Remember Watergate?Fact & Fiction
Mr. Shenkman is the editor of HNN.
That was the scandal which brought Richard Nixon down after it was disclosed that he or his minions, among other things: spied on Edward Kennedy, played a dirty trick on Edmund Muskie, broke into the Democrat's national headquarters, planned to break into McGovern headquarters, compiled an enemies list, ordered the IRS to audit political opponents, arranged for illegal wiretaps, faked diplomatic cables to implicate John Kennedy in the assassination of South Vietnam's Ngo Dinh Diem, offered clemency to keep some witnesses quiet, paid other witnesses hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep them quiet, destroyed evidence, plotted the fire bombing of the Brookings Institution, and schemed to kidnap leading student radicals so they wouldn't disrupt the Republican National Convention in 1972.
That, anyway, is Watergate as most Americans-and historians-remember it. That is not, however, how many right-wingers do.
In what seems like a surreal continuation of the original Nixon cover-up, intellectuals on the right have been arguing in a shelf-full of recently published books that Watergate was really little more than the third-rate burglary Press Secretary Ron Ziegler initially said it was. Whatever oath-breaking offenses Nixon may have committed-and some right-wingers aren't willing to concede he committed any-they argue vehemently that his crimes were relatively minor.
In their Rip Van Winkle history-written as if the writers went to sleep before any of the charges against Nixon were proven true-Nixon has become the aggrieved apostle of right-wing resentments, the good president driven out of office by bad liberals before he could complete his conservative reforms of the federal government. Conservatives, to be sure, still haven't forgiven the SALT-treaty-signing, Mao-meeting, Taiwan-selling out president known for détente. But in the interest of undermining Bill Clinton they have begun advancing a revisionist account of Watergate to try to demonstrate that Monicagate (as they frequently refer to the Clinton scandal) was, by comparison, far far worse.
Shockingly, bad as their tendentious history is, it's finding a large and appreciative audience.
Nearly twenty-five years after Woodward and Bernstein's All the President's Men became a New York Times Best Seller, Ann Coulter hit the list last fall with High Crimes and Misdemeanors: The Case Against Bill Clinton.
Coulter, one of the articulate young conservative lawyers who can be seen regularly on the television talk-show circuit, provides the most egregiously apologetic account of the Nixon presidency since Victor Lasky's It Didn't Start with Watergate.
I could summarize her views, but perhaps it is best to let her speak for herself. Readers might think I was making this all up:
"Invoking a single, somewhat legitimate privilege once, telling one lie to the public, allowing one part of an investigation to be delayed for two weeks-this was how Nixon engaged in 'conduct that might adversely affect the system of government' and committed 'offenses that subverted the system of government.'"
Yes, that is what Ann Coulter believes led to the second impeachment inquiry in our history and the first forced resignation of a president.
Let us deconstruct:
"Invoking a single, somewhat legitimate privilege once." Coulter argues that unlike Bill Clinton, who invoked numerous privileges to conceal his offenses, Nixon cited just one, executive privilege, to conceal his. This much is true (though it hardly seems exculpatory). But she goes on to insist that Nixon's use of executive privilege was limited to a single occasion, which is laughable. Nixon repeatedly and ostentatiously used executive privilege to prevent the Watergate tapes from being heard, first by challenging Archibald Cox's subpoena for 9 tapes, then Leon Jaworski's subpoena for 64 tapes, then the House Judiciary Committee's subpoena for 147 more.
Her belief that Nixon's invocation of the privilege was"somewhat legitimate" is patently specious. While the Supreme Court upheld the existence of executive privilege, as she rightly points out, the Court unanimously ruled that it could not be used to conceal criminal behavior, which was precisely what Nixon was using it for.
Apparently recognizing the weakness of her argument, she goes on to make the additional claim that Nixon"somewhat legitimately" could argue that he had a national security basis for withholding the tapes because their release could lead to the exposure of the activities of the Plumbers, the group established to plug government leaks following the publication of the Pentagon Papers. This hardly strengthens her case. If all the Plumbers had done was to point out the source of the leaks, then she might be right. But that wasn't the case. Their job was to go after the leakers, using means both legal and illegal to do so. The Plumber's illegal activities, including the infamous break-in at the office of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist, were patently offensive regardless of the motivation.
