When Haldeman speaks, old lesson needs repeating

ROGER SIMON

June 14, 1992|By ROGER SIMON

It was in February of this year that H. R. Haldeman told the youth of America what Watergate was all about.

Speaking at the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace at Yorba Linda, Calif., former White House Chief of Staff Haldeman told 100 high school students: "For Pete's sake, don't believe what you read in history books [just] because of the fact that those words are printed."

It would be much better, I guess, for high school kids to believe Haldeman, who served 18 months in prison for perjury, conspiracy and obstruction of justice.

Haldeman told the kids he had been "improperly convicted," that John Sirica was a "so-called" judge, and that stories by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in the Washington Post were "grossly inaccurate" and motivated by "self-glorification."

When Haldeman was finished, he drew, according to a newspaper account, "healthy applause from the students."

I suppose I should not let this bother me. Who cares, after all, what a slug like Haldeman says?

But it bothers me nonetheless. Maybe because I can see Haldeman getting together with the other Watergate crooks, most of whom wrote books and went on the speaking circuit, and making a movie:

They will call it "R.M.N." and use it to convince people that Watergate was just a plot by the Democrats to dirty up Richard Nixon.

Which is what Haldeman believes. And would like others to believe. Especially those not born at the time of the Watergate break-in, which occurred 20 years ago this week.

So I would like to offer up my own analysis: That the aftermath of Watergate was one of democracy's finest hours, that it proved our system can survive powerful scoundrels when ordinary people take action.

But it also showed how close the bad guys came to winning and how lucky we were to save our country.

Take that adhesive tape. The tape the Watergate burglars used on June 17, 1972, to hold open the doors inside the Watergate office complex where the Democratic National Committee was headquartered.

That tape was noticed by Frank Wills, 24, an $80-a week security guard (who 10 years later would be convicted of shoplifting and get what no Watergate crook ever got: the maximum sentence).

Wills called the cops, and one of the burglars turned out to be the chief of security for the Republican National Committee and the Committee for the Re-election of the President. And he would later testify that the break-in could be linked to "the very highest levels of the White House."

It was also lucky that the break-in was considered of so little importance at first that the Washington Post assigned it to two ordinary reporters, who pursued the story with a skill and tenacity that brought credit to their entire profession.

John Sirica was another piece of luck. The son of an immigrant barber, Sirica grew up in a one-room apartment over a grocery. He was a tough young man, and the first thing he did after getting his law degree in 1926 was go to Miami and enter a boxing match.

He won a decision after 10 rounds, and the Miami Herald called him a "Great Little Mitt Artist."

Richard Nixon was later forced to agree.

And you want really to talk about luck? How about those secret tapes that Nixon made? And the vanity that kept him from destroying them because he believed nobody was more powerful than the president.

But Sirica, a lifelong Republican who had voted for Nixon, disagreed. He said the law was more powerful than the president and Nixon must give up the tapes.

The case went to the Supreme Court, a court on which Nixon had appointed three of the eight justices who would rule on him. (A ninth justice had disqualified himself.)

On July 24, 1974, the Supreme Court ruled 8-0 that no president was above the law.

And with that Nixon was doomed. The tapes were the "smoking gun," the proof that Nixon had ordered a cover-up and had lied to the nation.

"We would listen to those Watergate tapes [in court], and sometimes someone would laugh," Sirica said. "I think that often it would have been more appropriate to cry."

Now, we neither have to laugh nor cry. What we must do is remember.

The story may be 20 years old, but the lesson is as fresh as today.

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