August 8th, 1974: Thirty-Seven years ago, a Troubled Man did an Honorable Thing– And How Political “Honor” has been AWOL ever since…
Euginio Martinez fumbled around in the dark.
In his pocket was a notepad, with a little key taped to the cover. It was one of those small, sheet-steel keys, with only a tooth or two, and it fit the simple lock of a secretary’s desk. The desk belonged to Ida Maxine Wells, the secretary to R. Spencer Oliver. As the Chairman of the Association of State Democratic Commitees, Mr. Oliver had an office not far from the Lincoln Memorial.
In these afteryears, it has long been reported that Mr. Martinez was supposed to retrieve from Ms. Wells desk a memo-book filled with the names of local “party girls”– that is, young ladies who (paid or not) were known to enjoy showing visiting Democrat male honchos a good time. Also, in that book was a woman who went by the code-name “Clout” (-there was a lot of shorthand and “code” used in the little book). “Clout” was so named because she had intimate connections with– well, a gentleman who enjoyed a whole heck of a lot of “clout“. Clout’s real name, by the way, was Elizabeth Kane Owen Biner.
Martinez, though, had not been invited as a friendly gesture to just saunter into Mr. Oliver’s office, and help himself to the contents of Maxie Well’s desk. In fact, he’d (along with four other gents) surreptitiously entered, and placed a piece of black electrical tape over the closing latch of the office lock. It was that electrical tape that alarmed the night watchman, who contacted the police. Mr. Martinez was arrested that night, along with his four friends. It was the night of June 17th, 1972.
President Richard Nixon, returning on June 19th to Key Biscayne, Florida after a brief holiday in Bermuda opened the New York Times, and scanning it, took note of a strange little story on page 30. It was about a break-in at the headquarters of the Democrat National Committee in the Watergate Complex in Downtown Washington. He placed a call to his Chief of Staff, H.R. Haldeman. “What’s that crazy item about the DNC, Bob?” he asked.
It was about Mr. Martinez and his cohorts.
Nixon, working up very little indignation over a “cheap political bugging” wasn’t fazed much by incident, and had little regard for those that had conducted the operation, calling them “assholes”. The fact was, Nixon had been the recipient of plenty of political black-ops and cheap intrigue during his whole public life, and saw nothing extraordinary in the weird little event. In a few days, though, he learned that funds and authorization for the operation went all the way up to his own White House, and that was when things started to unravel.
As it turned out, Mr. Martinez worked with James McCord that evening at the Watergate, along with two other Cuban exiles. All of them, including Martinez, had been hired by E. Howard Hunt– who worked for Charles Colson as a special counsel to President Nixon. At the time, Colson was charged with the task of plugging leaks to the media about sensitive National Security operations, and also in helping to find “red meat” on President Nixon’s political opponents. The guys that worked with Colson were known as “the plumbers”, for their help in plugging these “leaks”. Hunt was a “plumber”. So was G. Gordon Liddy, who actually co-ordinated the break-in at the Watergate that June 17th, from an operational base at the Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge across the street from the Watergate.
But, back to the desk of Ida Maxine Wells, and the key to that desk.
Martinez maintained that Hunt gave him the key, with instructions to retrieve the, er, Little Black Book with all the “fun” girls’ names in it. The book could be a bonanza of political knowledge, no doubt helping with opposition research, especially in 1972, when such strayings from the moral lines was seen as more of a character flaw than it is today. Also, and this was unknown to Martinez at the time, removing the Black Book also removed “Clout’s” name from the specter of possible public revelation– and huge public embarrassment connected to it.
“Clout” –Elizabeth Biner–was dating John Dean, who, at the time, was the Counsel to the President. Such bugging operations were supposed to dig up dirt on Democrats, not Republicans — in a Republican White House.
And thus began the embryonic scandal known as Watergate, which culminated with the resignation of President Richard Nixon, thirty-seven years ago this Monday.
As I say, President Nixon, in later years, referred to the operation as a “third-rate political bugging”. Actually, when viewed through the lens of nearly forty years, the whole scandal barely seems “third rate”, especially against the backdrop of politics in the second decade of the 21st century. What seems sadly evident today, is the naive, almost amateurish and cloddish attempts by the Nixon White House to seem at once grovelingly patriotic and supinely oppressed.
Bowing before the great gods of the liberal literati (who were as obnoxious then as they are today), Nixon tried hard to conceal this Inspector Gadget/Keystone Cops routine scampering about inside the White House, and in the process, gave it all the patina of seriousness it clearly did not otherwise posess. A seriousness, by the way, that should have been Nixon’s to manipulate, given that we were hip-deep in the Vietnam War, and top-secret war planning was showing up on the front page of the New York Times.
