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Context of 'Early Fall, 1976: Frost-Nixon Interviews Postponed, Allowing More Focus on Watergate'

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President Nixon approves the “Huston Plan” for greatly expanding domestic intelligence-gathering by the FBI, CIA and other agencies. Four days later he rescinds his approval. (Washington Post 2008) Nixon aide Tom Charles Huston comes up with the plan, which involves authorizing the CIA, FBI, NSA, and military intelligence agencies to escalate their electronic surveillance of “domestic security threats” in the face of supposed threats from Communist-led youth agitators and antiwar groups (see June 5, 1970). The plan would also authorize the surreptitious reading of private mail, lift restrictions against surreptitious entries or break-ins to gather information, plant informants on college campuses, and create a new, White House-based “Interagency Group on Domestic Intelligence and Internal Security.” Huston’s Top Secret memo warns that parts of the plan are “clearly illegal.” Nixon approves the plan, but rejects one element—that he personally authorize any break-ins. Nixon orders that all information and operations to be undertaken under the new plan be channeled through his chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, with Nixon deliberately being left out of the loop. The first operations to be undertaken are using the Internal Revenue Service to harass left-wing think tanks and charitable organizations such as the Brookings Institution and the Ford Foundation. Huston writes that “[m]aking sensitive political inquiries at the IRS is about as safe a procedure as trusting a whore,” since the administration has no “reliable political friends at IRS.” He adds, “We won’t be in control of the government and in a position of effective leverage until such time as we have complete and total control of the top three slots of the IRS.” Huston suggests breaking into the Brookings Institute to find “the classified material which they have stashed over there,” adding: “There are a number of ways we could handle this. There are risks in all of them, of course; but there are also risks in allowing a government-in-exile to grow increasingly arrogant and powerful as each day goes by.” (Reeves 2001, pp. 235-236) In 2007, author James Reston Jr. will call the Huston plan “arguably the most anti-democratic document in American history… a blueprint to undermine the fundamental right of dissent and free speech in America.” (Reston 2007, pp. 102)

Eugenio Martinez.Eugenio Martinez. [Source: public domain]President Nixon’s “Plumbers” unit, tasked to plug media leaks from administration officials and outsiders to the media, burglarizes the Los Angeles office of psychiatrist Lewis Fielding to find damaging information on Daniel Ellsberg, the former defense analyst and patient of Fielding who leaked the “Pentagon Papers” to the media. (Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum 7/3/2007) Ellsberg is a former Marine captain in Vietnam and protege of Henry Kissinger who had a change of heart over the war; he then leaked a secret set of Pentagon documents to the New York Times detailing how the Kennedy and Johnson administrations had secretly escalated the war in Vietnam (see June 13, 1971).
Watergate Connection - One of the burglars is Eugenio Martinez, who later is arrested as one of the five Watergate burglars (see 2:30 a.m.June 17, 1972). Martinez and two others—Felipe de Diego and the mission leader, E. Howard Hunt, who will supervise the Watergate burglary—are all old “CIA hands” heavily involved in anti-Castro activities. Martinez is still active in the CIA, as is Hunt, whom he often refers to by his old CIA code name of “Eduardo.” Another Watergate burglar, CIA agent Bernard Barker, is also involved in the Ellsberg burglary.
Martinez: Burglary a Near-Disaster - Hunt tells Martinez and Diego that they are to burglarize the offices of a “traitor” who is spying for the Soviet Union, and that the mission was ordered by the White House, where Hunt is now an aide. Barker tells the Cubans, “We have to find some papers of a great traitor to the United States, who is a son of a b_tch .” The men will become a unit outside the normal law enforcement and intelligence channels, operating within but not part of the CIA, FBI, and “all the agencies,” Martinez will later recall. They buy photographic equipment at Sears, and Hunt and Diego use disguises—wigs, fake glasses, false identification, and voice-altering devices. “Barker recognized the name on Hunt’s false identification—Edward J. Hamilton—as the same cover name Eduardo had used during the Bay of Pigs,” Martinez will recall. The planning, Martinez will recall, is far looser and less meticulous than “anything I was used to in the [CIA].” A disguised Hunt and Diego, masquerading as delivery men, deliver the photographic equipment to the office; later that night, they and Martinez break in and rifle the office. Martinez will write that Hunt and de Diego looked “kind of queerish” in their disguises, with their “Peter Lorre-type glasses, and the funny Dita Beard wigs” (see February 22, 1972). Before the break-in, Barker, who does not enter, whispers to Martinez, “Hey, remember this name—Ellsberg.” Martinez does not recognize the name. (Martinez and Barker 10/1974; Reeves 2001, pp. 369)
Comedy of Errors - The burglars wait for hours until the cleaning lady leaves for the night, and find the door to the building locked. At that point, a fifth man, “George,” whom Martinez learns is G. Gordon Liddy, another of the Watergate burglars also involved in the Ellsberg planning, appears and tells them to break in through a window. (Martinez and Barker 10/1974) Three burglars—Bernard Barker, Felipe de Diego, and Eugenio Martinez—perform the actual break-in, while Hunt and Liddy act as lookouts. (Reeves 2001, pp. 369) The burglary is quickly turning into a comedy of errors, Martinez will recall. “This was nothing new. It’s what the Company did in the Bay of Pigs when they gave us old ships, old planes, old weapons. They explained that if you were caught in one of those operations with commercial weapons that you could buy anywhere, you could be said to be on your own. They teach you that they are going to disavow you. The Company teaches you to accept those things as the efficient way to work. And we were grateful. Otherwise we wouldn’t have had any help at all. In this operation it seemed obvious—they didn’t want it to be traced back to the White House. Eduardo told us that if we were caught, we should say we were addicts looking for drugs.” Martinez finds nothing concerning Ellsberg in the office except for Fielding’s telephone book, which Martinez photographs. Before leaving, Martinez spills some pills from Fielding’s briefcase—“vitamin C, I think”—over the floor to make it seem as if the burglars had broken in looking for drugs. As they leave the office, Martinez spots a police car trailing them, but they are not stopped. “I thought to myself that the police car was protecting us. That is the feeling you have when you are doing operations for the government. You think that every step has been taken to protect you.”
Failure; Training for Bigger Mission? - Martinez feels that the burglary is a failure, but Hunt insists that they celebrate anyway. Martinez tells Diego that the break-in must either be a training exercise for a more important mission to come, or it was a cover operation for something else. “I thought to myself that maybe these people already had the papers of Ellsberg. Maybe Dr. Fielding had given them out and for ethical reasons he needed to be covered. It seemed that these people already had what we were looking for because no one invites you to have champagne and is happy when you fail,” he will write. Martinez’s CIA supervisor is strangely uninterested in the incident. “I was certain then that the Company knew about his activities,” Martinez will write. “But once again my CO did not pursue the subject.” (Martinez and Barker 10/1974) Hunt telephones Plumbers supervisor Egil Krogh at 4 a.m. to report that the burglary was a success but they found no files on Ellsberg. (Reeves 2001, pp. 369)

