The Magazine

The Scandal Society

From Nixon and Clinton to Obama

Aug 26, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 47 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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Watergate as we know it actually began in the last months of the 1968 presidential election, when Nixon was in a very tight race with Hubert Humphrey, Lyndon Johnson’s vice president, and Johnson, who was eager to get talks started to end the Vietnamese conflict before his term ended, was in a race against time. Nixon was told of the talks, and vowed to support them. But he also feared that Johnson would use such an announcement as an “October surprise”​—​a game-changing stroke at the very last moment​—​and had grown more suspicious with time. Johnson “is becoming almost pathologically eager for an excuse to order a bombing halt and will accept almost any arrangement,” Nixon’s aide Bryce Harlow had warned him. Careful plans are being made “to help [Humphrey] exploit whatever happens. .  .  . [They] still think they can pull the election out with this ploy.”

A third loss in eight years would have been too much to tolerate, and when Johnson told Nixon he had been able to coax South Vietnam to the table​—​with peace talks to begin three days before the election​—​Nixon decided to act. Nixon’s friend John Mitchell called his friend Anna Chennault (the general’s widow and head of Republican Women for Nixon), who then placed a call to her friend, the brother of South Vietnam’s prime minister, telling him he would get a much better deal later, if and when Nixon won. The peace talks collapsed, Nixon won (narrowly), and Johnson raged but was unable to do much about it, as he could not expose the Nixon maneuvers without revealing at the same time how he had learned of them, which was by tapping​—​illegally​—​Mrs. Chennault’s phone. Johnson called Nixon’s act “treason,” and Senate minority leader Everett Dirksen agreed with him. Nixon, however, had a different opinion: “He had saved the country from a bad peace deal cut by a desperate president,” as Gibbs and Duffy inform us. “The country needed him. He would be a great president. He had earned this, after so many years of patient planning and serial humiliations. He would show them all.”

As it happened, the main thing he would show them was how unhinged he could be when he thought he was threatened, which seemed to be most of the time. He had barely been sworn into office when he began to fear Johnson might have proof of his actions, and might be planning to use them against him. He told his aide Bob Haldeman to investigate Johnson’s decision to stop bombing North Vietnam, which had been announced with much fanfare less than a week before the election. Haldeman told him that Johnson’s aide at the time, Leslie Gelb, had gone to the Brookings Institution and taken his documents with him. “I want that Goddamn Gelb material, and I don’t care how you get it,” Nixon insisted. When the Pentagon Papers were leaked in 1971, he brought up the Brookings plan again: “I want it implemented on a thievery basis,” he told Haldeman. “Goddamn it, get in and get those files. Blow the safe and get it.”

Nixon’s aide Charles Colson talked of a plot to firebomb Brookings and sneak operatives in with the firemen, to go through and plunder the safes. It didn’t happen, but this was the lens through which Nixon saw everything. Dangers appeared to abound. Because he feared leaks, he created the Plumbers, which led to the break-in at the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist. Because he feared he might lose the 1972 campaign, he authorized rogue units to act under CREEP (the Committee to Re-Elect the President), which led to the antics of Donald Segretti, the many and various fundraising scandals, and, finally, the break-in at the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate complex, which gave all the scandals their name. Whatever Nixon knew of the break-in, he knew of the cover-up on June 23, 1972, when he ordered the CIA to keep the FBI out of the picture, and committed the crime of obstruction of justice. Nixon won by a landslide, but his complex web of schemes had already begun to unravel. It was two years and two months to the end.

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