Watergate: A New History
by garrett m. graff
simon & schuster, 832 pages, $35
The Watergate scandal began in 1972 with a burglary of the Democratic Party’s headquarters and ended with the resignation of Richard Nixon two years later. Almost as soon as Nixon had left Washington, the politicians, lawyers, and journalists who had rallied to oust him began recording for posterity an account of why their actions had embodied, not subverted, American democracy. Their account has prevailed. In the half century since, there have been skeptical retellings of this complex story, some of them well documented, some of them big sellers. Historians have tended to dismiss them as crankery. Veteran journalist Garrett Graff calls the measures that removed Nixon from office “a success story of how government worked in a moment of grave crisis.” But he doesn’t really believe it. If he did, there would have been little reason for him to write the first major history of the scandal since Stanley Kutler’s The Wars of Watergate (1990), and still less reason for us to read it.
Looking at the dozens of White House aides shamed and jailed for their pilfering and dissembling, however, Graff reveals doubts about the official story: “Labeling it all a ‘criminal conspiracy’ implies a level of forethought, planning, and precise execution that isn’t actually evident at any stage of the debacle. Instead, the key players slipped, fumbled, and stumbled their way from the White House to prison, often without ever seeming to make a conscious decision to join the cover-up.”
Nixon abused his power. Hundreds of well-trained minds, working in newsrooms and legal chambers across the country, established that beyond any shadow of doubt. But whether he was especially corrupt by the standards of American politics, whether he was more corrupt than the people who drove him out of town in disgrace, whether his corruption was sufficient to justify wresting from the American people their right to choose their president, whether corruption was even the reason the presidency was taken from him—these are questions that have grown more troubling as the years have passed.
Nixon was formidably intelligent, with an honorable war record and an obsession with politics. He had a strange combination of ruthlessness and naivete. The latter quality, as much as the former, would be his undoing.
As a congressional candidate in 1946, Nixon bloodied his popular Democratic opponent, Jerry Voorhis, with accusations of complacency about communism. Newly arrived in Washington, armed with files from J. Edgar Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation, he exposed the communist ties of Truman administration diplomat Alger Hiss. This triumph not only made Nixon a national celebrity. It also wrecked the equipoise of an urbane internationalist establishment that had been lifted to power and prestige through American victory in World War II. Call them “the State Department,” or “Georgetown,” or “the Ivy League”—they were unused to being made to account for their views before a know-nothing electorate.
In 1950 Nixon defeated the elegant actress Helen Gahagan Douglas in a run for the Senate, after tarring her, too, as a Moscow fellow traveler. “The Pink Lady” was the sobriquet his campaign devised for her. Two years later he came to the attention of presidential candidate Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, as a running mate who might shore up the party base. Nixon was accused (unjustly) of benefiting from an illegal campaign fund but rescued himself in the so-called “Checkers” speech, a half-hour of persuasion before what at the time was the largest television audience in the history of the world. He admitted to having received one gift: a cocker spaniel puppy that his six-year-old daughter, Tricia, had named Checkers, which he refused to give back under any circumstances. Otherwise he denied the charges, disclosed his personal finances in fine-grained and embarrassing detail, alluded to his youthful poverty, and described the “respectable Republican cloth coat” his wife Pat wore, in a city fonder of mink. Under pressure, Nixon had revealed a conception of his party radically different from that of his fellow Republicans: He intended to vie with the Democrats for the allegiance of the middle-earning American masses. Still in his thirties, he was elected vice president of the United States.
Nixon was already cast in the enormous symbolic role he would play in the American imagination ever after: a mix of anti-communism, dirty campaigns, and crafty philistinism—but also, somehow, working-class decency. More than any other national politician until Hillary Clinton, he became the model of the kind of citizen his party produced and stood for.
Americans were torn between emulation and revulsion. They narrowly rejected Nixon when he ran for president against John F. Kennedy in 1960. He attempted a comeback in 1962 in a run for California governor, but was—to the surprise of political pundits in this still largely Republican state—thrashed by the Democratic incumbent Edmund “Pat” Brown. That seemed to end his political career. “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore,” he spat at the press corps at what he promised would be his last press conference.