President Nixon’s personal lawyer, Herbert Kalmbach, delivers over $900,000 in secret campaign contributions to the Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP). He has collected the money on Nixon’s orders, passing along Nixon’s instructions to donors, one of which is “Anybody who wants to be an ambassador must give at least $250,000.” In total, CREEP collects nearly $20 million, $2 million in cash. CREEP reports none of this money—and because the new campaign finance laws do not go into effect until April 7, the organization is not legally bound to declare it until that time. Some of the contributors are executives and corporations in trouble with the IRS or the Justice Department. Some are Democrats openly contributing to Democratic candidates and hedging their bets with contributions to Nixon and other Republicans. Much of the money is “laundered” through Mexican and Venezuelan banks. “Plumber” G. Gordon Liddy moves $114,000 through fellow “Plumber” Bernard Barker’s Miami bank accounts (see April-June 1972 and June 21, 1972). More money resides in safety deposit boxes in New York, Los Angeles, Washington, and Miami. “Plumber” E. Howard Hunt uses money from the campaign fund to recruit dozens of young men and women to spy on Democratic campaigns and report back to CREEP. (Reeves 2001, pp. 462-463)

Comedian Bill Cosby, one of many on Nixon’s enemies list.Comedian Bill Cosby, one of many on Nixon’s enemies list. [Source: Quixoticals]Former White House counsel John Dean, continuing his testimony before the Senate Watergate Committee (see June 25-29, 1973), provides a sheaf of documents to the committee. Among those is the “Opponents List and Political Enemies Project,” informally called President Nixon’s “enemies list.” The list is actually a set of documents “several inches thick” of names and information about Nixon’s political enemies. It was compiled by a number of administration officials, including Dean, White House aides Charles Colson, Gordon Strachan, and Lyn Nofziger, beginning in 1971. One of the documents from August 16, 1971, has Dean suggesting ways in which “we can use the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies.” Methods proposed included administration manipulation of “grant availability, federal contracts, litigation, prosecution, etc.” The Dean memo was given to then-chief of staff H. R. Haldeman and top White House aide John Ehrlichman for approval. Though Dean testifies that he does not know if the plan was set into motion, subsequent documents submitted to the committee indicate that it was indeed implemented. A condensed list of 20 “White House enemies” was produced by Colson’s office; a larger list included ten Democratic senators, all 12 black House members, over 50 news and television reporters, prominent businessmen, labor leaders, and entertainers, and contributors to the 1972 presidential campaign of Democratic senator Edmund Muskie. The condensed list includes, in priority order:
bullet “1. Arnold M. Picker, United Artists Corp., NY. Top Muskie fund raiser. Success here could be both debilitating and very embarrassing to the Muskie machine. If effort looks promising, both Ruth and David Picker should be programmed and then a follow through with United Artists.”
bullet “2. Alexander E. Barkan, national director of AFL-CIO’s committee on Political Education, Washington D.C.: Without a doubt the most powerful political force programmed against us in 1968 ($10 million, 4.6 million votes, 115 million pamphlets, 176,000 workers—all programmed by Barkan’s COPE—so says Teddy White in The Making of the President 1968). We can expect the same effort this time.”
bullet “3. Ed Guthman, managing editor, Los Angeles Times: Guthman, former Kennedy aide, was a highly sophisticated hatchetman against us in ‘68. It is obvious he is the prime mover behind the current Key Biscayne effort. It is time to give him the message.”
bullet “4. Maxwell Dane, Doyle, Dane and Bernbach, NY: The top Democratic advertising firm—they destroyed Goldwater in ‘64. They should be hit hard starting with Dane.”
bullet “5. Charles Dyson, Dyson-Kissner Corp., NY: Dyson and [Democratic National Committee chairman] Larry O’Brien were close business associates after ‘68. Dyson has huge business holdings and is presently deeply involved in the Businessmen’s Educational Fund which bankrolls a national radio network of five-minute programs—anti-Nixon in character.”
bullet “6. Howard Stein, Dreyfus Corp., NY: Heaviest contributor to [Democratic presidential candidate Eugene] McCarthy in ‘68. If McCarthy goes, will do the same in ‘72. If not, Lindsay or McGovern will receive the funds.”
bullet “7. [US Representative] Allard Lowenstein, Long Island, NY: Guiding force behind the 18-year-old ‘Dump Nixon’ vote campaign.”
bullet “8. Morton Halperin, leading executive at Common Cause: A scandal would be most helpful here.”
bullet “9. Leonard Woodcock, UAW, Detroit, Mich.: No comments necessary.”
bullet “10. S. Sterling Munro Jr., Sen. [Henry Jackson’s aide, Silver Spring, Md: We should give him a try. Positive results would stick a pin in Jackson’s white hat.”
bullet “11. Bernard T. Feld, president, Council for a Livable World: Heavy far left funding. They will program an ‘all court press’ against us in ‘72.”
bullet “12. Sidney Davidoff, New York City, [New York City Mayor John V.] Lindsay’s top personal aide: a first class SOB, wheeler-dealer and suspected bagman. Positive results would really shake the Lindsay camp and Lindsay’s plans to capture youth vote. Davidoff in charge.”
bullet “13. John Conyers, congressman, Detroit: Coming on fast. Emerging as a leading black anti-Nixon spokesman. Has known weakness for white females.”
bullet “14. Samuel M. Lambert, president, National Education Association: Has taken us on vis-a-vis federal aid to parochial schools—a ‘72 issue.” (Facts on File 6/2003) Committee chairman Sam Ervin (D-NC) is clearly outraged by the list, and particularly by Lambert’s inclusion. He says, “Here is a man listed among the opponents whose only offense is that he believed in the First Amendment and shared Thomas Jefferson’s conviction, as expressed in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, that to compel a man to make contributions of money for the dissemination of religious opinions he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical. Isn’t that true?” Dean replies, “I cannot disagree with the chairman at all.” (Time 7/9/1973)
bullet “15. Stewart Rawlings Mott, Mott Associates, NY: Nothing but big money for radic-lib candidates.”
bullet “16. Ronald Dellums, congressman, Calif: Had extensive [Edward M. Kennedy] EMK-Tunney support in his election bid. Success might help in California next year.”
bullet “17. Daniel Schorr, Columbia Broadcasting System, Washington: A real media enemy.”
bullet “18. S. Harrison Dogole, Philadelphia, Pa: President of Globe Security Systems—fourth largest private detective agency in US. Heavy Humphrey [former presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey] contributor. Could program his agency against us.”
bullet “19. [Actor] Paul Newman, Calif: Radic-lib causes. Heavy McCarthy involvement ‘68. Used effectively in nation wide TV commercials. ‘72 involvement certain.”
bullet “20. Mary McGrory, Washington columnist: Daily hate Nixon articles.”
Another “master list” of political enemies prepared by Colson’s office includes Democratic senators Birch Bayh, J. W. Fulbright, Fred R. Harris, Harold Hughes, Edward M. Kennedy, George McGovern, Walter Mondale, Edmund Muskie, Gaylord Nelson, and William Proxmire; House representatives Bella Abzug, William R. Anderson, John Brademas, Father Robert F. Drinan, Robert Kastenmeier, Wright Patman; African-American representatives Shirley Chisholm, William Clay, George Collins, John Conyers, Ronald Dellums, Charles Diggs, Augustus Hawkins, Ralph Metcalfe, Robert N.C. Nix, Parren Mitchell, Charles Rangel, Louis Stokes; and several other politicians, including Lindsay, McCarthy, and George Wallace, the governor of Alabama (see May 15, 1972). The list also includes an array of liberal, civil rights and antiwar organizations, including the Black Panthers, the Brookings Institution, Common Cause, the Farmers Union, the National Economic Council, the National Education Association, the National Welfare Rights Organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Convention; a variety of labor organizations; many reporters, columnists, and other news figures; a short list of celebrities including Bill Cosby, Jane Fonda, Dick Gregory, Steve McQueen, Joe Namath, Gregory Peck, Tony Randall, and Barbra Streisand; and a huge list of businessmen and academics. The documents provide suggestions for avenues of attack against individual listees, including using “income tax discrepancies,” allegations of Communist connections, and other information. (Facts on File 6/2003) In 1999, Schorr will joke that being on Nixon’s enemies list “changed my life a great deal. It increased my lecture fee, got me invited to lots of very nice dinners. It was so wonderful that one of my colleagues that I will not mention, but a very important man at CBS, said, ‘Why you, Schorr? Why couldn’t it have been me on the enemies list?’” (CNN 3/27/1999) Schorr does not mention that he was the subject of an FBI investigation because of his listing. (Spartacus Schoolnet 8/2007)

