The other day, we began responding to new interest in the real story behind Watergate by publishing the first of three chapters in WhoWhatWhy Editor Russ Baker’s book, Family of Secrets, that relate directly to Nixon and Watergate, and explain the back story, including the real role of Bob Woodward, George H.W. Bush and the CIA in Nixon’s undoing. Today, the second of those three chapters.
This is the second installment of a three-part series, featuring chapters related to Nixon and Watergate from WhoWhatWhy editor Russ Baker’s book, Family of Secrets: The Bush Dynasty, America’s Invisible Government and the Hidden History of the Last Fifty Years.
Notes: (1) Although these excerpts do not contain footnotes, the book itself is heavily footnoted and exhaustively sourced. (2) To distinguish between George Bush, father and son, George H.W. Bush is sometimes referred to by his nickname Poppy, and George W. Bush by his, W. (3) Additional context can be found in the preceding chapters.
Before you read this second installment, please go here to read the first installment.
Downing Nixon, Part I: The Setup
Who Will Rid Me of This Troublesome Priest?
—ascribed to Henry II
On June 17, 1972, a group of burglars, carrying electronic surveillance
equipment, was arrested inside the Democratic National
Committee offices at 2650 Virginia Avenue, NW, in Washington,
D.C., the Watergate building complex. The men were quickly identified as
having ties to the Nixon reelection campaign and to the White House.
Though at the time the incident got little attention, it would snowball into
one of the biggest crises in American political history, define Richard Nixon
forever, and drive him out of the White House.
Most historical accounts judge Nixon responsible in some way for the
Watergate burglary—or at least for an effort to cover it up. And many people
believe Nixon got what he deserved.
But like other epic events, Watergate turns out to be an entirely different
story than the one we thought we knew.
Almost no one has better expressed reasons to doubt Nixon’s involvement
than Nixon himself. In his memoirs, Nixon described how he learned about
the burglary while vacationing in Florida, from the morning newspaper. He
recalled his reaction at the time:
It sounded preposterous. Cubans in surgical gloves bugging the
DNC! I dismissed it as some sort of prank . . . The whole thing
made so little sense. Why, I wondered. Why then? Why in such a
blundering way . . . Anyone who knew anything about politics
would know that a national committee headquarters was a useless
place to go for inside information on a presidential campaign. The
whole thing was so senseless and bungled that it almost looked
like some kind of a setup.
Nixon was actually suggesting not just a setup, but one intended to harm
Perhaps because anything he might say would seem transparently self-
serving, this claim received little attention and has been largely forgotten.
Notwithstanding Nixon’s initial reaction to the news of the break-in,
less than a week later he suddenly learned more—and this gave him much
On June 23, Nixon’s chief of staff, H. R. “Bob” Haldeman, came into the
Oval Office to give the president an update on a variety of topics, including
the investigation of the break-in. Haldeman had just been briefed by John
Dean, who had gotten his information from FBI investigators.
HALDEMAN: . . . The FBI agents who are working the case, at this
point, feel that’s what it is. This is CIA….
Nixon’s response would show that he had already realized this:
NIXON: Of course, this is a, this is a [E. Howard] Hunt [operation,
and exposure of it] will uncover a lot of things. You open that
scab there’s a hell of a lot of things and that we just feel that it
would be very detrimental to have this thing go any further.
This involves these Cubans, Hunt, and a lot of hanky-panky that
we have nothing to do with ourselves… This will open the
whole Bay of Pigs thing…
Of course, it is important to remember that Nixon knew every word he
uttered was being recorded. Like his predecessors Kennedy and Johnson,
he had decided to install a taping system so that he could maintain a record
of his administration. He was, in a way, dictating a file memo for future historians.
But that doesn’t make everything he said untrue. While Nixon undoubtedly
spun some things, he still had to communicate with his subordinates,
and the tape was rolling while he was trying to run the country. Those were
actual meetings and real conversations, tape or no tape. And though the
result was 3,700 hours of White House tape recordings, Nixon evinced
merely sporadic consciousness of the fact that the tape was rolling. Only after
his counsel John Dean defected to the prosecutors did Nixon appear to
be tailoring his words.
Nixon’s memoirs, combined with the tape of June 23, make clear that
Nixon recognized certain things about the implementation of the burglary.
The caper was carried out by pros, yet paradoxically was amateurish, easily
detected—an instigation of the crime more easily pinned on someone else.
A break-in at Democratic Party headquarters: On whom would that be
blamed? Well, who was running against a Democrat for reelection that
fall? Why, Richard Nixon of course. Nixon, who frequently exhibited a grim
and self-pitying awareness of how he generally was portrayed, might have
grasped how this would play out publicly. Dick Nixon: ruthless, paranoid,
vengeful—Tricky Dick. Wouldn’t this burglary be just the kind of thing that
that Dick Nixon—the “liberal media’s” version of him—would do? Nixon’s
opponent, George McGovern, made this charge repeatedly during the 1972
Though Nixon would sweep the election, it would become increasingly
apparent to him that, where Watergate was concerned, the jury was stacked.
The path was set. Someone had him in a corner.
Many people, including those within Nixon’s own base of support, were
not happy with him—even from early in his administration. As Haldeman
noted in his diary, one month after the inauguration in 1969:
Also got cranking on the political problem. [President’s] obviously
concerned about reports (especially Buchanan’s) that conservatives
and the South are unhappy. Also he’s annoyed by constant right-
wing bitching, with never a positive alternative. Ordered me to assemble
a political group and really hit them to start defending us,
including Buchanan . . . [and political specialist Harry] Dent.
There would be growing anger in the Pentagon about Nixon and Kissinger’s
secret attempts to secure agreements with China and the Soviet Union without
consulting the military. And there were the oilmen, who found Nixon
wasn’t solid enough on their most basic concerns, such as the oil depletion
allowance and oil import quotas.
As for the burglary crew, Nixon recognized them instantly, because he
knew what they represented. While serving as vice president, Nixon had
overseen some covert operations and served as the “action officer” for the
planning of the Bay of Pigs, of which these men were hard-boiled veterans.
They had been out to overthrow Fidel Castro, and if possible, to kill him.
Nixon had another problem. These pros were connected to the CIA, and
as we shall see, Nixon was not getting along well with the agency.
One of the main reasons we fundamentally misunderstand Watergate is
that the guardians of the historical record focused only on selected parts of
Nixon’s taped conversations, out of context. Consider a widely cited portion
of a June 23 meeting tape, which would become known forever as the
“smoking gun” conversation:
HALDEMAN: The way to handle this now is for us to have [CIA
deputy director Vernon] Walters call [FBI interim director] Pat
Gray and just say, “Stay the hell out of this… this is ah, business
here we don’t want you to go any further on it.”
NIXON: Um hum.
Short excerpts like this seem especially damning. This one sounds right
off the bat like a cover-up—Nixon using the CIA to suppress an FBI investigation
into the break-in.
But these utterances take on a different meaning when considered with
other, less publicized parts of the same conversation. A prime example:
Haldeman went on to tell Nixon that Pat Gray, the acting FBI director, had
called CIA director Richard Helms and said, “I think we’ve run right into
the middle of a CIA covert operation.”
Although the first excerpt above sounds like a discussion of a cover-up,
when we consider the information about the CIA involvement, it begins to
seem as if Nixon is not colluding. He may well have been refusing to take the
rap for something he had not authorized—and certainly not for something
that smelled so blatantly like a trap. Nixon would have understood that if the
FBI were to conduct a full investigation and conclude that the break-in was indeed
an illegal operation of the CIA, it would all be blamed squarely on the
man who supposedly had ultimate authority over both agencies—him. And
doubly so, since the burglars and their supervisors were tied not just
to the CIA but also directly back to Nixon’s reelection committee and the
White House itself.
Yet, however concerned Nixon certainly must have been at this moment,
he played it cool. He concurred with the advice that his chief of staff was
passing along from the counsel John Dean, which was to press the CIA to
clean up its own mess.
If the CIA was involved, then the agency would have to ask the FBI to
back off. The CIA itself would have to invoke its perennial escape clause—
say that national security was at stake.
This must have sounded to Nixon like the best way to deal with a vexing
and shadowy situation. He had no way of knowing that, two years later, his
conversation with Haldeman would be publicly revealed and construed as
that of a man in control of a plot, rather than the target of one.
Sniffing Around the Bay of Pigs
How could Nixon have so quickly gotten a fix on the Watergate crew? He
might have recognized that the involvement of this particular group of
Cubans, together with E. Howard Hunt—and the evidence tying them back
to the White House—was in part a message to him. One of the group leaders,
G. Gordon Liddy, would even refer to the team as a bunch of “professional
killers.” Indeed, several of this Bay of Pigs circle had gone to Vietnam
to participate in the assassination-oriented Phoenix Program; as noted in
chapter 7, Poppy Bush and his colleague, CIA operative Thomas Devine,
had been in Vietnam at the peak of Phoenix, and Bush had ties to at least
some from this émigré group.
So Nixon recognized this tough gang, but this time, they weren’t focused on
Fidel Castro; they were focused on Dick Nixon.
Hunt was a familiar figure from the CIA old guard. A near contemporary of
Poppy Bush’s, but at Brown, Hunt had, as noted in earlier chapters, gone on to star in
numerous agency foreign coup operations, including in Guatemala. He had
worked closely with Cuban émigrés and had been in sensitive positions at the
time John F. Kennedy was murdered and Lee Harvey Oswald named the lone
assassin. Moreover, Hunt had been a staunch loyalist of Allen Dulles, whom
Kennedy had ousted over the failed Bay of Pigs invasion; he allegedly even
collaborated on Dulles’s 1963 book, The Craft of Intelligence. Hunt was one
connected fellow, and his presence in an operation of this sort, particularly with
veterans of the Cuba invasion, was not something to pass over lightly.
Nixon had further basis for viewing the events of Watergate with special
trepidation. From the moment he entered office until the day, five and a half
years later, when he was forced to resign, Nixon and the CIA had been at
war. Over what? Over records dating back to the Kennedy administration
and even earlier.
Nixon had many reasons to be interested in the events of the early 1960s.
As noted, he had been the “action officer” for the planning of the Bay of Pigs
and the attempt to overthrow Castro. But even more interestingly, Nixon had,
by coincidence, been in Dallas on November 22, 1963, and had left the city
just hours before the man he barely lost to in 1960 had been gunned down.
Five years after the Kennedy assassination, as Richard Nixon himself assumed
the presidency, one of his first and keenest instincts was to try to learn more
about these monumental events of the past decade.
Both of Nixon’s chief aides, Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, noted
in their memoirs that the president seemed obsessed with what he called
the “Bay of Pigs thing.” Both were convinced that when Nixon used the
phrase, it was shorthand for something bigger and more disturbing. Nixon
did not tell even those closest to him what he meant.