The mid-1960s were roiled by a war in Vietnam that the country could not win and could not exit, by civil rights laws that had brought not racial harmony but riots and urban mayhem from coast to coast, and by the welfare-state experiments of Lyndon Johnson. No one quite understood until well into the strange 1968 presidential campaign that there was a growing electoral market for Nixon’s dark patriotism. Civil rights brought the Democratic Party to an outright rupture between its urban social democratic and its Southern segregationist wings, and Nixon took the presidency by a hair, with 43 percent in a three-way race. Four years later, he had slowed the growth of the welfare state, ended the riots, and (with a pitiless bombing campaign) brought North Vietnam to the negotiating table. The United States had made China a partner in the struggle against the Soviet Union. Fortified by Democratic defectors, Nixon won his reelection bid against the anti-war senator George McGovern in an astonishing landslide: 18 million votes, still the widest margin of victory in the history of American presidential elections. In early 1973 he ended the war and his approval rating rose to 68 percent.
Then the bottom fell out of his life, his presidency, and—some would say—the American constitutional system.
A half dozen burglars had been caught breaking into the offices of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate hotel-and-office complex the previous summer. They pleaded guilty early in Nixon’s new term, and that seemed to end the matter. The public was at first unfazed, even when the burglars turned out to have connections to the Committee to Re-elect the President. Seventy percent told pollsters that the break-ins were probably some kind of “acceptable political spying.” But journalists—particularly the columnist Jack Anderson and reporters for the Los Angeles Times—were digging. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post had found a high-level leaker who claimed that Nixon’s closest aides were covering the story up. In the newsroom this source was called “Deep Throat,” after a pornographic movie of the time.
Things fell apart very quickly in March, April, and May of 1973, though it would be another year before Nixon was legally cornered. James McCord, convicted in the burglaries, insisted that he had acted not as a common criminal but under government orders. His role was a shady one. After a career in the CIA he had been hired as a security expert by Nixon’s people. Just what his orders were would go unaddressed because the court shifted its focus to whether the White House was trying to obstruct a federal investigation. Evidence pointed in that direction. Money had been advanced to the jailed burglars’ families, whether to support them through hard times or to hush them up.
A grand jury was empaneled. John Dean, the White House counsel who had been coordinating the administration’s response to the case, turned state’s evidence. Two long-serving aides, chief of staff Bob Haldeman and Haldeman’s deputy, John Ehrlichman, resigned, leaving Nixon bereft of trustworthy advice. The Democrat-controlled Senate began hearings. The Justice Department appointed a special prosecutor, the Harvard professor Archibald Cox, who, to Nixon’s shock, announced he would investigate not just Watergate affairs but other “possible offenses.” That summer, Nixon aide Alexander Butterfield would reveal that Nixon had installed a secret tape-recording system in his office in February 1971, and that every moment of every discussion since had been captured for posterity.
It is the tapes that give the Watergate scandal its extraordinary texture. Thanks to them Nixon is not just the most notorious of American presidents but also the most intimately known. Much of our modern conception of how a presidency—any presidency—works comes from listening to Nixon react as his own presidency skidded off-course.
Graff assimilates information about Watergate that has emerged since historians last turned their minds to it. The most spectacular new fact was the unmasking in 2005 of Deep Throat, the Washington Post’s super-source. He was Mark Felt, an FBI associate director who had risen to be J. Edgar Hoover’s trusted deputy. Felt, senile by the time of his outing, had nothing further to say, but his identity alone is an important puzzle-piece. The FBI is central to the story of Nixon’s fall.
Hoover took control of the Bureau of Investigation in 1924—just a few months after the founding of the OGPU in the Soviet Union. The two organizations were not as dissimilar as Americans liked to believe. The FBI would be Hoover’s personal investigative apparat for the next half century. He was rumored to have “secret files” with dirt on Washington insiders and Hollywood celebrities. Lyndon Johnson feared and courted him, and cast the FBI’s net wide. Hoover assigned several agents to gather evidence of Martin Luther King’s adulteries, and communicated the information to King's wife. During the Nixon administration, Haldeman asked Hoover for “a rundown on the homosexuals known and suspected” in the press corps, and Hoover complied. At several junctures in its century-long history, the FBI has sown more corruption than it has rooted out.
Nixon was lured into trouble not by the FBI’s activity but by its passivity. Well aware of Johnson’s widespread use of Hoover’s agents for “black bag jobs,” or illegal break-ins, Nixon assumed he could use the agency that way himself. But Hoover was suddenly uncooperative. Possibly he had run out of energy. Possibly he understood that, within the federal bureaucracy, the balance of administrative, investigative, and above all judicial power had shifted decisively to the Democratic Party. Stymied, Nixon’s aides decided to replicate the FBI’s “services” on a DIY basis. They used irregulars loosely associated with other investigative agencies—from the CIA to the New York Police Department. These irregulars broke into the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. They broke into the office of the psychiatrist who was treating Daniel Ellsberg, the leaker of the so-called Pentagon Papers. And they broke into the Watergate.