In the aftermath of the Watergate scandal (see August 8, 1974), amendments to the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA—see February 7, 1972) provide the option for full public financing for presidential general elections, matching funds for presidential primaries, and public expenditures for presidential nominating conventions. The amendments also set spending limits on presidential primaries and general elections as well as for House and Senate primaries. The amendments give some enforcement provisions to previously enacted spending limits on House and Senate general elections. They set strict spending guidelines: for presidential campaigns, each candidate is limited to $10 million for primaries, $20 million for general elections, and $2 million for nominating conventions; Senatorial candidates are limited to $100,000 or eight cents per eligible voter, whichever is higher, for primaries, and higher limits of $150,000 or 12 cents per voter for general elections; House candidates are limited to $70,000 each for primaries and general elections. Loans are treated as contributions. The amendments create an individual contribution limit of $1,000 to a candidate per election and a PAC (political action committee) contribution limit of $5,000 to a candidate per election (this provision will trigger what the Center for Responsive Politics will call a “PAC boom” in the late 1970s). The total aggregate contributions from an individual are set at $25,000 per year. Candidates face further restrictions on how much personal wealth they can contribute to their own campaign. The 1940 ban on contributions from government employees and contract workers (see 1940) is repealed, as are the 1971 limitations on media spending. Perhaps most importantly, the amendments create the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to oversee and administer campaign law. (Before, enforcement and oversight responsibilities were spread among the Clerk of the House, the Secretary of the Senate, and the Comptroller General of the United States General Accounting Office (GAO), with the Justice Department responsible for prosecuting violators (see 1967).) The FEC is led by a board of six commissioners, with Congress appointing four of those commissioners and the president appointing two more. The Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House are designated nonvoting, exofficio commissioners. (Federal Elections Commission 1998; Campaign Finance Timeline 1999; Center for Responsive Politics 2002 pdf file) Part of the impetus behind the law is the public outrage over the revelations of how disgraced ex-President Nixon’s re-election campaign was funded, with millions of dollars in secret, illegal corporate contributions being funneled into the Nixon campaign. (Campaign Finance Timeline 1999; Geraci 2006 pdf file)

