Watergate 40 Years On: Where’s the Smoke, and Where’s the Gun?
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Forty years after Watergate, as the agreed demonology of that drama begins to unravel and the chief authors of it, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, struggle to keep the conventional wisdom about it intact as an article of righteous liberal faith, a factual review is timely.
When Richard Nixon was inaugurated president in 1969, the United States had 550,000 draftees in Indochina with no plausible explanation or constitutionally legitimate reason for them to be there and 200 to 400 of them were coming back every week in body bags. President Lyndon Johnson had offered Ho Chi Minh deferred victory in his Manila proposal of October 1966: withdrawal of all foreign forces from South Vietnam. Ho could have taken the offer and returned six months after the Americans had left, saved his countrymen at least 500,000 combat dead, and lived to see a communist Saigon. He chose to not even give LBJ a decent interval for defeat and insisted on militarily humiliating the United States.
In January 1969, there were no U.S. relations with China, no arms control talks in progress with the U.S.S.R., no peace process in the Middle East, there were race or anti-war riots almost every week all over the United States, and the country had been shaken by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy (both in their early 40s). LBJ could not go anywhere in the country without demonstrations, as students occupied universities and the whole country was in tumult.
Four years later, Nixon had withdrawn from Vietnam, preserving a non-communist South Vietnam, which had defeated the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong in April 1972 with no American ground support, though heavy air support. He had negotiated and signed the greatest arms control agreement in world history with the Soviet Union, founded the Environmental Protection Agency, ended school segregation and avoided the court-ordered, Democratic Party-approved nightmare of busing children all around metropolitan areas for racial balance, and there were no riots, demonstrations, assassinations or university occupations. He started the Middle East peace process, reduced the crime rate and ended conscription.
For all of these reasons, he was re-elected by the greatest plurality in American history, 18 million votes, and a percentage of the vote (60.7) equaled only by Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936. His term was rivaled only by Lincoln’s and FDR’s first and third terms as the most successful in U.S. history.
He sent the Vietnam peace accord to the Senate for ratification, though he did not have to, to secure a congressional moral commitment to deter anticipated North Vietnamese violations with a resumption of bombing of the North and the Ho Chi Minh Trail. But the Democratic congressional majorities cut off all aid to South Vietnam and assured the loss of the war their party had plunged the country into, and that Nixon had largely salvaged. They knowingly doomed Indochina to communist rule, including, as was partly predictable, the millions of dead in the Cambodian Killing Fields, the massacres in the South, and among the Vietnamese Boat People.
Nixon knew nothing in advance of the forced entry at the Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate on June 17, 1972. In the comprehensive congressional investigation that ensued, normal procedural safeguards were ignored and the president’s counsel, John Dean, in exchange for a mild reproof, testified against his client. Much evidence was adduced of minor campaign harassments and funding improprieties, but there was no suggestion that Nixon had any knowledge of these or that they were especially unusual by U.S. electioneering standards.
The Democrats had effectively stolen the 1960 election for John F. Kennedy from Nixon, who won the popular vote if Alabama’s Democratic votes are accurately divided between Kennedy and the regional candidate, Senator Harry Byrd. Johnson tried to steal the 1968 election from Nixon for his vice president, Hubert Humphrey, with a fraudulent, last-minute claim of a peace breakthrough in the Paris Vietnam peace talks.
Nixon’s rights against self-incrimination were violated in the production to Congress, on the unanimous decision of the Supreme Court, of taped conversations in the president’s office and residence. While there were a number of outrageous comments and exhortations and a great deal of gratuitous coarseness and, in traditional parlance, blasphemy on the tapes, the only matter that came close to incrimination of the president was his order to hand over a million dollars to Watergate defendant Howard Hunt.
In that as in other payments to accused partisans, it is not clear, and would not have been clear in a fair proceeding, that Nixon was paying for altered evidence rather than just family and legal expenses, as he claimed. The so-called “smoking gun” that led to his resignation, was an authorization of his aides to ask the senior officials of the CIA (Richard Helms and Vernon Walters), to ask the FBI not to pursue their investigation because it might embarrass the CIA through activities in Cuba, as many of the defendants were Cubans. Helms and Walters said they would obey a presidential order and Nixon declined to give any such order. There was no smoke and it was not a gun.
But by this time the national media and congressional Democrats had whipped the country into a righteous fury and the Washington Post, and Woodward and Bernstein in particular, propagated the egregious myth that Nixon had attempted a constitutional coup d’etat. In his authorized biography, then Post editor Ben Bradlee’s notes of the time reveal that he had serious reservations about the truthfulness of the Woodward-Bernstein account, though Bradlee was happy to share in the cascade of awards that descended on the Post for its reporting of Watergate. In fact, the reporters chiefly relied on senior FBI official Mark Felt (“Deep Throat”), who was annoyed at being passed over in the succession to J. Edgar Hoover as head of the Bureau, and they mainly reported his revelations and allegations.
(When the Carter administration indicted Felt for violating the privacy of the Weather Underground, Nixon, although he suspected Felt of being Deep Throat, insisted on testifying for Felt at his trial, and when he was convicted, prevailed upon incoming president Ronald Reagan to pardon him. Nixon received no credit from Felt in his memoirs or the liberal media, then or subsequently, for his generosity.)
All was justified against Nixon on the spurious argument that he had always been a rotten apple, going back to his early election victories against Congressman Jerry Voorheis (1946), and in the Senate race in California against Mrs. Helen Gahagan Douglas (1950). He had confounded Voorheis by deliberately identifying a communist front with the Congress of Industrial Organizations in a debate; and after Mrs. Douglas accused him of voting with communist fellow traveller Vito Marcantonio in the House, he famously said that she was “pink down to her underwear.” These, and his conviction of former Soviet spy Alger Hiss for perjury, were his offences.
Richard Nixon was occasionally slightly neurotic, but he never touched a cent improperly, was physically and often morally courageous, and retired rather than put the country through an impeachment trial, as he had declined to paralyze the country by contesting the dubious 1960 election result. He was one of the country’s 10 or so most talented and successful presidents. The impeachment counts, except for the grey area of payments to defendants, were defamatory claptrap; the congressional proceedings were a partisan crucifixion; Woodward and Bernstein are self-serving myth-makers. Watergate is at the root of political gridlock and the fact that most of the commentariat are loud-mouthed idiots of the far right and left. The presidency, American public service, and the U.S. national media will not fully recover from Watergate until the lamentable affair is re-examined and Richard Nixon is judged fairly.
Conrad Black, author of “Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full,” can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This dispatch first appeared in the National Post.