WASHINGTON — Roderick Warrick died this week at the age of 64. Details about when and how are still unknown, as are plans for his memorial.
But history has already reserved a place for him. Warrick was the security guard on duty at the Brookings Institution one summer evening in 1971 when two men carrying attache cases entered the front lobby. They wanted to visit one of the scholars, Morton Halperin, a known critic of the Vietnam War at the capital's premier liberal think tank. Warrick stopped them.
It could be said that he scandal that would become known as Watergate began in that moment. Years later, after disclosures of break-ins and burglaries unraveled Richard Nixon's presidency, historians pointed to an audiotape from June 30, 1971, as one of the early markers of a White House run amok.
The Supreme Court had, on a 6-3 vote, just rejected White House efforts to stop publication of the Pentagon Papers, a 1-million-page, top-secret Defense Department history of what went wrong in the Vietnam War. Nixon was furious.
Concerned that Halperin and Leslie Gelb, one of the authors of the Pentagon Papers who also worked at Brookings, might leak more antiwar materials, Nixon told White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman to have someone rifle Brookings' files and "just go in and take it! Go in around 8 or 9 o'clock ... and clean it up." At another point in the recorded conversation with Haldeman and national security advisor Henry A. Kissinger, Nixon fumed, "God damn it, get in and get those files. Blow the safe and get them."
The next day, according to the tapes, Nixon was still obsessed about shutting off the supply of antiwar sentiment and documents. Pounding on the desk, he told aides, "Get it done! I want it done! I want the Brookings safe cleaned out."
What happened next is even more remarkable. G. Gordon Liddy has described the plan to firebomb Brookings in response to the president's directive. According to Liddy's autobiography, "Will," Liddy and his crew of what later became known as White House plumbers would buy a used, late-model fire engine. They would paint it with markings from the District of Columbia Fire Department. They would issue uniforms to their Cuban "crew," and train it. Brookings would be firebombed at night, the "fire crew" would rush to the site, empty documents from the think tank's vaults into a van and speed away, abandoning the firetruck.
"There would be a lot of who-struck-John in the liberal press," Liddy figured, "but because nothing could be proved the matter would lapse into the unsolved-mystery category."
To this day, no one knows for sure whether the two men with attache cases were coming to case Brookings for a firebombing or to empty its files of more incriminating documents about the Vietnam War, whether they had been sent by the Nixon White House or someone else.
What is known, and what was remembered Friday when Brookings announced his death, is that Warrick, a tall, lanky immigrant from Trinidad, did not let them in.
The two men told Warrick they were going to the fifth floor to see Halperin. Warrick told them they needed to pick up the phone and get Halperin's office to escort them. They turned and left. White House plumber Anthony Ulasewicz told the Watergate hearings two years later that he had cased Brookings, but that security was impenetrable.
"He kept a watchful eye over the institution and was known as a tough, by-the-book, no-nonsense employee who faithfully upheld his responsibility of guarding the staff and the building," Brookings said in a statement. "We will all miss his warm smile and hearty farewell when we check out after a late day at the office."
Like Frank Wills, the young, $80-a-week guard who noticed adhesive tape covering the lock on a door at the Watergate Hotel and interrupted the "third-rate burglary" of the Democratic National Committee headquarters, Warrick was a momentary celebrity. But unlike Wills, who tried to parlay his 15 minutes of fame into a lucrative speaking career and died penniless in 2000, Warrick just kept working at his job.
Brookings scholars came and went, invited to join the administrations of presidents Democratic and Republican. Whenever they returned from government service, Warrick was there to greet them. "I've come and gone several times," former White House budget director Alice Rivlin said last year. "He always greets me with great enthusiasm."
At a Brookings party last summer celebrating his 30 years of guarding the building, Warrick stroked his long mustache and looked nonplused by the assemblage of fabled names of Washington wonkery. Ignoring a feast of salmon canapes and fresh fruit, he seemed more intent on detailing his philosophy than in basking in congratulations.
"You have to be careful," he explained. "All it takes is one mistake. A lot of people think I'm mean, but I'm just careful."