The Spectator

A Challenge to Robert Redford

Will his new documentary explain whether Nixon ordered the Watergate break-in?

President Richard Nixon.
 President Richard Nixon, Dec. 24, 1971.

NARA National Archives and Records Administration via Wikimedia Commons.

Nixon is back. Back from the dead to haunt us once again with his lies. With his one Big Lie. The one he got away with. The one all too many historians and journalists still complacently accept.

When I say Nixon’s back, I’m not just speaking about the publication of four new Watergate-related books, two of them novels (Thomas Mallon’s Watergate and Ann Beattie’s Mrs. Nixon), plus two nonfiction books (Leak by Max Holland—about “Deep Throat”—and Nixon’s Darkest Secrets by Don Fulsom). Nor about the front-page attention that the death of Chuck Colson, Nixon’s Nixon, received last week.

This burst of interest is not really a surprise since—like him or not—Richard Nixon remains one of the great American characters, a Rorschach blot upon which we project our conceptions of American politics and history. But the most salient evidence of the Trickster’s return was Robert Redford’s announcement earlier this month that he is making a documentary about Watergate. He made the announcement in the presence of Watergate sleuth Bob Woodward (whom Redford played in the film All the President’s Men) and Woodward’s co-writer Carl Bernstein. The documentary will be made with their cooperation, which left me wondering: Will the documentary interrogate the Woodward and Bernstein narrative of the break-in? Will Woodward and Bernstein, gods and guardians of the myth of journalism’s mighty mission, finally do what they have never done—at least in print—for the past 40 years: Offer proof about who ordered the Watergate break-in and why? Was it Nixon campaign officials and their hirelings—or Nixon himself?

Will they give us a definitive answer to the famous question they failed to answer in their original admirable but incomplete Washington Post investigations and subsequent best-sellers): What did Nixon know and when did he know it?

The scandalous truth is that two key mysteries of Watergate, the episode in American history that has become an iconic bedtime story about heroic journalists uncovering the sinister cover-up, about how the truth shall set us free etc., have never fully been revealed. Just this past week, the Times obituary for Colson put it plainly: “To this day, no one knows whether Nixon authorized the break-in or precisely what the burglars wanted.”

Woodward and Bernstein never proved who ordered the original break-in. They only showed us who sought to cover it up, allowing the media and journalists and even historians thereafter to complacently celebrate a hollow victory.

It remains a puzzle to me why Nixon historians for the most part have been strangely reluctant to challenge—or even probe—Nixon’s claim that he was shocked—shocked!—by the news of the June 17, 1972 break-in to Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex, and that he sacrificed his presidency out of loyalty to over-zealous aides who were certainly not acting on his orders in committing that original crime.

Yes, that’s the consensus wisdom; Nixon knew about the cover-up but had no part in ordering the original crime itself. Which has allowed Richard Nixon to get away with enshrining what may well be his final defining lie in the history books as truth.

The president of the Discovery Channel, which is financing Redford’s documentary, made a statement at the press conference that was symptomatic of the confusion that still clouds Watergate: “To be able to pull the fabricated and the real together, for the first time, is a kind of juicy opportunity for us.”

Does anyone know what this means? Why do we need the fabricated “pulled together” with the “real”? The problem is that we haven’t determined the real, that we need to separate out the fabricated.

I hereby issue a challenge to Redford, Discovery, and Woodstein: Solve the original crime this time. Tell us what was not established in any of the dynamic duo’s published work: Who ordered the Watergate break-in. Not who ordered it covered up. Who ordered it in the first place. I don’t mean, by issuing this challenge, to diminish Woodward and Bernstein’s courageous and groundbreaking reporting on the case, without which the cover-up might well have succeeded. But they never dismantled Nixon’s final line of defense.

Woodward and Bernstein were not alone: Neither the Senate Watergate Committee’s nor the House Impeachment Committee’s final reports determined who ordered the break-in, or—just as importantly—why, what it was for.

For those not up on the details, the Watergate scandal began in the early hours of June 17, 1972, just as the forthcoming presidential election campaign was beginning to heat up. The police caught five burglars inside Democratic National Headquarters in the business annex of Washington’s Watergate hotel. Who sent them and why?