Nixon viewed his entire presidency through the lens of foreign policy, and how it affected the American effort against global communism in general, and the Vietnam war in fine. As a further complication, he knew the “Striped Pants Boys” (as Harry Truman contemptibly called the post-FDR State Department) at Foggy Bottom were stridently Kennedy-phile and reflexively Nixon-phobic. At the very least, they were still pro-Alger Hiss and anti-Nixon. Nixon knew he had an uphill battle on his hands to affect the direction of national security and the State Department.
In fact, Nixon rightly viewed the entire apparatus of the State Department with such scepticism that he re-introduced the National Security Council, a relic of the World War Two years, in an attempt to get his will implemented into actual policy. It is one of the most under-reported stories of the Nixon era that a Chief Executive had to bypass his own Executive-level departments to implement his own policy. He had to use backchannels, he had to go in the back door, he had to go covert, whatever. The Department of State was simply not his to control.
The Nixon State Department in 1972, some 16 years after the conviction of former Under-Secretary of State Alger Hiss as a communist spy, still (paradoxically) hated Richard Nixon for exposing the man, and for what the implications of that conviction for United States foreign policy and the entire post-Yalta framework of communist “containment” meant to their world-view. To this day, the State Department is grossly transnational in its institutional policy bent (rather than, say, stridently pro-American), and Richard Nixon was correct in trying to subvert or go around the worst elements of this in his own diplomatic corps. Henry Kissinger, at least in the beginning, shared this sentiment.
Remember: America was at war against the communists in southeast Asia. Nixon had empirical evidence that the State Department was less than forthcoming in its deference to world-wide communism and at times fought against the effort. Further, just like George W. Bush some 30 years later, Nixon had to contend with the institutional Nixon Haters at the State and Defense Departments, which were leaking crucial information to the media, at a time that he was concluding some highly sensitive talks with the Chinese about normalizing relations. The institutional government, much of it a holdover from both the Hiss days, and the Kennedy-Johnson days, held Richard Nixon in utmost contempt, and he knew it. He’d proved it in court.
Thus, he became a bit paranoid about whom he could trust, and who would be writing the history…
Richard Nixon had a tumultuous relationship with the press, from it’s earliest support for his opponent, uber-liberal Jerry Voorhis in Nixon’s first congressional election, to his famous “Checkers” speech, to his “Last Press Conference” after losing to Pat Brown in the California governor’s race, Nixon and the press had a mutual loathing for one another. Nixon was not photogenic, and he had a distinct lack of ability at small-talk glibness. He had a plonking manner that didn’t wear well with the backroom boys. Worse yet, Nixon knew he was hated by the press.
So, for posterity, he thought it might be smart to have a running record of his presidential conversations to refute what Nixon knew would be his eventual coal-raking by the east coast patrician J-School glitterati. Nixon thought at first about employing an actual stenographer to sit in the shadows tap-tapping away every time he spoke in the Oval Office, but dismissed the idea when it dawned on everyone that people tend not to be very candid when they know their conversations are being transcribed. Then he heard LBJ had a tape-recording system installed int he Oval Office with a voice-actuated gizmo, but it never worked properly and was abandoned.
Nixon resurrected this tape-recording system, and simply left it “on”. And it was forgotten.
Until Nixon Aide Alexander Butterfield made a passing mention of it when testifying before congress when they were investigating the Watergate break-in. He simply suggested they check the tapes to make sure of certain conversations. And the whole scope of everything happening inside the Nixon Oval Office came pouring out like a cracked rain-barrel.
Eventually, the tapes revealed that Nixon would take the advice of Colson (who got the idea from Hunt) to blame the whole break-in at the Watergate on the CIA’s quest to get more dirt on the Bay of Pigs operation, the horribly botched Kennedy plot to hatch insurrection inside Castro’s Cuba in early 1961. In fact, Howard Hunt had specifically chosen Cuban Exiles for the Watergate job in case they were caught, and the Bay of Pigs angle could be spun. Again, the whole thing, from the actual burglary to the cover-up, seemed ham-handed and silly, peopled by second-rate attorneys and assorted crack-pot Damon Runyon characters.
The most salient parts of the recorded conversations were made on June 27th, 1972, between Nixon and his Chief of Staff, which became known in popular parlance as the “Smoking Gun”:
Haldeman: Colson, yesterday, they concluded it was not the White House, but are now convinced it is a CIA thing, so the CIA turn off would…
Nixon: Well, not sure of their analysis, I’m not going to get that involved. I’m (unintelligible).
Haldeman: No, sir. We don’t want you to.