Alexander Haig.Alexander Haig. [Source: Brooks Institute]President Richard Nixon`s chief of staff Alexander Haig pays an urgent call on Vice President Gerald Ford to discuss the terms under which Nixon will resign (see August 8, 1974). Haig gives Ford a handwritten list of what White House counsel Fred Buzhardt, the author of the list, calls “permutations for the option of resignation.” The idea is for Nixon to agree to resign in return for Ford’s agreement to pardon Nixon for any crimes Nixon may have committed while president. Ford listens to Haig but does not agree to any terms. The next day, after learning of the meeting, Ford’s own counsel, Robert Hartmann, is outraged that Ford did not just throw Haig out of his office. With fellow counsel John Marsh, Hartmann demands that Ford call Haig and state unequivocally, for the record, and in front of witnesses that Ford has made no such agreements. Haig considers Hartmann essentially incompetent, and Hartmann views Haig as a power-hungry “assh_le.” The subsequent tensions between Haig, one of the Nixon holdovers in Ford’s presidency, and Ford’s staff will shape future events in the Ford administration. In part to counteract Haig’s influence, Ford will name former NATO ambassador and Nixon aide Donald Rumsfeld as the head of his transition team. Rumsfeld will in turn name former Wyoming congressman and current investment executive Dick Cheney as his deputy; Cheney has lectured his clients that Watergate was never a criminal conspiracy, but merely a power struggle between the White House and Congress. (Werth 2006, pp. 20)

Nixon chief of staff Alexander Haig has Watergate special prosecutor Leon Jaworski to lunch at Haig’s home. Haig wants to personally inform Jaworski that President Nixon will resign (see August 8, 1974), that Nixon’s papers, and the secret recordings he made while president, will be shipped to his California home, and that Jaworski will have access to those documents as needed. “There’s no hanky-panky involved,” Haig assures Jaworski, but then says: “I don’t mind telling you that I haven’t the slightest doubt that the tapes were screwed with. The ones with the gaps and other problems.” (Werth 2006, pp. 31)

Richard Nixon announcing his resignation to the country.Richard Nixon announcing his resignation to the country. [Source: American Rhetoric.com]President Richard Nixon, forced to resign because of the Watergate scandal, begins his last day in office. The morning is marked by “burn sessions” in several rooms of the White House, where aides burn what author Barry Werth calls “potentially troublesome documents” in fireplaces. Nixon’s chief of staff, Alexander Haig, is preparing for the transition in his office, which is overflowing with plastic bags full of shredded documents. Haig says all of the documents are duplicates. Haig presents Nixon with a one-line letter of resignation—“I hereby resign the office of president of the United States”—and Nixon signs it without comment. Haig later describes Nixon as “haggard and ashen,” and recalls, “Nothing of a personal nature was said… By now, there was not much that could be said that we did not already understand.” Nixon gives his resignation speech at 9 p.m. (Nixon 8/8/1974; Nixon 8/8/1974; American Rhetoric 2001; Werth 2006, pp. 3-8) On August 7, Haig told Watergate special prosecutor Leon Jaworski that Congress would certainly pass a resolution halting any legal actions against Nixon. But, watching Nixon’s televised resignation speech, Jaworski thinks, “Not after that speech, Al.” Nixon refuses to accept any responsibility for any of the myriad crimes and illicit actions surrounding Watergate, and merely admits to some “wrong” judgments. Without some expression of remorse and acceptance of responsibility, Jaworski doubts that Congress will do anything to halt any criminal actions against Nixon. (Werth 2006, pp. 30-31) Instead of accepting responsibility, Nixon tells the nation that he must resign because he no longer has enough support in Congress to remain in office. To leave office before the end of his term “is abhorrent to every instinct in my body,” he says, but “as president, I must put the interests of America first.” Jaworski makes a statement after the resignation speech, declaring that “there has been no agreement or understanding of any sort between the president or his representatives and the special prosecutor relating in any way to the president’s resignation.” Jaworski says that his office “was not asked for any such agreement or understanding and offered none.” (Kilpatrick 8/9/1974)

Gerald Ford takes the oath of office.Gerald Ford takes the oath of office. [Source: Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library]Vice President Gerald Ford prepares to take over the presidency from the resigning Richard Nixon (see August 8, 1974). Ford’s transition team suggests that, in line with Ford’s own views, Ford not appoint a chief of staff at this time. “However,” says the team’s memo, “there should be someone who could rapidly and efficiently organize the new staff organization, but who will not be perceived or eager to be chief of staff.” Ford writes “Rumsfeld” in the margin of the memo. Donald Rumsfeld is a former Navy pilot and Nixon aide. Rumsfeld has been the US ambassador to NATO and, thusly, was out of Washington and untainted by Watergate. Rumsfeld harbors presidential ambitions of his own and has little use for a staff position, even such a powerful position as a president’s chief of staff. (Werth 2006, pp. 7-8) Rumsfeld believes that Ford’s first task is to establish a “legitimate government” as far from the taint of Watergate as possible—a difficult task considering Ford is retaining Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and the rest of the Nixon cabinet, Haig, and virtually the entire White House staff, although plans are for Haig and most of the White House staff to gracefully exit in a month. (Werth 2006, pp. 21) Shortly after noon, Ford takes the oath of office for the presidency, becoming the first president in US history to enter the White House as an appointed, rather than an elected, official. Ford tells the nation: “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over.… I assume the presidency under extraordinary circumstances.… This is an hour of history that troubles our minds and hurts our hearts.” (Glass 8/9/2007)