Hoover died of a heart attack in the spring of 1972, weeks before the Watergate break-in. That solved certain administration problems but created others. When Nixon nominated interim FBI director Patrick Gray as Hoover’s permanent successor, Felt was infuriated. “It did not cross my mind,” he later wrote, “that the President would appoint an outsider to replace Hoover.” It didn’t? A secret police agency had grown up within the federal government, amassing files on 500,000 Americans. It had carried out counterintelligence operations on two thousand of them. It sought kompromat on the country’s most powerful citizens, and it showed signs of becoming a tool less of the government as a whole than of one of the parties vying for control of it. The disinheriting of Hoover’s entourage, whatever the motivation for it, was one of Nixon’s more significant achievements.
Gray was a capable executive, a Nixon loyalist, and a mostly upright man—the sort of outsider one would normally trust to reform a dysfunctional bureaucracy. But he had concealed Watergate evidence on the assurance of others that it implicated national security, and he had no inkling of the administrative war of succession that Hoover’s death had unleashed. He was even naively keeping Felt up to date on the details of the Watergate probe. Felt began approaching Woodward with compromising information about Gray, probably hoping to win himself the FBI directorship through Gray’s disgrace. It is one of the curiosities of Watergate that Felt knew Bob Woodward before the scandal broke—well enough for Woodward to have visited Felt on a number of occasions at his home.
Everything we have found out in recent decades about the press’s role in Watergate has tended to confirm what Edward Jay Epstein suggested at the time: There is not really any such thing as “investigative journalism.” At least, the process through which such stories are crafted has little to do with our familiar media-flattering mythologies. It does not begin with a journalist hunting down a source. It begins with a disgruntled member of the power structure, eager to unload on his bureaucratic rivals, looking for a journalist to serve as an unwitting accomplice. Seymour Hersh, the greatest investigative journalist of his age, who produced forty New York Times front-page Watergate investigations in just over two months in 1973, had this explanation for what was going on that year: “Nixon was being fed to the wolves by his friends and enemies.”
Perhaps it has taken fifty years to gain the necessary perspective, but Graff is the first historian to have stressed what is now surely the most curious aspect of the Watergate scandal: We still do not know many of the basic facts about the burglary that gave rise to it.
What were the burglars actually looking for? Who ordered them into the building? And who on the burglary team knew what? . . . No one was ever charged with ordering the break-in, nor has anyone ever confessed or presented conclusive evidence one direction or another about what the burglars hoped to accomplish that night.
G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt led the Watergate break-in crew. Liddy was a very good lawyer. Hunt was a sophisticated thinker and a successful novelist, who recruited the burglars among commandos he had organized for the botched Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba a decade earlier. Yet there is something almost comically adolescent about some of their plots to wrong-foot Nixon’s Democratic foes. Liddy imagined they would rent a glamorous apartment to entrap some of the hot young babes who worked for the Kennedys. He kept these plans in folders marked in big red capital letters “SENSITIVE MATERIAL.”
Much about the break-in makes no sense. If Liddy, Hunt, and McCord were bugging phones to gain an advantage in the coming election, then why did they tap the party headquarters rather than the campaign headquarters? Why did they tap the line of Spencer Oliver, a mid-level coordinator of state parties, rather than that of Larry O’Brien, his boss? Why did Liddy, Hunt, and McCord insist they were working on a CIA operation? Graff does not dismiss out of hand the allegations raised by Jim Hougan in Secret Agenda (1984), that the burglars actually were working for the CIA, or those raised by Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin in Silent Coup (1992), that White House counsel John Dean had ordered the break-in for personal reasons involving the DNC’s management of a “call-girl ring” for visiting bigwigs.
There is a tendency to look back at Watergate as a time when America somehow lost its innocence. Graff indulges this idea a bit too much. Of Nixon’s attempts to steer the Justice Department’s Watergate inquiry, he writes, “Traditionally, presidents tried hard to craft a department leadership that appeared free of routine politics. Nixon chose a different path.” This was barely a decade after John F. Kennedy had appointed his brother attorney general, in what would remain the most nepotistic act of executive branch staffing until Donald Trump arrived in the White House and established his son-in-law Jared Kushner as White House consigliere.
