“It was a lust for political power.” – Bob Woodward
“There is no simple answer.” – John Dean
President Richard Nixon, caught in a big lie, resigned in disgrace forty years ago. As we commemorate our shared memories of this astounding political scandal today, we are unwittingly basking in a new layer of delusion and willful untruth.
Yes, we conceal the truth today about Watergate, especially when we talk about the original motive for the crime, and when we try to analyze the lessons learned. I’ve enjoyed watching a couple of new television shows that interview the principals in the affair, but I can’t help cringing at the level of voluntary obfuscation, of creative contextualizing. The gauze of popular self-delusion about Watergate does not serve a sinister political purpose but rather serves our need for comfortable conclusions, for meaningful metaphor (which may be meaningful even when it does not reveal a truth), for the dubious entertainment of banal psychobiography. It’s easier to demonize Nixon than it is to realize that the disease that brought this President down is widely shared by others.
Bob Woodward sums up the popular understanding of the motive with a critique of Nixon’s overreach: “It was a lust for political power”. Well, Bob Woodward is a great journalistic hero, but he’s evidently lost his sharpness over the last forty years, because this is a limp cliche. At the time of the Watergate break-in, Richard Nixon had already gathered immense political power. The opposition Democratic party had lost its ability to unite behind a single leader and win national elections because it had become hopelessly split between old guard and new radicals (similar to the way the Republican party is split and cannot unite to win a national election today). The Nixon-Agnew ticket was absolutely secure in the upcoming 1972 election, and this election would indeed produce a historic landslide.
Yet there was great anxiety in 1972 within the Nixon administration, and this anxiety had nothing to do with electoral politics. It had to do with the war that the United States of America was badly losing to the little Communist nation of North Vietnam, and it had to do with the massive protest movement in this country against the Vietnam War. Since so many Nixon administration principals have shared their stories, and since so many recordings of actual White House conversations can be heard, we know exactly what Nixon and his staffers were worried about in 1972.
They were worried about internal agents for foreign enemies, Communist spies, homegrown traitors or saboteurs who had nestled into the government apparatus. After his election in 1968, President Nixon tried to run the White House and the State Department and the Pentagon as a tight ship, closely controlled from the top. But he and his top staff found the large government bureaucracy impossible to control. Nixon had total loyalty within his staff, but he could not trust anyone at the State Department or the National Security Council (not even Henry Kissinger!), nor at the Pentagon.
This problem suddenly escalated dramatically when a military staff analyst named Daniel Ellsberg infiltrated national security in 1971 to release the Pentagon Papers, a set of secret internal documents about the Vietnam War. I have written about the strong connection between the Ellsberg case and the Watergate scandal before and I consider this point so important that I am now writing about it again: the release of the Pentagon Papers provides the entire explanation for everything that happened in the Watergate affair. The White House reaction to the release of the Pentagon Papers is the key. Once you put the Watergate pieces together with Daniel Ellsberg as the first piece in the puzzle, everything else falls logically and simply into place. It’s commonplace to say that Watergate is a mystery today, but in fact the mystery has been thoroughly solved.
All we have to do is look at what happened, not in 1972 when election season began but in 1971 after the Pentagon Papers were released. Startled by the devastating realization that a “Communist spy” (in fact Ellsberg was not a Communist spy, but to Nixon’s staff he was damn close enough) could infiltrate the Pentagon, the Nixon administration became terrified that they were losing the espionage war against their sneaky global enemies. The stunned reaction at the Presidential level can be clearly seen in the recorded White House conversations that took place at the time, and in many memoirs of the Nixon administration that would follow. They weren’t talking about how to win the 1972 election; they had that sewn up. They were worried that they’d be blindsided by the next Daniel Ellsberg, and they were deeply, desperately worried about this.
Nixon and his top staff felt helpless and weak against this invisible foreign and domestic opposition. They were now convinced that they were weaker on espionage and dirty tricks than their enemies. These enemies did not include the Democratic party (which was weak and internally divided) but rather the nation’s enemies: Russia and China and Cuba and Vietnam. It also included various unknown disloyal American protest leaders and hippies and Ivy Leaguers and New York Times journalists who sympathized with Russia and China and Cuba and Vietnam, several of whom seemed to have collaborated in the illegal release of the Pentagon Papers. Nixon and his top aides were sincerely frightened.
So, these top aides responded to the release of the Pentagon Papers by making the original mistake that would eventually lead to the Watergate scandal. A unit that nicknamed itself “The Plumbers” was formed in the summer of 1971 to develop a capacity to carry out secret illegal operations on behalf of the White House. The group was led by two highly self-important but foolish gung-ho pro-Americans with espionage experience: E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy.
Here is the vital point to understand: this secret team was specifically designed to operate illegally. They didn’t break the law to achieve particular goals; rather, demonstrating the ability to break the law without getting caught was the entire goal. The reasoning of Nixon’s top staff went like this: “we are besieged by spies who are breaking the law, and we don’t know how to fight back. We have to match strength with strength and learn how to play the same game our enemies are playing.”