When Nixon referred to the Bay of Pigs, he could certainly have been using
it as a euphemism, because any way one thought about it, it spelled
trouble. The Bay of Pigs invasion itself had been a kind of setup of another
president. JFK had made clear that he would not allow U.S. military forces
to be used against Castro. When the invasion by U.S.-backed Cuban exiles
failed, the CIA and the U.S. military hoped this would force Kennedy to
launch an all-out invasion. Instead, he balked, and blamed Dulles and his
associates for the botched enterprise, and, to their astonishment, forced
them out of the agency. As noted in chapter 4, these were the roots of the hatred
felt by Hunt, Dulles, and the Bush family toward Kennedy.
Nixon was keenly aware that Kennedy’s battle with powerful internal elements
had preceded JFK’s demise. After all, governments everywhere have
historically faced the reality that the apparatus of state security might have
the chief of state in its gun sights—and that it certainly possesses the ability
Moreover, Richard Nixon was a curious fellow. Within days of taking
office in 1969, Nixon had begun conducting an investigation of his own regarding
the turbulent and little-understood days leading up to the end of the
Kennedy administration. He had ordered Ehrlichman, the White House
counsel, to instruct CIA director Helms to hand over the relevant files, which
surely amounted to thousands and thousands of documents. Six months
later, Ehrlichman confided to Haldeman that the agency had failed to produce
any of the files.
“Those bastards in Langley are holding back something,” a frustrated
Ehrlichman told Haldeman. “They just dig their heels in and say the President
can’t have it. Period. Imagine that. The Commander-in-Chief wants to
see a document and the spooks say he can’t have it . . . From the way they’re
protecting it, it must be pure dynamite.”
Nixon himself then summoned Helms, who also refused to help. Helms
would later recall that Nixon “asked me for some information about the Bay
of Pigs and I think about the Diem episode in Vietnam and maybe something
about Trujillo in the Dominican Republic”—all events involving the
violent removal of foreign heads of state.
Fidel Castro had managed to survive not only the Bay of Pigs but also multiple
later assassination attempts. Diem and Trujillo were not so fortunate.
And President Kennedy, who made a lot of Cuban enemies after the botched
Bay of Pigs operations, had also succumbed to an assassin’s bullet. This was a
legacy that might well seize the attention of one of Kennedy’s successors.
The explosiveness of the mysterious “Bay of Pigs thing” became abundantly
apparent on June 23, 1972, the day Nixon instructed Haldeman to tell
CIA director Helms to rein in the FBI’s Watergate investigation. Recalled
Then I played Nixon’s trump card. “The President asked me to tell
you this entire affair may be connected to the Bay of Pigs, and if it
opens up, the Bay of Pigs might be blown . . .”
Turmoil in the room, Helms gripping the arms of his chair,
leaning forward and shouting, “The Bay of Pigs had nothing to do
with this. I have no concern about the Bay of Pigs.” . . . I was
absolutely shocked by Helms’ violent reaction. Again I wondered,
what was such dynamite in the Bay of Pigs story?
Nixon made clear to his top aides that he was not only obsessed with the
CIA’s murky past, but also its present. He seemed downright paranoid about
the agency, periodically suggesting to his aides that covert operatives lurked
everywhere. And indeed, as we shall see, they did.
In all likelihood, the practice of filling the White House with intelligence
operatives was not limited to the Nixon administration, but an ongoing effort.
To the intelligence community, the White House was no different than
other civil institutions it actively penetrated. Presidents were viewed less as
elected leaders to be served than as temporary occupants to be closely monitored,
subtly guided, and where necessary, given a shove.
If the CIA was in fact trying to implicate Nixon in Watergate (and, as we
shall see, in other illegal and troubling covert operations), the goal might
have been to create the impression that the agency was joined at the hip
with Nixon in all things. Then, if Nixon were to pursue the CIA’s possible
role in the assassination of Kennedy, the agency could simply claim that
Nixon himself knew about these illegal acts, or was somehow complicit in
A Little Exposure Never Hurts
Something had been gnawing at Nixon since November 22, 1963. Why had
he ended up in Dallas the very day the man who he believed had stolen the
presidency from him was shot? Nixon had been asked to go there just a few
weeks before, for the rather banal purpose of an appearance at a Pepsi-Cola
corporate meeting—coinciding with a national soda pop bottlers’ convention.
The potential implications could not have been lost on this most shrewd and
Nixon was no shrinking violet in Dallas. He called a press conference in
his hotel suite on November 21, the day before Kennedy’s murder, criticizing
Kennedy’s policies on civil rights and foreign relations but also urging
Texans to show courtesy to the president during his visit.
More significantly, he declared his belief that Kennedy was going to replace
Vice President Johnson with a new running mate in 1964. This was
an especially incendiary thing to say, since the whole reason for Kennedy’s
visit was to cement his links to Texas Democrats, help bridge a gap between
the populist and conservative wings of the state party, and highlight his partnership
with Johnson. Nixon’s comment was hot enough that it gained a place in the
early edition of the November 22 Dallas Morning News, under the headline
“Nixon Predicts JFK May Drop Johnson.”
This was likely to get the attention of Johnson, who would be in the motorcade
that day—and of conservatives generally, the bottlers included, whom Johnson
had addressed as keynote speaker at their convention earlier in the week.
Nixon had finished his business and left the city by 9:05 on the morning
of the twenty-second, several hours before Kennedy was shot. He learned
of the event on his arrival back in New York City. Like most people, he no
doubt was shocked and perhaps a bit alarmed. Many people, Nixon included,
believed that Kennedy had stolen the presidential election in 1960 by fixing
vote counts in Texas and Illinois.
At the very least, the appearance of Nixon’s November 21 press conference
remarks in the newspaper just hours before Kennedy’s death was a
stark reminder of the large and diverse group of enemies, in and out of politics,
that JFK had accumulated.
Certainly, Nixon himself was sensitive to the notion that his appearance
in Dallas had somehow contributed to Kennedy’s bloody fate. According to
one account, Nixon learned of the assassination while in a taxi cab en route
from the airport. He claimed at the time and in his memoirs that he was
calm, but his adviser Stephen Hess remembered it differently. Hess was the
first person in Nixon’s circle to see him that day in New York, and he recalled
that “his reaction appeared to me to be, ‘There but for the Grace of
God go I.’ He was very shaken.”
As Hess later told political reporter Jules Witcover: “He had the morning
paper, which he made a great effort to show me, reporting he had held a
press conference in Dallas and made a statement that you can disagree with
a person without being discourteous to him or interfering with him. He
tried to make the point that he had tried to prevent it . . . It was his way of
saying, ‘Look, I didn’t fuel this thing.’ ”
Nixon’s presence in Dallas on November 22, 1963, along with LBJ’s—
and Poppy Bush’s quieter presence on the periphery—created a rather remarkable
situation. Three future presidents of the United States were all present in a
single American city on the day when their predecessor was assassinated
there. Within days, a fourth—Gerald Ford—would be asked by LBJ to join
the Warren Commission investigating the event.
Nixon’s unfortunate timing resulted from a series of events that seem, in retrospect,
almost to have benefited from a guiding hand. In mid-1963, friends
had persuaded him that his long-term prospects required a move from California,
where he had lost the 1962 race for the governorship. Now that he
was a two-time loser, Nixon’s best hope, they counseled, was to find a position
in New York that would pay him handsomely, and let him politick and
keep himself in the public eye. His friend Donald Kendall, the longtime head
of Pepsi’s international operations, offered to make him chairman of the
international division. But the consensus was that a law firm job would suit
him better, so he joined the firm of Mudge, Stern, Baldwin, and Todd.
Kendall sweetened the deal by throwing the law firm Pepsi’s lucrative legal
business. In September, Kendall himself was promoted to head the entire
On November 1, President Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam, a corrupt
anti-Communist, was overthrown and assassinated. On November 7, Nixon
wrote to GOP strategist Robert Humphreys, expressing outrage over Diem’s
death and blaming the Kennedy administration. “Our heavy-handed complicity
in his murder can only have the effect of striking terror in the hearts
of leaders of other nations who presumably are our friends.”
Historians disagree on what exactly Kennedy knew about Diem’s death,
though Kennedy registered shock at the news—just as he had when Patrice
Lumumba, the Congolese independence leader, was assassinated in 1961.
Kennedy realized that he could be blamed. Later on, it would be established
by the Senate Intelligence Committee that the CIA had been attempting to
Also of interest is a little-noticed comment made by President Lyndon
Johnson in 1966, caught by his own recording equipment, in which he
declared about Diem: “We killed him. We all got together and got a god-
damn bunch of thugs and assassinated him.” It is not clear whom he
meant by “we.”
Kendall asked Nixon to accompany him to Dallas for the Pepsi corporate
gathering coinciding with the bottlers’ convention in late November. The
convention was an important annual event for Pepsi, and so would have
been on Kendall’s schedule for a while, though the necessity of Nixon’s
presence is less apparent. And with LBJ as keynote speaker, and appearances
by Miss USA, Yogi Berra, and Joan Crawford, Nixon, the two-time loser, did
not even appear at the convention.
For his part, Nixon seems to have agreed to go because it was an opportunity
to share the limelight surrounding Kennedy’s visit. And since Nixon was
traveling as a representative of Pepsi, and flying on its corporate plane—
something noted in the news coverage—Kendall was getting double duty out
of Nixon’s play for media attention. That was something Kendall understood
Donald Kendall was, like Nixon and Poppy Bush, a World War II Navy
vet who had served in the Pacific. But instead of politics, he had gone into
the business world, joining the Pepsi-Cola company and rising quickly
through the ranks. Like Nixon and Bush, he was enormously ambitious.
And in his oversight of Pepsi operations abroad, he also shared something
else with them: a deep concern about Communist encroachment—which
was just about everywhere. Plus Kendall had a passion for covert operations.
Kendall’s particular reason for being interested in Cuba was sugar, for
many years a key ingredient of Pepsi-Cola. Cuba was the world’s leading
supplier; and Castro’s expropriations, and the resulting U.S. embargo, had
caused chaos in the soft drink industry. (It also had affected the fortunes of
Wall Street firms such as Brown Brothers Harriman, which, as noted in
chapter 3, had extensive sugar holdings on the island.)
Indeed, articles from the Dallas papers anticipating the bottlers’ convention
talked openly about all these problems with Cuba. One of the articles, titled
“Little Relief Seen for Sugar Problem,” explains the pressure felt by soft drink
bottlers in light of a crisis concerning high sugar prices. The president of a major
New York-based sugar company is quoted explaining why the crisis had
not yet been averted: “The government probably thought the Castro regime
might be eliminated.”
