Lies, damned lies and some very big egos!
Lies, damned lies and some very big egos!

Lies, damned lies and some very big egos!

BOOK OF THE WEEK

WATERGATE: A NEW HISTORY

(Simon & Schuster £25, 832pp) 

During the early days of August 1974, President Richard Nixon was engulfed by the ever-expanding scandals of the Watergate affair. It had become a way of life. By now he was drinking heavily, often alone, depressed, anxious and uncertain of what to do. 

Award-winning historian Garrett M. Graff uncovers the hidden secrets of human flaws in the Watergate scandal

A couple of days before he became the first man to voluntarily resign the presidency, he told his Chief of Staff, Alexander Haig: ‘Al, you soldiers have the best way of dealing with a situation like this. You just leave a man alone in a room with a loaded pistol.’ 

Haig knew Nixon was speaking figuratively about suicide. But Defence Secretary James Schlesinger believed it went beyond that. 

He recalled an alarming remark Nixon had made to U.S. politicians when asked about fighting Communism: ‘I can go in my office and pick up a telephone, and in 25 minutes millions of people will be dead.’ 

Increasingly concerned about the President’s mental state and fearful that he could plunge the world into a holocaust, Schlesinger took an extraordinary step. He told America’s military leaders that if the President gave them any orders, commanders should check either with him or the Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. In other words: ‘If you’re ordered to push the button, make sure you run it by me first.’ 

In the event, the final days of the Nixon presidency passed off without alarms. 

This extraordinary insight into the pressures engulfing the most powerful man in America is just one of countless rich anecdotes in Garrett Graff’s monumental history of the Watergate affair. 

Vividly told by Graff, a prolific and awardwinning journalist and historian, this work effortlessly clarifies the strands of one of the most complex episodes in modern history and is full of vivid characters: doomed advisers, diligent journalists, assiduous political investigators on Capitol Hill. 

‘My goal,’ writes Graff, ‘was not to reinvestigate.’ Instead he relies on v­oluminous sources and documentary evidence to tell the story as clearly as possible. 

Watergate might have started with a failed robbery, but it led to dozens more arrests, the ruin of several political careers — including two AttorneysGeneral — an alleged kidnapping, investigations by the FBI and Congress, an FBI director jailed, the sinking of a VicePresident (Spiro Agnew was convicted of bribery), and the ruin of the President as well as most of the President’s men. 

It is one of the most reported stories ever. There are more than 30 memoirs from key participants, hundreds of pages of transcripts of Nixon’s tapes and 30 volumes of a senate committee report. 

For people in this country, the defining image, from the Oscar-winning movie All The President’s Men, will be of Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as the Washington Post’s investigative reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, leaping over newsroom desks in their hurry to uncover the scandal after another meeting with their source, Deep Throat, and bring what turns out to be a corrupt President to justice. 

Haig knew Nixon was speaking figuratively about suicide. But Defence Secretary James Schlesinger believed it went beyond that.

The driving force behind the scandal was the insane levels of paranoia in the White House, which became critical in 1971 when the Washington Post and New York Times published what became known as the Pentagon Papers, thousands of leaked documents chronicling decades of U.S. involvement in Vietnam and revealing the lies told to the American people. 

With Nixon furious at the leaks, hostile to the Press and determined not to have his re-election jeopardised, a ruthless attitude of ‘win at all costs’ developed in the White House. To this end, the President signed up a team of former CIA and FBI operatives to do his dirty work. Determined to smear Daniel Ellsberg, the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers, one of their first jobs was to break into the offices of his psychiatrist, hoping to find something damaging. 

But the scandal really began on June 17, 1972, with a 2.30am breakin at the Watergate building, a mile from the White House. 

When police arrived, they found five men in the offices of the Democratic Party National Committee, wearing suits and latex gloves and carrying bugging devices and walkie-talkies, as well as hundreds of dollars to bribe security. 

Not your typical burglars, then. That became even more apparent at the first court hearing a few hours later, when one of the defendants, James W. McCord Jr, told the judge he was a security consultant, recently working for the CIA. The judge was visibly taken aback. It was clear this was no normal break-in. 

There were two conspiracies, argues Graff. The first, to burgle the Democrats, was part of the Republican Nixon world’s paranoid obsession with dirty tricks — bugging, smearing, stealing documents. It was chaotic, but it was a worked-out plan to subvert the 1972 presidential election. Quite why is beyond anyone’s guess: Nixon won it by a landslide. 

The second conspiracy — the cover-up — just grew and grew because no one stopped it. And it went right to the top. 

As the shockwaves of the breakin widened, with allegations of slush funds, corruption, misplaced campaign funding, bribery and tax fraud, the proliferating scandal was blown wide open in July 1973 when it was revealed that Nixon had routinely taped every conversation and call in the Oval Office. 

He fought hard to keep his profanity-strewn recordings secret, but lost in the Supreme Court — and the crucial tape, The Smoking Pistol, was revealed. 

On it, in a conversation that took place just six days after the W­atergate break-in, Nixon and his Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman are heard plotting to persuade the CIA to tell the FBI to drop any inquiry. 

So the cover-up had started in the Oval Office. Within days Nixon was gone. 

The tragedy was that in many ways he should be regarded as one of the greatest men to occupy the White House. Nixon wound down the Vietnam War, signed the Clean Air Act, created the Environmental Protection Agency, hiked social security, declared war on cancer, tripled the number of women in policy-making roles, calmed the Cold War and was the first to visit Peking and Moscow. 

WATERGATE: A NEW HISTORY by Garrett M. Graff (Simon & Schuster £25, 832pp)

But he was betrayed by his darker side: paranoid, fearful of his opponents and the media, and determined to do them down. 

Even now the Watergate scandal retains its mysteries, admits Graff. Who ordered the break-in? What was the purpose and target? Were they looking for blackmail material — there were rumours of a call girl ring at Democratic HQ — or disruptive political intelligence? 

For anyone growing up as a journalist in this period, the role of the anonymous source Deep Throat — a nickname from a big porn latina film of the time — was heroic. 

Graff is more sceptical. Deep Throat was outed decades later as Mark Felt, the deputy director of the FBI. But for Graff, Felt’s actions were the payback of an embittered man, furious that he had been passed over to succeed J. Edgar Hoover as FBI director. 

This is a masterful, epic look at a story that is still barely believable. Graff skilfully guides us through the forest of supporting players, crooks, conmen, business aides, judges, lawyers, miscellaneous wives, White House operatives, spooks and cops. If anything, for this limey reader not totally steeped in the story for decades, a few pages listing the various players would not have gone amiss. 

For America, the scandal ushered in an age of greater transparency and hard-nosed investigative watchdog journalism that still, thankfully, exists. 

But despite the lessons of W­atergate, in our own time P­resident Trump not only wanted to screw up his opponents, just like Nixon, but unlike Nixon, refused to accept an election result. 

He even fomented a revolt on the Capitol Building that has not lost its power to shock. 

Perhaps we should go back to Watergate and re-learn its lessons. In politics, as in everything, morality matters.