Nonetheless, Graff details the Nixon circle’s laxity in matters of corruption, and gives a good account of the administrative culture that produced it. Nixon’s men alluded constantly to the skullduggery of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. According to Graff, the private-investigation firm started by retired New York City cop Jack Caulfield was conceived as the Republican equivalent of the Democrat-friendly Intertel, “a storied dark-arts investigative firm . . . founded by veterans of Bobby Kennedy’s Justice Department.” LBJ had asked the FBI to tap the phones of Nixon’s fundraiser and campaign adviser Anna Chennault (Chen Xiangmei), whom he suspected of having opened a back channel to Vietnamese leaders. Henry Kissinger called for wiretaps to find those who had leaked the Pentagon Papers (which were themselves stolen from the Rand Corporation). Admiral Thomas Moorer, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, nervous about the direction of Nixon and Kissinger’s Vietnam policy, ordered a young liaison to steal top-secret papers from Kissinger at the National Security Council. (Bob Woodward had recently worked for Moorer at the Pentagon.)
This level of context is useful, partly to explain the leeway Nixon took in his spying and surveillance operations, and partly to explain why the system came crashing down on him as it did. The Nixonites believed they were victims of a double standard. Effectively, they were. But this was also a time when a lot of ordinary citizens were growing appalled at the prerogatives of the “imperial presidency.” It may be just as true to say that the Nixonites happened to be in office when the camel’s back broke, when the Washington establishment was able to rally the public behind the position that domestic spying and gross corruption had gone on for long enough.
Graff does not always do a good job of conveying the general pressure of politics. Nor is he interested in the Shakespearean chiaroscuro of Nixon’s character, out of which Garry Wills and Anthony Lukas fashioned such spellbinding books back in the twentieth century. Watergate appears as an all-consuming case, not as a malignancy easily neglected against the backdrop of an unpopular war, a historic cultural upheaval, and a hyperactive and impressively effective presidency. Watergate was competing for attention not just with the Vietnam War and the resistance to the war but also with the management of the dollar after it had been taken off the gold standard, the opening of relations with China, the American reaction to (or instigation of) a coup in Chile, and the arming of Israel against a surprise attack by all the countries of the Arab world. Watergate cut into Nixon’s sleep. He began to overdrink. He was increasingly erratic in daily interactions. “We had a lot of trouble finding Henry,” Nixon said of Kissinger before a defense briefing at the height of the Arab-Israeli war. “He was in bed with a broad.”
Graff, as many observers of Watergate have done before him, points to certain catastrophic blunders made by Nixon, in the absence of which he might have survived. The nomination of Patrick Gray as permanent FBI director required a confirmation hearing, of course, which enabled hostile senators to question Gray under oath about his management of the Watergate investigation while interim director, and thereby to peel open the administration’s entire understanding of who was involved in what. When it was revealed that John Dean had made the highly irregular request that the FBI share with him its raw interviews with suspects, Gray panicked and offered to show the very same material to any senator who wished to see it.
Then Nixon fired Archibald Cox, the first special prosecutor, who had been driving him up the wall. White House counsel Len Garment, far from a rabid partisan, said of Cox, “He seemed like a scholarly, calm objective professional, but he was in fact a fairly conventional Nixon hater.” Maybe so. He had been John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson’s solicitor general. Cox, however, was a professor. He lacked a killer instinct. His departure cleared the way for the Texan Leon Jaworski, who, however much Nixon might have preferred him to Cox as a “guy,” was an efficient, aggressive, and far more formidable courtroom warrior.
Finally, Nixon handed over transcripts of the tapes, against the advice of his aide Pat Buchanan, who urged that he burn them on the White House lawn.
It is unlikely that anything could have saved Nixon. Very early on, all the forces of Washington began to align against him—including many novel forces unleashed by the litigative revolution of the 1960s, against which no reliable defense had yet been devised. The release of the Pentagon Papers had emboldened the press, and glamorized its skepticism. As heavily criticized as Nixon was for meddling in the FBI investigation, the bureau detailed twenty-six agents to the case, and they worked efficiently to uncover Watergate from the start. Investigators benefited structurally from the composition of Washington, D.C. grand juries, then as now almost unanimously Democratic. The House Judiciary Committee legal team that pursued Nixon had more than a hundred lawyers on it. Subpoena power on the committee rested in the hands of Democrats alone. Meanwhile the special prosecutor’s office, in the words of one of its investigators, treated the Watergate cover-up as “an ordinary organized-crime case.” This was a self-interested redefinition with real juridical consequences. It allowed prosecutors to engage in the corner-cutting enabled by the newly passed Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act of 1970, assuming guilt by association and bearing down for years (groundlessly) on Nixon’s personal friends. The Internal Revenue Service audited Nixon and assessed back payments for irregularities in the way he had donated his presidential papers to the National Archives.
Probably nothing could have stopped the momentum to remove Nixon from office, once every institution in American life was arrayed against him. The confidence of his pursuers in their own righteousness rendered them tiresome at times, but ultimately invincible. “The office of President does not carry with it a license to destroy justice,” said young senator Bob Packwood (R-Ore.). “Morality is a higher force than expediency,” said Judge Gerhard Gesell. “It is not enough to say, ‘I followed orders,’” said special prosecutor Leon Jaworski, likening Watergate to the Dachau concentration camp. They came to the defense of every constitutional right in the Western tradition, save the right of Americans to be ruled by the president they had elected.
It is only now becoming possible to judge whether the game was worth the candle. Watergate introduced a new system for disciplining the country’s chief executive and a new balance of constitutional forces. For all Americans’ pride in their constitutional arrangements, it is striking that, in the nearly two and a half centuries since the writing of the Constitution, the vast majority of new democracies have opted not for the presidential-congressional system Americans invented but for the prime ministerial–parliamentary system they abandoned.
Watergate may have expressed Americans’ own thin patience, their inability to ride out, as one must in a presidential system, the balance of a dud leader’s term. They yearned, or at least elites yearned, for some equivalent of a parliamentary motion of no confidence. Impeachment had been used only once—improperly, against Andrew Johnson in the heated aftermath of the Civil War and the Lincoln assassination. Now it became a routine way of changing an administration. Democrats tried to impeach Ronald Reagan for a minor irregularity at the margins of the country’s Nicaragua policy. Republicans impeached Bill Clinton for a tryst. Democrats impeached Donald Trump twice, once for a sleazy phone call, and once for a demonstration by his supporters that turned into a riot.
We tend to overlook the fact that Nixon—for all the mistrust, resentment, and profanity captured on audiotape—ultimately cooperated with the novel demands made of him during Watergate. He did not destroy the tapes and he did not defy the Supreme Court. Administrations since have learned not to be so complaisant. Both presidents who have lately been impeached have first, in one way or another, lost political control of the levers of justice. Bill Clinton, after withdrawing two controversial attorney-general nominees under fire, was saddled with Janet Reno, who, though not hostile, was not of his political circle. Donald Trump, once his attorney general Jeff Sessions bowed to Democratic pressure and recused himself from directing any investigation that could be linked to Russia, had seen his White House penetrated by hostile investigators in a way that effectively ended his administration in its first weeks. In a well-functioning post-Nixon White House, the attorney general not only upholds justice but also assures that prosecutors and legal activists who would neutralize the president judicially can gain no foothold. That is the function Eric Holder performed for Barack Obama when the president was accused, credibly or not, of having used the IRS to audit his political enemies.
Naturally, Nixon’s enemies indulged in a retrospective moralization of Watergate. In the wake of Nixon’s resignation, and of his pardon by incoming president Gerald Ford, Nixon was cast as a representative Republican, to great effect. Democrats picked up forty-nine seats in the House in 1974. But the broader public soon concluded that Nixon’s misdeeds were better seen as those of a representative politician. This understanding was bound to work against the more political of the two political parties. The decade after Nixon’s resignation would prove to be the most conservative of the twentieth century.
Nixon himself was finished, though. The afternoon before his departure from the White House, he assembled his devastated staff and spoke from his heart. His wife Pat was there. His daughter Tricia, once a six-year-old friend to the cocker spaniel Checkers, now a twenty-seven-year-old beauty, stood weeping behind him in a yellow dress. He called to mind his Quaker mother, and how she had tended to his little brother as he died of tuberculosis at the age of seven. He invoked Theodore Roosevelt and his own love of books. He had some advice. “Always give your best. Never get discouraged. Never be petty. Always remember—others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them,” he concluded, before adding, almost as an afterthought, “and then you destroy yourself.”
Christopher Caldwell is a contributing editor at the Claremont Review of Books.