Tuesday, May 21, 2013
By MARK S. SMITH/The Associated Press
Watergate's "what ifs" are still tantalizing. What if a security guard hadn't noticed tape on a door latch outside Democratic headquarters at the Watergate office building not far from the White House?
While there’s no evidence that President Nixon, above, knew beforehand of the plot to break in to Democratic headquarters at the Watergate office building, within days he was neck-deep in a conspiracy to hide the burglars’ ties to his campaign and the White House.
1972 File Photo/The Associated Press
Photo shows the front of the Watergate office building in Washington. Forty years ago today, police arrested five men breaking into the Democratic National Committee offices.
The Associated Press
AT THE WATERGATE COMPLEX, LITTLE MARKS THE SCENE OF THE CRIME
When the Watergate complex was built in the 1960s, it was just a group of buildings on the western edge of the nation's capital. Then, 40 years ago today, police in Washington arrested five men breaking into the office of the Democratic National Committee there.
Scandals haven't been the same since.
These days, though, there's little marking the location of the 1972 crime that ultimately led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. The office building that was the site of the break-in is still in use, though tenants have changed. The adjacent hotel where the burglars stayed is currently closed. And another hotel across the street, where a lookout watched the night of the break-in with a walkie-talkie on hand, has been turned into a college dorm.
Jane Freundel Levey, the chief historian for Cultural Tourism DC, a coalition of city cultural and heritage groups, says there's talk of installing a set of historical signs in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood where the buildings sit. But for now, it's just a quiet corner of Washington.
-- The Associated Press
What if a calculating president hadn't taped his private words for posterity?
What if Richard Nixon simply had come clean about the break-in and cover-up, and apologized?
Forty years of investigation, reporting, trials, debate and historical research have yielded no simple answer to how a clumsy raid that Nixon's spokesman termed a "third-rate burglary" became a titanic constitutional struggle and led to the president's resignation.
"The shame of it all is that it didn't have to be," said Stanley Kutler, the dean of Watergate historians. "Had he been forthcoming, had he told his men, 'This is crazy, who ordered this?' ... (He) wouldn't have had this problem."
Of course, Watergate never would have happened had officials at Nixon's re-election campaign committee not responded to his ceaseless demands for dirt on the opposition by hiring E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy. The ex-CIA and ex-FBI operatives presented an outline, codenamed Operation Gemstone, that included bugging and rifling the files at Democratic National Committee headquarters.
"I was one of those who tried to throw cold water on Gordon Liddy's plans to break in, and thought I had done so," recalled former White House counsel John Dean. "But I hadn't killed the plans. It came back to haunt us."
Five burglars were caught red-handed early on the morning of June 17, 1972, when security guard Frank Wills, seeing the taped latch, summoned police.
"The insanity of it and the stupidity of it have never ceased to amaze me," said Dean, who's now 73. Hunt died in 2007. Liddy declined an interview request.
While there's no evidence Nixon knew of the burglary plot beforehand, within days he was neck-deep in a conspiracy to hide the burglars' ties to his campaign and the White House. Meeting with top aides, he readily agreed to paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in hush money and urged that the CIA intervene to block an FBI investigation.
Following the money trail eventually led investigators to the truth, and began a more than two-year legal war involving grand juries, Congress and the Supreme Court. It ended when Nixon, facing certain impeachment, resigned from office on Aug. 8, 1974.
Former Watergate prosecutor Richard Ben-Veniste says if Nixon hadn't been forced by the Supreme Court to hand over his tapes, with their "smoking gun" of self-incrimination, things might have turned out differently.
"The system worked," Ben-Veniste said. "But the system would not have worked had not the president taped himself."
Why did he do it? In his memoirs, Nixon said he wished his administration to be "the best chronicled in history." But without doubt he also wanted evidence in case someone attacked his decisions or motives.
What the system did, however, is capture him ordering Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman to get CIA Director Richard Helms to claim national security grounds in blocking the probe. "Play it tough," Nixon instructed.
The president spent months battling disclosure of conversations like that. But Kutler wonders what if instead, early on, he had adopted a different strategy and made a clean breast of things. Might America have forgiven him?
"One of the mysteries of Watergate is why didn't Richard Nixon come on television, look the camera in the eye -- he was a master of that -- and say, to us, the American people, 'Yes, I had knowledge of this'?" said Kutler, who, after Nixon's death, won a lawsuit for the release of thousands of hours of tapes.
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click image to enlarge
Former White House counsel John Dean, above, says, “The insanity of (the Watergate plot) and the stupidity of it have never ceased to amaze me."
The Associated Press