It is in this context that we consider a June 1963 letter from Nixon to
Kendall, then still running Pepsi’s foreign operations. A researcher working
for me found it in Nixon’s presidential library archives; it appears to be previously
In view of our discussion yesterday morning with regard
to Cuba, I thought you might like to see a copy of the speech
I made before the American Society of Newspaper Editors in
which I directed remarks toward this problem.
When I return from Europe I am looking forward to having
a chance to get a further fill-in with regard to your experiences
on the Bay of Pigs incident.
The letter rings a little odd. Nixon and Kendall were close, and more than
two years had passed since the Bay of Pigs; it was unlikely that this would be
the first chance Nixon got to discuss the subject with his friend. Furthermore,
Kendall is not known to have had any “experiences” in relation to the invasion.
In a 2008 interview, Kendall, by then eighty-seven years old but still maintaining
an office at Pepsi and seeming vigorous, said that he could not recall the letter
nor provide an explanation for it.
Given this, the use of the phrase in the letter appears to be some form of
euphemism between friends, a sort of discreet wink. Nixon, the former
coordinator of covert operations under Ike, clearly knew that Kendall was
more than a soda pop man. Nixon’s experiences representing Pepsi instilled
in him a lasting—and not altogether favorable—impression of what he
acidly termed “the sugar lobby.” Haldeman got the message that treading
carefully was wise. Some of his notes are intriguing in this respect. He
urges special counsel Charles Colson:
0900 Cols[on]—re idea of getting pol. Commitments—
Sugar people are richest & most ruthless
before we commit—shld put screws on
& get quid pro quo
ie Fl[anigan]—always go to Sugar lobby or oil etc.
before we give them anything
The CIA also knew the soft drink industry well. The agency used bottling
plants, including those run by Pepsi, Coca-Cola, and other companies, for
both cover and intelligence. Moreover, the local bottling franchises tended
to be given to crucial figures in each country, with ties to the military and
the ruling elites. It was not just bottlers that played such a role; there were
marketing monopolies for all kinds of products, from cars to sewing machines,
given out on recommendations of the CIA.
Kendall was a close friend of the Bush family and a fellow resident of
Greenwich, Connecticut. In 1988, he would serve in the crucial position of
finance chairman for Poppy Bush’s successful run for the presidency. His
support for the Bushes included donating to George W. Bush’s 1978 Midland
And as noted by the New York Times, Kendall was identified with the successful
effort to overthrow the elected democratic socialist president of Chile, Salvador
As the Times would report in July 1976:
One of Mr. Kendall’s great passions is international trade, and his
interest in foreign affairs won him a footnote in a 1975 interim report
of a Senate Select Committee. The report was called “Alleged
Assassination Plots Involving Foreign Leaders,” and discussed in
part the assassination of Salvador Allende Gossens, the Marxist
Chilean president who was killed in 1973.
The report stated that Mr. Kendall had requested in 1970 that
Augustin Edwards, who was publisher of the Chilean newspaper
El Mercurio, as well as a Pepsi bottler in Chile, meet with high
Nixon Administration officials to report on the political situation
in Chile. (Pepsi bottling operations were later expropriated by the
regime.) That meeting, which included Mr. Kendall, Mr. Edwards,
Henry Kissinger and John N. Mitchell, was indeed held, and later
the same day, Mr. Nixon met with Dr. Kissinger and Richard
Helms, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Mr. Helms
later testified that President Nixon had ordered at the follow-up
meeting that Chile was to be saved from Allende “and he didn’t
care much how.” Mr. Kendall says he sees nothing sinister, or for
that matter even controversial, in his action.
Like many on the right, quite a few bottlers regarded the Kennedy administration’s
policy toward Castro’s Cuba as dangerously soft. Declassified FBI
files show that, after Kennedy’s death, one man contacted the FBI regarding
threatening remarks that his brother, a bottler, had made in reference to the
president. Another convention attendee was identified in FBI reports as
having had a drink with Jack Ruby, the assassin of Lee Harvey Oswald, on
the night of November 21.
Though unhappy with Kennedy, these independent businessmen clearly
wanted to hear what Johnson had to say, which is why the Texas-born vice
president was the convention’s keynote speaker.
By some estimates, the convention included close to eight thousand
bottlers—so many, in fact, that it had taken over Dallas’s largest venue, the
new Market Hall. This meant that when Kennedy’s trip planners determined
where he would speak on November 22, one of the very few sufficiently large
and central venues had long since been taken. The Dallas Trade Mart thereby
became the most likely location for Kennedy’s speech, with the route through
downtown to the Trade Mart, past the Texas School Book Depository, as the
most likely for the presidential motorcade.
In fact, the Trade Mart was secured by that most unlikely group of “friends”
of JFK, the Dallas Citizens Council, whose members’ views were described by
the New York Times as “very conservative and range rightward.” The council
had cosponsored the luncheon as a putative peace offering to JFK. Indeed, it
seems that JFK’s itinerary in Dallas was circumscribed by the bottlers and the
The mere fact that eight thousand strangers had poured into Dallas in
the days before JFK’s arrival should presumably have been of interest, yet
the Warren Commission ignored the event altogether.
Another interesting thing about the bottlers’ convention is that the Army
Reserves volunteered to help facilitate an unusual extracurricular activity.
As noted in chapters 6 and 7, Poppy Bush’s friend Jack Crichton was head of
a local Army Intelligence unit. Associates of Crichton’s who were involved
with the Army Reserves had managed to get into the pilot car of Kennedy’s
procession, with one as the driver. Crichton would also provide the interpreter
for Marina Oswald after her husband’s arrest as the prime suspect in
According to a short item in the Dallas Morning News the day before
Kennedy was shot, members of the Dallas unit of the 90th Artillery Division
of the Army Reserve would be providing trucks and drivers to transport two
hundred orphans to a livestock arena for a rodeo sponsored by the bottlers’
group. This was to take place at nine P.M. on the night before Kennedy’s arrival.
The arena was at Fair Park, near the site under which Crichton’s Dallas
Civil Defense maintained its underground emergency bunker and communications
facility. Putting aside the Dickensian aspect of moving orphans in
Army trucks within an affluent American city, this raises some questions
about the reason for this odd maneuver. Whatever the true purpose of a small
platoon of Army vehicles being permitted to move about Dallas on purportedly
unrelated civilian business as the president’s arrival was imminent, it appears
investigators never considered this incident worthy of a closer look.
Cumulatively, the bottlers’ convention was responsible for a number of
curious circumstances that may be said to have some relevance to the
events surrounding Kennedy’s death:
• The convention brought Nixon to Dallas.
• It brought eight thousand strangers to Dallas.
• It sent army vehicles into action on city streets the night before the
• Its early reservation of one large venue helped determine Kennedy’s
ultimate destination and thus the motorcade route.
In any event, as Nixon’s adviser Stephen Hess has recounted, the former
vice president emerged deeply shaken about the timing of his Dallas visit. It
served to remind him that if he ever occupied the Oval Office, he too could
be vulnerable and targeted—by the very same players. And his presence in
this incriminating spot was suggestive of wheels within wheels, to which he
of all people would have been alert. Were these intrigues what fueled President
Nixon’s obsession with the CIA and its cloak-and-dagger activities in
the Kennedy era? This little-noted tug-of-war, a struggle over both current
policy and past history, would become an ongoing theme throughout Nixon’s
term in office.
The Loyalist in Chief
At one time, Poppy Bush had worked hard to position himself as Richard
Nixon’s most loyal servant. An example appeared in a 1971 profile of Poppy
in his role as Nixon’s United Nations ambassador. Under the banner headline
“Bush Working Overtime,” the Dallas Morning News of September 19,
1971, portrayed the ambassador as poised at the center of world affairs.
Leaning forward at his desk, a large globe next to him, his lean face bearing
a look of calm intensity, George H. W. Bush looked almost presidential.
The reporter for the Texas paper picked up on that. But he was equally
struck by Poppy’s devotion to the sitting president. Ambassador Bush, he
noted, “is loyal—some say to a fault—to President Nixon, and frequently
quotes him in conversation.”
It was the image Poppy wanted to convey. Even when the reporter asked
for his own views, he quickly deferred. “I like to think of myself as a pragmatist,
but I have learned to defy being labeled,” Bush said. “What I can say
is that I am a strong supporter of the President.”
Of course, when someone defies being labeled, it gives him extraordinary
flexibility to move in different circles, to collect information, to spin on
a dime—in short, to behave a lot like a covert intelligence officer.
The image of Poppy as the ultimate loyalist was one he would project for
three more years—right up to the final days of the Nixon presidency. Not
even Nixon, who was famously distrustful, seemed to doubt it. After winning
the 1972 election in the midst of the Watergate scandal, Nixon decided
to hedge his bets and clean house.
Planning to fire all but his most trusted aides, Nixon instructed Ehrlichman
to “eliminate everyone except George Bush. Bush will do anything for
our cause.” This trust endured to the end of Nixon’s presidency.
If indeed Bush was ever a Nixon loyalist, he certainly flipped the moment
the tide turned. This new stance emerged with the 1974 public release of
the transcript of Nixon’s smoking gun conversation with Haldeman. As
Bush would record in his diary after Nixon’s final cabinet meeting, the taped
conversation was irrefutable proof that “Nixon lied about his knowledge of
the cover-up of the Watergate scandal . . . I felt betrayed by his lie . . . I want
to make damn clear the lie is something we can’t support.”
Added Poppy: “This era of tawdry, shabby lack of morality has got to end.”
This purported diary entry was most likely part of Poppy’s perennial alibi
trail. It could have been Bush family tradecraft, something like Barbara’s
Tyler, Texas, hair salon letter from November 22, 1963—always intended
for public view. Perhaps the most revealing part is the point at which Bush
summarizes the content of the smoking gun conversation. Poppy selectively
paraphrases a tiny part of that session, making it look as if Nixon had
ordered Haldeman (as Bush put it) to “block the FBI’s investigation of the
Watergate break-in.” This, Poppy asserted, “was proof [that] the President
had been involved, at least in the cover-up.”
What Poppy omitted were two key things: that it was actually John Dean’s
suggestion, not Nixon’s, to block the investigation—and that the CIA was at
the center of the intrigue to begin with.
Watergate’s Unknown Prelude
The series of scandals that undid Richard Nixon’s presidency are principally
identified with the 1972 burglary at the Democratic party offices in the Watergate
complex. But one could argue that Watergate—and Nixon’s
downfall—really began in late 1969, during Nixon’s first year in office, with
a phone call from a man almost no one today has heard of.
An independent oilman named John M. King dialed in to offer ideas for
improving Nixon’s hold over Congress. Former White House staffer Jack
Gleason remembered the episode: “[King] called one day in ‘69 and said,
‘You know, we have to start planning for 1970.’ ”
King’s call suggested he was principally concerned about helping Nixon,
but in retrospect, there may have been more at stake. For one thing, King
was a member of the fraternity of independent oilmen who were growing
increasingly unhappy with Nixon. As we saw in the last chapter, the oil barons
were up in arms over threats to the oil depletion allowance, convinced that
Nixon was not solidly enough in their corner. But they had other gripes.
