Death Spiral

A Sorry Chapter in American Politics


Repeating myself:

Time to confess up. I have been wrong before. Saying I have been wrong before is not the same as saying I am wrong right now. Anyhow, I once got it very wrong. OK, maybe other times, as well, but very wrong this time.

It was 40 years ago. Today. Look it up on your calendar.

It was Saturday, and I was leaving my contract work in Austin, in my Dodge pickup with the radio on. The man doing the news was telling me that some men had been arrested overnight for burglary. They had been caught breaking into the Democratic Party offices at the Watergate Building in Washington, DC. The implication was obvious, even to me.

“That’s it,” I proclaimed loudly and with self-assurance, only to myself. “Now he’s gone too far. There goes the election.”

Richard Nixon was running for a second term as president, and it was looking as though his second term was going to be a lot like his first. Maybe not to some, but to me it seemed that Mr. Nixon was the person always ready to take a short cut, to tweak the rules when they became inconvenient. There was a history.

Imagine, if you will, how short-lived my glee was. There did not go the election. The debacle was to play out for another two years before the inevitable.  For nearly 26 more months America, and the rest of the world, watched in fascination as a corrupt administration crumbled under the weight of its institutional debauchery. We watched, and while we watched, two reporters for the Washington Post, dug at the facts and presented them relentlessly to the public in the face of horrific counter slashes by the President and his men.

And there’s the title:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

Only it was All the President’s Men who could not put Humpty Dumpty together again. Richard Nixon, who had built his political career on cutting corners and devious measures, was Humpty Dumpty, and for a while in 1972 it appeared that Humpty Dumpty was cruising to an easy victory over Democratic Party challenger George McGovern. A little history will show why.

About a month prior to the Watergate break-in, Democratic candidate for the nomination George Wallace was gunned down in parking lot in Maryland. That left McGovern, a seemingly feckless liberal candidate, the only remaining opposition. Prior to that, the strongest Democratic candidate had been Senator Edmond Muskie, of Maine. However, a series of apparently contrived scandals, and Muskie’s inept responses, had knocked him out of the running. When it later emerged the political chicanery of the Nixon campaign had been behind these plots, the stories being published in The Washington Post by writers Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, took on added significance.

The saga begins:

JUNE 17, 1972. Nine o’clock Saturday morning. Early for the telephone. Woodward fumbled for the receiver and snapped awake. The city editor of the Washington Post was on the line. Five men had been arrested earlier that morning in a burglary at Democratic headquarters, carrying photographic equipment and electronic gear. Could he come in?

Woodward had worked for the Post for only nine months and was always looking for a good Saturday assignment, but this didn’t sound like one. A burglary at the local Democratic headquarters was too much like most of what he had been doing— investigative pieces on unsanitary restaurants and small-time police corruption. Woodward had hoped he had broken out of that; he had just finished a series of stories on the attempted assassination of Alabama Governor George Wallace. Now, it seemed, he was back in the same old slot.

Woodward, Bob; Bernstein, Carl. All the President’s Men (Kindle Locations 140-147). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

All through the summer of 1972 and well into the second year of Richard Nixon’s second term, we watched the drama unfold on television news. In Austin, Texas, where I lived at the time, The Washington Post was not the home-town newspaper, but Bernstein and Woodward’s reporting filtered out into the evening news, and longtime Nixon critics bathed in the flow, exchanging taunts with supporters and apologists. And finally, on the ninth of August in 1974, by which time I was living in another city, the drama crashed to a close, and former President Richard Nixon boarded an Air Force helicopter, out of American political life for good.

The book recaptures those dramatic times, and I’m going to post very few comments along with some pertinent excerpts. This should capture the flavor.

The five men arrested at 2: 30 A.M. had been dressed in business suits and all had worn Playtex rubber surgical gloves. Police had seized a walkie-talkie, 40 rolls of unexposed film, two 35-millimeter cameras, lock picks, pen-size tear-gas guns, and bugging devices that apparently were capable of picking up both telephone and room conversations.

“One of the men had $ 814, one $ 800, one $ 215, one $ 234, one $ 230,” Lewis had dictated. “Most of it was in $ 100 bills, in sequence. . . . They seemed to know their way around; at least one of them must have been familiar with the layout. They had rooms on the second and third floors of the hotel. The men ate lobster in the restaurant there, all at the same table that night. One wore a suit bought in Raleigh’s. Somebody got a look at the breast pocket.”

Woodward, Bob; Bernstein, Carl. All the President’s Men (Kindle Locations 185-191). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Sturgis, an American soldier-of-fortune and the only non-Cuban among them, had been recruiting militant Cubans to demonstrate at the Democratic national convention, according to several persons. One Cuban leader told Bernstein that Sturgis and others whom he described as “former CIA types” intended to use paid provocateurs to fight anti-war demonstrators in the streets during the national political conventions.

Woodward, Bob; Bernstein, Carl. All the President’s Men (Kindle Locations 254-257). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Woodward called the Mullen public-relations firm and asked for Howard Hunt. “Howard Hunt here,” the voice said. Woodward identified himself. “Yes? What is it?” Hunt sounded impatient. Woodward asked Hunt why his name and phone number were in the address books of two of the men arrested at the Watergate.

“Good God!” Howard Hunt said. Then he quickly added, “In view that the matter is under adjudication, I have no comment,” and slammed down the phone.

Woodward, Bob; Bernstein, Carl. All the President’s Men (Kindle Locations 331-335). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Woodward called Ken W. Clawson, the deputy director of White House communications, who had been a Post reporter until the previous January. He told Clawson what was in the address books and police inventory, then asked what Hunt’s duties at the White House were. Clawson said that he would check.

An hour later, Clawson called back to say that Hunt had worked as a White House consultant on declassification of the Pentagon Papers and, more recently, on a narcotics intelligence project. Hunt had last been paid as a consultant on March 29, he said, and had not done any work for the White House since. “I’ve looked into the matter very thoroughly, and I am convinced that neither Mr. Colson nor anyone else at the White House had any knowledge of, or participation in, this deplorable incident at the Democratic National Committee,” Clawson said.

The comment was unsolicited.

Woodward, Bob; Bernstein, Carl. All the President’s Men (Kindle Locations 338-344). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Woodward had merely asked what Hunt was doing for the White House. Clawson, on his own, jumped to denial of White House involvement in the burglary. The political turnstile began to swing.

The next day, Democratic Party chairman O’Brien filed a $ 1 million civil damage suit against the Committee for the Re-election of the President. Citing the “potential involvement” of Colson in the break-in, O’Brien charged that the facts were “developing a clear line to the White House” and added: “We learned of this bugging attempt only because it was bungled. How many other attempts have there been and just who was involved? I believe we are about to witness the ultimate test of this administration that so piously committed itself to a new era of law and order just four years ago.”

Woodward, Bob; Bernstein, Carl. All the President’s Men (Kindle Locations 355-359). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

If you were like me in those days, you marveled at the likes of Attorney General John Mitchell. The Republican Party came into power in 1968 and campaigned again in 1972 on a platform of “Law and Order.” With ensuing proposals for the likes of “preventive detention” we began to wonder whose law and what order.

An attorney in Washington had said he could positively identify Frank Sturgis as one of the several men who had attacked Pentagon Papers defendant Daniel Ellsberg outside a memorial service for the late FBI director J. Edgar Hoover in May. One suspect’s address book contained a rough sketch of hotel rooms that were to be used as headquarters by Senator McGovern at the Democratic convention. An architect in Miami had said that Bernard Barker had tried to get the blueprints of the convention hall and its air-conditioning system. Hunt’s boss at the Mullen firm, Robert Bennett, had been the organizer of about 100 dummy campaign committees used to funnel millions of dollars in secret contributions to the President’s re-election campaign. McCord had been carrying an application for college press credentials for the Democratic convention when he was arrested. He had recently traveled to Miami Beach. Some of the accused burglars from Miami had been in Washington three weeks before their arrest, when the offices of some prominent Democratic lawyers in the Watergate office building were burglarized.

Woodward, Bob; Bernstein, Carl. All the President’s Men (Kindle Locations 406-414). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Pieces began to fall into place. A pattern of statements followed by denials began to emerge. It was a pattern that was to continue almost to the end.

Woodward called Ken Clawson and told him about Bernstein’s conversation with the librarian. When Clawson called back, he said he had talked with Mrs. Schleicher. “She denies that the conversation [with Bernstein] took place. She said she referred you to the press office both times.” Hunt, he said, had never received any White House assignment dealing with Senator Kennedy. “He could have been doing research on his own,” said Clawson. “You know, he wrote forty-five books.” Howard Hunt wrote spy novels.

Bernstein called the former administration official and was told, “The White House is absolutely paranoid about Kennedy.” The President, White House chief of staff H. R. Haldeman and Colson had been “obsessed” with the idea of obtaining information that could damage a Kennedy candidacy.

Bernstein and Woodward wrote a story reporting that Hunt had been investigating Kennedy while employed at the White House. The importance of the story, the reporters were thinking, was that Hunt was no ordinary consultant to the White House, but a political operative.

Woodward, Bob; Bernstein, Carl. All the President’s Men (Kindle Locations 454-462). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

The money trail began to unravel.

The Mexican checks were exactly as the Times had described them— each was drawn on a different American bank and endorsed on the reverse side with an illegible signature, directly above a typed notation: “Sr. Manuel Ogarrio D. 99-026-10.”

But there was a fifth check, for $ 25,000. It was slightly wider than the others, and was dated April 10. Bernstein copied it, as he had the other four, just as if he were drawing a facsimile. It was a cashier’s check, drawn on the First Bank and Trust Co. of Boca Raton, Florida, No. 131138, payable to the order of Kenneth H. Dahlberg. Dardis returned to the room as Bernstein finished copying. The $ 25,000 had been deposited on April 20, along with the four Mexican checks, making a total deposit of $ 114,000. Four days later, Barker had withdrawn $ 25,000. The remaining $ 89,000 had been withdrawn separately.

Woodward, Bob; Bernstein, Carl. All the President’s Men (Kindle Locations 597-603). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

The theme that ran the length of the scandal was the large amount of money involved, often in cash, untraceable. It was to be the key to the administration’s involvement at the highest level.

“Hundreds of thousands of dollars in unaccounted cash,” the GAO man said one day. “A slush fund of cash,” he said the next. “A rat’s nest behind the surface efficiency of computerized financial reporting,” the third. With each day that Woodward did not write a story, the investigator felt freer to talk to him. Fitting these remarks together with another investigator’s, Woodward was becoming convinced that the cash “slush fund” was the same “convention security money” Bernstein had heard about early in July. The fund, which totaled at least $ 100,000, included the money from Barker’s bank account obtained from cashing Dahlberg’s check, according to the investigator.

Woodward, Bob; Bernstein, Carl. All the President’s Men (Kindle Locations 699-704). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

“It’s called ‘laundering,’” Dardis began. “You set up a money chain that makes it impossible to trace the source. The Mafia does it all the time. So does Nixon, or at least that’s what this guy who’s the lawyer for Robert Allen says. This guy says Stans set up the whole thing. It was Stans’ idea. He says they were doing it elsewhere too, that Stans didn’t want any way they could trace where the money was coming from.”

Dardis said he had learned the whole story from Richard Haynes, a Texas lawyer who represented Allen. Haynes had outlined the Mexican laundry operation to Dardis this way:

Shortly before April 7, the effective date of the new campaign finance law, and the last day anonymous contributions could be legally accepted, Stans had gone on a final fund-raising swing across the Southwest. If Democrats were reluctant to contribute to the campaign of a Republican presidential candidate, Stans assured them that their anonymity could be absolutely ensured, if necessary by moving their contributions through a Mexican middleman whose bank records were not subject to subpoena by U.S. investigators. The protection would also allow CRP to receive donations from corporations, which were forbidden by campaign laws to contribute to political candidates; from business executives and labor leaders having difficulties with government regulatory agencies; and from special-interest groups and such underground sources of income as the big Las Vegas gambling casinos and mob-dominated unions. To guarantee anonymity, the “gifts,” whether checks, security notes or stock certificates, would be taken across the border to Mexico, converted to cash in Mexico City through deposit in a bank account established by a Mexican national with no known ties to the Nixon campaign, and only then sent on to Washington. The only record would be jealously guarded in Washington by Stans, kept simply to make sure the contributor would not be forgotten in his time of need.

Woodward, Bob; Bernstein, Carl. All the President’s Men (Kindle Locations 835-849). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

That’s how the story gets started. I will pass through a lot of the drama and touch on some climactic events.

In defense, the administration went on the offense. The point man was press secretary Ron Ziegler:

While they walked, Ron Ziegler was beginning his regular daily press briefing in the Executive Mansion. It began at 11: 48 A.M. After 10 minutes or so of discussion and announcements about the President’s campaign and speech schedule, a reporter asked: “Ron, has the FBI talked to Bob Haldeman about his part in allegedly managing a secret slush fund for political sabotage?” That began 30 minutes of denunciation of the Post.

ZIEGLER: “The answer to your question is no, they have not. . . . I personally feel that this is shabby journalism by the Washington Post. . . . I think this effort on the part of the Post is getting to the point, really, of absurdity. . . .

“The story and headline [“ Testimony Ties Top Nixon Aide to Secret Fund”] refers to a secret fund, a term developed exclusively, virtually exclusively, by the Washington Post, based again on hearsay and based again on information obtained from an individual that they again refuse to identify, anonymous sources. I am told [by John W. Dean III] that there is no such secret fund. . . . this story was denied, and yet they ran it as their lead story this morning, with a distorted headline that was based totally on hearsay and innuendo. . . .

“. . . it is a blatant effort at character assassination that I do not think has been witnessed in the political process in some time. . . .

“. . . I am not attacking the press at all. I have never done that in this position, but I am making some very direct observations about the Washington Post and suggesting that this is a political— and saying that this is a political effort by the Washington Post, well conceived and coordinated, to discredit this Administration and individuals in it.

“. . . Now, we have had a long run of these types of stories presented by this particular newspaper, a newspaper once referred to as a great newspaper, but I would, as I said before, suggest that the journalistic tactic being used here is shoddy and shabby and is a vicious abuse of the journalistic process.

“. . . I do not intend to in any way respond to these types of stories other than the way I have responded up to this point, and that is an unequivocal denial of the allegations put forth. . . .”

Woodward, Bob; Bernstein, Carl. All the President’s Men (Kindle Locations 3048-3067). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

The administration, taking Nixon’s lead, waged a continual war with the news media. News was often bad news for the administration, and the solution was not to fix problems, but to subvert the source. All this was old hat for Nixon:

A final “One last thing.” Glaring at the reporters, he spoke with tight lips and a fearsome scowl. “I leave you gentlemen now and you will now write it. You will interpret it. That’s your right. But as I leave you I want you to know—just think how much you’re going to be missing.” Now he brightened up, extended an open hand, and tried to smile. “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference and it will be one in which I have welcomed the opportunity to test wits with you.” Actually, he had given the press no opportunity to ask questions. Instead, he said, “I hope that what I have said today will at least make television, radio, the press . . . recognize that they have a right and a responsibility, if they’re against a candidate, give him the shaft, but also recognize if they give him the shaft put one lonely reporter on the campaign who will report what the candidate says now and then.” Finally it was over. He gave an awkward wave, attempted another smile, and stalked out.

Mary McGrory of the Washington Star called it “exit snarling.”

Ambrose, Stephen E.. Nixon, Vol. 1: The Education of a Politician, 1913-1962 (Nixon Biography) (Kindle Locations 13885-13893). Premier Digital Publishing. Kindle Edition.

That was at the conclusion of Nixon’s unsuccessful run for governor of California. From 1962 onward we all knew, or should have known, what to expect.

One of the saddest tragedies was the story of Donald Segretti:

He holds a B.S. in finance from the University of Southern California (1963) and a J.D. from UC Berkeley School of Law (1966). While at USC he became associated with Dwight L. Chapin, Tim Elbourne, Ron Ziegler, Herbert Porter and Gordon C. Strachan, all of whom joined the “Trojans for Representative Government” group.

Dwight Chapin recruited Segretti to engage in acts of sabotage and harassment against political opponents in the 1972 election. He crisscrossed the country, spreading wads of cash from Nixon campaign coffers set aside for such purposes. At the height of the scandal he remained confused at the enormity of what he was engaged in.

Segretti was, by his own account, confused, scared, angry, and without friends. Bernstein found him likable, and his situation pathetic.

“I really want to tell the whole story and get this thing over with,” Segretti said. “I don’t understand how I got in over my head. I didn’t know what it was all about. They never told me anything except my own role. I had to read the papers to find out.”


“The White House.”

Segretti was agitated about the inquiries made to his family, friends and acquaintances by the press, and by the investigators from Senator Edward Kennedy’s subcommittee.II “Kennedy is out for blood and I’m the one treading water and bleeding,” Segretti said. “Kennedy will tear me to shreds. Some people even asked my friends if I knew Arthur Bremer.”

Segretti’s eyes filled with tears. “How could anybody even ask something like that? It’s terrible. It’s horrible. I didn’t do anything to deserve that. What do people think I am? If that’s the kind of thing Kennedy gets into, that might just be the point where I say ‘Fuck the whole thing’ and get up and walk out and let them put me in jail. . . . I’ve been dragged through the mud, maligned— you’d think I was making bombs or something. I haven’t done anything illegal, or even that bad. My friends have been harassed, my parents, my girlfriends; my privacy has been invaded; my phone is tapped, it clicks all the time; people have been following me; everybody I ever telephoned has been bothered.”

Segretti’s naïveté was compelling. He traced most of his difficulties to the press. He was particularly angry with the New York Times and Newsweek for getting his phone records and badgering his family. So Meyers and Bernstein calculatedly dumped on the opposition.

Woodward, Bob; Bernstein, Carl. All the President’s Men (Kindle Locations 3362-3376). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Yes, you have that right. Donald Segretti, who made it his job to play dirty tricks on people, harass them, embarrass them—this Donald Segretti could now not understand that people were getting his phone records and badgering his family. His involvement with the Nixon administration effectively ended his future as a successful attorney. “In 2000, Segretti served as co-chair of John McCain‘s presidential campaign in Orange County.”

Arthur Bremer was the man who attempted to murder George Wallace.

How about some irony?

The same afternoon, Spiro Agnew, on ABC’s Issues and Answers, offered a different opinion: “Journalistically reprehensible,” he said of the Post’s coverage in general, and described the Haldeman account as “a contrived story constructed out of two untruths attempting to tie this to the President.”

Woodward, Bob; Bernstein, Carl. All the President’s Men (Kindle Locations 3274-3277). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Vice President Agnew was famous for attacks on liberals, and especially the liberal press:

Agnew was known for his scathing criticisms of political opponents, especially journalists and anti-war activists. Agnew would attack his adversaries with relish, hurling unusual, often alliterative epithets, some of which were coined by White House speech writers William Safire and Pat Buchanan, including “pusillanimous pussyfooters,” “nattering nabobs of negativism” (written by Safire) and “hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history.”[23] In a speech denouncing the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam, he characterized the war’s opponents as “an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.”

And Agnew was the first to go. In 1973 it became known that, as governor of Maryland, he had sold his office, often to what seemed to be the lowest bidders. In the midst of the Watergate scandal he accepted a plea bargain that include his resignation from the office of Vice President, the first such under duress.

The revelation by White House internal security chief Alexander Butterfield that President Nixon had arranged to have all discussions in the Oval Office recorded on tape hit like a bomb going off in a wedding cake. When the tapes were obtained by prosecutors and played, they revealed a side of the President that upset the staunchest of Republicans.

An early assignment was to destroy the reputation of Daniel Ellsberg, who had provided the Pentagon Papers, a secret history of the Vietnam War, to the news media in 1971. Publication of the documents in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and eventually other newspapers had sent Nixon into rants and rages, recorded on his tapes, about Ellsberg, the antiwar movement, the press, Jews, the American left, and liberals in Congress— all of whom he conflated. Though Ellsberg was already under indictment and charged with espionage, the team headed by Hunt and Liddy broke into the office of his psychiatrist, seeking information that might smear Ellsberg and undermine his credibility in the antiwar movement.

“You can’t drop it, Bob,” Nixon told Haldeman on June 29, 1971. “You can’t let the Jew steal that stuff and get away with it. You understand?”

He went on: “People don’t trust these Eastern establishment people. He’s Harvard. He’s a Jew. You know, and he’s an arrogant intellectual.”

Nixon’s anti-Semitic rages were well known to those who worked most closely with him, including some aides who were Jewish. As we reported in our 1976 book, The Final Days, he would tell his deputies, including Kissinger, that “the Jewish cabal is out to get me.” In a July 3, 1971, conversation with Haldeman, he said: “The government is full of Jews. Second, most Jews are disloyal. You know what I mean? You have a Garment [White House counsel Leonard Garment] and a Kissinger and, frankly, a Safire [presidential speechwriter William Safire], and, by God, they’re exceptions. But Bob, generally speaking, you can’t trust the bastards. They turn on you.”

Ellsberg’s leak seemed to feed his prejudice and paranoia.

In response to suspected leaks to the press about Vietnam, Kissinger had ordered FBI wiretaps in 1969 on the telephones of 17 journalists and White House aides, without court approval. Many news stories based on the purported leaks questioned progress in the American war effort, further fueling the antiwar movement. In a tape from the Oval Office on February 22, 1971, Nixon said, “In the short run, it would be so much easier, wouldn’t it, to run this war in a dictatorial way, kill all the reporters and carry on the war.”

“The press is your enemy,” Nixon explained five days later in a meeting with Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to another tape. “Enemies. Understand that? . . . Now, never act that way . . . give them a drink, you know, treat them nice, you just love it, you’re trying to be helpful. But don’t help the bastards. Ever. Because they’re trying to stick the knife right in our groin.”

Woodward, Bob; Bernstein, Carl. All the President’s Men (Kindle Locations 5744-5764). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

And shortly it was all over.

Another sad figure in this debacle was press secretary Ron Ziegler. He had to get up every day and face hostile reporters, denying what was known to be true to everybody else in the room. When the truth became unavoidable he personally apologized to Bernstein and Woodward, but not before an excruciating stretch of humiliation he endured to serve his worthless boss. Who can ever forget the scene on television news as reporters pursued the President, who instructed Ziegler to turn back, face them, provide an explanation, hold them off. Then the President of the United States gave Ziegler a little shove, a little push, as one would a recalcitrant puppy.

A few years later I ran into Ziegler when I was at the Astrodome in Houston covering a motorcycle race. I got the idea he was there in some capacity of handling publicity for the event. He was introduced in the press room, and I had my camera. I could not bring myself to take a photo. He died in 2003.

The book was the inspiration for a movie of the same name that came out two years later, starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman.


3 thoughts on “Death Spiral

  1. Pingback: Humpty Dumpty | Skeptical Analysis

  2. Pingback: Presidential | Skeptical Analysis

  3. Pingback: Snowflake-in-Chief | Skeptical Analysis

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