Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Cracks in Nixon's Stonewall

"I want you all to stonewall it. Let them plead the Fifth Amendment, coverup or anything else if it'll save it, save this plan."

Richard Nixon
To his closest associates
March 22, 1973

I suppose it's true what they say. Hindsight really is 20/20.

I say that because, in my experience as a writer/journalist, I have found that people almost never know the impact an event will have on their lives or the lives of others when it happens. Sure, sometimes you do. For example, I think most people understood on Sept. 11, 2001, that their lives had been forever changed by what happened that morning.

Still, most things only become clear with the passage of time — and that may never have been more accurate than when it was applied to Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal.

From the perspective of 2014, it is easy to see that, by Aug. 5, 1974, Nixon was being nudged toward resignation by forces that were beyond his control, but the final decision was still his, and it was anyone's guess at that point what his decision would be. All would know by the end of that week.

What was known was that the last couple of weeks had been frightfully bad ones for Richard Nixon. In a Gallup poll that was completed 40 years ago today, only 24% of respondents approved of the job Nixon was doing as president. Sixty–six percent disapproved. It was almost exactly the reverse of a Gallup poll taken the week after Nixon was re–elected in a 49–state landslide less than two years earlier.

First, there had been the Supreme Court ruling on July 24 that he had to turn over all records (tapes as well as notes) of White House conversations that were regarded as evidence in a criminal trial. His gambit to cloak them all in executive privilege had failed.

Then, within a week, the House Judiciary Committee approved three articles of impeachment that the House would consider and almost certainly approve. That would send the matter to the Senate, where Nixon and some of his diehard defenders believed they had the votes to survive the trial — if there was a trial, and many of the diehards didn't think there would be.

But most of the folks in Nixon's corner, including Nixon's own lawyers and Al Haig, his chief of staff, did not agree. They held a strategy session on Sunday, Aug. 4, 1974, and their preference was to be spared the task of defending an indefensible client on an extremely public stage. Increasingly, they came to the conclusion that it would be best for all concerned if Nixon resigned — especially for Nixon himself.

Apparently, he still had not made decision 40 years ago today. On Aug. 5, 1974, everything seemed as uncertain as it ever had during the Watergate investigation.

Hindsight, of course, is assisted considerably when there is new evidence or knowledge, and information about Watergate always came to light slowly, sometimes agonizingly so. Most of the time, it was by design, all part of the Watergate coverup, but sometimes it was simply the result of the wheels of justice grinding slowly.

Haig and the lawyers had new evidence in their possession on Sunday, Aug. 4 — the transcript of Nixon's June 23, 1972 conversation with H.R. Haldeman. It came to be known as the "smoking gun" of Watergate, and it was the last straw for many congressional Republicans.

"Read the conversations however one would," historian Theodore White wrote, "there was no doubt that on June 23rd, six days after the Watergate burglary of the Democratic Party's headquarters, the president had been told that his former attorney general and dear friend John Mitchell was involved in that burglary. And worse ... Nixon had used the federal machinery — namely, the CIA — to obstruct and halt the FBI investigation of that burglary.

"Nixon had been lying, therefore, for more than two years, lying to the public, lying to Congress, lying to his own staff, at times probably lying to himself."

Nixon was an enigma. In the words of the Pittsburgh Post–Gazette's David Shribman, Nixon was "[a]wkward in manner — but shrewd in judgment. Flawed in character — but peerless in vision. Much misunderstood — but possessed of a peerless understanding of human nature. Tarred with mendacity — but a political magus nonetheless."

Bob Woodward, who was responsible, along with colleague Carl Bernstein, for the early investigative reporting on Watergate for the Washington Post, recently reviewed John Dean's book, "The Nixon Defense," for the Post.

"The title is misleading," Woodward wrote, "because it suggests there is a case for Nixon's innocence. Dean quickly clears that up when he writes in the preface, 'Fortunately for everyone, his defense failed.'"

On this day 40 years ago, it was dawning on his loyalists — and possibly on Nixon himself — that his defense had failed.

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