As Haldeman noted in a diary entry in December 1969: “Big problem persists
on oil import quotas. Have to make some decision, and can’t win. If
we do what we should, and what the task force recommends, we’d apparently
end up losing at least a couple of senate seats, including George Bush in
Texas. Trying to figure out a way to duck the whole thing and shift it to Congress.”
On a more personal level, King was mired in problems. The Denver-based
King had assembled a global empire with oil drilling and mining operations
in a hundred countries; he was known for a high-flying lifestyle and a gift
for leveraging connections. He even had two Apollo astronauts on
his board. In 1968, King had donated $750,000 to Nixon, and as a big donor,
his calls always got attention. But King was, according to a Time magazine
article of the period, something of a huckster. By late 1969, his empire
was on the verge of collapse. In the end, he would face jail and ruin.
Perhaps he was looking to secure intervention from the White House.
Perhaps it was just general business insurance. Or perhaps he was speaking
on behalf of his fellow in dependent oilmen.
In any event, King’s pitch sounded like a good idea. He was proposing
that the Nixon White House funnel money from big GOP donors directly to
Senate and House candidates of its choice, rather than following the customary
method: letting the Republican Party determine the recipients. To do this
without provoking the wrath of the GOP establishment, King suggested
it be kept under wraps.
This idea appealed to the White House brass, and soon, a special operation
was being convened.
”As it matured, we had a couple of meetings with Ehrlichman and Haldeman
and went over some of the ground rules,” said Gleason. Haldeman
brought the bare bones of the idea to Nixon, who thought it sounded fine.
Anything that involved secrecy and centralized White House control was
likely to find a receptive ear. Gleason’s recollection is confirmed by a notation
in Haldeman’s diary of December 11: “I had meeting with [Maurice]
Stans, Dent, and Gleason about setting up our own funding for backing the
good candidates in hot races. A little tricky to handle outside the RNC but
looks pretty good.”
The White House political unit assigned the job of organizing and running
the new fund to its operative Gleason, an experienced GOP fundraiser.
Gleason was instructed by his boss, Harry Dent, to find an office for the operation.
When he suggested renting space in one of those prefurnished office
suites that come with secretarial and other services, he was told that this
would be too expensive.
That struck Gleason as odd, since it would not have cost much more and
would have been a pittance in relation to the large sums that would be
raised. But he followed his orders and rented something cheaper and more
discreet. Dent directed him to a townhouse on Nineteenth Street, in a residential
area near Dupont Circle. The space was not just in a townhouse but
in the basement of a townhouse. And not only that, it was in the back of the
basement. Reporters would later describe it as a “townhouse basement back
room”—an arrangement guaranteed to raise eyebrows if ever discovered.
The way in which the funds were to be handled also struck Gleason as
unnecessarily complicated, and even furtive. While donors could simply—
and legally—have written a single check to each candidate’s campaign committee,
they were instructed instead to break up their donations into a number of
smaller checks. The checks were then routed through the townhouse,
where Gleason would pick them up and deposit them in a “Jack
Gleason, Agent” account at American Security and Trust Bank. Gleason
then would convert the amounts into cashier’s checks and send them on to
the respective campaign committees, often further breaking each donation
up into smaller ones and spreading them over more than one campaign
committee of each candidate.
The ostensible reason for these complex arrangements was to enable the
White House to control the money. The actual effect, however, was to create
the impression of something illicit, such as a money-laundering operation
aimed at hiding the identities of the donors.
Somewhere along the way Gleason began to detect an odor stronger than
that of quotidian campaign operations. What seemed suspect to him was
not that Nixon would help Republican candidates—that was how things
worked. What bothered him were the operational details. Many seemed
positively harebrained, the kind of things with which no president should be
associated. But Gleason just figured that Richard Nixon, or his subordinates,
had a blind spot when it came to appearances of impropriety.
Late in the election season, Gleason’s superiors told him to add a new component
to the Townhouse Operation. Gleason found this new development
particularly disturbing. It was called the “Sixes Project.” Launched in October
1970, when the midterm elections were almost over, it provided an extra
personal donation of six thousand dollars to each of thirteen Senate
Gleason’s job was simple enough: get on a plane, fly out to meet each of
the candidates, and personally hand over an envelope of cash. He was to add
a personal message: “Here’s a gift from Dick and Pat.” And he was to keep
meticulous receipts, noting who received the cash and the date of the transaction.
Gleason was not happy about his role as dispenser of envelopes full of
cash. As he told me in a 2008 interview,
Of all the silly things I’ve ever been asked to do in this life, traveling
around with six thousand dollars to give the guy and say, “This
is from Dick and Pat,” was colossally bad . . . Now you crank me
up, leave a paper trail a mile long and a mile wide of flight tickets,
hotel reservations, rental cars, everything, and have me traipsing
all over the country giving these guys six thousand dollars in cash,
[and besides], the six thousand doesn’t matter, doesn’t get you anywhere.
If we give you a quarter of a million, what’s another six
thousand? . . . The six thousand dollars itself was a disconnect, because
everything else was largely done to keep the whole thing under wraps.
In those days, the campaign finance laws, most of which were at the state
level, were limited and rarely enforced. Reporting requirements were thin,
but those candidates who wanted to abide by the law made sure to report
any cash they received to their respective campaign committees. That posed
a challenge for a candidate caught in a grueling nonstop schedule, who was
handed an envelope of cash. It would be easy enough to forget to report it,
whether deliberately or accidentally.
Even back in 1973, Gleason could come to only one conclusion. When
special prosecutors in the Watergate investigation later grilled him about
the Townhouse Operation, he told them as much. “The purpose of these
contributions was to set up possible blackmail for these candidates later
on.” However, at that point Gleason assumed that the sponsors of the
blackmail were Nixon loyalists—perhaps even authorized by the president
Alarmed at this arrangement, and cognizant that he might be generating
myriad campaign law violations, Gleason asked the White House for a legal
analysis. But despite multiple requests, he never got it. Finally, he asked for
a letter stating that nothing he was being asked to do was illegal. (That letter,
Gleason later explained, would somehow disappear before it could arrive at
the offices of the Watergate prosecutors.)
Since the six-thousand-dollar donations were ostensibly generated by
“Dick and Pat,” one could easily surmise that Richard Nixon, or those under
his authority, were indeed out to get something on Republican candidates.
Once they took the cash, the recipients would have to do as he wanted, or
else risk exposure. As Assistant Special Prosecutor Charles Ruff wrote to
his boss: “It has been our guess that [the Nixon White House] hoped to gain
some leverage over these candidates by placing cash in their hands which
they might not report.”
Had this become known, Nixon would have had trouble explaining it.
Few would have believed that such a scheme could have been run under
White House auspices without Nixon’s approval. And yet that seems to have
been the case. In fact, Nixon’s name rarely appears in the Townhouse files of
Watergate prosecutors—for whom the evidence of Nixon’s wrongdoing
would have been the ultimate prize.
Even the complex and calculating Charles Colson, who served as special
counsel to the president in 1970, admitted to prosecutors that Nixon was
not involved. Colson said that he had sat in on a Townhouse planning meeting
and later briefed the president about “political prospects in that race” –
but “did not recall that the fundraising aspects were discussed with the
John Mitchell, who was attorney general before he resigned in 1972 to
head up Nixon’s reelection campaign, attended a meeting for “substantial
contributors” and later told prosecutors that “the President stopped by, but
was not present during discussions of campaign finances.” Mitchell himself
denied participation in or knowledge of the Town house plan. Even
Herb Kalmbach, Nixon’s personal lawyer, seems to have been involved only
in the most benign part of the operation: the legal solicitation of funds from
wealthy donors. Of course, all this could be about denials and deniability –
but as we shall see, it apparently was not.
Meet John Dean
At the time Town house was becoming operational, the position of counsel
to the president opened up. John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s trusted aide, was
moving to head up domestic affairs, and Ehrlichman was looking for someone
to replace him—a smart lawyer and good detail man who was also loyal
to the president. The man who came on board on July 27, 1970, was John
Wesley Dean III.
Dean arrived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue just as President Nixon was
trying to figure out how to deal with massive street demonstrations against
the Vietnam War. A month before, a White House staffer named Tom Huston
had drawn up a plan to spy on the demonstrators through electronic
surveillance, recruitment of campus informants, and surreptitious entry
into offices and meeting places.
In hindsight, this sounds especially odious, and it was, but at the time, and
from the vantage point of the administration and its supporters in the “silent
majority,” America was besieged. The general atmosphere in the country
and the domestic violence, actual and hinted, surrounding the Vietnam War
debate, felt like chaos was descending. Even so, Attorney General John
Mitchell shot down the notorious “Huston Plan.” John Dean, however, took
an immediate interest in some of the proposals.
Although his official duties centered on giving the president legal advice—
often on arcane technical matters—Dean was considered a junior staffer and
had virtually no contact with Nixon. Nevertheless, the White House neophyte
quickly began taking on for himself the far edgier and dubious mantle of
political intelligence guru.
Among the bits of intelligence Dean collected were the details of the
Townhouse Operation. In November 1970, following the midterm elections,
Jack Gleason turned over all his files to the White House, where
Haldeman had them delivered to Dean. Watergate investigators would later
discover that “Haldeman also gave Dean several little notebooks which pertained
to the 1970 fundraising.” Those little notebooks would have told Dean who the
donors were, how much they gave, and the identity of the recipients.
Shortly after the files ended up in Dean’s hands, the media began
receiving—perhaps coincidentally—leaks about the Townhouse Operation.
One of the first reports was an AP article with no byline that appeared
in the New York Times on December 27, 1970. It said that seven
ambassadors had received their positions as rewards for their contributions
to the Townhouse Operation: “Mr. Jack Gleason left the staff of a
White House political operative, Harry Dent, this fall to run the fund-
raising campaign from a basement back office in a Washington townhouse.”
And there it was: Gleason caught up in something that sounded
sinister, complete with the townhouse basement back office, all purportedly
on behalf of Richard Nixon.
In February 1972, someone cranked Townhouse back up again. Jim Polk,
an investigative reporter at the Washington Star with an impressive track
record on campaign finance matters, got more information about the fund
from “inside sources.”
Polk published an article headlined “Obscure Lawyer Raises Millions for
Nixon.” It sounded even more disturbing than the previous one. Polk’s article
did two things: it introduced the public to Nixon’s personal lawyer Kalmbach
and it provided many new details about the Townhouse fund.