Publicity photo for the Frost/Nixon interviews.Publicity photo for the Frost/Nixon interviews. [Source: London Times]British interviewer and entertainer David Frost makes a deal with former President Richard Nixon to undertake 24 hours of interviews on a wide range of topics, with six hours each on foreign policy, domestic affairs, Watergate, and a loosely defined “Nixon the Man” interview. Frost intends that the centerpiece of the interviews to be the Watergate session. Nixon agrees to a free, unfettered set of interviews in return for over a million dollars in appearance fees. (Reston 2007, pp. 13-17) (Other sources say that Nixon will be paid $600,000 plus 20% of the profits from the broadcast, which are expected to top $2 million.)
Frost Seen as Unlikely Interviewer - There is also considerable skepticism about the choice of Frost as an interviewer; he is better known as a high-living entertainer who likes to hobnob with celebrities rather than as a tough interrogator. His primary experience with politics is his hosting of the BBC’s celebrated 1960s satirical show That Was the Week That Was. Frost outbid NBC for the rights to interview Nixon, and after all three American television networks refuse to air the shows, Frost has to cobble together an ad hoc group of about 140 television stations to broadcast the interviews. Frost will recall in 2007, “We were told, ‘Half the companies you’re approaching would never have anything to do with Nixon when he was president, and the other half are trying to make people forget that they did.’” (Time 5/9/1977; Segal 4/30/2007) Interestingly, when the Nixon team began negotiating for the interviews in July 1975, they made a point of not wanting any “real” investigative journalists to conduct the interviews—in fact, they considered offering the interviews to American television talk show host Merv Griffin. (Time 5/9/1977) The interviews are to be done in segments, three sessions a week, on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, for two weeks in the spring of 1977. (National Public Radio 6/17/2002)
Nixon Team Wants Focus Away from Watergate - While Nixon agrees that six hours of interviews will be on the topic of Watergate, his team wants to define “Watergate” as almost anything and everything negative about the Nixon presidency—not just the burglary and the cover-up, but abuses of power at the IRS, CIA, and FBI, Nixon’s tax problems, the Ellsberg break-in (see September 9, 1971), disputed real estate sales, the sale of ambassadorships (see March-April 1972), the enemies list (see June 27, 1973), and the Huston Plan (see July 14, 1970). The hope is that Frost’s focus will become diluted and fail to focus on the Watergate conspiracy itself. The hope will not be fulfilled (see April 13-15, 1977).
Frost's Investigative Team - Frost begins hiring a team of investigators and experts to prepare him for the interviews, including author and journalist James Reston Jr. (Time 5/9/1977) , a self-described “radical” who had worked to win amnesty for US citizens who had avoided the draft, and views Nixon as a contemptible figure who, despite his resignation (see August 8, 1974), remains “uncontrite and unconvicted.” (Dallek 7/22/2007) Other members of Frost’s research team are Washington journalist and lawyer Robert Zelnick, freelance writer Phil Stanford, and London TV news executive John Birt, who will produce the interviews. Zelnick will play Nixon in the briefing sessions, going so far as mimicking Nixon’s mannerisms and hand gestures. For his part, Nixon had almost completed his own meticulous research of his presidency for his upcoming memoirs, and is quite conversant with his facts and defense strategies. Nixon’s team of aides includes his former White House military aide Colonel Jack Brennan, chief researcher Ken Khachigian, former speechwriter Ray Price, former press assistant (and future television reporter) Diane Sawyer, and former aide Richard Moore. (Time 5/9/1977)
Nixon's Perceived 'Sweetheart Deal' - In his 2007 book on the interviews, The Conviction of Richard Nixon (written largely in 1977 but unpublished for thirty years), Reston will write that Nixon surely “saw the enterprise as a sweetheart deal. He stood to make a lot of money and to rehabilitate his reputation.” Nixon harbors hopes that he can make a political comeback of one sort or another, and apparently intends to use Frost—best known for conducting “softball” interviews with celebrities and world leaders alike—as his “springboard” to re-enter public service. But, as Reston later observes, Nixon will underestimate the researchers’ efforts, and Frost’s own skill as a television interviewer. (Reston 2007, pp. 13-17, 84) Time will describe Nixon in the interviews as “painful and poignant, sometimes illuminating, usually self-serving.” (Time 5/9/1977)

The research team for David Frost, in the midst of marathon interviews with former President Richard Nixon (see Early 1976), has a week to prepare for the upcoming four-hour interview sessions on Watergate (see April 6, 1977).
Countering the 'Other Presidents Did It, Too' Defense - Researcher James Reston Jr. tackles Frost’s possible response to what Reston feels will be Nixon’s last line of defense: that what he did was simply another instance in a long line of presidential misconduct. “Nixon nearly persuaded the American people that political crime was normal,” investigative reporter Jack Anderson had told Nixon biographer Fawn Brodie, a line that haunts Reston. Brodie gives Reston a study commissioned by the House Judiciary Committee (see February 6, 1974) and authored primarily by eminent Yale historian C. Vann Woodward, a study examining the history of presidential misdeeds from George Washington through Nixon. The study was never used. Brodie says that Frost should quote the following from Woodward’s introduction to Nixon: “Heretofore, no president has been proved to be the chief coordinator of the crime and misdemeanor charged against his own administration as a deliberate course of conduct or plan. Heretofore, no president has been held to be the chief personal beneficiary of misconduct in his administration or of measures taken to destroy or cover up evidence of it. Heretofore, the malfeasance and misdemeanor have had no confessed ideological purposes, no constitutionally subversive ends. Heretofore, no president has been accused of extensively subverting and secretly using established government agencies to defame or discredit political opponents and critics, to obstruct justice, to conceal misconduct and protect criminals, or to deprive citizens of their rights and liberties. Heretofore, no president had been accused of creating secret investigative units to engage in covert and unlawful activities against private citizens and their rights.” Frost will ultimately not use the quote, but the quote helps Reston and the other researchers steer their course in preparing Frost’s line of questioning.
Frost Better Prepared - As for Frost, he is much more prepared for his interrogation of Nixon than he has been in earlier sessions, prepped for discussing the details of legalities such as obstruction of justice, corrupt endeavor, and foreseeable consequence. Nixon undoubtedly thwarted justice from being served, and Frost intends to confront him with that charge. Reston worries that the interview will become mired in legalities to the point where only lawyers will gain any substantive information from the session. (Reston 2007, pp. 112-114)

