Slow Burn

A Very Successful Cover-Up

Read a transcript of Slow Burn: Season 1, Episode 3.

What follows is a lightly edited transcript of Episode 3.

In 1972, the year of the Watergate break-in, President Richard Nixon was running for reelection.

The front-runner in the Democratic primary was Sen. Ed Muskie, from Maine, and Nixon saw him as a real threat. The Democrat Nixon wanted to run against was Sen. George McGovern from South Dakota. He was an unapologetically left-wing and antiwar candidate: He could be easily tarred as a friend to dope-smoking communists. The famous attack line on McGovern was that he stood for “Acid, Amnesty, and Abortion.”

So, Nixon’s henchmen worked hard during 1971 and ’72 to undermine Muskie and to deliver the nomination to McGovern—essentially, to pick their opponent.

They employed some truly wild schemes to achieve their goal. Here’s Bob Woodward of the Washington Post:

Woodward: They hired a man named Elmer Wyatt, who was Muskie’s chauffeur.

Neyfakh: Wait, they got him hired as the driver?

Woodward: He volunteered. … And so Muskie accepted him as a volunteer, and the Nixon people paid him a thousand dollars a month.

Elmer Wyatt was a retired cab driver when he was hired to spy on the Muskie campaign. One of his jobs as a volunteer was to ferry documents from Muskie’s Senate office to campaign headquarters.

Woodward: There were so many documents to Xerox that Wyatt rented an apartment, a Xerox machine, and then would stop and make copies of everything and send them to the Nixon campaign.

That was just one of the many methods of interference the Nixon campaign engaged in while working to undermine Ed Muskie. Some of the others were just petty. On more than one occasion, members of Nixon’s team sneaked into a hotel where the Muskie people were staying, stole all their shoes from the hallway, and threw them in a dumpster.

But others were less like high jinks and more like cynical acts of fraud. Voters in New Hampshire got phone calls in the middle of the night from people claiming to be Muskie supporters from Harlem. The callers, who had actually been hired by the Nixon campaign, spoke in “black” accents,and informed the white New Hampshire–ites on the other end of the line that Muskie would deliver “full justice for black people.”

All of this trickery got into Muskie’s head. And he came to a breaking point in February 1972, when a New Hampshire newspaper published a fake letter to the editor that had been planted by the Nixon campaign. In the letter, Muskie was accused of laughing when a member of his staff referred to French-Canadians by the insulting term “Canucks.”

The newspaper also ran an unflattering piece about Muskie’s wife, which portrayed her as un-ladylike for telling off-color jokes and smoking cigarettes.

In response to these attacks, Muskie delivered a speech in front of the newspaper’s offices. He defended himself and his wife, and he called out the newspaper’s publisher.

Muskie: By attacking me, by attacking my wife, he has proved himself to be a gutless coward. It’s fortunate for him he’s not on this platform beside me.

As he spoke, Muskie appeared to break down in tears. The Washington Post described him as “standing silent in the near blizzard, rubbing at his face, his shoulders heaving, while he attempted to regain his composure sufficiently to speak.”

Muskie lost his momentum after that, and he never got it back. When McGovern won the nomination, Nixon had the opponent of his dreams.

Reports of the Nixon campaign’s meddling in the Democratic primary started circulating while the election was still in full swing. In October, the Post reported that the FBI was investigating the Nixon campaign for funding a wide-ranging program of clandestine sabotage against the Democrats. The attempted bugging at the Watergate had apparently been part of the onslaught. That fall, the defeated Muskie tried to make an issue out of it.

Reporter: Sen. Edmund Muskie said he is thinking about suing President Nixon’s reelection committee and certain White House officials; he thinks they may have violated his civil rights through political espionage and sabotage …

That news broadcast is from Oct. 12, 1972. It was the same day that Wright Patman, the congressman you heard about on last week’s episode, gave his fiery speech condemning Nixon’s top aides for refusing to testify in front of his committee. By that point, quite a lot was known about the shadiness of the Nixon campaign and the financial links between the Watergate burglars and the Committee to Re-Elect the President.

And yet, for some reason, Watergate just was not penetrating, and it certainly wasn’t emerging as a significant issue in the campaign. Most people just didn’t really care. Months after the break-in, a Gallup poll found that 48 percent of Americans had never even heard of Watergate.