A little-known lawyer in Newport Beach, Calif., has raised millions
of dollars in campaign contributions as an unpublicized fund-
raiser . . . [and] as Nixon’s personal agent . . . to collect campaign
checks from Republican donors… Kalmbach helped to raise
nearly $3 million in covert campaign money . . . The checks were
sent through a townhouse basement used by former Nixon political
aide Jack A. Gleason. But the operation was run from inside the
White House by presidential assistant H.R. (Bob) Haldeman . . .
Only a portion of this money has shown up on public records. The
rest of the campaign checks have been funneled through dummy
When I spoke to Polk in 2008, not surprisingly, he no longer recalled the
identity of his source. But whoever had leaked this story to him was no
friend of Nixon’s. Yet if it was intended to provoke further interest, it failed.
Someone had attempted to light a fuse with Townhouse, but it did not ignite.
Just four months later, however, another fuse was lit. And this one would
burn on and on.
The Brazen Burglary
If Townhouse was engineered to discredit Nixon, it had one potential flaw.
The wrongdoing involved technical financial matters that reporters might
find daunting. Watergate, on the other hand, was inherently sexy; it had all
the elements of the crime drama it became. The break-in was brazen and
easily grasped, and carried out in such a manner as to just about guarantee
both failure and discovery. It also involved a cast of characters that neither
reporters nor television cameras could resist (as the Watergate hearings later
would demonstrate). It was like a made-for-TV movie: burglars in business
suits, living in a fancy suite near the scene of the crime; Cuban expatriates;
documents in pockets leading to the White House. Even Nixon had to interrupt
his reelection campaign to confront it.
But the burglars didn’t appear to take anything, so what was the intended
crime? Breaking and entering—for what purpose?
As with the JFK assassination, theories abound. The burglars were found
with bugging equipment. But that made little sense; Nixon didn’t have
much to worry about from his presumed Democratic opponent, George
McGovern. The risks of a bugging operation far outweighed any conceivable
gains. And if Nixon had really wanted inside dope on the McGovern
campaign, which he hardly needed, he could have sent teams into McGovern’s
headquarters up on Capitol Hill, or to Miami, where the Democrats
would hold their convention.
If, on the other hand, the intent was to fire the public imagination, the
Watergate complex was far better—and Washington itself a necessary locale
if the national press was to stay with the story week after week.
With all this in mind, Nixon’s observation in his memoirs that “the whole
thing was so senseless and bungled that it almost looked like some kind of
a setup” seems on the mark.
If the Cubans were really trying to do the job, their supervisors were
guilty of malpractice. They might as well have called the D.C. police to reserve
an interrogation room.
The flubs were so obvious it was as if they were the work of amateurs—
which it was not. Burglary team member James McCord left tape horizontally
over a lock, so that it could be spotted, as it was, by a security guard
when the door was closed. If he had taped the lock vertically, it would have
been invisible to a passerby. And if the intent was to pull off a real burglary,
there was no need for tape anyway—as the burglars were already inside.
Even so, after the security guard discovered and removed the tape, McCord
put it right back.
The entire operation reflected poor judgment. An experienced burglar
would have known not to carry any sort of identification, and certainly not
identification that led back to the boss. How elementary is that? Among the
incriminating materials found on the Watergate burglars was a check with
White House consultant E. Howard Hunt’s signature on it—and Hunt’s
phone number at the White House, in addition to checks drawn on Mexican
bank accounts. Despite the obvious risks, the burglars were also instructed
by Hunt to register at the Watergate Hotel, and to keep their room keys in
their pockets during the mission. These keys led investigators straight back
to an array of incriminating evidence, not the least damaging of which was
a suitcase containing the burglars’ ID cards. Everything pointed back to
CREEP and the White House.
The most interesting thing was that the materials identified the burglars
as connected not just to the White House, but to the CIA as well. And not
just to the CIA, but to a group within the CIA that had been active during
the controversial period that included the Bay of Pigs invasion and the
assassination of JFK.
Hunt, whose status in the CIA was described earlier, was a high-ranking
(GS-15) officer and a member of the “Plumbers,” a White House special
investigations unit ostensibly dedicated to stopping government leaks to the
media. As discussed in chapter 6, Hunt had been a key player in the coup in
Guatemala and the Bay of Pigs invasion, in addition to working very closely
with Allen Dulles himself. As noted previously, Dulles was in Dallas shortly
before November 22.
And Hunt had been there on the very day of the assassination, according
to an account confirmed in 1978 by James Angleton, the longtime CIA
counterintelligence chief. Angleton, clearly concerned that investigations
would uncover Hunt’s presence in Dallas anyway, went so far as to alert a
reporter and a House Committee to Hunt’s being in the city that day, and
then opined that Hunt had been involved in unauthorized activities while
there; ‘Some very odd things were going on that were out of our control.”
Watergate burglar and electronic surveillance expert James McCord, like
Hunt, had also been a GS-15 agent, serving for over a decade in the CIA’s
Office of Security. Around the time of the Kennedy assassination, he began
working with anti-Castro Cubans on a possible future invasion of the island.
Allen Dulles once introduced McCord to an Air Force colonel, saying,
“This man is the best man we have.” Regarding Nixon, McCord dismissed
him to a colleague as not a team player, not “one of us.”
In a long-standing tradition, both Hunt and McCord had officially “resigned”
from the agency prior to the Watergate time frame. But their continued
involvement in CIA-related cover operations suggested otherwise.
Indeed, as noted earlier in the book, many figures, including Poppy Bush’s
oil business colleague Thomas J. Devine, officially took retirement prior to
participating in seemingly independent operations in which deniability was
Though Hunt claimed to have cut his CIA ties, he actually went out of
his way to draw attention to those ties while working in the Nixon White
House. He ostentatiously ordered a limousine to drive him from the
White House out to CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. It was as though
he was trying to broadcast the notion that Nixon was working closely with
the agency—with which, as we now know, the president was in reality battling.
After Hunt’s alleged retirement, he was employed at the Mullen Company,
a public relations firm that served as a CIA cover. In a 1973 memo, Charles
Colson recounted a meeting he’d just had with Senate Republican minority
leader Howard Baker. Charles Colson wrote, “Baker said that the Mullen
Company was a CIA front, that [Hunt’s] job with the Mullen Company was
arranged by [CIA director] Helms personally.” Baker also informed Colson
that, during Hunt’s time at the Mullen Company, his pay had been adjusted to
the exact salary he would have been making had he stayed at the spy agency.
Eugenio Martinez, one of the anti-Castro Cuban burglars, was another
CIA operative in the break-in crew. Indeed, he was the one member of the
team who remained actively on the CIA payroll, filing regular reports on the
activities of the team to his Miami case officer. Then there was Bernard L.
Barker, who first worked as an FBI in formant before being turned over to
the CIA during the run-up to the Bay of Pigs. Frank Sturgis, too, had CIA
connections. Martinez, Barker, and Sturgis had worked with Hunt and Mc-
Cord on the Second Naval Guerrilla operation.
So Nixon, who had been trying to see the CIA’s file on the Bay of Pigs,
was now staring at a burglary purportedly carried out in his name by veterans
of the same “Bay of Pigs thing” with strong CIA ties. It was like a flashing
billboard warning. CIA professionals, Cuban exiles, all tied to the events
of 1961 through 1963, suddenly appearing in the limelight and tying themselves
and their criminal activity to the president.
Layers and Layers
If most of us ever knew, we have probably long since forgotten that before
the June 1972 Watergate break-in, there was another Watergate break-in
by the same crew. With this earlier one, though, they were careful to avoid
detection and were not caught. At that time, they installed listening devices.
The second burglary, the one that seemingly was designed for detection,
and designed to be traced back to the Nixon White House, ostensibly revolved
around removing listening devices installed earlier—and therefore drawing
attention to the devices and the surveillance.
The conclusion one would likely draw from their being caught red-handed
is that Dick Nixon is up to yet another manifestation of his twisted and illegal
inclinations. And what were they listening to? Purportedly, DNC personnel
were arranging for “dates” for distinguished visitors with a call-girl ring. The
ring was operating from down the street, not far from where the bugs were
being monitored. The conclusion is that Nixon was perhaps trying to sexually
blackmail the Democrats. It got more and more objectionable.
But the fact is that no evidence shows Nixon wanting to sexually blackmail
Democrats, nor wanting to install bugs at the DNC, nor wanting to
order a burglary to remove the bugs. Yet somebody else clearly had a good
imagination, and a talent for executing a script that was magnificently inculpatory
of someone who would appear to deserve removal from the highest
office in the land.
Eventually, Americans would learn that the Watergate break-ins were
not the first such operation that made Nixon look bad, and not the first coordinated
by Hunt and featuring Cuban veterans of the Bay of Pigs invasion.
Back in September 1971, the team hit the Beverly Hills office of Dr.
Lewis Fielding, the psychiatrist of Daniel Ellsberg, the whistle-blower who
leaked the explosive Pentagon Papers to the New York Times. First, though,
Nixon, who was initially indifferent over the leak, was persuaded to take on
the Times for publishing the documents, a posture that would position him
as a foe of public disclosure. It also escalated his already adversarial relationship
with the news media—a relationship that would become a severe
disadvantage to Nixon as the Watergate “revelations” began to emerge.
Nixon was also persuaded to authorize the formation of a leak-busting
White House group, which was soon dubbed “the Plumbers.” Soon, purportedly
operating on Nixon’s behalf—but without his actual approval—the
Hunt team broke into Dr. Fieldingís office, having been told to photograph
Ellsberg’s patient files.
However, as with Watergate, the burglary appears to have had an ulterior
motive. Senator Baker, ranking Republican on the Senate Watergate Committee,
learned of this, according to White House special counsel Charles
Colson, when Baker interviewed the Cuban émigré Eugenio Martinez, who
participated in the burglaries of both Fielding’s office and the DNC office in
Baker told me of his interview with Martinez who said that there
were no patient records in Dr. Fielding’s office, that he, Martinez,
was very disappointed when they found nothing there, but Hunt
on the other hand seemed very pleased and as a matter of fact
broke out a bottle of champagne when the three men returned
from the job. Martinez says that he has participated in three hundred
or four hundred similar CIA operations, that this was clearly
a ‘cover’ operation with no intention of ever finding anything.
In fact, though the burglars were ostensibly seeking records while on a
covert mission, they did not act like people who wished to avoid discovery. In
addition to smashing the windows and prying open the front door with a crowbar,
the burglars proceeded to vandalize the office, scattering papers, pills, and
files across the floor. The result was to ensure the generation of a crime report,
establishing a record of the burglary. The break-in would not become public
knowledge until John Dean dramatically revealed it two years later—
and implicitly tied Nixon to it by citing the involvement of Egil Krogh, the man in
charge of Nixon’s so-called Plumbers unit.
Dean and his lawyers showed far greater enthusiasm for pursuing the
Beverly Hills break-in than even the prosecutors. As Renata Adler wrote in
the New Yorker: “Dean’s attorney, Charles Shaffer, practically had to spell it
out to [the prosecutors] that they would be taking part in an obstruction of
justice themselves if they did not pass the information on.”
