Watergate Was Worse Than You Realize

 

This is going to be another multi-part series. There’s too much to research, document, and verify to put it all in one place so I’ve decided to break it into sections. The reason I decided to write about Watergate is because Nixon was not an aberration; it’s how Republicans roll. Further proof that Trump didn’t come out of nowhere and when he’s finally gone people need to realize that Republicans will try to pull the same shit Nixon, Reagan, and every other Republican has again.

This is the first of what will be four parts:

  1. Daniel Ellsberg
  2. The Watergate Break-In
  3. The Precipice
  4. Unfinished Business

Part 1 – Daniel Ellsberg

 

The greatest scandal in American history took place almost a half century ago. I wasn’t around for it. Few who were of age could follow the twists and turns like we can today with 24/7 cable news and social media. If, like me, you’ve heard the phrase “worse than Watergate” tossed around, I’m here to tell you that that is a very high bar.

I spent a few days researching the entire saga and I was shocked at some of the lesser-known details. I didn’t truly understand the scope and magnitude of the 37th President’s lawlessness. Nixon pushed the United States to the precipice as the walls closed in. His last two years are the best template we have for when the Special Counsel releases its report, the House impeaches Trump, and the Senate does or does not convict.

First let me preface what I’m about to write with regard to Richard Milhouse Nixon by mentioning a critical component to his 1968 campaign: he ran as the “law and order” candidate. Yes, you read that right. Like any good Republican, he meant “law and order for thee, not for me.”

Rachel Maddow put together an excellent podcast called “Bagman” a few months ago. She goes into great detail about one of many constitutional crises brought on by the Nixon Administration – the resignation of Spiro Agnew. He resigned less than a year before Nixon did. It’s the most comprehensive work I’ve found on the disgraced Vice President.

As a matter of fact, there isn’t many documentaries on Agnew’s departure – a stunning scandal in its own right. I always found that to be odd. Well, now I understand why. Agnew’s boss was so dangerous, so corrupt, so out-of-control that his VP’s resignation amounted to little more than a footnote in the whole mess.

Nixon’s troubles began, in a sense, with a campaign promise he never planned on seeing through: ending the war in Vietnam. The president was too obtuse to recognize the mistake of expanding the war to Cambodia. A draft lottery – the first since WWII – had been instituted a year earlier.

It didn’t occur to Nixon how many students would have to fight for a cause they didn’t understand and wanted nothing to do with. I suppose this was because the so-called “Cold War” had little semblance to the Second World War. Whereas the United States reluctantly declared war on Hirohito and Hitler after multiple European capitals had been reduced to rubble, this conflict was a war of choice against a vague, nebulous enemy: communism.  Furthermore, the US had no business interfering in what was essentially a civil war.

Once twenty-eight national guardsmen killed four unarmed students and wounded nine others at Kent State University, American support for the war had fallen even further among the demographic that was needed to fight it. It’s about this time when Nixon became paranoid about the anti-war movement.

 

Nixon was so paranoid, in fact, that he thought somebody was “behind” the anti-war protests taking place across the country. The guy was a republican through and through – hopelessly out of touch with younger people and consumed by an insatiable appetite for power. You were either with him or against him. Much like the current occupant of the White House, Nixon detested our free press.

One of Tricky Dick’s first targets was Daniel Ellsberg (and his partner Anthony Russo).

Ellsberg was a former U.S. military analyst who made photocopies of a top-secret Pentagon study and sent copies to the New York Times. These came to be known as the Pentagon Papers. They showed that the last three administrations, dating back to John F. Kennedy, had hidden expansion of the war and misled Congress and the American people.

Nixon was irate. His administration tried to persuade the Times to stop publishing the leaks. He and Attorney General John N. Mitchell obtained a federal court injunction forcing The New York Times to cease publication after three stories. The injunction was appealed and eventually overturned by the Supreme Court in a 6-3 decision. By this time, Ellsberg had leaked more stories to the Washington Post. The stories would continue to be printed and there was nothing Nixon could do about it.

Or so it seemed.

It was around this time that Nixon had his subordinates put together a covert special investigations unit called “The Plumbers.” Think of it as the president’s secret police force – something we typically read about in authoritarian countries. They were to stop the leaks (hence the name).

The Plumbers first operation was to dig up embarrassing dirt on Ellsberg in order to discredit him, hoping to destroy his credibility. The first attempt involved breaking into his psychiatrist’s office in the dead of night.  This was approved by Nixon’s Chief domestic advisor, John Ehrlichman. They didn’t find information deemed embarrassing enough. But operations against Ellsberg didn’t end there.

Gordon Liddy, a former FBI agent who teamed up with a former CIA agent, Howard Hunt, had other ideas. Liddy bragged, in his 1980 autobiography, that there was an “Ellsberg neutralization proposal” which involved dissolving LSD in his soup during a fundraising dinner in Washington. The goal was to “have Ellsberg incoherent by the time he was to speak” and thus “make him appear a near burnt-out drug case” and “discredit him.”

The plot involved Cuban waiters. According to Liddy, when the plan was finally approved, “there was no longer enough lead time to get the Cuban waiters up from their Miami hotels and into place in the Washington Hotel where the dinner was to take place” and the plan was “put into abeyance pending another opportunity.”

This plan was approved by Nixon’s advisors! That is just astounding.

Ellsberg later claimed a Watergate prosecutor told him of a plot Liddy hatched to have 12 Cubans, who once worked for the CIA, “totally incapacitate” him when he appeared at a public rally. It’s unclear whether ‘totally incapacitate’ meant kill or drug.

Ellsberg also shared his documents with the Brookings Institute. Nixon said he didn’t care how they made it happen, he wanted the documents. Chuck Colson, Special Counsel to President Richard Nixon, came up with his own scheme to firebomb the Brookings Institute, and in the ensuing panic and confusion, someone would slip inside and take the documents. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? This plan was approved by Ehrlichman until John Dean, the guy who would eventually help bring the president down, talked him out of it.

Dean gets a lot of credit for flipping on Nixon. And rightly so. But it wasn’t until Dean believed Nixon would make him the fall guy that he turned on the president.

Nixon’s thugs – of which John Dean was one – were just getting warmed up.