Before long Woodward and Bernstein were uncovering layer after layer of their connection to Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign, including one of the burglars’ immediate bosses, Howard Hunt, who had an office in the White House itself.

The burglars and their immediate superiors were indicted before the election, but not enough damning details emerged connecting them to Nixon to dampen his landslide re-election that November. But in the months that followed, Woodward, Bernstein, Sy Hersh and other reporters—along with Congressional investigations—ultimately uncovered an elaborate scheme to pay hush money to Hunt and the burglars, to bribe them into silence about their Nixon connections.

Beginning in the spring of 1973, however, links between the burglars and higher-ups in the Nixon campaign committee, including former Attorney General John Mitchell, began to be made. The Senate appointed a special Watergate Committee to hold hearings during which John Dean, one of the cover-up chiefs, confessed, and implicated a whole raft of White House officials too.

The Senate committee also uncovered the sensational fact that Nixon had installed a secret taping system in the White House; the tapes ultimately revealed Nixon to be the chief operating officer of the cover-up, authorizing the hush-money payments to Hunt and the other burglars.

Transcripts of the tapes, when parts were revealed, triggered impeachment hearings by the House Judiciary Committee, beginning in early 1974. When the Supreme Court finally ordered Nixon to turn over the all the tapes requested, one of them, the so-called “smoking gun” tape, revealed Nixon, back at the very beginning, in June 1972, ordering one of his aides to tell the CIA to warn the FBI to curtail its investigation of the original burglary in order to prevent the Bureau from tracing the cover-up hush money. (Such efforts were one reason why FBI big-shot Mark Felt became “Deep Throat,” Woodward’s deep source.)

The smoking gun revelation—and revelation of the existence of a clandestine White House illegal ops team, the so called “Plumbers Squad,” overseen by the late Chuck Colson—led the House Judiciary Committee to vote to impeach Nixon. Nixon, seeing that he’d been abandoned by former defenders and couldn’t survive an impeachment trial, resigned and left the White House on Aug. 8, 1974.

At that point, after what new President Gerald Ford called “our long national nightmare’ ended, most investigations, official and unofficial, of the crime and the cover-up petered out. The consensus wisdom, which has held steady for nearly four decades, is that Nixon was guilty of the cover-up, but not the original crime: ordering the break-in. But if Nixon didn’t order it, who did? That’s the first of the two central unsolved mysteries of the greatest political scandal of our time. Candidates have ranged from John Mitchell to Chuck Colson to G. Gordon Liddy. But there is no consensus. Except that, in most accounts, it wasn’t Richard Nixon, who was supposedly profoundly shocked when he found out about it.

Nor is there consensus on the second mystery: Why? What were the burglars looking for in what appeared to be their main target: the office of then-Democratic National Committee chairman, Lawrence O’Brien. Again, many theories, little consensus, although I will contend that the answers have been there, hiding in plain sight, but have mysteriously been ignored by most journalists and historians. You could call that the third great Watergate mystery: Why has Nixon been given a pass? My theory is that journalists felt some guilt for hounding Nixon out of office (over the cover-up) and once that was done, didn’t want to seem to pile on by pinning the original crime on him. But splitting the difference is not good history.

I think he did the original crime and—as I’ll show—that there’s already sufficient proof.

Before I get to that, though, let me explain my emotional attachment to solving the crime. For one thing, it’s a question I’ve been reporting on sporadically since the month of the second break-in. (You didn’t know there were two? Evidence suggests the burglars broke in to plant bugs on O’Brien’s phone in late May 1972, but when they found the bugs were malfunctioning that’s when they broke in again and got caught.) I moved to Washington to cover the impeachment hearings in 1974 as White House correspondent for The Village Voice and wrote about all the questions that the rush to kick Dick out of office had left behind. Early on I interviewed three of the five original burglars).