Like Watergate, the Fielding office break-in was on its face a very bad idea
that was not approved by Nixon but certain to deeply embarrass him and
damage his public standing when it was disclosed. The principal accomplishment
of the break-in was to portray Nixon as a man who had no decency
at all—purportedly even stooping to obtain private psychiatric records
of a supposed foe. This was almost guaranteed to provoke public revulsion.
The notion that a group surrounding the president could be working to
do him in might sound preposterous to most of us. But not to veterans of
America’s clandestine operations, where the goal abroad has often been to
do just that. And Nixon was a perfect target: solitary, taciturn, with few
friends, and not many more people he trusted. Because of this, he had to
hire virtual strangers in the White House, and as a result, the place was
teeming with schemers. Nixon was too distrustful, and yet not distrustful
enough. It was supremely ironic. Nixon, ridiculed for his irrational hatred
and “paranoia” toward the Eastern Establishment, may in the end have been
done in by forces controlled by that very establishment. Of course, it was
nothing less than that level of power to remove presidents, plural, one after
the other if necessary.
Among the myriad plots was the so-called Moorer-Radford affair, cited in
chapter 9, in which the military actually was spying on Nixon and stealing
classified documents in an attempt to gain inside information, influence
policy, and perhaps even unseat the president.
That Nixon could actually have been the victim of Watergate, and not the
perpetrator, will not sit well with many, especially those with a professional
stake in Nixon’s guilt. Yet three of the most thoroughly reported books on
Watergate from the past three decades have come to the same conclusion:
that Nixon and/or his top aides were indeed set up. Each of these books takes
a completely different approach, focuses on different aspects, and relies on
essentially different sets of facts and sources. These are 1984’s Secret Agenda,
by former Harper’s magazine Washington editor Jim Hougan; 1991’s Silent
Coup, by Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin; and 2008’s The Strong Man, by
Rosen’s The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate is a biography
of Nixon’s close friend, attorney general, and campaign chief, the
highest-ranking official ever to be sentenced to prison. The book, on which
Rosen labored for seventeen years, is based on sources not previously interviewed
and also on unprecedented access to documents generated by the Senate
Watergate Committee and Watergate special prosecutors. Rosen asserts
that the Watergate operation was authorized behind Mitchell’s back by his
subordinate Jeb Magruder and by John Dean and was deliberately sabotaged
in its execution by burglar and former CIA officer James McCord. As Rosen
Mitchell knew he had been set up. In later years, his mind reeled at
the singular confluence of amazing characters that produced
Watergate—Dean, Magruder, Liddy, Helms, Hunt, McCord,
Martinez—and reckoned himself and the president, neither of
whom enjoyed foreknowledge of the Watergate break-in, victims
in the affair. “The more I got into this,” Mitchell said in June 1987,
“the more I see how these sons of bitches have not only done
Nixon in but they’ve done me in.”
Rosen also writes:
The [Watergate] tapes unmasked Nixon not as the take-charge boss
of a criminal conspiracy but rather as an aging and confused politician
lost in a welter of detail, unable to distinguish his Magruders
from his Strachans, uncertain who knew what and when, what
each player had told the grand jury, whose testimony was direct,
My independent research takes the argument one step further, and the facts
in a completely new direction. It leads to an even more disturbing conclusion
as to what was really going on, and why.
Woodward at His Post
The accepted narrative of Nixon as the villain of Watergate is based largely on
the work of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. They both were young reporters
on the Washington Post’s Metro desk when the story fell into their laps.
When it was over, they were household names. Woodward in particular would
go on to become the nation’s most visible investigative journalist, and indeed
the iconic representation of that genre. The work of “Woodstein” would play a
key role in enhancing the franchise of the Post itself. Yet this oeuvre—in
particular the role of Woodward—has become somewhat suspect among those
who have taken a second and third look—including Columbia Journalism
Review contributing editor Steve Weinberg, in a November/December 1991
Woodward did not fit the profile of the typical daily print reporter. Young,
midwestern, Republican, he attended Yale on an ROTC scholarship and
then spent five years in the Navy. He had begun with a top-secret security
clearance on board the USS Wright, specializing in communications, including
with the White House.
His commanding officer was Rear Admiral Robert O. Welander, who
would later be implicated in the military spy ring in the Nixon White
House, mentioned in chapter 9. According to Silent Coup, an exhaustive
study of the military espionage scandal, Woodward then arrived in Washington,
where he worked on the staff of Admiral Thomas Moorer, chief of naval
operations, again as a communications officer, this time one who provided
briefings and documents to top brass in the White House on national security
matters. According to this account, in 1969-70, Woodward frequently
walked through the basement offices of the White House West Wing with
documents from Admiral Moorer to General Alexander Haig, who served
under Henry Kissinger.
In a 2008 interview, Woodward categorically denied having any intelligence
connections. He also denied having worked in the White House or
providing briefings there. “It’s a matter of record in the Navy what I did,
what I didn’t do,” Woodward said. “And this Navy Intelligence, Haig and so
forth, you know, I’d be more than happy to acknowledge it if it’s true. It just
isn’t. Can you accept that?”
Journalist Len Colodny, however, has produced audiotapes of interviews
by his Silent Coup coauthor, Robert Gettlin, with Admiral Moorer, former defense
secretary Melvin Laird, Pentagon spokesman Jerry Friedheim—and
even with Woodward’s own father, Al—speaking about Bob’s White House
At a minimum, Woodward’s entry into journalism received a valuable
outside assist, according to an account provided by Harry Rosenfeld, a retired
Post editor, to the Saratogian newspaper in 2004:
Bob had come to us on very high recommendations from someone
in the White House. He had been an intelligence officer in the
Navy and had served in the Pentagon. He had not been exposed to
any newspaper. We gave him a tryout because he was so highly
recommended. We customarily didn’t do that. We wanted to see
some clips, and he had none of that. We tried him out, and after a
week or two I asked my deputy, “What’s with this guy?” And he
said well, he’s a very bright guy but he doesn’t know how to put the
paper in the typewriter. But he was bright, there was that intensity
about him and his willingness, and he acted maturely. So we decided
because he had come so highly recommended and he had
shown certain strengths that we would help get him a job at the
Montgomery County Sentinel.
In 2008, some time after I spoke to Woodward, I reached Rosenfeld. He
said he did not recall telling the Saratogian that Woodward had been hired
on the advice of someone in the White House. He did, however, tell me that
he remembered that Woodward had been recommended by Paul Ignatius,
the Post’s president. Prior to taking over the Post’s presidency, Ignatius had
been Navy secretary for President Johnson.
In a 2008 interview, Ignatius told me it was possible that he had a hand
in at least recommending Woodward. “It’s possible that somebody asked
me about him, and it’s possible that I gave him a recommendation,” Ignatius
said. “I don’t remember initiating anything, but I can’t say I didn’t.” I
asked Ignatius how a top Pentagon administrator such as himself would
even have known of a lowly lieutenant, such as Woodward was back in
those days, and Ignatius said he did not recall.
In September 1971, after one year of training at the Maryland-based Sentinel,
Woodward was hired at the Washington Post. The Post itself is steeped
in intelligence connections. The paper’s owner, the Graham family, were, as
noted in chapter 3, aficionados of the apparatus, good friends of top spies,
and friends also of Prescott Bush. They even helped fund Poppy Bush’s earliest
business venture. Editor Ben Bradlee was himself a Harvard graduate who,
like Woodward, had spent time in naval intelligence during World War II.
(As noted earlier, Poppy Bush had also been associated with naval intelligence
during World War II: prior to beginning his work with the CIA, he had
been involved with top-secret aerial reconnaissance photography.)
Woodward demonstrated his proclivity for clandestine sources a month
before the Watergate break-in, in his coverage of the shooting and serious
wounding of presidential candidate George Wallace at a shopping center in
Washington’s Maryland suburbs. A lone gunman, Arthur Bremer, would be
convicted. Woodward impressed his editors with his tenacity on the case,
and his contacts. As noted in a journalistic case study published by Columbia
At the time, according to [Post editors Barry] Sussman and [Harry]
Rosenfeld, Woodward said he had “a friend” who might be able to
help. Woodward says his “friend” filled him in on Bremer’s background
and revealed that Bremer had also been stalking other
As to Woodward’s initial introduction to the newspaper, nobody seems to
have questioned whether a recommendation from someone in the White
House would be an appropriate reason for the Post to hire a reporter. Nor
does anyone from the Post appear to have put a rather obvious two and two
together, and noted that Woodward made quick work of bringing down the
president, and therefore wondered who at the White House recommended
Woodward in the first place—and with what motivation.
Others, however, were more curious. After Charles Colson met with Senator
Howard Baker and his staff—including future senator Fred Thompson—
he recounted the session in a previously unpublished memo to file:
The CIA has been unable to determine whether Bob Woodward
was employed by the agency. The agency claims to be having difficulty
checking personnel files. Thompson says that he believes the
delay merely means that they don’t want to admit that Woodward
was in the agency. Thompson wrote a lengthy memo to Baker last
week complaining about the CIA’s non-cooperation, the fact that
they were supplying material piecemeal and had been very uncooperative.
The memo went into the CIA relationship with the press, specifically
Woodward. Senator Baker sent the memo directly to [CIA Director] Colby
with a cover note and within a matter of a few hours, Woodward
called Baker and was incensed over the memo. It had been immediately
leaked to him.
Woodward’s good connections would help generate a series of exclusive-
access interviews that would result in rapidly produced bestselling books.
One was Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA, 1981-1987, a controversial book
that relied in part, Woodward claimed, on a deathbed interview—not
recorded—with former CIA director William Casey. The 543-page book,
which came out as Poppy Bush was seeking the presidency, contained no
substantive mentions of any role on the part of Bush in these “secret wars,”
though Bush was both vice president with a portfolio for covert ops and a
former CIA director.
Asked how it was possible to leave Bush out of such a detailed account of
covert operations during his vice presidency, Woodward replied, “Bush was,
well, I don’t think he was— What was it he said at the time? I was out of the
loop?” Woodward went on to be blessed with unique access to George W.
Bush—a president who did not grant a single interview to America’s top
newspaper, the New York Times, for nearly half his administration—and the
automatic smash bestsellers that guaranteed. Woodward would also distinguish
himself for knowing about the administration’s role in leaking the
identity of CIA undercover officer Valerie Plame but not writing or saying
anything about it, despite an ongoing investigation and media tempest.
When this was revealed, Woodward issued an apology to the Post.
