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Extract 1: The Great Cover-Up

by Barry Sussman

Page xi

E. Howard Hunt
E. Howard Hunt

I began working on the Watergate story on June 17, 1972, only hours after the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters. I was city editor of The Washington Post and had seen my share of crime stories. But from the start, I had never seen one as tantalizing as this. The five men captured wore business suits and surgical gloves, had thirteen brand-new hundred-dollar bills in their pockets, and carried sophisticated camera and electronic bugging equipment and a single walkie- talkie. Though they made no telephone calls after their arrests, two lawyers appeared at police headquarters to represent them.

The following day it was revealed that one of the five worked for Richard Nixon’s re-election committee. The day after that the mystery deepened when we at the Post learned and reported that the name and telephone number of a White House operative, E. Howard Hunt, Jr., formerly of the CIA, was listed in two address books belonging to the arrested men, and that a check for $6.36 from Hunt to a local country club had been left behind in one of their hotel rooms at the Watergate.

From those early moments on, I was part of a team that viewed from close-in the uncovering of what many have called the worst scandal in the nation’s history. Week by week, the Watergate disclosures led nearer to Nixon, engulfing his closest associates. On the first day in July, 1972, John N. Mitchell, who as attorney general had been the chief symbol of law and order in Nixon’s administration, resigned as chairman of the re-election committee because of the scandal. A month before the presidential election, the Post reported that the Watergate bugging was only one incident in a massive campaign of political spying and sabotage waged against the Democrats by the Nixon forces.

…By spring of the following year, the Watergate coverup had collapsed, largely through pressure exerted by an aggressive jurist, John Sirica, and stunning, inexplicable disclosures made by the temporary head of the FBI, L. Patrick Gray III, who destroyed his own career and reputation in the process. In April, 1973, Nixon dismissed his chief aides, H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, his counsel, John Dean, and Mitchell’s replacement as attorney general, Richard Kleindienst.

By going through the motions of cleaning house, the President tried to make it appear that he had no personal involvement in the scandal and that he was attempting to get to the bottom of it. By late May, 1973, people who studied the public record could see that Nixon was guilty of criminal conduct in the Watergate coverup and in more serious earlier crimes or perversions of the presidency. The Oval Office tapes were still secret then, but no tapes were needed. There was more than enough evidence, as this book shows, to persuade a jury that the President of the United States had engaged in criminal activity.

It was then that I began writing The Great Coverup. I did so with the conviction that Nixon’s guilt had been established but the concern that Congress would not move against him. And I wrote also with the knowledge that hardly any Americans knew what the word “Watergate” stood for, beyond a botched burglary and bugging attempt.

…In this edition I have omitted some of the details of the case against Nixon that were in the original 1974 version, since proof of his involvement in the coverup has long been established. I have tried instead to focus on the spectacle and drama from the break-in arrests until Nixon’s resignation, to spell out just what the Watergate scandal encompassed, and to give a feel for life in Washington and the politics of the time. It is a story of how a great nation watched its President try to subvert the political and justice system, while powerful leaders did little to block him until circumstances and public opinion forced their hand.

Page 17

The President found time to meet twice with a veterinarian when his dog, King Timahoe, had mange. But he never met more than once a year privately with Elliot Richardson, who held three Cabinet positions under him. It was not that Nixon was too busy to meet; it was a matter of personality and style. The President was deeply involved with endless details of the most meaningless sort—he would, for example, pore over guest lists for social functions at the White House, noting the names of the few people with whom he wished to mingle, issuing orders that all others be kept away from him.

Page 31

John D. Ehrlichman
JOHN D. EHRLICHMAN approved a recommendation for a covert investigation of Daniel Ellsberg in 1971 by writing on a memo: “If done under your assurance that it is not traceable.” On July 12, 1974, Ehrlichman was convicted of conspiracy and lying to a grand jury and the FBI in connection with a break-in at the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrict.

Haldeman and Ehrlichman came to be called the “Berlin Wall,” as though they always shared the same White House relationship to the President. They didn’t. Their roles were quite different. Haldeman played no part in establishing government policy. He was an implementer, not a policy maker. He was the President’s personal public relations firm, guarding Nixon’s every move, controlling access to him, seeing that the entire White House staff realized immediately in 1969 that the foremost goal of the first Nixon Administration was to win re-election in 1972. Haldeman did his best to make a Boy Scout camp of the White House, with himself scoutmaster and all second-rank aides subservient to him, selflessly and absolutely devoted to the re- election of Nixon.