Some may wonder how the White House could have trusted two shady blowhards like E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, and empowered them to act on the administration’s behalf. But it was exactly because they were shady blowhards that Hunt and Liddy were hired. They were tough guys who could brag about actual spy operations they had carried out. They looked impressively sneaky and scary. They knew how to handle microphones and suitcases and cameras and copying machines. They even styled their names like J. Edgar Hoover.
If Hunt and Liddy could carry out a few not-quite-legal operations on the White House’s behalf, then Nixon and his top aides could rest comfortably with the knowledge that they had a secret espionage team that could equal the espionage team they were sure their enemies already had. This is the kind of logic that only starts to make sense in time of war, and only starts to make a lot of sense when the war is going badly. Therefore, the primary motivation for the Watergate scandal can be found not in Richard Nixon’s personality but in the fact that we were losing the Vietnam War.
So the hapless Plumbers showed up to work at the White House after the release of the Pentagon Papers, but they had one big problem. They couldn’t think of any actual useful mission to carry out. Hilariously, unbelievably, the best idea they came up with was to break into the private office of Daniel Ellsberg’s pyschiatrist in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles to see what embarrassing information they could find.
E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy pulled off this operation successfully in September 1971, though they found no information they could use against Ellsberg. Hunt and Liddy then used the same burglary team and the same weird techniques in the summer of 1972 to burglarize the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate Office Building. The Watergate burglary had no clearer purpose than the earlier burglary of the psychiatrist’s office. Both operations were practice drills, proofs of concept. The Plumbers had to do something to prove their usefulness, and that’s why Watergate happened.
“There is no simple answer” says John Dean in 2014 in one of several enjoyable TV specials commemorating the anniversary of Nixon’s resignation. Why would a smart guy like John Dean satisfy himself with this trite and incorrect formulation? There is a simple answer: the motivation for the Watergate break-in was the Nixon administration’s fear that it could not compete with the espionage capabilities of its enemies. The cover-up that followed was also seen by Nixon as a battle against hidden enemies within the media establishment, and thus the cover-up was also motivated by fear.
This can be clearly seen in the quote at the top of this page, which I screen-grabbed from another 40th anniversary TV show called Nixon by Nixon: In His Own Words:
We’re up against an enemy, a conspiracy. They’re using any means. We are going to use any means. Is that clear? – Richard Nixon
There’s your smoking gun. The rationale for Watergate wasn’t lust for power. It wasn’t greed. It wasn’t Richard Nixon’s unique psychology. It was fear for national security, fear of fatal weakness, stoked by a terrible war that was going badly.
As I mentioned above, I’ve laid out my theory of Watergate on this blog before, and I am repeating my theory today because I think it amounts to a solid and sensible interpretation of the historical facts that are there for anyone to see. I’m frustrated that so many accounts of the Watergate scandal don’t even mention Daniel Ellsberg or the Pentagon Papers, even though it’s a plain simple fact that everything that happened in 1972 was a direct consequence of what happened in 1971. I’m disappointed our national memory of the Watergate affair so often trivializes it into a morality tale, or a psychological biography, or a mystery novel, or a slapstick comedy.
In fact, our taste for metaphor and pop psychology has clouded our understanding of the basic facts about the Watergate break-in. Sure, everything that happened from June 1972 to August 1974 was incredible and meaningful and fascinating in many different ways, and there’s no reason we shouldn’t indulge in a creative contextualization of history to explore possible interpretations. But sometimes our contextualized interpretations overwhelm our basic view of what actually happened, and I think this tendency has led to a systematic historical misunderstanding of Watergate. Mostly, we like to marvel at the quirky and clumsy persona of Richard Nixon himself, and this is where most popular analysis of the Watergate scandal begins and ends.
That’s unfortunate, because there was a wider significance to Nixon’s fall, and a broader moral to the fable. As much as we enjoy demonizing or laughing at (or, sometimes, sympathizing with) Richard Nixon for his awkward personality and his five o’clock shadow and his square 1950s mindest, the terribly bungled Watergate break-in really wasn’t the product of Richard Nixon himself. It was the work of many individuals (Bob Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, Egil Krogh, Fred LaRue, Maurice Stans, John Mitchell, Jeb Magruder, Charles Colson) with diverse personalities and motivations and backgrounds.
Strangely, they all thought it was logical to form a group called the Plumbers who would develop a White House capacity to carry out covert operations. No member of Nixon’s team objected as this group proceeded to burglarize Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office and then the DNC headquarters. It seemed to make sense to all of them.
This seems to point to the existence in 1972 of a kind of delusion that was shared between many individuals, and certainly did not exist only in the mind of Richard Nixon. In fact, the need for the White House to develop a capacity to carry out illegal espionage operations was so easy to understand that many of Nixon’s supporters responded to the Watergate arrests by urging Nixon to simply confess that his administration had ordered the operation and apologize. After all, they said, President Lyndon Johnson had done the same kinds of dirty tricks, and had also planted microphones (and indeed this was true). Many Americans believed that an apology from President Nixon for the Watergate break-in would have sufficed, and it probably would have.
But Nixon didn’t apologize in 1972, and his popular presidency was utterly destroyed. And forty years later today the Vietnam War is over, and Nixon is gone, long gone, forever gone, dead.
It seems, though, that our human capacity for shared delusion remains very much alive.