"Telling one lie to the public." Coulter maintains that Nixon's only lie was to tell the American people that a White House investigation had found that no one in the White House was involved in Watergate. Huh? This is one of the great howlers of our time. Nixon, of course, lied repeatedly. He resigned from office when supporters in the Senate grew tired of his lies. As Senator Barry Goldwater said,"We can be lied to only so many times."
"Allowing one part of an investigation to be delayed for two weeks." Once again Coulter has part of the story right. Two weeks after telling Pat Gray, the acting head of the FBI, not to follow the money found on the Watergate burglars because that would expose a secret CIA operation in Mexico, he seemingly reversed course, telling Gray to conduct a full and aggressive probe. But Nixon wasn't through covering-up. He simply had concluded he couldn't use the CIA excuse to sabotage the investigation, the CIA having refused to be drawn into the affair. Anyway, subsequently Gray himself took an active role in the cover-up, personally burning some of the most embarrassing documents found in E. Howard Hunt's White House safe. (A grateful Nixon then nominated Gray to be permanent head of the agency.)
One comes to understand why Coulter wants to minimize Nixon's crimes. It is not to right a great wrong. In fact her aim is to prove to the reader that Nixon should have been impeached. As she reasons, his removal for the lesser crimes of Watergate amply proves (in her view) that Clinton should be impeached for his supposedly far worse crimes. (She believes Clinton guilty of numerous felonies, stemming from his involvement in Whitewater, Travelgate, Filegate, though we now know that even Kenneth Starr decided no case could be made against Clinton in connection with these matters.)
Coulter is, in fact, a brilliant debater. Anyone ignorant of the facts of Watergate might be persuaded by her arguments, which she, for the most part, craftily couches in lawerly phrases, bolstering the appearance of credibility. To those familiar with the record, however, her account is ludicrous. She even claims that Nixon never succeeded in politicizing the IRS. The facts? At his direction the agency set up a new bureaucracy, the Special Services Staff, to open investigations into the tax records of thousands of Americans whose only crime was that they disapproved of the administration of Richard Milhous Nixon.
Bad as Coulter's history is, Paul Johnson's is even worse. In his recent best seller, A History of the American People, Johnson recycles the tired, two wrongs make a right, claim that Nixon was no more guilty of an impeachable crime than FDR, JFK or LBJ, each of whom also authorized illegal wiretaps and bugs. This is the same argument Nixon apologists made twenty-five years ago; it is no more convincing today than it was then. But by selectively focusing on wiretaps and bugs Johnson is able to avoid the inconvenience of confronting the long list of Nixon's other offenses.
Johnson apparently has never met a felonious Republican he didn't immediately embrace. In an earlier book, his best selling Modern Times, he even defended Spiro Agnew's acceptance of cash bribes while vice president. LBJ, Johnson insisted, did the same. I can remember at the time this book came out being shocked by his account and so turned to the endnotes to discover his source. It was Robert Caro, the celebrated LBJ biographer. I then checked Caro. Caro never says a word about LBJ receiving bribes while vice president.
Paul Johnson is now known to be careless with facts. His History of the American People, according to the New York Times, is replete with errors. In an interview for the paper's magazine Johnson acknowledged the errors and said he'd correct them as soon as his critics pointed them out. He left the writer of the piece under the impression that it was the critics' responsibility, not his, to vet the book.
His most serious factual mistake in the Watergate chapter is the statement that Nixon did not know in advance about the plan to break into Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office. This was indeed what Nixon claimed, with John Ehrlichman as a supporting witness. But we now know that Egil Krogh, who was in charge of the Plumbers, told John Dean that the break-in was Nixon's idea. (Krogh subsequently pleaded guilty to violating the psychiatrist's civil rights; he admitted to Leon Jaworski that the operation was not undertaken to protect national security, as was claimed when the break-in first became known.) Nixon himself always worried that one of the Watergate tapes would confirm that he had prior knowledge of the break-in. In his memoirs he wrote,"I do not believe I was told about the break-in." With Nixon, a half-hearted claim of innocence was almost always compelling evidence of guilt.