Nixon: You call them in.
Nixon: Good. Good deal! Play it tough. That’s the way they play it and that’s the way we are going to play it. Yeah, when I saw that news summary item, I of course knew it was a bunch of crap, but I thought ah, well it’s good to have them off on this wild hair thing because when they start bugging us, which they have, we’ll know our little boys will not know how to handle it. I hope they will though. You never know. Maybe, you think about it. Good!
Nixon: When you get in these people when you…get these people in, say: “Look, the problem is that this will open the whole, the whole Bay of Pigs thing, and the President just feels that” ah, without going into the details… don’t, don’t lie to them to the extent to say there is no involvement, but just say this is sort of a comedy of errors, bizarre, without getting into it, “the President believes that it is going to open the whole Bay of Pigs thing up again. And, ah because these people are plugging for, for keeps and that they should call the FBI in and say that we wish for the country, don’t go any further into this case”, period!
Which was the crux of the case. Clearly, there was a conspiracy here to obstruct justice, and Nixon knew it. “A silly thing, really”, he would recall years later, “But it was wrong, and I shouldn’t have done it”.
So, there it was: John Dean, a swingin’ hipster on the Young Washington Lawyer Scene, was dating a gal who was in a Little Black Book of Democrat “party girls”, who instructed others in the Counsel’s office to retrieve the book from Maxie Wells desk, and the burglars were caught in the attempt. And Nixon, in his zeal to uphold the integrity of the wall of confidentiality he’d painstakingly built between his White House and the perceived (and some real) enemies among the eastern Patricians, lied about his adolescent staff and their hi-jinx. Simple, and rather sad and pathetic.
And yet, all these years in hindsight, we are so often told that Watergate is the high-water mark of Presidential criminality.
Maybe– but I’m not so sure.
I was an eleven year-old kid the night Nixon resigned. We had heard rumors for several days that the President would quit, and it all seemed very important. In my own eleven year-old brain, I was rather rooting for it, because that would mean the first Michigander –Jerry Ford– would be the next president. He was from Grand Rapids, you know, and so were some of my best friends. It was almost like a member of the family was about to become President. Nixon was rather creepy anyway, and was a constant source of derision from my older brothers, who played Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s “Ohio” on what seemed a continuous loop for two years.
It was a very warm and close night in Western Michigan that night, almost muggy, if that was possible along the shores of Lake Michigan. We’d gone to watch the telecast at a friend’s cottage, because ours lacked such conveniences. The ghostly image of Richard Nixon fizzed and fazzed amongst the electrical static of a soon-to-form thunderstorm. In the President’s last prime-time address, he said:
…In the past few days, however, it has become evident to me that I no longer have a strong enough political base in the Congress to justify continuing that effort. As long as there was such a base, I felt strongly that it was necessary to see the constitutional process through to its conclusion, that to do otherwise would be unfaithful to the spirit of that deliberately difficult process and a dangerously destabilizing precedent for the future.
But with the disappearance of that base, I now believe that the constitutional purpose has been served, and there is no longer a need for the process to be prolonged.
I would have preferred to carry through to the finish whatever the personal agony it would have involved, and my family unanimously urged me to do so. But the interest of the Nation must always come before any personal considerations…
I have never been a quitter. To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct in my body. But as President, I must put the interest of America first. America needs a full-time President and a full-time Congress, particularly at this time with problems we face at home and abroad.
To continue to fight through the months ahead for my personal vindication would almost totally absorb the time and attention of both the President and the Congress in a period when our entire focus should be on the great issues of peace abroad and prosperity without inflation at home.
Therefore, I shall resign the Presidency effective at noon tomorrow. Vice President Ford will be sworn in as President at that hour in this office.
As I recall the high hopes for America with which we began this second term, I feel a great sadness that I will not be here in this office working on your behalf to achieve those hopes in the next 21/2 years. But in turning over direction of the Government to Vice President Ford, I know, as I told the Nation when I nominated him for that office 10 months ago, that the leadership of America will be in good hands.
In passing this office to the Vice President, I also do so with the profound sense of the weight of responsibility that will fall on his shoulders tomorrow and, therefore, of the understanding, the patience, the cooperation he will need from all Americans.
As he assumes that responsibility, he will deserve the help and the support of all of us. As we look to the future, the first essential is to begin healing the wounds of this Nation, to put the bitterness and divisions of the recent past behind us, and to rediscover those shared ideals that lie at the heart of our strength and unity as a great and as a free people…
I regret deeply any injuries that may have been done in the course of the events that led to this decision. I would say only that if some of my Judgments were wrong, and some were wrong, they were made in what I believed at the time to be the best interest of the Nation.
