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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Rose Mary's Boo-Boo


Rose Mary Woods re–enacts the "Rose Mary Stretch" for photographers.


The official accounts of the Watergate break–in and its subsequent coverup all say that the Oval Office conversation in which the so–called "smoking gun" was found to be in Richard Nixon's hand occurred 40 years ago Saturday.

But it's possible — if not probable — that the gun had been smoldering for a few days.

Actually, all the evidence and testimony suggest that the Nixon White House's damage control machine was humming the day of the break–in, but Nixon and his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, were in Florida. There were things that could not be done until they returned.

On this day 40 years ago, the men who were ultimately held accountable for the coverup conspiracy held a series of meetings that were dedicated to damage control. The first newspaper story that linked White House operative Howard Hunt to the Watergate burglars had been published that day, and the president's men were determined that culpability for the break–in would stop with Hunt.

In mid–morning that day, Nixon had a phone conversation with his campaign director and former attorney general, John Mitchell, then he met for an hour with Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, a top adviser. The burglary was only three days old at that time, but Ehrlichman already had met with just about all of the principals by that time.

Nixon and Haldeman, as I say, had been out of Washington at the time of the break–in. On Tuesday, June 20, 1972, they were back in the White House and allegedly being brought up to speed on what had happened in their absence — and there may have been no one else who knew as much about Watergate at that point as Ehrlichman did.

Consequently, it made sense to many observers that Nixon learned many of the details of the break–in from Ehrlichman on that occasion, but the evidence that might support that theory was incomplete.

There was a recording of that conversation, and investigators subpoenaed the tape when the existence of the White House taping system was revealed in the summer of 1973, but, in November, it was learned that a portion of the tape had been mysteriously erased before Nixon's lawyers first listened to it.

The White House's position was that Nixon's secretary, Rose Mary Woods, who had been with Nixon for more than two decades and was decidedly loyal to her boss, had accidentally erased about five minutes of the tape.

According to her account, Woods had been transcribing the tape when the phone rang and she reached to answer it. Her feet controlled basic functions like stop, play and record with pedals that left her hands free for typing; she insisted that, somehow, while she was answering the phone and then carrying on a five–minute conversation, she stepped on the record pedal, erasing that section.

Her side of the story was met with quite a bit of skepticism. A rather short woman, there was no conceivable way that Woods could comfortably pull off the maneuver that she described (dubbed the "Rose Mary Stretch") — even if she was a contortionist.

But things were considerably worse than that.

The actual gap turned out to be more than three times as long as the one for which Woods claimed responsibility, and she denied that her erasure was anything like the 18½ minutes it turned out to be.

Because the pitch of the buzzing noise that was made by the erasure changed several times, the unavoidable conclusion was that several separate erasures had been attempted.

Privately (and, in some cases, not so privately), it was suggested that the tape had been deliberately erased. Alexander Haig, Nixon's chief of staff at the end of his presidency, openly suggested Nixon may have erased it himself, either accidentally or intentionally.

Nixon, he said, was never comfortable with mechanical devices, and he might well have erased a portion of the tape when he was trying to listen to it.

That provided a possible, unintentional explanation, but unless that can be proven, the alternate possibility — that someone, possibly Nixon himself, deliberately destroyed evidence — cannot be dismissed.

The tape of the June 20 conversation has always intrigued me. Of all the tapes of White House conversations, it is the only one that was destroyed — at least in part.

Ultimately, it was a tape of a conversation between Nixon and Haldeman on June 23, 1972, that came to be known as the "smoking gun." That was the tape that caused Nixon's base in Congress to crumble — and led him to conclude that resignation was his only option.

What must Nixon and Haldeman and Ehrlichman have said to each other 40 years ago that prompted whoever it was to repeatedly record over the tape until that portion of the conversation was entirely erased rather than risk having it revealed to the public?

Was it worse than anything else that was revealed in those tapes?

Could it have done any more damage to the relationship between the American people and their government?

Twenty years ago, in a TV program that commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Watergate break–in, I heard Woodward talking about the 18½–minute gap.

With all the evidence of a huge criminal conspiracy that went deep into the White House, Woodward said, Nixon would have needed something like an 18,500–minute gap to successfully conceal his involvement.

I believed that when I heard it. Twenty years later, I am even more convinced that is true.

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