To its credit, the Washington Post in these years had other staffers doing
some of the best reporting on the intelligence establishment. Perhaps the
most revealing work came prior to Nixon’s tenure, while Woodward was still
doing his naval service. In a multipart, front-page series by Richard Harwood
in early 1967, the paper began reporting the extent to which the CIA
had penetrated civil institutions not just abroad, but at home as well. “It was
not enough for the United States to arm its allies, to strengthen governmental
institutions, or to finance the industrial establishment through economic
and military programs,” Harwood wrote. “Intellectuals, students, educators,
trade unionists, journalists and professional men had to be reached directly
through their private concerns.” Journalists too. Even Carl Bernstein later
wrote about the remarkable extent of the CIA’s penetration of newsrooms,
detailing numerous examples, in a 1977 Rolling Stone article. As for the Post
itself, Bernstein wrote:
When Newsweek was purchased by the Washington Post Company,
publisher Philip L. Graham was informed by Agency officials that
the CIA occasionally used the magazine for cover purposes, according
to CIA sources. “It was widely known that Phil Graham was
somebody you could get help from,” said a former deputy director
of the Agency. “Frank Wisner dealt with him.” Wisner, deputy director
of the CIA from 1950 until shortly before his suicide in 1965,
was the Agency’s premier orchestrator of “black” operations, including
many in which journalists were involved. Wisner liked to
boast of his “mighty Wurlitzer,” a wondrous propaganda instrument
he built, and played, with help from the press. Phil Graham
was probably Wisner’s closest friend. But Graham, who committed
suicide in 1963, apparently knew little of the specifics of any cover
arrangements with Newsweek, CIA sources said.
In 1965-66, an accredited Newsweek stringer in the Far East was
in fact a CIA contract employee earning an annual salary of
$10,000 from the Agency, according to Robert T. Wood, then a CIA
officer in the Hong Kong station. Some Newsweek correspondents
and stringers continued to maintain covert ties with the Agency
into the 1970s, CIA sources said.
Information about Agency dealings with the Washington Post
newspaper is extremely sketchy. According to CIA officials, some
Post stringers have been CIA employees, but these officials say
they do not know if anyone in the Post management was aware of
When the Watergate burglary story broke, Bob Woodward got the assignment,
in part, his editor Barry Sussman recalled, because he never
seemed to leave the building. “I worked the police beat all night,” Wood-
ward said in an interview with authors Tom Rosenstiel and Amy S.
Mitchell, “and then I’d go home—I had an apartment five blocks from the
Post—and sleep for a while. I’d show up in the newsroom around 10 or 11
[in the morning] and work all day too. People complained I was working too
hard.” So when the bulletin came in, Woodward was there. The result was
a front-page account revealing that E. Howard Hunt’s name appeared in the
address book of one of the burglars and that a check signed by Hunt had
been found in the pocket of another burglar, who was Cuban. It went further:
Hunt, Woodward reported, worked as a consultant to White House counsel
Thus, Woodward played a key role in tying the burglars to Nixon.
Woodward would later explain in All the President’s Men (coauthored with
Bernstein) that to find out more about Hunt, he had “called an old friend
and sometimes source who worked for the federal government.” His friend
did not like to be contacted at this office and “said hurriedly that the break-
in case was going to ‘heat up,’ but he couldn’t explain and hung up.” Thus
began Woodward’s relationship with Deep Throat, that mysterious source
who, Woodward would later report, served in the executive branch of government
and had access to information in the White House and CREEP.
Based on tips from Deep Throat, Woodward and Bernstein began to “follow
the money,” writing stories in September and October 1972 on a political
“slush fund” linked to CREEP. One story reported that the fund had
financed the bugging of the Democratic Party’s Watergate headquarters as
well as other intelligence-gathering activities. While Nixon coasted to a
landslide victory over the liberal Democrat George McGovern, the story
seemed to go on hiatus. But just briefly.
Poppy Enters, Stage Right
If someone did want to undermine the president from outside the White
House, he couldn’t have found a better perch than the chairmanship of the
Right after the election, Poppy Bush, again utilizing his pull with Nixon,
had persuaded the president to bring him back from his cushy U.N. post
and install him at the Republican National Committee. This put him at the
very epicenter of the nationwide Republican elite that would ultimately
determine whether Nixon would stay or go.
As chairman of the RNC, Poppy was expected to be the president’s chief
advocate, especially to the party faithful. He would travel widely, interact
with big donors and party activists. If anyone would have their finger on the
pulse of the loyalist base, it was Poppy. He would have a good sense of what
would keep supporters in line, and conversely, what might convince them to
But Poppy was unique among RNC chairmen over the years in that he
had convinced Nixon to let him maintain an official presence at the White
House. Just as Nixon had permitted him to participate in cabinet meetings
as U.N. ambassador, he now continued to extend that privilege while Poppy
ran the RNC. This was unprecedented for someone in such an overtly partisan
Here was a man closely connected to the CIA, as we have seen, now both
running the Republican Party and sitting in on cabinet deliberations. An
intelligence officer couldn’t have asked for a better perch. Moreover, this put
him in the catbird seat just as Watergate began heating up.
But Poppy was even more wired into Nixonworld. When he came to the
RNC, he hired Harry Dent and Tom Lias, the top officials of Nixon’s Political
Affairs office, which had established the Town house Operation. Dent was
the architect of Nixon’s Southern strategy, with which Poppy Bush and his
backers were closely allied. Lias had ties to Poppy from before working in
the White House. He had been a top organizer for the Republican Congressional
Campaign Committee, strategizing how to elect people like Poppy to
formerly Democratic seats in the South.
After Poppy came to Washington, the two often socialized. According to
Pierre Ausloos, stepfather of Lias’s daughter, and a friend of the family, “On
weekends, Bush would always invite [Lias] for a barbecue party at his house
here in Washington.” Ausloos also remembers that during the 1968
Republican convention, Liasís daughter’s babysitter was Poppy’s son, George
Thus, at the time Dent and Lias were installed in the White House Political
Affairs office, they were already close with Bush. Indeed, right after the
1970 election and the termination of the Town house Operation, Bush took
Lias with him to New York, where Lias served as a top aide on Poppy’s
United Nations staff. The U.N. choice struck people who knew Lias as odd.
Lias had no relevant qualifications or knowledge for the U.N. post, just as
Poppy himself didn’t.
Poppy’s decision, once he moved to the RNC, to hire both Lias and
Dent—the two men supervising Jack Gleason’s Town house Operation—
is surely significant.
Meanwhile, Poppy Bush and his team had already been in contact with
In a brief 2008 conversation, in which a prickly Dean sought to control
the conditions of the interview, I asked him whether he had any dealings
with Bush. “I think there are some phone calls on my phone logs, but I
never met with him personally,” he said.
Indeed, phone logs show that on June 24, 1971, Ambassador Bush called
Dean, and on December 6, 1971, Tom Lias of Ambassador Bush’s office
called. The logs show other calls from Lias as well. It is not clear—nor did
Dean volunteer an opinion—why Bush and Lias would have been calling
him at all.
Slumming in Greenwich
When the Senate created a committee to investigate Watergate, there was no
guarantee that anything would come of it. The perpetrators—the burglars
and their supervisors, Hunt and Liddy—were going on trial, and it was uncertain
whether the hearings would produce any further insights. Moreover,
the committee featured four rather somnolent Democrats and three Republicans,
two of them staunch Nixon loyalists.
This left only one wild card: Lowell Weicker, a liberal Republican from
A freshman, and an independent one, Weicker was not disposed to knee-
jerk defense of Nixon. Furthermore, he saw himself as a crusader. At six feet
six, Weicker was imposing, considered basically well-intentioned, a little
naive, and in love with publicity. He had gotten his political start in the
Bush hometown of Greenwich, Connecticut; and like the Bushes, he was
heir to a family fortune, in his case from two grandfathers who owned the
Squibb pharmaceutical company.
But there the similarities ended. Weicker chose for his base Greenwich’s
Third Voting District, which consisted almost entirely of working-class
Italians. “Just decent, hard-working, down-to-basics families,” Weicker
would say. “Had I been raised as a typical Republican in the salons of Fair-
field County, discussing international issues at teas and cocktail parties,
I know my career would have been a short one once off the Greenwich
electoral scene.” In 1960, Weicker aligned himself with Albert Morano,
a congressional candidate opposed by the Bush family. Now the Bushes
saw Weicker as a traitor to his class. Over the years, Weicker and Bush
would generally maintain a cool but civil relationship, driven by political
“I think he was viewed as an outsider from day one, and it was a perspective
he relished,” said Townhouse operative Jack Gleason. ”Because he
always used to joke about ‘the Round Hill boys out to get me again’ every
time he was up for reelection.”
Weicker had arrived in Washington in 1968, following his election to the
House of Representatives. Given the past, this would have made him a
not-very-welcome colleague of Poppy Bush. And Poppy probably was not
enthused when, after only two years in the House, Weicker was elected
to Prescott Bush’s old Senate seat—in the same year Poppy lost his second
Senate bid. Weicker’s star was rising faster than Poppy’s—and in the Bush
home state to boot. It must have rankled.
Still, Weicker’s least endearing qualities—his considerable ambition,
love of publicity, and penchant for self-aggrandizement—would shortly
prove useful in at least one respect: as a champion of the “truth” on the
Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, commonly
known as the Watergate Committee. The same Republican maverick who
had no qualms about challenging his party’s leadership in Connecticut
would soon debut his maverick persona on the national stage.
In his memoirs, Weicker writes that he was given the Watergate Committee
assignment because he was one of only two Republicans who volunteered
and that his interest in “campaign financing” and dwindling faith in
the democratic process spurred his personal interest. Interestingly, the
other Republican volunteer, stalwart conservative Edward J. Gurney of Florida,
had won his seat with the help of Bush’s top political lieutenant, Jimmy
Allison—and eldest son George W. Bush, who took the extraordinary step of
securing a leave from his National Guard unit in 1968, when he had barely
begun his military training. The other Republican on the committee was Minority
Leader Howard Baker, a moderate. Weicker was the only Republican
on the committee with the inclination to prove his independence from the
party and openly challenge the president.
By the spring of 1973, six defendants had been sentenced in the DNC burglary,
and the Watergate hearings were due to begin. There was now an opportunity
for Nixon to put the whole Watergate affair behind him, without
mortal damage to his presidency. Weicker, however, already saw his role as
an honest broker, and he criticized Nixon’s attempts at tamping down the
matter. “I think the national interest is achieved by opening, not closing, the
White House doors,” he said. He added that he would vote in favor of subpoenas
for White House officials to appear before the committee.
Poppy Bush apparently agreed. On March 20, the day after Weicker’s remarks,
Poppy went to see Nixon at the Oval Office. In his usual oblique way,
ascribing his advice to others, he urged Nixon to send John Dean to testify.
BUSH: We’re getting hit a little bit, Mr. President . . . It’s building,
and the mail’s getting heavier . . .
