This past 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: The Panels
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 5th floor, 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.
I believe that the Watergate scandal left an indelible mark on my generation — the one that was passing through junior high and high school at the time, and had its youthful idealism and naïveté about government exploded earlier than I think the previous generation’s had. As a middle school history teacher, I’ve endeavored to explain to my students just how disillusioning that entire period was. I put together a video summarizing the events. You can watch it at
Very little is ever said about the events leading up to and discovery of the elaborate taping system. Only a handful of people knew about until my Watergate team brought it out in our investigation on Friday the 13th of July, 1973.
During the preceding first six months of the Ervin Committee work no one thought to ask about the possible existence of tape recordings that gave us the whole truth, first hand, word for word, no speculation. Even at my scheduled interview, the Staff Investigator spent the first three hours questioning.
Our standard procedure and order of questioning was first, the staff investigator, second, the Minority Counsel and last and Majority Counsel I would cover all points not fully inquired about. The Staff Investigator, Scott Armstrong led off questioning Alexander Butterfield. He never touched on the subject. Don Sanders, my Asst. Minority Counsel and I had reason to inquire because of two prior revelations in our and the staff’s investigation that pointed to the possibility. Don and I had discussed the subject. We had logic and reason in advance to make an appropriate inquiry to bring out evidence of taping. We suspecting a single taping device in the Oval Office.
Time Magazine reported the taping discover came about by a “throwaway question.” Dead wrong.
Two things led Don and me to the startling revelation, late one Friday afternoon. It was the only significant bit of investigation that was never leaked to the media for three days over the weekend. On Monday morning, the Press knew “something was up” as we had changed the order of witnesses. They rushed me that morning in the hallway on my way to the Caucus Room. I said good morning. I believe it was Connie Chung who said, “Boyce, you look like you know something. What is going on?” I replied, “When I said ‘good morning’ I told you all I know.” An hour later the revelation of an elaborate locator/taping system was told. A year later, for the first and only time, the President of the United States resigned.
I will be glad to tell the whole story to anyone interested in the truth. My friend and co-counsel, Don, died several years ago. I will be 80 come this July 13, 2012. I am glad I lasted to tell the whole story, firsthand. It was a small contribution that had a big finish.
Eugene Boyce, Asst. Majority Counsel to Ervin Committee, 1973.
Time for another one of those 2-D typologies of presidents: Knowing about the truth and caring about the truth.
Easiest to start with Dubya Bush. He didn’t know or care about the truth.
In contrast, Reagan didn’t know the truth, but he cared about what he thought it was.
Nixon knew the truth, but he didn’t care about it (and just believed he could “fix it”).
What about presidents who knew and cared about the truth? I’m afraid I think that includes one-termers widely regarded as failures: Poppy Bush, Carter, and Ford. I feel that Ike may have been the last two-termer in this category…
Yes, I skipped over LBJ and Clinton… I think they both knew the truth, but they went back and forth on caring about it.
I believe Obama is also in the knows and cares category–and he may be about to become a one-term president partly for that reason. In contrast, it seems quite obvious that Romney is in Nixon’s box. With a strongly neo-GOP Congress and unlimited money thanks to Citizens United, I see little room for hope. For the future of democracy in America, Obama would have to campaign against the ENTIRE neo-GOP Congress–and beat it badly.
There will be change. Good or bad is the question, but money is NOT the answer.