The “gates” started here.

The “gates” started here.

by Janet Donovan
Event photo credit: same

“So here we are and the question is what was Watergate?  What is it now?  What will it be tomorrow and all the tomorrows still to come?  At the beginning, it was in fact just a piece of real estate.

And unless somebody demolishes it – and it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen any time soon – it may always be the Watergate as a building.  But it’s also a crime;  A crime not of passion, a crime not of greed, but a crime of corruption –  political corruption of institutions by individuals high and low who saw the need and/or the opportunity to violate laws and standards of personal conduct.  Their lives were changed forever by what they did.  

Most paid an enormous price in a loss of liberty and a loss of reputation.”  Jim Lehrer – The Newshour  

Carl Bernstein and former Washington Post journalist Myra MacPherson shown above. 


“Those of you who are listening here or watching it on the web and are too young to have either experienced Watergate because you weren’t alive at the time, or your high school history class didn’t get past 1965, we’re going to set it up because we have a remarkable opportunity tonight to listen to people who were there.

What’s the value, what’s the legacy, what’s the meaning of all this for us today?  I’ve asked John Dean to start, because if you don’t know what the crime was, you don’t know why there was an investigation.  So John, would you tell us a little bit about the first week after the June 17th, 1972 bungled break-in here in this building?”  Tim Naftali, former director, Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum

The Investigation and Cover-Up: Photo credit: Gannett

“I have trouble looking at that week from the time I lived it and the time I looked back on it.  Today I know an awful lot more about that week than I did at that time.  And so I can’t help but look at it from hind-sight.  The cover-up really starts within moments of the White House learning about the fact that five men had been arrested here in this building wearing business suits, rubber gloves, money stashed in their pocket, and that they’re from the re-election committee,” said former White House Counsel to President Nixon John Dean 

“The President, who happened to be in the Bahamas gets an update very quickly as to what’s going on, tells Magruder (Nixon’s deputy campaign director) that he’s got to get back to Washington immediately.  He does that, they put out a press release very quickly at the re-election committee.  It is a totally bogus account, because one of the men arrested happened to be the Head of Security at the re-election committee, Tim McCord.

So it starts right at that moment and quickly unfolds that first week where it really cast the die.  I happen to have been personally in Manila giving a graduation speech.  Made my first mistake when I came home.  But I did, and went into the office on Monday.

I got a call from Magruder, amongst others.  Magruder says, “You’ve got to talk to Gordon Liddy (chief operative for the White House Plumbers).  I said, “Why aren’t you talking to him?”  He said, “I can’t talk to him.”  I said, “What’s wrong?”  He said, “He threatened to kill me.”  So I met with Liddy and learned from Liddy who confesses the whole thing to me that not only has he been involved with Watergate, but two of the men that are in the D.C. jail as part of his team were involved in an earlier operation on behalf of the White House to break into Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office.

It’s right at that moment that I realize we’ve got really big problems and I don’t have a clue what to do with them.  My predecessor John Ehrlichman,” continued Dean, “who had been White House counsel, one of the things I said to him very early in the conversation after reporting what I knew is that I said, “John, we probably need a criminal lawyer here.”  He dismissed that.  I realized if there was anything that was essential at that White House, it was that Richard Nixon have the most talented criminal lawyer that was available.  That didn’t happen to be the case.

So we proceed from there trying to gather the information as to what’s going on.  As I say, the die is cast that week.

One of the more interesting bits that happened is that Nixon calls John Mitchell (Attorney General) when he gets back to Washington from the residence.  Not a recorded call.  But the call has been recorded, not on the EOB phone where he later reports to Halderman (White House Chief of Staff) what happened, but rather the room phone.

John Mitchell – Courtesy of the Nixon Library

It’s a fascinating conversation where Mitchell is told by the President that he thinks the matter can be controlled and he comes up with a plan to have a Cuban committee in Miami raise money and protect and support these people who have been arrested.  I don’t think from the prosecutors I talked to that a committee that had been made public – and that was his plan, to publicize it and promote it for political reasons – would have been an obstruction of justice.”

Fred Thompson, Chief Minority Counsel to the Republicans on the Senate Watergate Committee:

“Most of my concerns were practical ones.  I’d just started practicing law.  I’d been on the campaign trail with Senator Baker.

I was surprised that President Nixon had a taping system. Up until that point, it looked like it was going to play out the way that so many cases, as we are all familiar with, is played out. 

It’s a he ‘said, she said’.  And John’s testimony was very effective.  Bud Haldeman and Ehrlichman, they had a concrete position.  And of course you had Mitchell and everything in-between.  And so the American people are willing – I don’t care who the President is – they’re willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and they’re very suspicious of his detractors.

