Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (Woodstein for our purposes) now claim, in a Washington Post piece, that President Nixon was “far worse than we thought,” and accuse him of conducting five “wars”: against the anti-war movement, on the media, against the Democrats, on justice, and on history. In evaluating such a volcanic farrago of pent-up charges, the facts must be arrayed in three tiers: the facts of Woodstein’s activities and revelations; the facts of the Watergate case and related controversies; and the importance of Watergate in an appreciation of the Nixon record.
Woodstein were showered with the prizes and awards the media narcissistically pour on one another to deafening collective self-laudations, and became the pin-up idols of two whole generations of aggressively investigative journalists. Other media outlets were hotly pursuing and uncovering disturbing stories of campaign skulduggery, but the Washington Post, led by Woodstein, under the inspiration of editor Ben Bradlee, confected the Brobdingnagian fraud that Nixon was trying to perpetrate a virtual coup d’état by imposing an “imperial presidency” on the prostrate democracy of America.
Woodstein showed no great enterprise; they stumbled upon a senior official of the FBI angry that he had been passed over as successor to the deceased J. Edgar Hoover. Mark Felt — Deep Throat, as he became known to history — provided almost all of the Post’s investigative initiative in a squalid and envious attack on the nominated heir to Hoover, L. Patrick Gray. The reporters, who were effectively note-takers, and their editor parlayed it into an impeachment controversy, assisted by the uncharacteristic ineptitude of Nixon in dealing with what he would normally have recognized as a potentially serious problem.
(Here’s an indication of the bigotry of the Woodstein school: When Felt was charged by the Carter administration with criminal violation of the privacy of the Weather Underground, Nixon insisted on speaking in his defense at the trial even though he suspected Felt was Deep Throat, and persuaded incoming President Reagan to pardon Felt after he had been convicted — and yet neither Felt in his memoirs, nor Woodstein ever, nor the Left generally, even recognized Nixon’s generous actions. That would have been inconvenient to the demonizing narrative.)
The facts of Watergate have been wildly exaggerated. Neither in financing techniques nor in the gamesmanship with the other side was the Republican campaign of 1972 particularly unusual. And it was puritanical compared with what appears to have been the outright theft of the 1960 election for Kennedy over Nixon by Chicago’s Mayor Daley and Lyndon Johnson. And perhaps the all-time nadir in American presidential-election ethics was achieved in 1968, when Lyndon Johnson tried to salvage the election for his vice president, Hubert Humphrey, with a completely imaginary claim of a peace breakthrough in the Vietnam talks a few days before the election. LBJ announced an enhanced bombing halt and more intensive talks in which the Viet Cong and the Saigon government would be “free to participate” (i.e., Saigon declined to attend since there had been no breakthrough).
In Watergate, Nixon knew nothing of the break-in, nor had he known anything of the earlier break-in at the office of Dr. Fielding, the psychotherapist of the thief and publisher of the Pentagon papers, Daniel Ellsberg. These papers reflected badly on Kennedy and Johnson, but had nothing to do with Nixon, and his opposition to their publication was based on the notion that secret government documents should not be stolen and published when national security is involved.
The congressional treatment of Nixon was an unmitigated outrage. The president’s counsel, John Dean, a slippery weasel who was up to his eyebrows in unauthorized illegal practices, made a plea-bargain deal and then gave perjured evidence against his own client, which would have been completely inadmissible in a law court. The House Judiciary Committee was a mockery. Its counsel, John Doar, a foaming-at-the-mouth partisan on all fours with Bradlee-Woodstein, produced five counts of impeachment, of which four were farcical on a Kafkaesque scale: Articles 2 to 5 of the impeachment alleged that Nixon “endeavored” to misuse the IRS (not that he had actually done so) and had violated his oath of office and the rights of other citizens. (By this last criterion, historically guilty parties would have been numerous and distinguished, including FDR, the Kennedys, and LBJ.) Article 3 impeached him for resisting Congress’s right to 147 tapes; presto, Nixon had no right to try in court to retain tapes of private conversations.