In retrospect, it’s really hard to understand why. This was sensational stuff—interparty warfare, corruption, sabotage. Why didn’t it captivate the electorate the way it captivates us now? How did people not realize what a big deal this was?

This is Slow Burn, a podcast about Watergate. I’m your host, Leon Neyfakh.

Reporter 1: This is a story that I think is not yet well-known.

Reporter 2: One of the most fascinating and exotic stories ever to come out of Washington, D.C.

Unidentified: The Post has maliciously sought to give the appearance of a direct connection between the White House and the Watergate.

Episode 3: A Very Successful Cover-Up

Lesley Stahl was 30 years old at the time of the Watergate break-in. She had just started working at the Washington bureau of CBS News. She had been hired as part of a push to bring more women to the network. When she arrived, Stahl found the newsroom to be almost empty, because most of the other reporters and producers were out covering the campaign.

Today, Stahl is famous for her work on 60 Minutes. But back in ’72, she was just a rookie. And that was exactly why, the day after the break-in, her bosses asked her to look into it.

Stahl: Nobody thought it was anything of consequence, but it was the Democratic Party headquarters. And, you know, we really ought to send someone, so let’s send the new girl. You know, she’s green as can be, but let’s give her a shot.

Stahl remembers seeing just two other reporters in the courtroom on the day the burglars were arraigned. It was a preview of the shrug that the Watergate story would inspire in the press throughout that summer and fall. One of the two reporters Stahl saw in the courtroom was Bob Woodward:

Stahl: I think he was assigned as a local court reporter for the local page. He wasn’t a national correspondent or reporter at all. And I think he was sent in the same spirit I was.

Together, Stahl and Woodward listened as a federal prosecutor and a judge established the basic facts of what had occurred. The judge asked the five men what they did for work. One of them, James McCord, said he was a security consultant. When the judge asked him where, McCord said that until recently he had worked in government. The judge asked him, well, what part of the government, and McCord reluctantly replied, “CIA.”

It was a stunning revelation—even though one could only guess at that point what it meant. After the arraignment, Lesley Stahl ran over to a phone in the courthouse to file a report on this extraordinary development.

Stahl: And I remember calling in a radio story. Which, years later, I found out was never put on the air.

It wouldn’t be the last time that happened to one of Stahl’s Watergate stories.

Stahl: … As I covered the arraignments and so forth, as this thing moved forward, I would run breathlessly from a courtroom with a tidbit that I thought was stunning, and Woodward was sort of egging me on. I’d be out of breath because I had to run down three flights of stairs, and I had my high heels on, and I’d get to the microphone [imitates heavy breathing], and it would sound like someone was trying to kill me, and I’d deliver my little tidbit. And years later I found out none of them were ever put on the air. They just went into a spool in the Washington bureau.

The break-in did receive coverage. It’s just that it tended to be muted, or deferential to the administration, or just kind of misguided. For example, editors at the New York Times initially got hung up on the fact that four of the burglars happened to be Cuban Americans, so they assigned the story to their Cuba reporter. His Rolodex of sources did not prove useful, and he didn’t get very far.

Some publications did manage to break important stories, which together strongly suggested that the burglars had connections high up in the Nixon administration. The Washington Star reported that the walkie-talkie found at the scene of the break-in had belonged to the Republican National Committee. The Los Angeles Times, meanwhile, got the first interview with one of the conspirators, in which he provided a first-person account of how the wiretapping operation had been carried out.

But the steadiest stream of big scoops about Watergate came from the Washington Post. Woodward and his partner, Carl Bernstein, reported a number of key facts during that summer and fall:

Reporter: One mystery in that case involves a $25,000 cashier’s check …

1) that a $25,000 check given to the finance chairman of the Nixon campaign had somehow reached the bank account of one of the Watergate burglars;

2) that the money used to pay for the operation had come from a secret fund housed within the Committee to Re-Elect the President;

And 3) that the fund was personally controlled by Nixon campaign chair John Mitchell.