NIXON: What do you think you can do about it? . . . We’ve got hearings
coming up. The hearings will make it worse.
BUSH: . . . I was speaking with the executives at the Bull Elephants
…The guy said to me,… why doesn’t the President
send Dean? . . . The disclosure is what they’re calling for.
NIXON: We are cooperating… They don’t want any cooperation.
They aren’t interested in getting the facts. They’re only interested
in [politicalgains?]… I wish there were an answer to Watergate,
but I just don’t know any . . . I don’t know a damn thing
to do. [emphasis added]
John Ehrlichman remembers that meeting well, as noted in his memoirs.
“Bush argued that the only way to blunt the current onslaught in the newspapers
and on television was for the president to be totally forthcoming—to
tell everything he knew about all aspects of Watergate.”
This was a significant moment, where Poppy demonstrates a possible
connection to and interest in Dean. It was a sort of specific advice that warrants
attention, because it is an indication that the outsider Bush is unusually
well informed about who knows what inside the White House—
and encourages Nixon to let Dean begin confessing his knowledge. When I
asked Dean in 2008 why he thought Poppy Bush was suggesting he testify,
he said he had no idea.
Nixon resisted Poppy’s advice to have Dean testify because, Nixon maintained,
there was no White House staff involvement in Watergate, and
therefore Dean’s testimony would serve only to break executive privilege,
once and for all. “The president can’t run his office by having particularly
his lawyer go up and testify,” Nixon told Poppy.
If Poppy Bush seemed to have unusually good intelligence as to what
was happening in the Oval Office, it might have had something to do with
a good friend of his who was right in there with Nixon and Dean during the
most critical days of Watergate. Richard A. Moore, a lawyer who served as a
kind of elder statesman off of whom Nixon and Mitchell could bounce
ideas, was, like Poppy, an alumnus of Andover, Yale, and Skull and Bones.
Moore served as special assistant to the chief of military intelligence during
World War II and is believed to have transitioned to civilian intelligence
after the war. Over the years, Moore was practically a member of the
extended Bush clan, exchanging intimate notes with Poppy and even joining
Moore shows up in background roles on a number of Nixon tapes, and
phone logs show a flurry of phone calls between Moore and Dean, especially
in the final weeks before Dean turned on Nixon. In a little-reported taped telephone
conversation from March 16, Dean tells Nixon that he and Moore are
working on a Watergate report; he also mentions that he and Moore drive
home together. On March 20, in an Oval Office meeting featuring Nixon,
Dean, and Moore—just prior to Nixon’s meeting with Poppy Bush—
Moore can be heard typing the report in the background.
Dean would later write that the term “cancer” as used in his famous “cancer
on the presidency” briefing had been suggested by Moore—who though a close
Nixon adviser in these sensitive days, managed to emerge from Watergate
obscure and unscathed. His Watergate testimony did not support Dean, but
he tended to be ambiguous. As Time magazine noted on July 23, 1973,
“The Moore testimony was certainly not evidence that the President
had had prior knowledge of the Plumbers’ felonious break-in. But it seemingly
betrayed a curious nonchalance on the President’s part toward questionable
activities by White House staffers.”
Later, with Nixon departing and Ford preparing to become president,
Moore urged Ford to make Poppy Bush his vice president, arguing that
Bush had strong economic credentials. Moore specifically cited Poppy’s ties
to Wall Street through his father and grandfather, “both highly respected investment
bankers in New York.” Moore would go on to work on all of Poppy
Bush’s presidential campaigns, including his unsuccessful 1980 bid, and
would in 1989 be named by Poppy as his ambassador to Ireland.
Repeat After Me
Immediately after Poppy tried to convince Nixon to send Dean to testify,
Dean himself telephoned the president. Dean asked to urgently meet the
following morning and carefully explained to Nixon that there were important
details of which the president was unaware and that he would tell him
about these things—but did not yet tell him:
DEAN: I think that one thing that we have to continue to do, and
particularly right now, is to examine the broadest, broadest implications
of this whole thing, and, you know, maybe about thirty minutes
of just my recitations to you of facts so that you operate from
the same facts that everybody else has.
DEAN: I don’t think—we have never really done that. It has been sort
of bits and pieces. Just paint the whole picture for you, the soft
spots, the potential problem areas… [emphasis added]
In other words, Dean was admitting, nine months into the scandal, that
he knew quite a bit about Watergate that he had never revealed to the president.
Now Dean planned to clue him in.
Nixon then inquired about the progress on a public statement Dean was
to be preparing—and was made to understand that the statement was going
to try to avoid specifics, i.e., employ a common practice, stonewalling:
NIXON: And so you are coming up, then with the idea of just a
stonewall then? Is that—
DEAN: That’s right.
NIXON: Is that what you come down with?
DEAN: Stonewall, with lots of noises that we are always willing to
cooperate, but no one is asking us for anything.
Nixon went on to pressure Dean to issue a statement to the cabinet explaining,
in very general terms, the White House’s willingness to cooperate in any
investigations. Without going into detail, Nixon wanted to publicly defend the
innocence of White House officials whom he believed were innocent:
NIXON: I just want a general—
DEAN: An all-around statement.
NIXON: That’s right. Try just something general. Like “I have
checked into this matter; I can categorically, based on my investigation,
the following: Haldeman is not involved in this, that
and the other thing. Mr. Colson did not do this; Mr. So- and- so
did not do this. Mr. Blank did not do this.” Right down the line,
taking the most glaring things. If there are any further questions,
please let me know. See?
DEAN: Uh huh, I think we can do that.
But Dean apparently didn’t intend to “do that.” He was seemingly waiting
for the right moment to create the right effect—and that moment would not
come until he had jumped the wall to the other side and become the key witness
for the prosecution.
In Haldemans diary entry of the same day, he observes that Nixon wants
to come clean, but that Dean is warning him not to:
[The president] feels strongly that we’ve got to say something to get
ourselves away from looking like we’re completely on the defensive
and on a cover-up basis. If we . . . are going to volunteer
to send written statements . . . we might as well do the statements
now and get them publicized and get our answers out. The problem
is that Dean feels this runs too many leads out. [emphasis added]
Thus, according to this account, Nixon was interested in facing his problems.
This included, it appears, telling what they knew—Nixon’s version, in
And John Dean was urging Nixon not to do that. To make that case, Dean
was feeding Nixon’s paranoia. In other words, Dean seemed to be saying:
Too many leads out. Let me control this process.
In response to a combination of events—Weicker’s call for more disclosure,
Bush’s intervention with Nixon aimed at forcing Dean to testify, and
Dean’s own insistence that there was more to the story—Nixon met with
Dean the next day. That conversation, together with the smoking gun episode,
would help seal Nixon’s fate.
On the morning of March 21, Nixon’s White House counsel stepped
into the Oval Office and proceeded to deliver a speech that would make
Dean famous for the rest of his life. He would dramatically warn the president
of a “cancer on the presidency” soon to become inoperable. This
speech, which would shortly become Dean’s principal evidence against
Nixon, may have been carefully calculated based on Dean’s awareness
that the conversations were being taped. (Dean would later say he suspected
he was being taped, but as we shall see, he may have known for certain.)
In fact, for this dramatic moment, Dean had begun performing dress
rehearsals some eight days earlier. This is borne out by earlier taped
conversations—ones whose very existence has been largely suppressed in
published accounts. In these earlier tapes, we hear Dean beginning to tell
Nixon about White House knowledge related to Watergate. (Most of these
tapes are excluded from what is generally considered the authoritative compendium
of transcripts, Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes, by Stanley Kutler,
who told me in a 2008 interview that he considers himself a close friend
of John Dean.)
In one unpublicized taped conversation, from March 13, Dean told Nixon
that Haldeman’s aide Gordon Strachan had foreknowledge of the break-in,
was already lying about it in interviews, and would continue to do so before
a grand jury. The Watergate prosecutors, for whom Dean was a crucial witness,
had the March 13 tape, but did not enter it into evidence.
DEAN: Well, Chapin didn’t know anything about the Watergate, and—
NIXON: You don’t think so?
DEAN: No. Absolutely not.
NIXON: Did Strachan?
NIXON: He knew?
NIXON: About the Watergate?
NIXON: Well, then, Bob knew. He probably told Bob, then. He may
not have. He may not have.
DEAN: He was, he was judicious in what he, in what he relayed,
and, uh, but Strachan is as tough as nails. I—
NIXON: What’ll he say? Just go in and say he didn’t know?
DEAN: He’ll go in and stonewall it and say, “I don’t know anything
about what you are talking about.” He has already done it twice,
as you know, in interviews.
This is significant since Strachan, a junior staff member, was essentially
reporting to Dean—a fact that Dean failed to point out to Nixon. Although
Strachan was Haldeman’s aide, when it came to matters like these, he
would, at Dean’s request, deal directly with Dean. “As to the subject of political
intelligence-gathering,” Strachan told the Senate Watergate Committee,
“John Dean was designated as the White House contact for the Committee
to Re-elect the President.” Thus, if Strachan knew anything about Watergate,
even after the fact, it seems to have been because Dean included him in
the flow of “intelligence.”
On March 17, in another tape generally excluded from accounts of Watergate,
Dean told Nixon about the Ellsberg break-in. He also provided a long list of
people who he felt might have “vulnerabilities” concerning Watergate,
and included himself in that list.
NIXON: Now, you were saying too, ah, what really, ah, where the,
this thing leads, I mean in terms of the vulnerabilities and so
forth. It’s your view the vulnerables are basically Mitchell, Colson,
Haldeman, indirectly, possibly directly, and of course, the
second level is, as far as the White House is concerned, Chapin.
DEAN: And I’d say Dean, to a degree.
NIXON: You? Why?
DEAN: Well, because I’ve been all over this thing like a blanket.
NIXON: I know, I know, but you know all about it, but you didn’t,
you were in it after the deed was done.
DEAN: That’s correct, that I have no foreknowledge . . .
NIXON: Here’s the whole point, here’s the whole point. My point is
that your problem is you, you have no problem. All the others
that have participated in the God-damned thing, and therefore
are potentially subject to criminal liability. You’re not. That’s the
In the heavily publicized “cancer” speech of March 21, Dean essentially
reiterated what he had told Nixon previously, if in more detail. But he added
an important element—one which would cause Nixon serious problems
when the “cancer” tape was played for the public: a request for one million
dollars in “hush money” for the burglars. Informed by Dean of a “continual
blackmail operation by Hunt and Liddy and the Cubans,” Nixon asked how
much money they needed. Dean responded, “These people are going to cost
a million dollars over the next two years.” There is debate as to whether
Nixon actually agreed with Dean’s suggestion to pay money or merely ruminated
over it. He never did pay the money.
Dean’s behavior did not appear to be that of a lawyer seeking to protect
his client, let alone advice appropriate to the conduct of the presidency.