Last time out I discussed Keith Olson’s argument that the illegal activities carried out by Richard Nixon, his administration and the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP) need to be understood in the context of a larger culture of acceptance of political crime and, more importantly, in the context of a genuinely-perceived existential threat to the United States in the form of international communist support for domestic political movements such as opposition to the Vietnam war and Black radicalism. Nixon represented an intellectual and political cohort who believed at their core that those who supported the struggle against the Vietnam war were “consciously aiding and abetting the enemy of the United States.” If that was true, then political subterfuge seemed like a reasonable alternative – all the more so in a political culture that tolerated a certain degree of it.
In this post, I’m going to continue my reading of Olson’s Watergate: The Presidential Scandal That Shook America, describing the larger pattern of political misdeeds and crimes undertaken by the Nixon organization before narrowing in on the critical event, the June 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Campaign offices in the Watergate building. What emerges from Olson’s analysis of CREEP activities is the extent to which the Watergate break-in, seen its larger context, was one small part of a pattern of wrongdoing that permeated the Nixon campaign.
Olson argues that Nixon’s tendency to compartmentalize power and information shaped his reelection effort. Much as National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger and Secretary of State William Rogers were kept in the dark about White House negotiations with Vietnam, China and the Soviets, figures including Haldeman, Nixon operative Charles Colson, and White House Counsel John Dean all ran separate operations and didn’t tell each other what they were doing. Moreover, much like the Trump 2016 campaign, CREEP was isolated from the GOP establishment. Because various actors were operating in their own bubbles, it became difficult to put the brakes on plans that may not have been well conceived. This is one reason that the eventual crisis may have been inevitable.
CREEP’s plan to use political misdeeds and crime to ensure a Nixon victory was built on three pillars: so-called “dirty tricks,” illegal finances, and illegal intelligence gathering.
The phrase “dirty tricks” (Olson does not mention the more pointed synonym: “ratfucking.”) refers to operations designed to destabilize or delegitimize an opposing political candidacy, and has become synonymous with Nixon’s political operations. In the lead-up to the 1972 election, the Nixon campaign feared that Ed Muskie, the early frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, would be too formidable an opponent. In response to the perceived threat of a Muskie-led Democratic ticket, the Nixon campaign worked to destroy his candidacy so that they could run against a weaker opponent. Moreover, they hoped that these efforts would create longer-term tensions within the Democratic Party.
In response to Muskie’s growing popularity, Haldeman ordered the disruption of the Democratic primary process. Two Haldeman aides, Gordon Strachan and Dwight Chapin, hired a lawyer named Don Segretti to take the lead in undermining Muskie’s campaign. Segretti was told that his work should be done in such a way as to make it impossible to be linked back to the White House. Nixon’s personal attorney, Herbert Kalmbach, negotiated finances and Segretti put together a team of 28 agents who worked in 17 Democratic primaries; Segretti never submitted written reports about what he and his team had done.
What they did was engage in sometimes-juvenile capers that were intended to make Muskie look incompetent and sow discord among the Democrat rank and file. Letters to Democratic voters on stolen Muskie letterhead accused other Democratic candidates of having Nazi sympathies. (Olson does not mention the infamous “Canuck letter,” a faked document that implied that Muskie hated Americans of French-Canadian descent, a sizable demographic in the key primary state of New Hampshire) Segretti’s teams set off stink bombs at campaign events and ran announcements for non-existent Muskie campaign rallies that promised free beer and food. Meanwhile, CREEP’s Deputy Director Jeb Magruder and Nixon aide Charles Colson also ran dirty tricks campaigns to interfere with Democratic Party activities, though on a smaller scale than Segretti’s. While subsequent scholarship has raised serious doubts about the political effectiveness of the dirty tricks, Olson maintains that the money and human effort that Nixon’s people invested in the project reveal the extent to which they took it seriously.
The money that funded the dirty tricks was itself dirty. Herbert Kalmbach, who shared responsibility for fundraising at CREEP, ran a secret fund of money to finance covert operations; the payments were authorized by Haldeman. Much of the money that Kalmbach administered, some $1.7 million, came from funds left over from the 1968 campaign. In April 1972, a new set of campaign finance regulations came into effect; donations to political campaigns would have to be documented. In the time leading up the the new regulations taking hold, CREEP raised some $20 million, much of it illegally donated by corporations. Two million dollars came from people who later became ambassadors; Kalmbach essentially told these donors what an ambassadorship would cost.
Besides dirty tricks, much of this money went to pay for the intelligence-gathering operations that culminated in the one that led to the arrest of CREEP operatives at the Watergate hotel early on the morning of 17 June 1972.
