questions remain – Insights Magazine
Watergate: A New History. Garrett Graff, Avid Reader Press
In 1972, Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign slogan was “Now More Than Ever”, implying that Nixon’s experience and wisdom were vital to the United States at a time of upheaval. Looking back, we could now apply the catchphrase to what we know of his “dirty tricks.” His rise to the presidency meant only an escalation of morally questionable and downright illegal tactics for victory. tricky-dick? Now more than ever.
The Watergate story – Nixon’s White House approval of a burglary at the Democratic headquarters in the Watergate office complex in Washington, and a subsequent cover-up by the President himself – is perhaps the 20th century political moral tale, a real-life Shakespearean drama, and remains riveting – now, more than ever. (I admit to being a little obsessed with Watergate.) Especially since new information about the scandal has come to light in recent years. And on the 50th anniversary of the heist, Garrett Graff uses this new information in his new full story. Yet we still don’t know why the Watergate complex was robbed – more than once.
We know that Nixon’s 1972 re-election campaign only compounded the irregularities and illegalities that Nixon had used throughout his career. We know, recently confirmed, that he was guilty of treason for trying to sabotage the Vietnam peace talks led by Lyndon Johnson, in order to diminish the chances of Johnson’s vice president, Hubert Humphrey, and to favor the chances of Nixon in the ’68 campaign. Then there was the breaking of the Pentagon Papers, the wiretapping, the illegal bombings of Cambodia and a “bit” of tax evasion. (Graff reminds us that Nixon’s famous line “I’m not a crook” is about his finances, and has nothing to do with the Watergate break-in and cover-up.)
It’s easy to forget how popular the political supervillain was in the early 70s. He won the 1972 election by a landslide victory. On paper, as Graff says, that of Nixon should have been one of the “most consistent” presidencies: progress on OHS, social security, the environment, equal opportunities, international relations. The Democrats were floundering in June 1972 and Nixon was riding high, so the timing of the burglary was “strange”. It could be that by this time Nixon and the White House are consumed with paranoia. But it could also be that Nixon was really worried that something was coming out.
There are allegations – which Graff avoids, but which Lamar Waldron exposes in his book Watergate: The Hidden History – that Nixon, when he was Eisenhower’s vice president, had something to do with plots to assassinate Fidel Castro, which led to the Bay of Pigs debacle, and was involved in the Mafia (Waldron n is not the only one to allege this last part). Waldron concludes that Nixon wanted information from Democratic headquarters regarding what they knew about Nixon’s Bay of Pigs ties. Graff couldn’t decide what the burglars were looking for, though Nixon’s right-hand man, Bob Haldeman, was certain Nixon wanted to know what dirt the Democrats had on Nixon.
What Nixon knew about the burglary before and after remains unclear, despite the famous tapes. There is little evidence that Nixon led the break-in, but he certainly strongly advocated criminal activity. (It remains controversial to what extent this was just venting.) And there is evidence that his assistants shielded him from the details of the criminal activity. Nixon was furious about the burglary and called it “stupid” in his memoir, but, Graff asks, was it because he didn’t know, or because of the possibility of his secrets being exposed once the spoiled and discovered burglary?
There are questions about the ties between the burglars and the CIA and Cuba. It is not certain that the burglars were all on the same page. Graff offers the possibility that the heist was deliberately sabotaged by the CIA. (But then, what for?) Then there’s the infamous hole in the tapes – erased to hide what damning information? And by whom? There is the question of why Nixon did not destroy the tapes. It’s not even clear who ultimately authorized the Watergate burglary (and other burglaries). Graff’s book is hailed as a definitive history, but although it is admirably comprehensive and informative, there can be no definitive history, as the full story is unlikely to be known – not now or ever. .