Ehrlichman, on the other hand, dealt with substantive policy issues in the field of domestic affairs. Efficient and calm, Ehrlichman inspired confidence in aides below him and among Cabinet members and their assistants who could never get to Nixon. But from the beginning, he did other work as well. In May, 1969, according to later testimony, he met at a New York airport with a retired New York City detective, Anthony Ulasewicz, who had been recommended as a prospective snooper for Nixon, a White House private eye. Ehrlichman approved his hiring and occasionally filtered orders down to him to satisfy Nixon’s demands. Still, Ehrlichman never stood as close to Nixon as Haldeman did; the public could infer this when it was revealed that Haldeman but not Ehrlichman knew of the President’s practice
of taping his conversations.

The public seldom heard of either man at all in the first Nixon years. In a capital that lionized power, Haldeman and Ehrlichman could walk into a department store without being recognized.

Page 66

When the time came, it was managing editor Howard Simons—not Ben Bradlee or other ranking editors—who made the crucial early decisions that led to the Washington Post’s extraordinary coverage of the Watergate scandal, especially the decision to allow the metropolitan staff, which did not normally report on national politics, to pursue the story.

Page 72

Bob Woodward, a registered Republican, was the son of a judge in Wheaton, Illinois. Both his parents had divorced and remarried. Woodward had graduated from Yale and entered the Navy as an officer. He got married, and when his four-year hitch was up, his wife was in school in California, where he had been stationed. The Navy asked him to stay on a fifth year, on assignment in Washington. He went east while his wife stayed in school on the West Coast. When he finally left the Navy, he told me, he returned to her but it was as if they hadn’t known each other, and they got a divorce.

Woodward came back to Washington and tried to land a job at the Post, but he wasn’t hired for lack of journalism experience. He went to work at a suburban Washington weekly, kept inquiring at the Post, and was hired by Harry Rosenfeld (the metropolitan editor) a year later, in the late summer of 1971, at the age of twenty-eight.

He had offered to come to work at the Post for nothing. As it was, at the time of the Watergate break-in, he was the lowest paid full-fledged reporter. He quickly distinguished himself as an excellent investigative reporter, bright, aggressive, hard working. If he had a shortcoming, it was that his writing was awkward.

Carl Bernstein, a year younger than Woodward, had grown up in Washington and suburban Maryland. He dropped out of college, worked at a newspaper in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and at the Washington Evening Star before joining the Post. Freckle-faced, impetuous, he was a gifted writer with a penchant for getting in on big stories. He sometimes found universal truths in ordinary fires or auto accidents, a characteristic that rankled editors whose first principle was no vivid writing, please. He was persistent with news sources, which was good, but also persistent with editors and that was considered nagging.

Bernstein smoked but seldom had his own cigarettes and never any matches. He often borrowed a dollar or two from friends and was forgetful about it. At the same time, he appeared to be more genuinely considerate of other people than were most reporters. Bernstein also had been married, to a woman who had been a reporter at the Post. But they separated and she left the newspaper for a government job. At the time of the Watergate arrests their divorce was pending.

Like Woodward, Bernstein was intelligent, dedicated, and in the habit of working long hours. For both, their work was the major interest in their lives; they were young and energetic and enterprising, and they had plenty of time to devote to it.

Page 77

[On July 31, 1972, the Washington Post reported that a $25,000 check given to the Nixon re-election committee by a fund-raiser, Kenneth Dahlberg, had ended up in the Miami bank account of Bernard Barker, one of the Watergate burglars.]

That story immediately set in motion an inquiry by the General Accounting Office of Congress, the first body to cite illegalities in the Nixon campaign. It also sparked the Wright Patman investigation, which was eventually blocked after White House intervention in October, 1972, but which apparently led Senator Edward M. Kennedy to conduct a quiet, three-month investigation of his own as chairman of the Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on Administrative Practices and Procedure. On the basis of Kennedy’s findings, the Democratic leadership of the Senate decided to hold hearings on Watergate. The result was the creation of the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, the Ervin Committee, through which the nation learned of the White House tapes the specific cause of the drive to impeach Nixon.

In the most significant ways, the Dahlberg article represents the chief contribution of The Washington Post in the course of the Watergate scandal. It seems quite possible that had there been no Dahlberg check story, there would have been no Ervin Committee, no revelation of the existence of the tapes, and little pressure exerted to force those who knew of the coverup to come forward.
Malcolm Farnsworth
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