Reporter: … used to finance clandestine political espionage operations. Mitchell denied the allegations today …

The White House treated the situation as a potential crisis from the start. According to one account, when Richard Nixon found out that someone connected with his reelection campaign had been implicated in the break-in, he got so angry that he threw an ashtray across the room. His top aides, meanwhile, got to work shredding documents and pulling together campaign donations to pay off the burglars.

But the rest of the country barely blinked. A few days before the election, the Christian Science Monitor conducted a nationwide survey and concluded that, “If indeed there is today a great presidential scandal, it seems that it has not yet been accepted as a fact—or at least a troubling fact—by the bulk of the American voters.”

The summer of the break-in, Lesley Stahl and Bob Woodward started dating. And whenever they weren’t working, they talked about the story. It was tough going: For every breakthrough, there were weeks that would elapse between meaningful developments. At one point, after spending months trying and failing to get traction, Stahl told Woodward it was time to cut bait.

Stahl: I said to him, “It’s dead. It’s done. We’ve gone as far as we can go. We can’t get any more information. Everybody’s tried, and it’s finished.” And he said, “Don’t let them take this story away from you. It’s not dead.” And his eyes sort of pierced mine, and he said, “You stay on this story.”

The problem was that, outside some very narrow circles, even people who were aware of the Watergate break-in didn’t take it that seriously. Many reacted to it with something closer to amusement than grave concern or outrage. And they seemed willing to brush it off as just the kind of thing that happens in campaigns.

Barry Sussman, author of the book The Great Cover-Up, was the city editor at the Washington Post. He was the one who sent Woodward to the arraignment the morning after the break-in.

Sussman: The Republicans were fairly successful at making people think that the Watergate break-in was politics as usual, and they were especially successful at making people think it stopped at the break-in. People thought it was comical that this was the team that couldn’t shoot straight. They couldn’t even break in and be successful.

Why did a scheme by former CIA affiliates to install listening devices at Democratic Party headquarters seem like a minor incident? Well, for one thing, there’d been a lot of news in 1972 that made Watergate seem trivial by comparison.

Reporter: Good evening from Peking, China, on a day when President Nixon spent an hour with Chairman Mao Zedong.

In February, Richard Nixon had traveled to China for a six-day visit during which he met with Chairman Mao. The trip brought to an end more than two decades of diplomatic estrangement. Nixon called it “the week that changed the world,” and he wasn’t wrong.

A few months later, the president flew to Moscow for a summit with the Soviet Union’s General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, during which they negotiated two major nuclear arms control treaties.

These foreign policy breakthroughs positioned Nixon as a towering statesman.

As the New Yorker’s Jonathan Schell wrote at the time, “the nation [was] introduced to a new world … in which benevolent televised beings seemed to cradle the fate of the earth in their hands as the country looked on.”

Meanwhile, a massive bombing campaign was being conducted over North Vietnam. This was just a few months before Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s national security adviser, declared from the White House podium that peace in Vietnam was “at hand.”

All of this combined to create an image of Nixon as a man operating above politics. This was a new look for a guy who had once been dismissed by a Republican Party leader as a little man in a big hurry who had a “mean and vindictive streak.” But as historian Rick Perlstein explains in his book The Invisible Bridge, the press was always looking for signs that Nixon had turned over a new leaf.

Perlstein: And the way the media shorthand shook out was that there was the old Nixon and the new Nixon. The new Nixon, you know, was kind of rediscovered every, you know, couple years. Kind of like the media’s desperate to see, you know, the Donald Trump who is able to read a teleprompter as this distinguished fellow. So that’s an old pattern.

Against that backdrop, the Watergate story looked like a curiosity that couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the president. And that’s how it was played in most of the media—as a “caper,” not a criminal conspiracy or a political scandal. Here’s NBC’s David Brinkley, in an opinion piece that aired on NBC Nightly News in September 1972:

Brinkley: The cast of the Watergate caper is full of silent, shadowy figures, like those faces in the pictures on post office walls, those with the captions saying, “Wanted: Three-finger Willy Brown. Has a scar on his neck, walks with a limp, and smokes nickel cigars.” … But all the evidence we find is that as a political issue it is falling flat, influencing very few votes, if any.

So that’s what it sounded like when the nightly news shows did pick up the story. For the most part, they just didn’t.