Even that shameful court of rabid House-committee kangaroos voted down the last two counts: that Nixon had usurped Congress’s power to declare war by bombing Cambodia and that he had cheated on his tax returns and improperly charged the government for improvements to his home. (Regarding the latter count: The IRS had revoked Nixon’s tax credit for his vice-presidential papers — an arrangement similar to others that had been made by national officeholders — but refused to return the papers. This was an outright theft, and it required many years to have it undone by the courts. And Nixon eventually secured a court order requiring the government to remove from his property in California the vast eyesore of security apparatus and staff quarters that middle-level officials had installed there.)
The impeachment count worthy of consideration was the charge that Nixon had “made it his policy” and acted “directly and personally through his close subordinates . . . to delay, impede, obstruct, . . . cover up, protect, and conceal,” etc. Most of this was sanctimonious claptrap, and the so-called smoking gun consisted of his allowing subordinates to ask the director and deputy director of the CIA to ask the FBI not to investigate Watergate because it might back into national-security matters. The two officials (Richard Helms and Vernon Walters) said they would follow a presidential order but would otherwise not interfere, and Nixon declined to take it further. This was not an offense, though the idea should never have been considered.
Nixon always claimed he approved payment for normal expenses, the defendants’ families, and legal fees, not for altered testimony, and the tapes are ambiguous. He would probably have won in a fair trial, but not after prosecutors had done an elephant walk through the book of practice and rolled over most of his staff on false plea bargains with Bradlee-Woodstein shrieking from the rooftops of the nation that Nixon had cloven feet and wore horns. There is also the whole question of the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination raised by the tapes; and Nixon had had a conservative view of the national-security privilege of the president throughout his public career, and that issue remains a constitutional gray area. But a lynching was in progress and Nixon had no exercisable rights.
This raises the third assessment of Watergate: its place in the Nixon presidential record. When Nixon entered office in 1969, the country was torn by assassinations and race and anti-war riots, and President Johnson could scarcely visit any part of the country without being beset by demonstrations. Johnson had 550,000 draftees in Vietnam on a flimsy legal pretext, and 200 to 400 were returning in body bags every week. Hanoi would give no incentive at all for an American withdrawal from Vietnam. Johnson offered joint withdrawal of all foreign forces from the South in 1966. Hanoi could have taken this and returned six months after the American departure, but insisted on defeating the United States directly.
Nixon won that war. Nixon had extracted American forces, and the South Vietnamese defeated the North and Viet Cong in the great battle of April and May 1972 with no American ground support, but with heavy air assistance. Nixon sent the peace agreement to the Senate for ratification, though he did not have to constitutionally, to ensure Democratic support for a return to bombing the North Vietnamese when they violated the peace agreement.
Watergate enabled the Democrats to cut off all aid to South Vietnam and ensure American defeat in a war their party entered and had effectively lost, before Nixon salvaged a non-Communist South Vietnam while effecting a complete American withdrawal. They are complicit in the murder of millions of Indochinese, from the Killing Fields of Cambodia to the Boat People of the South China Sea.
The assassinations and the endless race and anti-war riots ended. Nixon opened relations with China, negotiated and signed the greatest arms-control agreement in world history with the USSR, began a Middle East peace process, and ended segregation (thus sparing the country the nightmare of court-ordered race-based school busing, a measure that was opposed by almost all students and parents). He ended the draft, reduced the crime rate, and founded the Environmental Protection Agency. He proposed non-coercive universal health care and welfare, tax, and campaign-finance reform. Nixon’s full term was one of the most successful in U.S. history, which is why he was re-elected by the largest plurality in the country’s history (18 million).
The Watergate affair was sleazy and discreditable, but Nixon was an unusually talented and successful president. The war on history has been conducted by his enemies. There have been indications before of Woodward’s desperation to conserve his status as a dragon-slayer, in particular his outright invention of a conversation with a comatose and heavily guarded William Casey on his hospital deathbed, confessing guilt in the spurious Iran-Contra affair. In sum, Bradlee-Woodstein bloodlessly assassinated the president, routinized the criminalization of policy and partisan differences, grievously wounded the institution of the presidency, and enjoyed and profited from doing so.
— Conrad Black is the author of “Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom,” “Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full,” and, just released, “A Matter of Principle.” He can be reached at [email protected]. From National Review.