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John Dean: Notes on Watergate at 40

Douglas Caddy

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Contrary to Popular Belief, the Washington Post Did Not Crack the Case

Notes on Watergate at 40


June 19, 2012


On Monday, June 11, 2012,The Washington Post held an event on the 11th floor of the Watergate Office Complex (the building is currently being renovated, with a change in ownership) to mark the 40th anniversary of the break-in at the Democratic National Committee (DNC), which occupied offices on the 6th floor of the Complex in 1972, when the DNC was targeted by Gordon Liddy and Howard Hunt’s team of burglars.

The Editor of The Washington Post Live website, Mary Jordan, who regularly sponsors forums on diverse topics, thought it an appropriate occasion to note the role of the Post, and its Executive Editor Ben Bradlee (who is 91), in unraveling the Watergate scandal. So Mary invited about 450 people, built a stage on the vacant top floor, and put on a forum with three panels. The proceedings were all live streamed and recorded

The audience at the event was Washington’s political cognoscenti, both the young (some of whom were not born or were in their pre-teens at the time of the events) and the old (those who recalled well the unfolding scandal that riveted Washington beginning on June 17, 1972 with arrests inside the DNC, and continuing until President Richard Nixon’s resignation on August 9, 1974). Mary invited many people from the news media, ranging from retired print reporters to current network and cable news anchors, to journalists who now tweet or blog.

Recalling More Than Watergate

Today, the Watergate scandal is history, a symbol of the abuse of presidential power and of Richard Nixon’s sorry legacy. To refresh recollections, and provide a brief hint of what this history had entailed, the program had three panels composed of people who had been involved in the unraveling of Watergate.

“Panel One: The Investigation and Cover-up” was composed of yours truly, White House Counsel to President Nixon; Fred Thompson, Chief Minority Counsel, Senate Watergate Committee; Richard Ben-Veniste, a Watergate Special Prosecutor; and moderator Timothy Naftali, former Director of Richard Nixon’s Presidential Library and Museum.

“Panel Two: The Legacy” brought together William Cohen, a member of House Judiciary Committee’s Impeachment Inquiry; William F. Weld, Associate Minority Counsel of House Impeachment Inquiry; and Egil “Bud” Krogh, a co-director of the White House Special Investigations Unit (or The Plumbers), which was moderated by Mary Jordan.

“Panel Three: The Reporters” from The Washington Post was composed, as its title suggested, of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Charlie Rose was the moderator.

Needless to say, the three panels could have spent three weeks on each of the topics they each covered in thirty minutes, and still have only scratched the surface. Yet after the event, in talking with both people who lived it and those who knew nothing of it, I heard a repeated refrain. One message came through very clearly: People of all political persuasions and views had reached the conclusion that Nixon’s abuses of power were absolutely unacceptable. The forum had recalled that honesty is the only policy that really works in Washington, and on stage were a few of the people who had sought to uncover the truth of Watergate.

An Appropriate Tribute to Ben Bradlee

The formal events of the evening ended with a brief video tribute to Ben Bradlee, who had been the Executive Editor of The Washington Post during Watergate. That job, I now understand better than ever, was no small task at that time.

Currently, I am working on a book that draws on the recorded Nixon conversations about Watergate, most of which have never been transcribed. In fact, because it is possible today to digitize those recordings, and make marginal improvements in the very poor sound quality, I am also re-transcribing the some 400 recorded conversations that had been previously transcribed. I am focusing on about 900 conversations. To say that I know more today about what happened during Watergate than when I lived through it, is an understatement.

I appreciate the impact of Ben Bradlee’s almost daily coverage of Watergate. He had his reporters on the story from the time of the arrests at the Democratic National Committee through the cover-up trial of former Attorney General John Mitchell, former White House Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman, and former Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs John Ehrlichman in January 1975. Nixon, plotting with aides Haldeman and Chuck Colson, were determine to destroy The Washington Post, once they put Watergate behind them. That, of course, never happened.

Contrary to popular belief, The Washington Post did not crack the case, so to speak. Rather, that was done by government investigators with subpoena power, backed up by the federal courts, who kept the story in the news, day after day. However, Bradlee made Watergate a major story within the Washington Beltway, important to members of the House and Senate, to federal judges, and to federal investigators. For this reason, the story did not disappear, as Nixon and his White House colleagues believed it would, after his overwhelming reelection victory.

Had Ben Bradlee not been determined to press the Watergate story, it would have disappeared, for no other news organization was really covering it. Nixon’s abuses of the processes of government would have remained buried, and I shudder to think of the consequences. For me, Ben Bradlee has always been THE hero of Watergate, so I was delighted to see him receive another well-deserved tribute, not to mention to have the chance to visit with him at a dinner that he and wife Sally Quinn held for the panelists, after the event, at their home.

Here’s to hoping there are many more tributes for Ben. This one was certainly nicely done. I even enjoyed my moment of panic before the event.

My Panicked Excursion Before the Event

This was my first visit to the Watergate Office Complex. Panelists were asked arrive early for a briefing, because the event was being covered on camera, and thus everything was cued and timed. Not everyone arrived early, however, and with a little time to kill, I decided to go down to the 6th floor, the former location of the Democratic Party headquarters, the very scene of the crime. The location, I’d been told, was vacant, and the portraits by artist Laurie Munn of the Watergate players were on display. (Her website has but a few of the some eighty portraits she had on display.)

After admiring the collection, I returned by elevator to the 11th floor. But I had noticed, both on the 6th and 11th floors, the doors to the stairwell that had been used by the Watergate burglars to enter the DNC on June 17, 1972. Curiosity caused me to take a closer look. I recalled reading in various accounts of the reason that the burglars had turned off their Walkie-Talkies. Their doing so prevented anyone from warning them the police had been called to the scene. The reason, it has been reported, was that keeping the Walkie-Talkies on would have resulted in noise echoing through the stairwells. And sure enough, as I quickly walked down the cavernous stairs, I understood why the burglars had been concerned enough about the noise of the stairwells’ echoes to effectively shut down their only system of communication with the outside world.

Reaching the sixth floor, I took a picture of the doorway (the actual door was damaged, taken to the FBI laboratory, and replaced). It was here that I paused to think how a team of bungling burglars’ illegally opening that door had changed history, not to mention my life.

To my surprise, the door was locked. So were the corresponding doors on the 5thfloor, 7th floor, 8th floor, and 9th floor—and as I made my way back up I had an awful thought. I experienced a flash of panic, and thought to myself, “I’m locked in the stairwell of the Watergate office complex. The Watergate conspiracy nutcases who have tried to connect me to the bungled break-in forty years ago are going to have a field day if I have to use my cell phone to get out of here.” But fortunately, the door on the 11th floor, through which I’d entered, was still ajar. Thus, I returned from my excursion with my pictures, and unnoticed. My excursion had proven valuable, as I now have an even better understanding of the foolish risk the burglars had taken by breaking into the DNC from that stairwell, which amplifies even the slightest noise, something the other visitors had missed.

John Dean served as Counsel to the President of the United States from July 1970 to April 1973.

This column originally appeared in Justia‘s Verdict.

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