Newspapers didn’t do a whole lot better. An article in the Columbia Journalism Review found that in the months leading up to the election, the average Washington bureau had no one working full-time on the Watergate story. The article’s author, a media critic named Ben Bagdikian, chalked that up at least in part to pro-Nixon bias on the part of newspaper publishers.

But there was another reason the story didn’t capture the attention of news outlets: The White House fought very, very effectively to discredit the people telling it. Ron Ziegler, then the White House press secretary, famously dismissed the incident as a “third rate burglary attempt.” He also savagely attacked the Washington Post.

Ziegler: And I use the term shoddy journalism, shabby journalism. And I’ve used the term character assassination, and that is exactly what I believe and what I feel is taking place here. This is a political effort by the Washington Post, well-conceived and coordinated, to discredit this administration and individuals in it.

The Nixon team’s most cunning mode of attack was to suggest the Post was acting as an agent of the McGovern campaign—basically, that these Democrats were just trying to help their guy win.

This was an easy argument to make. Democrats really were trying as hard as they could to make hay of Watergate—and they were failing miserably.

So what about Nixon’s political opponents? Well, they were doing everything they could to turn Watergate into a scandal.

Reporter: The Democratic National Committee today filed suit for $1 million against the Committee for the Re-Election of the President.

The Democrats filed their million-dollar lawsuit just days after the break-in. The goal was partly to force people in Nixon’s orbit to talk about the burglary under oath. But it was also a PR strategy. The hope was that a court case would generate news coverage and take some of the shine off of Nixon before Election Day.

Lawrence O’Brien: I wish to emphasize as national chairman of this party, the deadly seriousness with which we view this entire matter.

After the lawsuit was filed, Democratic National Committee Chair Lawrence O’Brien did something hardly anyone was willing to do at that early stage: He directly blamed the burglary on the White House.

O’Brien pointed out the irony of a president who had run as tough on crime being involved in illegal campaign tactics. He said the country was “about to witness the ultimate test of this administration that so piously committed itself to a new era of law and order just four years ago.”

O’Brien’s lawyer thought he should be careful about accusing the president of criminal activity.
But the chairman of the DNC was not worried: “I’ve studied Nixon since the Kennedy campaign,” he said. “I have no doubt that the trail will lead to the Oval Office, if we can hang in there long enough.”

Later, O’Brien told reporters that the June 17 burglary wasn’t even the first time that these men had broken into Democratic Party headquarters.

O’Brien: There were taps on at least two telephones at Democratic headquarters for a period of several weeks, up to and including the time of the arrest on June 17.

The point of the June 17 break-in, O’Brien said, was to repair a broken eavesdropping device that had been planted about three weeks earlier.

Reporter: The Watergate headquarters of the Democratic Party, according to the Democrats, are a veritable beehive of electronic surveillance activities.

O’Brien knew all this stuff because he had a good source: The Democrats had been contacted by someone who’d been involved in the break-in. He wasn’t one of the five men arrested at the Watergate, but he had been stationed across the street, serving as a lookout during the attempted bugging.

But nobody seemed to care that O’Brien had the inside scoop. Here’s Barry Sussman again:

Sussman: Still nobody paid attention to O’Brien. And the reason they didn’t pay attention to O’Brien was that McGovern was not an attractive candidate, period.

In other words, George McGovern, the Democratic nominee, was so unpopular that anything he or the Democrats had to say was either dismissed or ignored. To make matters worse, whenever McGovern talked about Watergate, he made grand claims about the administration’s complicity. Like some kind of conspiracy theorist.

McGovern: The long history that we’ve been reading about this summer, of political espionage, of political sabotage, of corruption of all kinds of our political process, now traces right back squarely in the lap of Richard Nixon.

There was one time when McGovern described Watergate as “the kind of thing you expect under a person like Hitler.” Remember, McGovern already had a reputation as an extremist, and talking like that only made him look more fringe.

The other thing was that McGovern’s consistently poor showings in the polls made it hard for many voters to believe that Nixon would have even bothered to bug the Democrats. Here’s Rick Perlstein:

Perlstein: The fact that Richard Nixon, yes, was so far ahead took the oxygen out of the Watergate story precisely because it was hard to imagine the likelihood that the Republican Party would cheat so badly when the Democratic Party was such a weak opponent.

