Friday, June 14, 2013

The Peaks in a Scandal Investigation

"Somewhere between my ambition and my ideals, I lost my ethical compass."

Jeb Magruder

More than a quarter of a century passed between our births, and I was still a boy when he appeared before the Senate Watergate Committee 40 years ago today.

It's fair to say I didn't completely understand what was happening. Nevertheless, I understood enough that I must say I kind of empathized with Jeb Magruder. I couldn't really help it.

He had had a meteoric rise. He started out as a salesman, then, when he was 34, he was appointed to the White House staff. For one so young, it must have been mind–boggling.

It also led him to do things in his service to Richard Nixon that he almost certainly never imagined he would do. But I always admired the fact that he never tried to pass the buck.

After informing the senators of his work for the Committee to Re–Elect the President (in which he participated in Nixon's 49–state triumph, at the time the second–largest electoral vote margin in history), he said, "Unfortunately, we made some mistakes in the campaign ... For those errors in judgment that I made, I take full responsibility. I am, after all, a mature man, and I am willing to face the consequences of my own acts."

In hindsight — and even at the time — most people would say they were more than errors. But perhaps that is semantic quibbling. Magruder did confess to his own guilt when he testified before the Senate Watergate Committee — which is more than can be said of Nixon.

Magruder's testimony was the first, really, to put the coverup conspiracy inside the walls of the White House, but he was careful not to implicate Nixon when he did so. (He reversed that in a PBS documentary in 2003, nearly a decade after Nixon's death.)

"These mistakes were made by only a few participants in the campaign," Magruder insisted 40 years ago today. "Thousands ... assisted in the campaign to re–elect the president, and they did nothing illegal or unethical. [A]t no point ... did the president have any knowledge of our errors in this matter."

Magruder did assert, however, that John Mitchell, John Dean and Bob Haldeman were involved. That wasn't exactly news in June 1973 — but now it was on the record. That was an important legal step.

In his book "Breach of Faith," Theodore H. White wrote of how the committee's investigation had moved slowly at first and likened its progress to hiking up a trail and reaching peaks along the way.

With his testimony, White wrote, "Magruder made the first peak — publicly, under oath, he said the authority to burglarize Democratic headquarters had been given him directly by the former attorney general, John Mitchell."

Magruder went on to write a book titled "An American Life: One Man's Road to Watergate," but he followed a rather different path to his testimony before the Watergate Committee.

In "All the President's Men," Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein wrote that Magruder, initially reluctant to say anything, had been regarded as a "super–loyalist" — but he went to the prosecutors in April of 1973 when the house of cards that was the coverup was collapsing around him.

One of Woodward's sources within Nixon's re–election campaign organization told him Magruder would be "the next McCord" — a reference to Watergate burglar James McCord's letter to Judge John Sirica in early 1973 just before the burglars were to be sentenced. It prevented the sentencing from being that last act in the Watergate drama — and was, in White's words, a "peak" in the Watergate scandal.

Much like Magruder's testimony 40 years ago today — although I don't think I would call it a game changer.

The Nixon White House had kept the Watergate scandal under wraps for nearly a year — until McCord began talking about things like perjury and hush money — and they managed to keep a lid on things for awhile longer.

But the peaks in the investigation were coming more frequently now. The next one would come within two weeks when John Dean took the stand.

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