The Gores, the Bushes, and Watergate

Al Gore’s acceptance speech at last week’s Democratic convention contained an unremarked reference to Watergate. Here it is:

My parents taught me that the real values in life aren’t material but spiritual. They include faith and family, duty and honor, and trying to make the world a better place. I finished college at a time when all that seemed to be in doubt, and our nation’s spirit was being depleted. We saw the assassination of our best leaders. Appeals to racial backlash. And the first warning signs of Watergate.

Gore graduated from Harvard in June 1969. The Watergate break-in occurred in June 1972. What “first warning signs” is Gore talking about? The Gore campaign hasn’t answered Slate’s query about this, but Chatterbox presumes Gore is talking about the Nixon White House’s role in unseating Sen. Albert Gore Sr. in 1970. This is going to take some explaining, but the Watergate connection is real–and (is Gore sneaky enough to have intended this?) splatters a little mud on his Republican opponent’s own family legacy!

In Inventing Al Gore, Bill Turque writes that the night Gore père lost, Gore fils wept:

He despaired at the sinister turn the country had taken. The Kennedys were dead, King had been murdered in Memphis, and good men like his father had been brought down by what he called, fresh from his study of modern media at Harvard, the “subliminal smut” of Nixon and his agents.

Turque details several links between the Nixon White House and Bill Brock, the Republican Senate candidate who unseated Gore père. Harry Treleaven and Kenneth Reitz, two key Nixon campaign aides, worked for Brock’s campaign, and their efforts to portray Gore père as a crypto-Yankee elitist got an assist from Nixon chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, who wrote a memo urging the Brock campaign to go through the society pages of the Washington Post to find the menus of dinners Gore père attended (“The Frenchier the better”). The specific Watergate link was $200,000 in illegal campaign contributions funneled to Brock’s campaign from a secret campaign fund maintained by Jack Gleason, a former official in Nixon’s Commerce Department. The slush fund was called Operation Townhouse and became the subject of one of the Watergate investigations; in 1974, Gleason, Nixon aide Harry Dent, and Herbert Kalmbach, Nixon’s private attorney, all pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges for failing to follow (then quite minimal) federal disclosure requirements. “There’s no doubt one of the reasons my father was defeated was that the Nixon dirty tricks team funneled millions [sic] of dollars of illegal money into the 1970 campaign,” Gore fils told Stephen Braun of the Los Angeles Timesearlier this month. Of course, Gore fils couldn’t have known about Operation Townhouse at the time–according to Charles Ruff, the prosecutor on the case (and later White House counsel to Bill Clinton), the existence of Operation Townhouse remained unknown until 1973 or 1974. But Gore fils would have known about Treleaven and Reitz’s Nixon connection, and the subsequent revelations probably jibed with previous suspicions he had about involvement by the Nixon White House.

Operation Townhouse is one of the more obscure grottos of Watergate–“a peripheral Watergate matter,” in the opinion of Stanley Kutler, author of The Wars of Watergate. Furthermore, Gore’s feelings about his father, who was not exactly a boy scout, were somewhat complex. (There’s a zany passage in Earth in the Balance in which Gore complains that the “Ptolemaic” system of the family dethroned God and substituted a “dominant, all-powerful father,” and that the result was dysfunction and “psychic numbness” for all of Western civilization.) Still, Gore’s outrage about his father’s 1970 defeat has always seemed genuine, and his political career has always been at least partly about redeeming that painful loss. So “the first warning signs of Watergate” makes sufficient emotional and historical sense for Gore to have included it in his acceptance speech.

What’s harder to figure is whether Gore also intended the phrase, “first warning signs of Watergate,” to be an exquisitely subtle dig at the Bush political dynasty. Albert Gore Sr. wasn’t the only future political patriarch to lose a Senate race in 1970; another was George Herbert Walker Bush, who waged an unsuccessful campaign that year against Lloyd Bentsen in Texas. And like Brock, Bush père was a beneficiary of … Operation Townhouse! According to a 1988 Washington Post campaign profile by Walter Pincus and Bob Woodward, Bush’s 1970 Senate campaign received about $100,000 from Operation Townhouse. Gleason claimed to have delivered $6,000 of that personally to Bush. Bush denied receiving it. Pincus and Woodward also reported that Bush wrote W. Clement Stone one of his famous thank-you notes (and sent a carbon copy to Gleason) 10 days after Gleason forwarded the Bush campaign $10,000 from Stone. Here is how Bush’s note began:

It has come to my attention that you sent down a fantastically generous contribution to my campaign. Thanks ever so much. … I really believe we will win, and I’m most grateful to you for your help.