20 Years Ago: The Buglary and Cover-up that Forced a President from office

June 14, 1992|By NATHAN MILLER

WASHINGTON TC — Washington. Few people now recall that one of Richard M. Nixon's first jobs was a barker for a wheel of chance at the Slippery Gulch Rodeo in Prescott, Arizona.

This seems altogether fitting because for forty years Mr. Nixon has been the consummate pitchman of American politics. Mr. Nixon's most artful piece of legerdemain is his resurrection from the political grave since the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex on the night of June 17, 1972 impelled his resignation from the presidency. Although his enemies thought he had been buried at the crossroads with a stake through his heart, he has risen once again as an elder statesman and political sage.

A key part of Nixon's strategy has been an effort to detach himself from any responsibility for Watergate. The nation's most famous unindicted co-conspirator has refused to even acknowledge any wrongdoing and regards himself as a wronged party. Thus, two decades after the event, several questions about Watergate still remain unresolved:

* Why was it deemed necessary to burglarize the offices of the DNC?

* Who actually ordered it?

* Why didn't Nixon, once the cover-up began to unravel, just admit that some of his people had, in mistaken zeal, tried to bug the DNC, apologize and then get on with the campaign?

* Why didn't he destroy the tapes of the Oval Office conversations in which the cover-up was organized -- tapes that were instrumental in forcing him from office?

In the narrowest sense, Mr. Nixon's presidency foundered on the bungled "third-rate burglary" of the DNC, but in reality he was the victim of his own character. Mr. Nixon's ambitions, his insecurities, his aloofness, his resentments, his inability to inspire popular confidence, his penchant for secrecy -- these were the things that forced him from the presidency. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus observed many centuries ago, "A man's character is his fate."

When Mr. Nixon was elected president in 1968, few men had came to the White House better prepared. Intelligent, tenacious and self-disciplined, he had a capacity for hard work and grasp of the complexity of domestic and international affairs. Moreover, he had earned the grudging respect of even his most unrelenting enemies, who had previously regarded him as devious and reckless with the truth. He was less strident, less accusatory than the wolfishly ambitious young politician of previous incarnations.

By the end of his first term in 1972, the war in Vietnam was winding down and the cities were comparatively peaceful. Most hopeful of all was the prospect of real peace throughout the world. Mr. Nixon's initiatives toward China and the Soviet Union were universally acclaimed, and he appeared certain of re-election by a landslide.

And then he tossed it all away.

In spite of all his successes, Mr. Nixon saw himself as an outsider and hid a visceral resentment toward those he believed had slighted him. He saw plots and conspiracies everywhere; in the liberal press, in the wealthy Eastern establishment that dominated the Republican party and in the top level of the Washington bureaucracy.

Out of this grew the "Enemies List," the use of the CIA, the FBI, the IRS and the White House "plumbers" to harass and strike out at opponents and critics; intimidation of the press; "dirty tricks;" and the invocation of national security and the police state to cloak criminal action.

In August 1971, John Dean III, the White House counsel, circulated a memo to the White House staff with Mr. Nixon's approval that set the tone: "How can we maximize the fact of our incumbency in dealing with persons known to be active in their opposition to our Administration?" he asked. "Stated a bit more bluntly--how can we use the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies?"

*

Obsessed by the steady leakage of policy initiatives to the press, Mr. Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry A. Kissinger, ordered wiretaps on the telephones of National Security Council staffers, White House aides and journalists. The publication in 1971 by the New York Times of the Pentagon Papers, a highly classified history of the American involvement in Vietnam, was the last straw. John Ehrlichman, a presidential assistant, organized a special investigative unit -- the "plumbers" -- to plug the leaks. On the recommendation of Charles Colson, he hired G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt to supervise the operation.

If a computer search had been made for the two most absurdly dangerous men in Washington, it would have come up with Mr. Liddy and Mr. Hunt. Both had histories of flamboyance -- and trouble.

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