The scheduled interviews between former President Richard Nixon and British interviewer David Frost (see Early 1976) are postponed until March 1977, due to Nixon’s wife, Pat, being hospitalized with a stroke. In return for the delay, Nixon agrees to five programs devoted to the interviews instead of the originally agreed-upon four. Further, Nixon agrees to talk frankly about Watergate; previously, he had balked at discussing it because of ongoing prosecutions related to the conspiracy. Frost wants the shows to air in the spring of 1977 rather than the summer, when audiences will be smaller; Nixon jokes in reply, “Well, we got one hell of an audience on August 9, 1974” (see August 8, 1974). Nixon welcomes the extra time needed to prepare for the interviews. (Reston 2007, pp. 53)

The research staff for British interviewer David Frost, preparing for his upcoming interviews with former President Richard Nixon (see Early 1976), receive two key documents from Leon Jaworski’s special prosecutor files (see November 1, 1973) that are, in essence, the government’s plan for questioning Nixon if he were to ever take the stand as a criminal defendant in federal court. One document is entitled “RMN [Richard Milhous Nixon] and the Money,” and concentrates on the March 21, 1973, conversation with then-White House counsel John Dean concerning Watergate burglar E. Howard Hunt’s demand for “hush money” (see Mid-November, 1972) and the attempts in the following weeks to explain away the payments to Hunt. The document is divided into five parts: Nixon’s statements about the money; Nixon’s knowledge of the payouts before March 21; the nature of the payment itself; the cover-up of Nixon’s role in the payout; and Nixon’s role in developing a defense against possible obstruction of justice charges. The second document cites excerpts from the June 20, 1972, conversations between Nixon and his then-senior aide Charles Colson (see June 20, 1972 and June 20, 1972). (Reston 2007, pp. 45-47)

Time magazine cover from May 9, 1977 touting the Frost/Nixon interviews.Time magazine cover from May 9, 1977 touting the Frost/Nixon interviews. [Source: Time]Former President Richard Nixon meets with his interviewer, David Frost, for the first of several lengthy interviews (see Early 1976). The interviews take place in a private residence in Monarch Bay, California, close to Nixon’s home in San Clemente. One of Frost’s researchers, author James Reston Jr., is worried that Frost is not prepared enough for the interview. The interview is, in Reston’s words, a rather “free-form exercise in bitterness and schmaltz.”
Blaming Associates, Justifying Actions, Telling Lies - Nixon blames then-chief of staff H. R. Haldeman for not destroying the infamous White House tapes (see July 13-16, 1973), recalls weeping with then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger over his resignation, and blames his defense counsel for letting him down during his impeachment hearings (see February 6, 1974). His famously crude language is no worse than the barracks-room speech of former President Dwight D. Eisenhower, he asserts. Frost shows a film of Nixon’s farewell address to the nation (see August 8, 1974), and observes that Nixon must have seen this film many times. Never, Nixon says, and goes on to claim that he has never listened to or watched any of his speeches, and furthermore had never even practiced any of his speeches before delivering them. It is an astonishing claim from a modern politician, one of what Nixon biographer Fawn Brodie calls “Unnecessary Nixon Lies.” (Reston 2007, pp. 81-91) (In a 1974 article for Harper’s, Geoffrey Stokes wrote that, according to analysis of transcripts of Nixon’s infamous Watergate tape recordings by a Cornell University professor, Nixon spent nearly a third of his time practicing both private and public statements, speeches, and even casual conversations.) (Stokes 10/1974)
Nixon Too Slippery for Frost? - During the viewing of the tape, Nixon’s commentary reveals what Reston calls Nixon’s “vanity and insecurity, the preoccupation with appearance within a denial of it.” After the viewing, Nixon artfully dodges Frost’s attempt to pin him down on how history will remember him, listing a raft of foreign and domestic achievements and barely mentioning the crimes committed by his administration. “What history will say about this administration will depend on who writes the history,” he says, and recalls British prime minister Winston Churchill’s assertion that history would “treat him well… [b]ecause I intend to write it.”
Reactions - The reactions of the Frost team to the first interview are mixed. Reston is pleased, feeling that Nixon made some telling personal observations and recollections, but others worried that Frost’s soft questioning had allowed Nixon to dominate the session and either evade or filibuster the tougher questions. Frost must assert control of the interviews, team members assert, must learn to cut Nixon off before he can waste time with a pointless anecdote. Frost must rein in Nixon when he goes off on a tangent. As Reston writes, “The solution was to keep the subject close to the nub of fact, leaving him no room for diversion or maneuver.” (Reston 2007, pp. 81-91)

After 14 hours (of the allotted 24) of the Nixon/Frost interviews (see Early 1976), most of the Frost research team feels that former President Richard Nixon has gotten the best of interviewer David Frost. Nixon has largely been allowed to expound at length on his many self-proclaimed triumphs in foreign policy until the last few sessions, and except for brief moments where Frost tried to corner Nixon over his Vietnam and Cambodia policies, Nixon has escaped with his reputation not only untarnished, but likely even somewhat burnished.
Frost Enabling Nixon's Resurrection? - After the day’s interview (see April 6, 1977), many on Frost’s research team lambast him for not pressing the point that Nixon’s arguments contravene almost everything the US stands for. (One television technician wisecracks after the first round of interviews, “If he keeps talking like that, I may vote for him.”) Team member Robert Zelnick tells Frost, “You sound like two old chums, sitting around a pork barrel, talking about a bowling game, rather than about the incredible divisiveness that Nixon himself deliberately caused.” Frost defends himself by saying that Nixon “admitted what we wanted him to,” but Zelnick retorts: “But how is the audience to know? You have to state the opposite view.” Frost’s producer John Birt adds: “Sniping at him is not good enough anymore. The absurdity of his position must be underlined. If you don’t respond to the absurdity, then it appears as if you not only accept his view, but endorse it.” Frost’s afternoon session with Nixon is more challenging, and later some observers categorize the Huston Plan interview as, in the words of author James Reston Jr., “the most damaging period in all the Nixon interviews” (see April 6, 1977).
Intensive Preparation - But Frost’s team is not satisfied. With a week’s break before the next interview, the team decides to push Frost to prepare more intensively for the upcoming Watergate interview sessions. Reston will later note that the Watergate sessions “had to be solid gold. Otherwise the series was dead—commercially as well as substantively. Did Frost realize the jeopardy we were in now? Worse than that: if Nixon’s guilt and his authoritarian impulses were not clearly demonstrated, Frost would take an equivalent position in the history of television to that of Nixon in the history of politics. The epitaph would read, He paid $1 million for Nixon’s resurrection.” (Time 5/30/1977; Reston 2007, pp. 102-105)