McGovern told voters that the Republicans were doing more than trying to win an election. “They do not seek to defeat the Democratic Party, they seek to destroy it,” he said in an Oct. 25 speech. “And in the process, they would deny one of the most precious freedoms of all—your freedom to judge which candidate will better serve your interests and truly reflect your views.”

McGovern: If the American people will think about what that means, that issue alone is enough to retire Mr. Nixon and Mr. Agnew from the White House in 1972. (applause)

In a memo to Pat Buchanan, a White House adviser, Nixon called this bit of grandiose earnestness “the last burp of the Eastern establishment.”

The truth is, Nixon kind of had a point: The people that Lesley Stahl and Bob Woodward were hanging out with in Washington were all way more interested in Watergate than the rest of the country seemed to be.

Stahl: We were in a bubble in Washington, the journalistic part of Washington, and I even think the congressional part of Washington—what they call “the establishment.” And I think, yes, we were very focused on this and wondering just how much Nixon himself was involved and suspecting that he was deeply involved. But we didn’t know, and we didn’t have the evidence, and to even suggest that the president was involved was just something a journalist in those days wouldn’t do—it was crossing the line. You don’t know; you can’t go after a president like that.

As the election drew closer, one of Stahl’s most illustrious colleagues at CBS News, Walter Cronkite, decided to take one big last-minute stab at putting the story on the map.

Cronkite had been reading the Washington Post, and he thought it was important to gather up all the paper’s scoops and put them on the evening news in one place. Cronkite was uniquely positioned to do this—he had unparalleled credibility with the American public, and he had the pull inside CBS News to do something that no one else could have gotten away with.

On Oct. 27, 1972, Cronkite devoted more than 14 minutes of his 22-minute show to laying out the facts of the case as they were known at the time. He followed up with another eight-minute segment a few days later.

Cronkite: At first it was called the Watergate caper. Five men apparently caught in the act of burglarizing and bugging Democratic headquarters in Washington. But the episode grew steadily more sinister: No longer a caper but the Watergate affair, escalating finally into charges of a high-level campaign of political sabotage and espionage, apparently unparalleled in American history.

The segments really were special. Aside from their unusual length, they didn’t look like regular news broadcasts. Cronkite showed photos of the main players against a dramatic black background, and he used diagrams to show how they were all connected to each other. It was by far the most exposure the Watergate conspiracy had received up to that point—remember, there were only three networks back then, and CBS Evening News drew millions of viewers every night.

Lesley Stahl worked on Cronkite’s special. She says it was designed to be a wake-up call:

Stahl: He was trying to say, “This is important. Pay attention to this.”

It didn’t work.

Election Day Reporter: Good evening. It seems to be a margin building into an all-time record landslide. Sen. McGovern has yet to win a single state …

The 1972 election ended with a historically lopsided victory for Richard Nixon. He took every state but Massachusetts, and he won the popular vote by 23 percentage points—the biggest victory in any presidential race going back to 1936, and a margin no candidate has come close to since.

Bob Woodward spent election night with some friends, and as he watched the returns come in, he didn’t feel particularly surprised that Watergate hadn’t made a dent in the results.

Woodward: It was just kind of like, you know, this is happening. No one’s paying attention. But in a way, that was not wounding because we knew that this was being ignored. That Nixon was going to win.

After the election, two of Nixon’s top dirty-tricks guys talked on the phone about their resounding win and how flat the Watergate issue had fallen. Here’s Chuck Colson, who was known as Nixon’s hatchet man:

Colson: Well, I always thought when I write my memoirs of this campaign, that I’m gonna say the Watergate was brilliantly conceived as an escapade that would divert the Democrats’ attention from the real issues …

This is a recording that Colson made. In case you couldn’t make it out, he said that the Watergate scandal was a brilliantly conceived escapade that diverted the Democrats’ attention from the real issues. Watergate was the reason, Colson said, that Nixon had won by such a huge margin.

Colson: Dumb bastards were on an issue that the public couldn’t care less about.

The dumb bastards were on an issue that the public couldn’t care less about.

In the wake of Nixon’s big win, the flow of Watergate scoops coming out of the Washington Post suddenly stopped. Woodward and Bernstein hit a drought that lasted six weeks. And when I asked Sussman if he felt like the paper had failed when Nixon got reelected, he told me that the drought that came afterward was actually the most painful part.