Johnson does not believe that Nixon should have been impeached and admits to this day that he and other Europeans (Johnson himself is British) never understood what the fuss was about. His explanation is that Nixon was simply the victim of an old fashioned American witch hunt led by a publicity-seeking judge, John Sirica, and a wise-cracking operator, Sam Ervin. So much for the heroes of Watergate.
Bill Bennett, the former Secretary of Education, whose brother defended Bill Clinton in the Paula Jones case, readily admits in his new book, The Death of Outrage, that Nixon was guilty of impeachable crimes in Watergate. (Bennett formerly was a Democrat; this perhaps explains his willingness to face the past more straightforwardly than his new Republican friends. He, unlike they, wasn't compelled to defend Nixon during Watergate.)
But Bennett too distorts history. At the end of his book he includes a list of the similar arguments used by Nixon and Clinton to show (he thinks) how similar their scandals are. It is an old rhetorical trick and some readers may find it suggestive. After all there is an eerie similarity to Nixon's use of executive privilege and Clinton's. Both, for instance, abused the privilege to cover up their offenses. But the implication that the two scandals were similar is startlingly anti-historical. While the cover-ups struck similar notes (as might be expected), the underlying offenses that prompted the presidents to resort to cover-ups were decidedly different. Nixon was covering up abuses of power, Clinton, adolescent sex.
And then there is Robert Bork's account, to be found in his recent screed, Slouching Towards Gomorrah. I was anxious to see how Bork treated Watergate for he actually played a bit part in it during the infamous Saturday Night Massacre. When Elliot Richardson and William Ruckelshaus refused Nixon's demand to fire Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, Bork, then solicitor general, agreed to do the dirty deed.
Perhaps because he was there Bork, in the few places where he mentions Watergate, declines to mythologize it. But like his fellow conservatives he simply can't help feeling that the affair was overblown. In a blast at the National History Standards, he cited as evidence of bias the recommendation that"Fifth graders receive [in Bork's phrasing] a thorough indoctrination in Watergate."
And what exactly does he mean by bias? Bork tells us it is the belief that America is ... bad. In other words, teaching students about a president who was forced out of office for committing impeachable crimes is evidence that the country is bad. Most people take the opposite view: that Watergate showed the system worked.
R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr., the publisher of the American Spectator (the magazine which published the first reference to Paula Jones) and Gary Aldrich, the former FBI agent who claimed that Clinton used cocaine, do not directly concern themselves with Watergate in two of their recent books. But Tyrrell in the Boy Clinton and Aldrich in Unlimited Access cannot resist bringing it up. Both score well-placed blows. Tyrrell, with some justice, says that Clinton is a better liar than Nixon ever was. (True.) Aldrich, with equal justice, notes the irony that Hillary Rodham worked on the same Judiciary Committee to impeach Nixon that is now considering impeaching her husband. (True, too.)
Fair enough. But in their eagerness to defame Bill Clinton, a task Bill Clinton himself has made astonishingly easy, they mistakenly reduce Watergate to a handy debater's point.
The misuse of history is an old story. Movie makers, politicians, patriotic societies-all from time to time have been caught falsifying history in an attempt to advance their own agendas. Rarely, however, have the falsifiers been as brazen as the latest crop. They act as if no one has access to the facts when the facts are easily available to anyone with a library card or a computer mouse.
This is an odd time for these misguided accounts to be circulating. For we have recently had evidence that Nixon was even more of a scoundrel than we thought he was. Thanks to historian Stanley Kutler, who painstakingly went through hundreds of hours of Watergate tapes, we now know that Nixon set a minimum price of $250,000 on the sale of ambassadorships, personally thanked a businessman for raising hundreds of thousands of dollars from supporters of the right-wing junta that took over Greece (money which went to pay off the Watergate burglars), and once began a meeting by saying,"Well, what dirty things should I know about today?"
This is the real Richard Nixon. It is worth remembering that. Whatever may be said in his favor he deserved what happened to him. As he told David Frost, he gave his enemies a sword and they drove it in.
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