David Frost, the British interviewer conducting a series of interviews with former President Richard Nixon (see Early 1976), spends four hours over three days hammering at Nixon over his involvement in the Watergate conspiracy (see April 13, 1977. April 13, 1977, April 13, 1977, April 15, 1977, and April 15, 1977). His first question is, “With the perspective of three years now, do you feel that you ever obstructed justice or were part of a conspiracy to obstruct justice?”
Wrestling with Proteus - James Reston, Jr., part of Frost’s research team, later notes that the four hours of interviews as edited for later broadcast becomes what “has been called a television epic. It had all the elements of high drama (and occasional high comedy). The tension started high and built towards an almost unbearable, climactic breaking point. It pitted a feisty, beautifully informed inquisitor (see April 7-12, 1976), playing his surprise cards and rehearsed lines masterfully, aware, finally, of his duty as a surrogate prosecutor, aware of the imperative to prove the guilt that all assumed, creatively using the ploys of judicious contempt and reverse patronizing and deadly humor to reduce his intimidating adversary to apology and mawkishness.” Reston finally comes to believe what he has been saying for weeks, that Frost is “the best man in the world for this ultimate task, far better than any American journalist on the scene.” Frost wrestles with Nixon, the “virtuoso of deception” whom he compares to the shape-changing Greek god Proteus, and ultimately pins him down. (Encyclopedia Mythica 4/10/2001; Reston 2007, pp. 116-118)
Opening Arguments - Nixon dodges the opening question and tries to redefine “Watergate” as just about every illegal, immoral, or questionable action he had performed as president. “Watergate means all of the charges that were thrown at me during the period before I left the presidency,” Nixon says. But instead of accepting Nixon’s definition and spending four hours touching on the surface of each allegation—mentioning it, letting Nixon deny or evade the charges, then moving on, as most American journalists might well have done—Frost homes in on the Watergate conspiracy itself. When Frost begins listing the crimes and unethical actions committed by Nixon’s underlings, Nixon turns to obfuscation: “You have lumped together a number of charges, and I can’t vouch for the accuracy of them.” (Reston later writes, “So facts became charges” in Nixon’s characterization of events.) Nixon asks for Frost’s sources for each charge, but Frost refuses to respond to the question. (Reston 2007, pp. 116-118)

