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Watergate: The Blurring of Private Words and Public Actions

June 15, 1997|Leonard Garment | Leonard Garment served as counsel to President Richard M. Nixon during Watergate. His memoir is "Crazy Rhythm: My Journey From Brooklyn Jazz, and Wall Street, to Nixon's White House and Beyond" (Random House/Times Books)

WASHINGTON — While celebrating the silver anniversary of the Watergate break-in--mostly the media saluting the media--we would do well to remember that Watergate's central event did not occur until almost two years after the bungled burgle, with the appearance of the darkly fascinating Nixon tapes. At a quarter-century's distance, the meaning of the tapes and their release looks radically different.

In my years as Richard M. Nixon's law partner and White House aide, I saw his more attractive sides--his intelligence, idealism and generosity. I knew he was not a cruel man or a warmonger. I never heard him talk or act like an anti-Semite or cartoon-strip paranoid. Ridiculed by his enemies as an egregious liar, he probably lied less than most of his recent predecessors, because he was less comfortable and less skillful than they were at political mendacity. He was physically clumsy, emotionally unpredictable and frustrated, like most presidents, by the inertial drag of democratic politics. He was filled with a virtuoso collection of wounds from childhood wars, political wars and wars of survival.

Nixon's doom was triggered by Daniel Ellsberg's massive release of the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times and the Washington Post. Though the documents concerned the Johnson and not the Nixon era, Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry A. Kissinger were justifiably infuriated by Ellsberg's much-applauded treachery. They were concerned, reasonably, that information in the papers would jeopardize Nixon's credibility in negotiations with Vietnam, China and the Soviet Union and embarrass allies that were helping the United States in these projects. A new study by Dean David Rudenstine of the Cardozo Law School, "The Day the Presses Stopped," supports this view.

But Nixon and Kissinger let anger overwhelm political judgment. Nixon instructed the Justice Department to seek a restraint on the Pentagon Papers' publication. He knew the burden of proof would be heavily against him, but he tried--and lost. Still in a foaming fury, Nixon decided to go all-out against Ellsberg, in particular, and leaks, in general. Thus Nixon's plumbers were born, abetted by the talented, troublemaking Iago, White House aide Charles W. Colson, a stranger to scruples and second thoughts. The memory of the plumbers' felonies, contemplated and consummated, particularly the Groucho Marxist burglary at the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist, paralyzed Nixon when the far less malign break-in at the Watergate was discovered.

The transition from break-in to cover-up took place automatically, without discussion or even the whisper of gears shifting, because the president was personally involved--if not in the Watergate break-in, then by inciting earlier Colson and plumber activities, such as the Ellsberg job and another demented Colson plot, fortunately aborted, to firebomb the Brookings Institution in order to recover a set of the Pentagon Papers. The vulnerability of various Nixonites contributed to the cover-up, but I am sure Nixon's chief motive was his sense of personal jeopardy. In this, as in much else, he was like most people.

Indeed, his ordinariness may be part of the answer to the mystery of Nixon's deep, seemingly permanent penetration of the American psyche. Despite his extraordinary intellect, memory and ambition, he was Everyman as president: a plain man, a striver, disdained by the elite, persistent, anxious, openhanded, manipulative, ambivalent, uncomfortable, idealistic, pragmatic, angry and mean-spirited, thoughtful and generous. Something of everything--like the rest of us.

Yet, in the famous tape transcripts released in February 1974, Nixon did not seem ordinary. This should have been no surprise: Out of the vast number of tapes, those released were selected precisely because they provided evidence on the question of abuse of power. So the public saw a thousand unrelieved pages of mumbled plotting, twisting, turning and double-dealing--all the numbing sleaziness of political men in desperate trouble. The whole mess compounded by countless transcription mistakes, arbitrary omissions and, perhaps worst of all, innumerable references to "expletive deleted," which every reader's imagination turned into something far viler than Nixon's humdrum obscenities.

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