The thugs who ran the Nixon White House loved to stick it to their enemies and break it off, a technique documented in a memo by Nixon Special Counsel Charles Colson that was released last month by the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.
First, a little background: In summer 1972, as the Washington Post duo of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward were investigating the Watergate break-in and related stories, they learned of a “secret fund” connected to the Committee to Re-Elect the President that was controlled by Attorney General John Mitchell and several others.
The fund was to be used for the gathering of information about the Democrats, and the reporters found out that Mitchell had authorized a payment from it the previous year. Mitchell went ape when Bernstein called him to discuss his findings.
Katharine Graham, who was publisher of the Post at thetime, writes of the Bernstein-Mitchell conversation in her 1997 memoir, Personal History:
Mitchell exploded with an exclamation of “JEEEEEEESUS,” so violent that Carl felt it was “some sort of primal scream” and thought Mitchell might die on the telephone. After he’d read him the first two paragraphs, Mitchell interrupted, still screaming, “All that crap, you’re putting it in the paper? It’s all been denied. Katie Graham … is gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that’s published.”
The Post went with the story, but Executive Editor Ben Bradlee deleted the reference to Graham’s anatomy. “Katie Graham’s gonna get caught in a big fat wringer if that’s published,” the Sept. 29, 1972, Post article quoted Mitchell.
Several days after the story appeared, Colson, who had earlier compiled Nixon’s “enemies list,” corrected the record in a memo (PDF) to White House Deputy Director of Communications Ken Clawson. Clawson had joined the administration that spring from the Post, where he worked as a reporter. Colson’s Oct. 2, 1972, memo pointed out the Post’smisquotation and also attributed to the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee George McGovern a rude remark about Graham’s physical proportions. The memo reads:
… … … … … . . …… .October 2, 1972MEMORANDUM FOR:… . . . . .. KEN CLAWSONFROM: … … … .… … .CHARLES COLSONI thought you might be interested that the quote in the Washington Post attributed to John Mitchell, “if you print that crap, Katherine [sic] Graham will find herself in a wringer” was not exactly accurate. What Mitchell said was that she would find her tit in a wringer. Apparently McGovern was told about this story and the actual quote on the airplane this week and his response was “based on Katherine Graham’s figure, there’s no danger in that”. I just thought you might like to pass this along to her at the appropriate time.
“That’s outrageous,” said George McGovern in a telephone interview, denying having ever made such a comment. “I would never say anything like that. I would never think to say anything like that.” He says he had nothing but the highest regard for Graham.
What was Colson thinking when he wrote his memo? Was it just a bit of locker-room banter at the expense of a Nixon nemesis? Did Colson really expect Clawson to relay McGovern’s alleged remark to his former Post boss? Try to imagine the circumstances that would produce an “appropriate time” for Clawson to tell the Post publisher that the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate had recently said he wasn’t impressed by her figure.
The Nixon camp reveled in the sort of subterfuge ordered by this memo. During the 1972 campaign, they employed at least two who used their cover as journalists to spy on the Democratic presidential candidates. The first was Seymour K. Friedin and the second was Lucianne Goldberg, who followed the McGovern campaign on its No. 2 aircraft, the “zoo plane,” Washington Post reporter George Lardner Jr. writes in this 1998 account. Friedin died in 1974. Goldberg says she never heard McGovern make the alleged comment.
Clawson died in 1999. Colson, who went to jail for obstruction of justice in 1974, has acknowledged his role as Nixon’s henchman. The notorious dirty-tricks artist became a Christian in 1973 and later founded the Prison Fellowship Ministries, which he still leads. Efforts to reach Colson for comment failed because he was traveling.
Graham writes of her shock at reading Mitchell’s threat in the Post and of her further shock upon hearing the verbatim quotation. But she also found a way to mine the incident for mirth. A California dentist handcrafted a miniature gold wringer for Graham, “compete with a tiny handle and gears that turned just like a regular old washing-machine wringer,” she writes. When columnist Art Buchwald gave Graham a tiny gold breast, she paired it with the wringer and wore it as a necklace.
Thanks to George Washington University’s Mark Feldstein for alerting me to the memo. Send memos and threats of physical violence to email@example.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)