Ben Bradlee William Weld Charlie Rose Fred Thompson at the Watergate reunion

When we found out about the taping system, a hundred things went through our mind at the same time.  Is the old fox setting us up?  Was Butterfield (deputy assistant to President Nixon) planted to send over there?  Well, obviously not because he didn’t know he was going to be called as a witness or to be interviewed, I should say, to begin with.  Would they exonerate things?  Were they just waiting to spring?  A lot of different things – were they still present?  Were they still in existence?  Had they long since been destroyed?  I think Butterfield hadn’t been there for four years maybe. 

Anyway, they could have gotten rid of them.

In general, of any kind, I guess what keeps repeating itself I suppose, and in my private work and this, magnified about ten million times, is the adages about human nature, the nature of power, and how it does tend to corrupt, and so you’re not really surprised at much you hear if you’ve been in the courtroom for a good while, or if you’ve lived for a good while.  You know that people are capable of a lots of things, even pretty good people are capable of bad things, especially if they have some kind of a justification for it.  If they feel like there is a higher good.  And what we see here, I think, in Watergate, it’s taken literally to the Presidential level.”

Ben Bradlee and Fred Thompson

It is known that Nixon surrounded himself with people who vied for his attention and the way to get Nixon’s approval was to bring a dead mouse to his door to show that you were a tough guy, to show that you weren’t bound by the rules, to show that you were going to play hard-knuckled politics.  And in the end, that didn’t work.

What are the lessons?  “For those who get involved,” said Dean, “the lesson is to be accountable, to stand up, tell the truth, because the truth really is the only way these things get resolved.  And while there are revisionists out there who are trying to re-write that truth at this point, we basically have the best historical record we’ll ever have, and it not only corroborates those of us who were involved in the unraveling, but it corroborates what the Washington Post did and how they did it.  So that’s the lesson, is that the truth is the answer to solve these problems.

It is widely acknowledged that Nixon employed measures that even J. Edgar Hoover would not use. 

The Legacy:

“Bud” Krogh Jr., co-director White House Special Investigations Unit i.e. “the plumbers.”

“I thought as I was being driven away handcuffed it was a tremendous disappointment and sadness, because I was a deep believer in Richard Nixon.

I felt that he had made decisions that were extremely valuable and important to the world:  Opening up China, working out a deal called the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia, things on the domestic side, environmental side, narcotics control, things that worked great that I believed in.

But then just a few of us went over the line, and it wasn’t the administration as a whole.

There were just a few of us that, either through lack of experience or basically ignorance, arrogance, immaturity, whatever it was, made some calls at critical points that basically led inexorably to Watergate. I pleaded guilty November 3 of 1973.

I think at the Rockwell Jail I got my first job offer. He specialized in stereos and he asked me, he said, “Would you like to work with me when you get out, or are you going to go straight?”  And I said, “I gave crime a shot, I’m not very good at it.”  And he said, “You’re the worst I’ve ever seen.

Bob Woodward and Wyatt Dickerson who resides at The Watergate

The Reporters:  

“We just looked at the world differently,” said Woodward on how they investigated the story together.  “There was a sense of loving reporting.  We were both unmarried, we were very young, and we had the running room from the editors and Ben Bradlee to keep going at this story.” 

“The cover-up was worse than the crime,” said Bernstein.  These crimes were enormous.  And the cover-up was absolutely inevitable and necessary to hide these White House horrors as John Mitchell called them.

Those who knew early on about some of this stuff, might have gone to the President and said, “Stop this.  It’s against the law.  You don’t need to do this.”  The fact that there was no one in the White House or in the Nixon circle who had that world view or had that authority tells you about how he fed and controlled all of this himself, and everybody fed his own.”  

Ben Bradlee with Janet Langhart

“And then you hear Nixon say, in the presence of very close guys to the top in the Oval Office, Nixon say of the rookie institution, “I want to crack that safe.  I want to break in.  I want to get those papers out of that file.”  And what was that file for?  It was to blackmail his predecessor, President of the United States, Lyndon Johnson.  Can you imagine that John Adams is sitting there and saying, “I want to break into the safe, let’s get the God damned file, and then we’re gonna blackmail George Washington,” added Woodward.

“And we’re having coffee off the vending machine, I put a dime in, and I felt this chill go down my back, and I said to Woodward,” said Bernstein.  “Oh, my God, this President is going to be impeached.  And Woodward looked at me and he said, “Oh, my God, you’re right.  

And we can never use this word ‘impeach’ around this newspaper less somebody in the newsroom, especially Bradlee or Ramsey think we have an agenda, because we don’t.  And I think there was both awe at that moment and some fear that the stakes at that point became so obviously huge.  We’re 28, 29-years old, every day the leader of the free world is getting up and making the conduct of the press the issue of Watergate, our conduct specifically that of the Washington Post: Bradlee, Bob, myself.”  Carl Bernstein 

The evening was a tribute to Ben Bradlee, then Executive Editor of The Washington Post.