Through a Senate Watergate Committee source I was one of the first to obtain and report on the never officially released transcripts of the Committee investigation on what seemed at first to be a sidelight to the affair: the Howard Hughes connection. Democratic Party chairman O’Brien, it turned out, was also on the payroll of reclusive billionaire Hughes as his D.C. lobbyist. And Nixon, who had been damaged by sketchy Hughes transactions in past campaigns, had an interest in knowing what O’Brien knew about a certain $100,000 payment Hughes made to Nixon (through his pal Bebe Rebozo) while Nixon was president. It was a clue to a motive for the break-in that would lie dormant for 15 years.

Plus I was there in the East Room of the White House on Aug. 8, 1974, standing not 30 feet from Richard Nixon as he made his sweaty, weepy farewell speech and hustled out to a copter on the first leg of his flight into exile. I had the feeling that he was not just making a getaway, that he had gotten away with something.

Ten years later, I did a review of Watergate issues for the New Republic in which I argued —using the newly released White House tapes (there are still more the Nixon Library has been hoarding), newly published memoirs, and other evidence—that in fact Nixon had ordered the break-in, not just the cover up, as most were content to believe.

The best summary of my case appears in this column from 1999: in which I pull together the fragments of the evidence that Nixon was the one who gave the order. Here are the bones of my argument: Nixon is heard on a recording made two days after the news broke of the break-in proclaiming that he was shocked by it and—knowing the tape is rolling—saying it was silly for anyone to break into the Democratic National Committee party headquarters because any savvy pol would know that all the valuable dirt would be found in the (yet to be named) presidential candidate’s headquarters.

And then he delivers one of his most inculpatory statements on tape: “That’s my public line.” In other words, that was how he was going to lie his way out of any connection: By arguing that if he were planning a break-in, he wouldn’t have targeted Watergate, because nothing of value could be found there. When, in fact, as later tapes and witnesses would show, he thought something very, very important to his future might be there.

That we learn definitively mainly from the relentless and diligent work of a reporter who deserves far more credit than he has gotten, perhaps as much credit as Woodward and Bernstein, for getting to the bottom of things: J. Anthony Lukas.

Lukas was the former Timesman and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner who had written a comprehensive history of Watergate called Nightmare, but who wasn’t satisfied he had all the answers. He kept on the case and made an under-appreciated breakthrough in 1987 at a Nixon conference when he got a key Nixon campaign aide, Jeb Magruder, to spell out the motive for the break-in. In describing the moment, Lukas, who has prizes for nonfiction books given in his honor by Columbia Journalism School, wrote about the mystery to him of the press and historians’ indifference to the big question in a Times Op-Ed that ought to be mandatory reading for Redford’s documentary crew.

[T]he strangest aspect of the most devastating political scandal in American history is that despite massive Congressional investigations, lengthy trials, aggressive journalistic inquiries, and scholarly exegesis, nobody has been able to say for sure why the re-election committee’s burglary team entered the Democratic offices twice in May and June 1972. For a decade and a half, it has been a gaping hole in our contemporary chronicle.

Then he describes Magruder—a true Watergate insider, who’d done jail time for his role in the cover-up, after which he became a Presbyterian minister—finally opening up:

“When I had posed my question [at the conference]” Lukas wrote, “Magruder took the pulpit and launched into some cosmic reflections on God and the universe. Just when I began to dismay of getting an answer, he paused. ‘I want to be honest about what happened here,’ he said. ‘It was a planned burglary. … As far as I know the primary purpose of the break-in was to deal with the information that has been referred to about Howard Hughes and Larry O’Brien and what that meant as far as the cash that had supposedly been given to [Nixon buddy] Bebe Rebozo and spent later by the president possibly.’”

Magruder is referring here to evidence that ace Senate Watergate Committee investigator Terry Lenzner had turned up, evidence that there had been a $100,000 illegal “campaign contribution” (read: bribe) paid to Nixon by Howard Hughes through Rebozo, purportedly to influence government decisions about his business interests. In other words, Nixon feared that O’Brien, as Hughes’ minion, might have learned about a Hughes’ payofff to Nixon and have evidence of it in his files at his office at the Watergate. In which case, the potential revelation could sink Nixon’s re-election campaign.

As Lukas put it, Magruder went on to confirm that “the burglars were also looking for information the president’s men could use against O’Brien to keep the Hughes-Rebozo transaction “under wraps” during the election campaign.