To those who have stood with me during these past difficult months, to my family, my friends, to many others who joined in supporting my cause because they believed it was right, I will be eternally grateful for your support.
And to those who have not felt able to give me your support, let me say I leave with no bitterness toward those who have opposed me, because all of us, in the final analysis, have been concerned with the good of the country, however our judgments might differ.
It was a blooming corker at Lake Michigan the next day, with a sun high and hot, and the winds whipping the poplar trees so that the silvery undersides of their leaves were showing. We watched the neighbors TV again, as Nixon boarded his helicopter, and left Washington. We seemed to watch TV coverage of helicopters alot in the early 1970’s…
And the Nixon Presidency had spun into history. August 8th, 1974.
One can’t help, though, reflecting a bit on the whole sordid affair, and affix a contrast to the way Washington in general and President Barack Obama in specific operate in the present day. Yes, Nixon conspired with his office to hide the clumsy facts about a “B & E” at a swanky Washington office complex. Yes, he approved hush-money to keep it quiet. Yes, he used the instrumentalities of his office against his enemies. Yes, it was criminal, and yes, it was a stain on the office of the President. But, today, it all seems rather quaint.
Today, in the Oval Office sits a man that openly declares he will not enforce the duly constituted laws passed by Congress. Like any self-respecting Authoritarian, Mr. Obama just picks and chooses which laws apply, and which don’t. The “Defense of Marriage Act”, evidently, does not. He openly defies the orders of federal judges, and continues policies against legal leaseholders of petroleum development contracts in the Gulf of Mexico. He continues to implement his healthcare law, despite a federal court having voided it some four months ago. He backdoors implementation of a “cap and trade” scheme that was voted down by congress through his vast administrative state. He holds fundraisers on White House property– and no one in the national media makes a peep.
This President likely was thoroughly involved in influence pedalling when his White House attempted to get Joe Sestak to quit the Pennsylvania senate race. The also did the same thing in Colorado. He also seems to have been complicit in the Illinois Governor’s attempt to secure for himself the most personally beneficial receipient of the Senate seat Obama himself left behind. And the chirps of the media crickets are deafening.
Barack Obama heads up a Department of Justice that not only had vaporous delusions about somehow tracking automatic weapons deep inside Mexican drug cartels by selling them these weapons (!), but is now stonewalling Congressional oversight into the matter. This bit of skulduggery makes John Dean’s alleged scampering about to retrieve a notebook with his girlfriend’s name in it seem a bit, well, puerile and stupid.
We will ignore for now that Obama’s very own Party has devolved since that warm summer evening 37 years ago, from a political party of hard-working blue-collar men and women, to a party that openly scorns these people, and who uses the gears of government to extort from them the means of their own authoritarian empowerment in perpetuity. For example, West Virginia coal miners were once the backbone of the Democrat Party. Today, they are openly ridiculed, their very industry targeted by the government of Barack Obama.
Instead, we witness the spectre of untold billions of dollars from Obama’s ongoing “stimulus” sluicing in a never-ending torrent into government-union jobs of all stripes and levels, which in turn greases the skids of the electioneering efforts on behalf of their government sponsors, the Democrats themselves. It is the largest grafting bit of electioneering in world history, and it goes on unchecked and unabated. AFSCME, SEIU, the NEA and all manner of political feather-bedders knows no bounds in the era of Obama, and it all makes the puny efforts of Richard Nixon to protect his turf seem piddling and microscopic by comparison.
Thirty-seven years ago this Monday, Richard Nixon submitted his resignation, in part because he felt his politcal capital had been spent, and that he no longer had the foundation of popular support. Today, poll after poll suggests that Barack Obama governs against the will of the people. As late as last week, for example, Rasmussen Reports revealed that 58% of the American people want Obamacare repealed, but, with the passage of the most recent debt-ceiling debacle, it is more steadfastly cemented in place than ever. Nearly 80% of the people wanted a balanced budget amendment submitted to the states, but President Obama tells us, rather, to submit to him and his “balanced approach”, instead.
Richard Nixon committed rather smallish crimes with a deep flavor of moral ambiguity, and paid the highest political price. Say what you will, he never endangered the very fabric of his nation, and, in fact, found the most honorable way out by tendering his resignation. Our political leaders today, most notably President Obama, lay waste to our currency, our very future, commit acts that during other eras would have been viewed far more seriously than today, and yet pay no price. And honor before the American people is gone verily into the mists.
Richard Nixon was a troubled man, and he saw what he had to do for the American People. Barack Obama today, thirty-seven years later, is also a troubled man; And, as for the American People?
He operates in spite of them.