The break-in at the Watergate was just one element of a larger plan for intelligence-gathering conceived by G. Gordon Liddy, probably the best-known of the “Plumbers,” a team of operatives whose original duties included dealing with leaks. The Plumbers reported to Colson and John Ehrlichman, the former White House Counsel who, by 1972, was Nixon’s Chief Domestic Advisor. In late January 1972, Liddy outlined a program he called “Gemstone” to John Mitchell, the former Attorney-General and the director of CREEP. Liddy’s plan included clearly criminal acts such as unauthorized surveillance and wiretapping, kidnappings, muggings, and hiring prostitutes for the purposes of compromising and then extorting political opponents. Mitchell rejected much of Liddy’s plan, and Liddy later presented a re-tooled version of Gemstone that focused on surveillance and wiretaps. Of particular interest was Democratic National Campaign chairman Lawrence O’Brien’s office in the Watergate building, his hotel suite during the Democratic national convention, and the headquarters of the eventual Democratic nominee. Tapping the phones in O’Brien’s office was the first priority.
On the 1972 Memorial Day weekend, James McCord, CREEP’s chief of security, accompanied by Cuban expatriates (some of whom had served in the CIA) Bernard Barker, Virgilio Gonzalez, Eugenio Martinez, and Frank Fiorini (aka Frank Sturgis) broke into the DNC offices in the Watergate building to tap the phones and photograph documents. Alfred Baldwin, McCord’s assistant, kept lookout in a motel room across the street from the Watergate. While the team was able to plant electronic listening devices and escape undetected, the mission was a bust. The documents they photographed were of no real political value, most of the information gleaned from taps was about the staff’s social life, and, most importantly, the tap on O’Brien’s phone didn’t work properly.
Liddy set up a return mission to fix the tap on O’Brien’s phone and photograph more documents. The second mission was set up much like its predecessor: Liddy paid the burglars in cash that came from CREEP, and E. Howard Hunt, a former CIA agent who worked with Liddy and Colson and originally hired the Cubans, gave Sturgis and McCord fake ID provided by the CIA.
On the night of 16-17 June 1972, the team again broke into the DNC offices at the Watergate. While the operation may well have gone unnoticed like the Memorial Day break-in, two twists of fate ensured that Liddy’s team was condemned to fail. First, Frank Willis, a Watergate security guard, noticed some tape the burglars had placed across a door’s latch to keep it from locking; Willis, assuming that the door had been taped open by maintenance workers earlier in the day, removed the tape. The burglars replaced it, and when Willis noticed, he called the police. Officers arrived in an unmarked car. This was the second twist that led to the burglars getting caught: had it been a regular patrol car, Liddy, observing from a hotel room across the street, surely would have seen it and warned the burglars by radio.
If the operation was interrupted because of bad luck, sheer carelessness on the part of Liddy’s team all but ensured that their arrest would inevitably draw attention to CREEP and the Nixon White House. When police arrested the burglars, they found a walkie-talkie that operated on a channel reserved for the exclusive use of the Republican National Committee, a check signed by Howard Hunt, and an address book and a phone directory with Hunt’s name and number, including the note “W. House.” They also found 32 sequential $100 bills;at the time, banks were required to record whenever they disbursed sequences of large bills. It was later discovered that the money was from the stash of donations that CREEP had raised before the April 7th change in campaign finance rules.
Just as the investment that the Nixon team made in dirty tricks reveals how seriously they took such operations, the DNC break-in not was an exceptional event, but something that was at the core of CREEP’s strategy of using subterfuge and criminal acts to ensure a Nixon victory. As Haldeman noted, the burglary was “only one of fifteen things we were honing in on that day.” In other words, conducting illegal surveillance of a national political opponent was dreadfully routine for Nixon’s closest advisors.
In retrospect, it makes no sense that CREEP would even consider resorting to cheating to win; when November came, Nixon carried 49 states, won 520 votes in the Electoral College to George McGovern’s 17, and took 61% of the popular vote – a landslide win by anyone’s measure. That said, until sometime in June, the polls showed a race that was much tighter than the final outcome, and a Democratic win was nowhere near out of the question. Given the stakes of the election from Nixon’s point of view – no less than the survival of the Republic against the threat of international communism undermining domestic support for a contentious but critical war, leading to a widespread loss of faith in the legitimacy of the American government – a bit of electoral fraud seemed a reasonable price to pay.
A key political lesson from what ensued after Liddy’s team was arrested is that “it’s not the crime: it’s the cover-up.” Until news of the arrest of the burglars broke, Richard Nixon had no knowledge of the break-in, he might have survived the political fall-out if things had been handled in a different way; we’ll never know. Instead, when they learned about what happened Nixon’s closest advisors and then the president himself did everything they could to obfuscate and mislead. That decision was more fateful and damning than the one to engage in dirty tricks and a “third-rate burglary.”
Next time: the cover-up begins.