Saturday, September 15, 2012

When Nixon and Dean Conferred

From the day in July 1973 when their existence was publicly revealed until the Supreme Court ruled against him a year later, Richard Nixon fought to keep the tapes of his Oval Office meetings and his telephone conversations private.

In the end, of course, he wasn't entirely successful. But none of that was known 40 years ago today.

My memory of the summer of 1972 is that very little was known by a public that, by and large, really didn't seem to care. Perhaps it was too obsessed with the war in Vietnam.

But, occasionally, I heard the word Watergate, and, from time to time, I saw articles in the newspaper that had been picked up from the Washington Post — which was, for the most part, out there by itself in practicing the art of shoe–leather journalism, the hallmark of the early investigation.

Most of the folks in the media of 1972 did not care for Nixon — although most of their employers either endorsed him or took a pass — but they tended not to make their feelings known, and many columnists did not challenge the president.

Perhaps they were intimidated by his big (and consistent) leads in the polls — and the knowledge that he was virtually certain to win a second term.

But the truth was that Watergate really didn't receive the kind of attention in 1972 that it did the following year. If it had, it might have been dismissed as politically motivated — and might not have gained traction until 1973, anyway.

(I don't really think it would have made much difference. The "dirty tricks" of the Nixon operatives had succeeded in sabotaging the candidacies of most of the Democrats, and George McGovern was well on his way to the Democratic nomination by the time of the Watergate break–in.

(Replacing McGovern as the nominee would have been a major headache that dwarfed the logistical nightmare created by the scandal that necessitated dropping McGovern's running mate, Tom Eagleton.)

Nevertheless, Nixon and Dean were aware of negative reporting from some journalists. In his testimony to the Senate committee in 1973, Dean seemed to be blaming Nixon for the toxic atmosphere in the White House.

With the benefit of hindsight and the knowledge that almost nothing was done in the Nixon White House without the president's knowledge, that is a proposition that is easy to accept.

Their conversation, Dean said, "turned to the press coverage of the Watergate incident and how the press was really trying to make this into a major campaign issue. At one point ... I recall the president telling me to keep a good list of the press people giving us trouble."

Meanwhile, the wheels of justice were turning that summer — often silently, often slowly, but they were turning — and it was 40 years ago today that E. Howard Hunt, G. Gordon Liddy and the five Watergate burglars were indicted by a federal grand jury.

In hindsight, that was an important turning point in the Watergate investigation. If there had been no initial indictments, the legal basis for continuing with the investigation would have been completely undermined.

And the hope at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was that the matter would stop there. History, of course, tells us it did not.

At the end of that Friday, White House counsel John Dean participated in a White House meeting dedicated to strategy on Watergate–related investigations. It was, Dean would later tell the Senate select committee chaired by Sen. Sam Ervin, the first time he spoke to Nixon about Watergate.

Indeed, Dean claimed, it was the first meeting he had with Nixon.

It's still unclear to me, after all these years, whether Nixon and Dean discussed the matter before Sept. 15, 1972, but the evidence is clear — via the president's own recordings — that they had access to the same sources for information.

At the time, the existence of the voice–activated recording system was known only to a select group — those who needed to know — and, in 1972, Dean was not among them.

Consequently, it was ironic when, the following year, Dean memorably told Republican Sen. Ed Gurney, a member of the so–called "Watergate committee," that "my mind is not a tape recorder."

Dean did not know until after his own testimony, when Alexander Butterfield revealed it under direct questioning, that a system for recording Oval Office conversations had been installed in 1971 — and it ultimately would confirm the credibility of his memory.

The recordings also proved Dean's memory was not flawless. But it was good enough that it earned the respect of investigators, even those whose loyalties were to the Nixon White House.

Dean said it was the very fact that he had been asked in to talk with Nixon that made the conversation so vivid in his memory. Even though he worked in the White House counsel's office, it was hardly routine for him to be invited to the Oval Office.

It's almost spooky now to read the transcript of the Sept. 15 conversation — as submitted by the White House in the spring of 1974 in a futile attempt to satisfy the subpoenas from congressional Democrats — knowing that the recording system was silently preserving everything.

As I re–read the transcript recently, I was struck, as always, by the casual way — visible even in the clearly doctored version — Nixon treated decisions that were intended to keep a lid on things. And by the anger — the raw sense of entitlement — that often flared when he believed others had not responded appropriately.

"You had quite a day today, didn't you?" Nixon said to Dean. "You really got Watergate on the way, didn't you?"

"We tried," Dean replied.

When Dean said that "some apologies may be due" — implying that further action could be avoided if such apologies were offered — chief of staff Bob Haldeman snorted, "Fat chance," and Nixon snarled, "Get the damn," the rest of which was labeled inaudible, although it doesn't take much imagination to complete the thought.

"We can't do that," Haldeman admonished the president.

But the rest of the 50–minute conversation focused on what they could do.

One such strategy revolved around the possibility of providing proof that a bugging device that had been found in a telephone in the DNC office had been "planted" by the DNC.

If such evidence could be found, Dean speculated, it could "reverse" the Watergate story.

When Dean testified before the Senate Watergate Committee the following year, he remembered that Nixon's primary concern was whether the trials would begin before the upcoming election.

Nixon also instructed him, Dean told the senators in June 1973, to "keep track" of those who tried to make Watergate a campaign issue "because we will make life difficult for them after the election."

According to the transcript of the conversation, which was released by the White House in April 1974, Dean was the one who first mentioned keeping a list of the president's critics in the press.

"[O]ne of the things I've tried to do," Dean was quoted as saying, "I have begun to keep notes on a lot of people who are emerging as less than our friends because this will be over someday, and we shouldn't forget the way some of them have treated us."

Knowing the lengths to which Nixon went to cover up his complicity in Watergate, it's certainly possible that the White House manipulated the transcript to make Nixon appear innocent — the transcripts were famously edited to delete the presumably off–color adjectives Nixon and his associates used in their conversations, and it was revealed after Nixon resigned two years later that roughly 17 minutes of the Sept. 15 conversation (during which Nixon was said to have threatened to fire Treasury Secretary George Shultz if he attempted to prevent the White House from using the IRS for political purposes) were missing from the White House transcripts.

(In the transcript, the absence of the remainder of the conversation was dismissed as being "unrelated to Watergate.")

But Nixon's dark side came through, in spite of any whitewash efforts that may have been made.

In the transcript, Nixon responded that "I want the most comprehensive notes on all those who tried to do us in. ... [T]hey were doing this quite deliberately, and they are asking for it, and they are going to get it. We have not used the power in this first four years ... but things are going to change now."

That strikes me as being pretty dark as it is. But what if that portion of the dialogue actually occurred before Dean spoke about keeping notes?

Wouldn't that suggest that Nixon gave Dean an assignment and Dean, in an attempt to butter up the boss in their first meeting, responded with, essentially, "Oh, yes, I'm ahead of you on that."

In the transcript, Dean certainly seems eager to occupy a spot on the president's good side. After Nixon spoke about using "the power" in his second term, Dean responded, "What an exciting prospect."

One can only imagine what might have been.

No comments: