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Tim Weiner: The Most Dangerous Man in America

The fall of Richard Nixon.

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The infamous Watergate building in DC.
Image from Flickr user Leticia Barr.

By Tim Weiner
By arrangement with TomDispatch

Richard Nixon saw himself as a great statesman, a giant for the ages, a general who could command the globe, a master of war, not merely the leader of the free world but “the world leader.” Yet he was addicted to the gutter politics that ruined him. He was–as an English earl once said of the warlord Oliver Cromwell–“a great, bad man.”

In Nixon’s first State of the Union speech, he said that he was possessed by “an indefinable spirit–the lift of a driving dream which has made America, from its beginning, the hope of the world.” He promised the American people “the best chance since World War II to enjoy a generation of uninterrupted peace.” But Richard Nixon was never at peace. A darker spirit animated him–malevolent and violent, driven by anger and an insatiable appetite for revenge. At his worst he stood on the brink of madness. He thought the world was against him. He saw enemies everywhere. His greatness became an arrogant grandeur.

By experience deeply suspicious, by instinct incurably deceptive, he was branded by an indelible epithet: Tricky Dick. No less a man than Martin Luther King Jr. saw a glimpse of the monster beneath the veneer the first time they met, when King was the rising leader of the civil rights movement. “Nixon has a genius for convincing one that he is sincere,” King wrote in 1958. “If Richard Nixon is not sincere, he is the most dangerous man in America.”

Unscrambling the Whole Omelet
That spring was a dark season for Richard Nixon. Each week brought deluges of bad news. The downpours turned to floods, and the rising torrents slowly eroded the stone wall surrounding the White House. The wars of Watergate consumed every waking moment.

Vietnam had found its successor,” Nixon wrote, underscoring every word.

Friday, April 13, 1973: The president’s legal counsel John Dean relayed inside information from federal prosecutors to the White House, and his news was dismal, befitting the day. Dean had served as a kind of human switchboard in the cover-up, conferring with every central participant. Now he was using his lawyers to winkle information out of federal investigators, even as he dangled a promise of becoming a witness for the prosecutors.

Watergate burglary overseer Howard Hunt was set to appear Monday afternoon before the Watergate grand jury; he had blackmailed the White House by threatening to reveal “seamy stories,” and he knew several. Up next was deputy director of the Committee for the Re-Election of the President Jeb Stuart Magruder, whose will to continue committing perjury was weakening. If Magruder testified truthfully, he could incriminate John Mitchell–the “Big Enchilada,” as adviser John Ehrlichman called him, the nation’s chief law enforcement officer from 1969 to 1972, and of late the president’s raiser of hush money. And if Mitchell were indicted, “that’s the ball game,” Nixon said.

Saturday, April 14: Nixon spent seven hours strategizing with key advisers H.R. Haldeman and Ehrlichman, talking until midnight. They started by speculating about what Hunt might say to the prosecutors. “Question: Is Hunt prepared to talk on other activities he engaged in?” Nixon asked. These included breaking into Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office, forging diplomatic cables implicating JFK in the assassination of South Vietnam’s president, and being paid for his silence at trial. The demands for money in exchange for silence had not ceased; Nixon, Haldeman, and Ehrlichman discussed how to smuggle more than $300,000 in cash out of the White House and into the hands of the convicted burglars.

The Watergate break-in was one problem. The greater danger was the cover-up and the peril it posed to the president if it began coming apart.

“Hunt’s testimony on hush money,” Nixon said, could lead prosecutors to the president’s doorstep. They wrestled with the implications of Magruder’s testimony. Ehrlichman composed an imaginary magazine story: “The White House’s main effort to cover up finally collapsed last week when the grand jury indicted John Mitchell and Jeb Magruder… The White House press secretary, Ron Ziegler, said the White House would have no comment.” The president moaned like a wounded man.

Magruder had just pointed a dagger close to the heart of the White House. “I’m going to plead guilty” and testify for the prosecution, he told Haldeman, who taped their telephone conversation. Magruder had implicated John Mitchell that day in an informal conversation with federal investigators. “I am in a terrible position because I committed perjury so many times” in the Watergate case and the cover-up. He couldn’t take it anymore, he said, and he had to seek absolution. Nixon, Haldeman, and Ehrlichman had arrived at a moment of truth–or falsehood. The Watergate break-in was one problem. The greater danger was the cover-up and the peril it posed to the president if it began coming apart.

“There were eight or ten people around here who knew about this,” Ehrlichman said. “Bob knew. I knew.”
Then Nixon said–as if unconscious of his rolling tapes– “Well, I knew.” He was acutely aware that he was doomed if Dean testified about the cancer on his presidency and the million-dollar cure.

Haldeman: “If Dean testifies, it’s going to unscramble the whole omelet.”

Ehrlichman: “Dean seems to think that everybody in the place is going to get indicted”–referring to himself as well as Mitchell, Haldeman, Colson, and ten more prominent presidential appointees–on charges including “paying the defendants for the purposes of keeping them, quote, on the reservation, unquote.”

Nixon: “They could try to tie you and Bob into a conspiracy to obstruct justice.”

As night fell, Dean returned from the Justice Department to deliver more startling news to the White House: that afternoon, Haldeman and Ehrlichman had become targets of the federal grand jury. Now no one could predict how far up the chain of command the criminal case could climb. Ehrlichman, who recently had started taping his own telephone conversations, called Mitchell’s successor, Attorney General Richard Kleindienst. He began by saying he had spent the day with the president and had made some phone calls on his behalf.

”John, it seems to me that you are going to have to be very careful.”

Ehrlichman: “The first one I talked to was your predecessor. Then I talked to Magruder… He has decided to come clean.”

Kleindienst: “No kidding?… Inconsistent with his testimony before the grand jury?”

Ehrlichman: “Dramatically inconsistent.”

Kleindienst: “Holy shit!”

Ehrlichman: “And he implicates everybody in all directions up and down the Committee to Re-Elect.”

Kleindienst: “Mitchell?”

Ehrlichman: “Yep, cold turkey.”

“John,” the attorney general said, giving truly gratuitous legal advice, “it seems to me that you are going to have to be very careful.”

“He Reveled in It, He Groveled in It”
The mercurial Al Haig, promoted from colonel to four-star general by Nixon, was the new Haldeman and Ehrlichman–the president’s chief of staff and palace guard. He was the only man Nixon could depend upon in his time of crisis. The Senate Watergate Hearings were set to begin in seventeen days–and the president had no counsel, no one in official command at the FBI or the Justice Department, and only Haig to trust.

Then another general–Vernon Walters, the president’s handpicked deputy director of central intelligence, a man of impeccable discretion who had worked with Nixon since 1958–delivered a set of documents to Haig. Copies would soon be in the hands of senators and Watergate investigators. These scrupulously maintained memoranda of conversations, “memcons” for short, detailed the meetings among Walters, Haldeman, and Ehrlichman during the days immediately after the Watergate break-in. They described the orders from the White House to use the CIA to turn off the FBI’s investigation with a spurious assertion of national security.

May 11th became judgment day at the White House. First Haig read the memcons. They were devastating. One passage said: “It was the President’s wish that Walters call on Acting FBI Director Gray and […] suggest that the investigation not be pushed further.”

Haig immediately called Nixon at Camp David. “It will be very embarrassing,” Nixon said. “It’ll indicate that we tried to cover up with the CIA.” In a second telephone call, the president put it more bluntly: “If you read the cold print it looks terrible… I just don’t want him to go in and say look, they called us in and tried to fix the case and we wouldn’t do it.” Nixon wrote in his memoirs: “One of the things that made the memcons so troublesome was that Walters was one of my old friends; he would not have contrived them to hurt me. In addition, his photographic memory was renowned, and he was universally respected as a scrupulous and honest man.”

Nixon had a one-word response to that: “Bullshit.”

That same morning, page-one stories described the White House wiretaps Nixon and Kissinger had placed on presidential aides and prominent reporters starting in 1969. Kissinger, who was expecting to be appointed secretary of state, brazenly denied that he had chosen the wiretap targets among his NSC staff and national security reporters; he implied he was only following orders. Nixon shouted: “Henry ordered the whole goddamn thing… He read every one of those taps… he reveled in it, he groveled it, he wallowed in it.

That same day’s newspapers reported that the federal judge presiding over the espionage trial of Daniel Ellsberg in the Pentagon Papers case had dismissed the charges on grounds of government misconduct. Belatedly, the Justice Department, as required under law, had disclosed the misconduct–a warrantless White House wiretap recording Ellsberg, and the Plumbers’ break-in at Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office.

The Pentagon Papers case was a total loss for the president: Ellsberg went free and the New York Times won a Pulitzer Prize. Nixon was embittered.

“Doesn’t the president of the United States have the responsibility to conduct an investigation with regard to leaks in the goddamn place?” Nixon argued to Haig on May 11th, regarding the wiretaps. “I got to go to the court to ask them? Screw the court.” The court begged to differ.

John Mitchell publicly denied signing the wiretap authorizations. Nixon had a one-word response to that: “Bullshit.” He was right about that. But that same afternoon, FBI agents had wrung a modicum of truth from Mitchell.

He confessed that the taps were part of “a dangerous game we were playing.” He also told them where transcripts of the wiretaps might be found in the White House safe of John Ehrlichman. The acting FBI director William Ruckelshaus recalled: “An FBI agent, sent by me to the White House to guard those records and others in Ehrlichman’s office, was badly shaken when the president of the United States seized his lapels and asked him what he was doing there.” He was upholding the law of the land–and helping to make a case against the president of the United States.

Nixon saw no alternative but to fight to keep these documents secret. “Good god, if we were going to stonewall executive privilege and a lot of other things we can sure as hell stonewall this,” he told Haig on May 12th. How they were going to stonewall the Huston Plan was another question. Nixon had endorsed every kind of government spying on Americans–opening their mail, bugging their phones, breaking into their homes and offices–until J. Edgar Hoover himself killed the program. John Dean had placed a copy of the incendiary plan in a safe-deposit box and given the key to Judge Sirica. He intended to turn the copy over to the Senate Watergate Committee.

Nixon’s constant refrain had been contempt for court rulings on wiretapping, break-ins, any aspect of “the national security thing.” Nixon insisted: “I’m going to defend the bugging. I’m going to defend the Plumbers [and] fight right through to the finish on the son of a bitch.” But when he thought about people actually reading the patently illegal Huston Plan, he changed his tune. “The bad thing is that the president approved burglaries,” Nixon said on May 17th; he could be perceived as “a repressive fascist.”

The tension at the White House was unbearable. With the Watergate hearings days away, Nixon screamed at his underlings as he schemed to save his presidency. Ziegler cautioned him to stay calm: “If we allow ourselves to be consumed by this–”

“–We’ll destroy ourselves,” the president said.

Excerpted and adapted from One Man Against the World, The Tragedy of Richard Nixon by Tim Weiner, published by Henry Holt and Company, LLC.

Tim Weiner is the author of five books. Legacy of Ashes, his history of the CIA, won the National Book Award. His journalism on secret government programs received the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. He directs the Carey Institute’s nonfiction residency program and teaches as an Anschutz Distinguished Fellow in American Studies at Princeton. This essay is adapted from his new book, One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon (Henry Holt and Company).

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