So a decade later, in my 1999 summary of the case for a Nixon order, I linked Magruder’s explanation of what Lukas called the “gaping hole” in Watergate histories (the motivation) to the question of who actually gave the go-order for the break-in to Nixon’s lie—in that subsequently released tape—that he was baffled why anyone would want to burglarize O’Brien’s Watergate office. His “public line” was a public lie. He had an explicit reason to believe there was damaging information about him in Larry O’Brien’s office and his pooh-poohing of Watergate as a target shows him lying about that to exculpate himself.

This interpretation is supported by Nixon’s exchange with his No. 2, H. R. Haldeman. Who says, on that tape, after Nixon says there would be no reason to go into the Watergate: “Except for the financial thing.” The financial thing! The Hughes-Rebozo $100,000 bribe and the question of whether O’Brien learned of it and planned to go public with it which could have ended Nixon’s presidency right there. (O’Brien later said he didn’t know about the Hughes-Nixon payoff, but Nixon didn’t know he didn’t know and was obsessed with finding out if he did.)

“Yes I suppose,” says Nixon, in reply to Haldeman’s suggesting “the financial thing” was a motive.

And then in 2003 Magruder dropped another bombshell.

In 2003, in a PBS documentary that has not been given the attention it deserves, Magruder said that he heard Richard Nixon order the break-in. That he was standing next to Nixon’s campaign chairman, former Attorney General John Mitchell, when Mitchell took a call from Nixon and that he could hear Nixon’s distinctive voice telling Mitchell in regard to the break-in at Larry O’Brien’s office that had been bruited about… Well, here’s how the Washington Post describes it:

Jeb Stuart Magruder—then a “callow” campaign aide, now a retired Presbyterian minister in Ohio—says in a new documentary for PBS that he heard Nixon’s voice on a telephone as the president instructed then-Attorney General John Mitchell to go ahead with the break-in.

“John we need to get the information on Larry O’Brien, and the only way we can do it is through Liddy’s plan. And you need to do that,” Magruder said he heard Nixon say at the end of a phone call in which Mitchell discussed the matter with his boss.

If true, the allegation could significantly sharpen history’s answer to one of the most famous questions of modern America: What did the president know, and when did he know it?

There are skeptics of Magruder’s account. They argue that there should be a tape of this call with Mitchell among the White House tapes. But according to what I’ve read, there is evidence that not all White House calls were recorded. And other skeptics wonder why Magruder waited so long to come forward. He told the PBS documentary he had hoped for a pardon from Nixon back then, and so he kept his mouth shut. He said that he made the 2003 disclosure, the last link in the chain of evidence for a Nixon break-in order, after he’d had a serious heart attack shortly before the documentary makers approached him. Perhaps his Presbyterian conscience told him to tell the whole truth before he died.  

Corroboration came from John Dean, the day-to-day supervisor—and eventual exposer—of the cover-up whose knowledge of the case allowed him to pinpoint a moment where Nixon himself is confronted with Magruder’s potential testimony while still in the White House:

“I found that in March of 1973,” Dean said, “that Bob Haldeman, the White House chief of staff, was told by one of the lawyers over at the re-election committee that Jeb [Magruder] was saying to them that the plan to break in the Watergate had been approved by the president. And it’s very interesting, Nixon has no reaction on the tape that I saw.”

So there is both circumstantial evidence and ear-witness testimony suggesting Nixon’s involvement. And when deciding how to balance Nixon’s denials against Magruder’s account, one can’t ignore Richard Nixon’s lifelong history of lying.

Nonetheless, on the fundamental question—what did the president know and when did he know it?—the vast majority of accounts take Richard Nixon at his unsupported word.

It’s amazing to me that historians of Nixon and Watergate have been so timid on this issue.

It’s not a trivial matter, it goes to the question of the true character of one of the great characters in American history. It goes to the question of whether discovering the whole truth matters, or whether implicit fabrications (Nixon’s innocence of the order) should just be shrugged off. So, Robert Redford, so Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, I reiterate my challenge: Give us your answer to the question in this documentary, prove my theory about Nixon’s guilt wrong, or prove someone else gave the order, or admit you don’t care whether Nixon has, in the end, gotten away with his crime.