WASHINGTON — Less than two months after the 1972 Watergate break-in, President Richard M. Nixon directed his aides to search for embarrassing information in the income tax files of Democratic presidential nominee George S. McGovern and Lawrence F. O'Brien, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, according to Nixon White House papers released Monday by the National Archives.
It was O'Brien's office that had been burglarized at the Watergate complex June 17 by operatives of the Committee for the Reelection of the President. The Nixon order, which the Internal Revenue Service apparently rebuffed, appears in notes taken Aug. 3 by White House domestic policy adviser John D. Ehrlichman at a meeting with the President.
Ehrlichman's neatly lettered jottings revealed that Nixon was deeply concerned about appealing to his Republican supporters and countering campaign moves by the Democrats, especially McGovern, whom he defeated later that year in his bid for reelection.
"Check McGovern's Internal Revenue Service files . . . check his (O'Brien's) returns," read the Ehrlichman notes on yellow legal-size paper, quoting Nixon.
Unhappy With IRS
Later notes by Ehrlichman, however, show that Nixon was unhappy with the agency's performance, suggesting that the IRS rejected his request on McGovern and O'Brien.
"IRS--all appointees out after the election," Ehrlichman wrote after a meeting with the President in the fall of 1972.
His notes were among 252,000 documents released by the archives from among the most sensitive files kept by the Nixon White House. About 1.5 million were made public previously, and Nixon has objected to the release of about 75,000 others, which are undergoing further review by an archives panel.
The latest papers, from the files of aides Ehrlichman, John W. Dean III, Gordon C. Strachan, Harry S. Dent and Egil (Bud) Krogh Jr., provide fascinating new glimpses into the workings of the Nixon presidency. However, they shed no light on a central question of the Watergate scandal--whether Nixon knew in advance about the break-in.
Nixon was forced to resign in August, 1974, after facing almost certain impeachment by the House on charges that included covering up evidence in the scandal. One of the newly released papers shows that Nixon told Ehrlichman on July 8, 1972: "We can't appear to cover up." However, this statement contrasts sharply with Nixon's tape-recorded "smoking gun" discussions two weeks earlier with Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman on the need to undercut the FBI's Watergate investigation.
Concern on Hunt, Magruder
In the weeks after the break-in, Ehrlichman's notes say, Nixon expressed "concern regarding what Hunt might do," a reference to former White House consultant E. Howard Hunt Jr., who had helped to plan the break-in. And Nixon was anxious for Jeb Stuart Magruder, a campaign aide involved in the scheme, to announce his resignation from the reelection committee.
Ehrlichman wrote that Nixon thought Magruder should say: "I'm not directly involved but as chief of staff (of the committee) I bear ultimate responsibility. I'm resigning."
The next spring, Magruder went to federal prosecutors, confessed to a role in the Watergate conspiracy and testified against others.
Meantime, with his mind on his reelection effort, Nixon sought to devise catchy campaign phrases, telling aides to raise the specter of "Big McGovernment" being the result if his opponent were elected, the notes say.
The President also advised his campaign officials to "say McGovernites, not Democrats" in their political attacks because then-Secretary of the Treasury John B. Connally had organized a group of wealthy supporters called Democrats for Nixon.
Other notes show Nixon angrily reacting to news that a Pennsylvania banker named John Bunting had sponsored a small fund-raising party for McGovern. Nixon told Ehrlichman that after the election, aides should "see his (Bunting's) tax return" and that the Treasury Department "should withdraw federal funds" from his bank.
Nixon also disparaged the brief role that former Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton (D-Mo.) played as McGovern's running mate before disclosure of his earlier electric shock treatments caused Eagleton to withdraw from the Democratic ticket, the files show. Ehrlichman's notes relate that Nixon joked at a White House meeting on Sept. 14, 1972, that Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Eagleton could combine on a Democratic ticket that would be "waterproof and shockproof." The waterproof reference alluded to Kennedy's involvement in a 1969 incident at Chappaquiddick, Mass., in which a young woman drowned.