Sussman: You’re touching now on what was a very difficult period at the Washington Post. … We were getting letters saying, “Well, maybe you were part of the McGovern campaign after all.” Maybe they’re just trying to defeat Nixon, which is what the White House of course had charged. And this went on so long that one of the Watergate reporters, Bob Woodward, said, “We don’t need to cover this story anymore.” He said, “There’s no news here.”

Woodward says he doesn’t remember ever saying that—in an email, he told me that he and Bernstein spent as much time as ever working on the Watergate story during their excruciating dry spell. Woodward does acknowledge, though, that he felt a ton of pressure after Nixon’s victory. In the book version of All the President’s Men, he and Bernstein quote Ben Bradlee, then editor of the Washington Post, saying he was ready to “hold their heads in a pail of water until they came up with another story.”

Eventually, they did. But that’s not what set the Watergate scandal on the path to becoming a national obsession.

What did was a letter.

It was written by Watergate burglar James McCord—the one who had worked for the CIA, and had briefly served as Martha Mitchell’s bodyguard and driver.

McCord’s letter was addressed to Judge John J. Sirica, who had been presiding over the bugging case. Five of the defendants had pleaded guilty. Two of them, including McCord, had insisted on going to trial.

Sirica had made it very clear during court proceedings that he did not believe only seven people were to blame for the bugging incident. “Who hired you to go in there?” he asked. “Where did this money come from?”

In his letter, McCord didn’t quite answer Sirica’s questions, but he confirmed that the judge was onto something.

No. 1, he wrote: “There was political pressure applied to the defendants to plead guilty and remain silent.”

No. 2: “Perjury occurred during the trial.”

And No. 3: “Others involved in the Watergate operation were not identified during the trial, when they could have been by those testifying.”

On March 23, 1973, Sirica read McCord’s letter out loud in court. Here’s McCord describing the moment in an old interview:

McCord: He picked up this letter and just sort of held it in front of him, and he began to very slowly read. And then he said, “Well, court’s adjourned.” And then he just sat back to see what the effect was on everybody of what he had been reading, and it was absolute pandemonium.

Reporter 1: Grave doubts were raised today about the Watergate burglary and political bugging trial.

Reporter 2: The case broke wide open.

Reporter 1: This has caused shockwaves in Washington.

Reporter 3: The entire political system has reached an all-time low…

And with that, months of national indifference came to an end. Watergate was about to catch fire.

This podcast is a production of Slate Plus, Slate’s membership program. Slate Plus members get a complete bonus episode of Slow Burn every week, going deeper into the wild world of Watergate. I’m sharing some of the amazing stuff I’ve found while researching the series and playing extended versions of my interviews with people who watched it all go down.

This week, we’ll be taking a tour of the Nixon team’s dirtiest tricks, including some that were deemed too dirty to actually carry out. We also have an interview with Joseph Califano Jr., a powerhouse lawyer who represented both the Washington Post and the Democratic National Committee at the time of the break-in. He was the driving force behind the million-dollar lawsuit that the Democrats filed against Nixon’s campaign in the wake of the burglary.

Joseph Califano Jr.: I was literally asleep. The phone rang, and Larry O’Brien’s deputy says, “There’s been a break-in at the DNC.” And I said, “Make a list of everything, so we know anything the police took.”

Slate Plus members help support this show and the rest of our work. You can find out more, and sign up for Slate Plus, at slate.com/watergate.

Slow Burn is produced by me and Andrew Parsons. Our script editor is Josh Levin. Gabriel Roth is the editorial director of Slate Plus. The artwork for Slow Burn is by Teddy Blanks from Chips. Special thanks to Slate’s Chau Tu, June Thomas, and Steve Lickteig. You can find a full list of books, articles, and documentaries used to research this episode on our show page.

Next week: how the Senate Watergate Hearings became the greatest show on earth during the summer of 1973, and what it looked like behind the scenes:

We were clueless. We sort of suspected that something wasn’t right in the state of Denmark, but we had no idea it was gonna blow into what it blew into.

I’m Leon Neyfakh. Tune in next week.