. Sirica, and an independent verifier, Senator John Stennis of Mississippi, would be allowed to listen to the tapes to authenticate the version given the judge. It would be Nixon’s last bow to Cox—the Special Prosecutor would have to agree not to use the judicial process to seek further tapes or other records of Nixon’s conversations in the future.

Because of this shortcoming and others in the plan, Nixon’s aides knew that Cox would not accept it. On Saturday, as he refused, White House chief of staff Alexander Haig ordered Attorney General Richardson to fire Cox. Richardson resigned instead. Haig then ordered Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus to fire him, and Ruckelshaus also resigned. Finally, the number-three man in the Justice Department, Solicitor General Robert Bork, was named acting attorney general, and he fired Cox. White House press secretary Ronald Ziegler announced that the Office of Special Prosecutor had been abolished, and FBI agents were dispatched to prevent Cox’s staff members, whose status was in limbo, from taking their files out of their offices.

What came to be known as the “Saturday Night Massacre” then unleashed the torrent of public anger at Nixon that had been building across the nation. In a period of ten days more than a million letters and telegrams descended on members of Congress, almost all of them demanding Nixon’s impeachment. Before long, according to some, there were three million letters and telegrams, and an impeachment inquiry was begun.

All this was the result of what seemed at first to have been an impetuous action by the President. But Nixon’s firing of Cox was by no means a rash, sudden action. The President, who knew how dangerous a special prosecutor could be, agreed to the appointment of one in the spring of 1973 only after severe pressure had been placed on him. By the middle of June, 1973, Nixon’s aides were complaining about Cox. Nixon himself voiced extreme displeasure in the first days of July, and by early October—at least twelve days before the Saturday Night Massacre—he announced privately that Cox would be fired.

Page 261

At 2:20 p.m., Saturday, Haig called Richardson and told him to fire Cox. Richardson said he couldn’t do that, that he would come to the White House at Nixon’s convenience and resign. An hour later, Haig invited the Attorney General to see Nixon and, on his arrival, ushered him into the Oval Office. Richardson said he would have to resign. Nixon brought up the problems in the Middle East, Richardson said later, suggesting that resignation right then might have a bad effect. The President asked Richardson to think less of his pledge to the Senate—his personal commitment—and more in terms of the national interest. Richardson said that, in his view, he was thinking of the national interest.

“It is fair to say,” Richardson said later, “that I have never had a harder moment than when the President put it on me in terms of the potential repercussion of my resignation on the Middle East situation. I remember a long moment when the President looked me in the eye and I said: “‘Mr. President, I feel that I have no choice but to go forward with this.’ I had the feeling, God, maybe the bombs are going to drop.”

Haig then called William Ruckelshaus and asked him to fire Cox, again issuing a warning that a decision not to could have bearing on the Middle East situation. Ruckelshaus, who had already told Richardson he would also resign rather than fire Cox, has been quoted as telling Haig that if the situation in the Middle East were that ticklish, “Why don’t you put off firing Cox?”

Haig responded, “Your commander-in-chief has given you an order.” Ruckelshaus then resigned.

Both Richardson and Ruckelshaus had spoken to the third in command at the Justice Department, Solicitor General Bork, who had told them that someone would certainly eventually be found to fire Cox, so he would do it and then resign. Richardson suggested that Bork fire Cox and stay on, as someone was needed to run the shop.

At 8:25 p.m., Ronald Ziegler announced the developments of the afternoon to the press…At least six FBI agents were sent by the White House to the office of special prosecutor, where some twenty or more attorneys who worked under Cox were gathering in their moment of crisis. The agents refused to allow staff members to remove any files—“They won’t even let me take a pencil out,” one lawyer complained. FBI agents sealed off Richardson’s and Ruckelshaus’s offices at the Justice Department as well. In a brief statement, Cox said, “Whether ours shall continue to be a government of laws and not of men is now for the Congress and ultimately the American people to decide.”

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