Former President Richard Nixon is nearly 20 minutes late for his second Watergate interview with David Frost (see April 13-15, 1977 and April 13, 1977). Neither Frost nor his team of researchers realize how rattled Nixon is from the last session. Frost begins the interview by asking about the so-called “Dean report” (see March 20, 1973), the results of John Dean’s “internal investigation” of the Watergate conspiracy. Dean’s report would have served two purposes: it would hopefully have removed suspicion from any White House officials as to their involvement in the conspiracy, and, if it was ever pulled apart and shown to be a compendium of lies and evasion, would have pointed to Dean as the central figure in the conspiracy. Dean never wrote the report, but instead became a witness for the prosecution (see April 6-20, 1973. June 3, 1973, and June 25-29, 1973). Since Dean never wrote the report, Frost asks Nixon why he told the deputy attorney general, Henry Peterson, that there was indeed such a report (Nixon had called it “accurate but not full”). Astonishingly, Nixon asserts that Dean did write the report, and that it indeed showed no “vulnerability or criminality on the part of the president… so let’s not get away from that fact.” Frost sees Nixon’s vulnerability. Frost asks when he read the report. Caught, Nixon backs off of his assertion, saying that he “just heard that ah… that he had written a report… ah… the… that… ah… he… ah… ah, considered it to be inadequate.” Frost researcher James Reston, Jr. later writes, “[Nixon] was firmly skewered. His face showed it. His gibberish confirmed it.”
Ehrlichman's Report - Frost moves on to another report on Watergate by former aide John Ehrlichman, the so-called “modified, limited hangout,” and the offer of $200,000 in cash to Ehrlichman and fellow aide H. R. Haldeman for their legal fees. Nixon had told the nation that Ehrlichman would produce an informative and factual report on Watergate, even though he knew by then that Ehrlichman was himself heavily involved in the conspiracy (see August 15, 1973). “That’s like asking Al Capone for an independent investigation of organized crime in Chicago,” Frost observes. “How could one of the prime suspects, even if he was the Pope, conduct an independent inquiry?” Instead of answering the question, Nixon ducks into obfuscation about what exactly constitutes a “prime suspect.”
Nixon Begins to Crack - Reston later writes that, looking back on the interview, it is at this point that Nixon begins to “crack” in earnest. Frost has cast serious doubts on Nixon’s veracity and used Nixon’s own words and actions to demonstrate his culpability. Now Frost asks a broader question: “I still don’t know why you didn’t pick up the phone and tell the cops. When you found out the things that Haldeman and Ehrlichman had done, there is no evidence anywhere of a rebuke, but only of scenarios and excuses.” Nixon responds with what Reston calls a long, “disjointed peroration… about Richard the Isolated and Richard the Victimized… Nixon was desperate to move from fact to sentiment.” But Nixon is not merely rambling. Woven throughout are mentions of the guilt of the various White House officials (but always others, never Nixon’s own guilt), apology, mistakes and misjudgments. Clearly he is hoping that he can paint himself as a sympathetic figure, victimized by fate, bad fortune, and the ill will of his enemies. (Haldeman is so outraged by this stretch that he will soon announce his intention to tell everything in a book—see February 1978; Ehrlichman will call it a “smarmy, maudlin rationalization that will be tested and found false.”) Nixon says he merely “screwed up terribly in what was a little thing [that] became a big thing.”
Crossroads - Frost tries to ease an admission of complicity from Nixon—perhaps if hammering him with facts won’t work, appealing to Nixon’s sentimentality will. “Why not go a little farther?” Frost asks. “That word mistake is a trigger word with people. Would you say to clear the air that, for whatever motives, however waylaid by emotion or whatever you were waylaid by, you were part of a cover-up?” Nixon refuses. Behind the cameras, Nixon staffer Jack Brennan holds up a legal pad with the message “LET’S TALK” (or perhaps “LET HIM TALK”—Reston’s memory is unclear on this point). Either way, Frost decides to take a short break. Brennan hustles Reston into a room, closes the door, and says, “You’ve brought him to the toughest moment of his life. He wants to be forthcoming, but you’ve got to give him a chance.” He wouldn’t confess to being part of a criminal conspiracy, and he wouldn’t admit to committing an impeachable offense. Nixon’s staff has been arguing for days that Nixon should admit to something, but Brennan and Reston cannot agree as to what. Reston later writes that Nixon is at a personal crossroads: “Could he admit his demonstrated guilt, express contrition, and apologize? Two years of national agony were reduced to the human moment. Could he conquer his pride and his conceit? Now we were into Greek theater.” When the interview resumes, Nixon briefly reminisces about his brother Arthur, who died from meningitis at age seven. Was Frost using the story of his brother to open Nixon up? “We’re at an extraordinary moment,” Frost says, and dramatically tosses his clipboard onto the coffee table separating the two men. “Would you do what the American people yearn to hear—not because they yearn to hear it, but just to tell all—to level? You’ve explained how you got caught up in this thing. You’ve explained your motives. I don’t want to quibble about any of that. Coming down to sheer substance, would you go further?” Nixon responds, “Well, what would you express?” Reston will later write, “Every American journalist I have ever known would shrivel at this plea for help, hiding with terror behind the pose of the uninvolved, ‘objective’ interviewer. The question was worthy of Socrates: Frost must lead Nixon to truth and enlightenment.” Frost gropes about a bit, then lists the categories of wrongdoing. First, there were more than mere mistakes. “There was wrongdoing, whether it was a crime or not. Yes, it may have been a crime, too. Two, the power of the presidency was abused. The oath of office was not fulfilled. And three, the American people were put through two years of agony, and… I think the American people need to hear it. I think that unless you say it, you’re going to be haunted for the rest of your life…”
Apology and Admission - Nixon’s response is typically long, prefaced with a rambling discussion of his instructions to speechwriter Ray Price to include his own name with those of Haldeman’s and Ehrlichman’s in the speech announcing their resignations “if you think I ought to” (see April 29, 1973), a litany of all the good things he did while president, and a short, bitter diatribe against those who had sought to bring him down. He never committed a crime, he insists, because he lacked the motive for the commission of a crime.
Terrible Mistakes - But all this is prelude. Nixon shifts to the core of the issue: he had made terrible mistakes not worthy of the presidency. He had violated his own standards of excellence. He deliberately misled the American people about Watergate, he admits, and now he regrets his actions. His statements were not true because they did not go as far as they should have, and “for all of those things I have a deep regret… I don’t go with the idea that what brought me down was a coup, a conspiracy. I gave ‘em the sword. They stuck it in and twisted it with relish. I guess if I’d been in their position, I’d’a done the same thing.” Nixon will not, or perhaps cannot, plainly admit that he broke the law in working to conceal the facts surrounding Watergate, but he does admit that after March 21, 1973, he failed to carry out his duties as president and went to “the edge of the law.… That I came to the edge, I would have to say that a reasonable person could call that a cover-up.” Reston notes that Nixon has just admitted to a standard of guilt high enough for a civil court if not a criminal court. But Nixon isn’t done. (Reston 2007, pp. 137-155)
Calls Resigning a 'Voluntary Impeachment' - “I did not commit, in my view, an impeachable offense,” he says. “Now, the House has ruled overwhelmingly that I did. Of course, that was only an indictment, and it would have to be tried in the Senate. I might have won, I might have lost. But even if I had won in the Senate by a vote or two, I would have been crippled. And in any event, for six months the country couldn’t afford having the president in the dock in the United States Senate. And there can never be an impeachment in the future in this country without a president voluntarily impeaching himself. I have impeached myself. That speaks for itself.” Resigning the presidency (see August 8, 1974), he says, was a “voluntary impeachment.” (Guardian 9/7/2007)
Reactions - Frost and his researchers are stunned at Nixon’s statements, as will the millions be who watch the interview when it is broadcast. (Reston 2007, pp. 137-155) In 2002, Frost will recall, “I sensed at that moment he was most the vulnerable he’d ever be, ever again. It seemed like an almost constitutional moment with his vulnerability at that point.… I hadn’t expected him to go as far as that, frankly. I thought he would have stonewalled more at the last stage. I think that was probably one of the reasons why it was something of a catharsis for the American people at that time that he had finally faced up to these issues, not in a court of law, which a lot of people would have loved to have seen him in a court of law, but that wasn’t going to happen. So—he’d been pardoned. But faced up in a forum where he was clearly not in control and I think that’s why it had the impact it did, probably.” (National Public Radio 6/17/2002) Not everyone is impressed with Nixon’s mea culpa; the Washington Post, for one, writes, “He went no further than he did in his resignation speech two and a half years ago,” in a story co-written by Watergate investigative reporter Bob Woodward. (Segal 4/30/2007) This interview will air on US television on May 26, 1977. (Steele 5/27/1977)

The cover of ‘Conservatives Without Conscience.’The cover of ‘Conservatives Without Conscience.’ [Source: Barnes and Noble (.com)]Author and former Nixon White House counsel John Dean writes in his book Conservatives Without Conscience that it was never public opinion that drove Richard Nixon to resign his office (see August 8, 1974).
Loss of Support among White House Officials Forced Resignation - In 1981, social scientist Bob Altermeyer wrote in his book Right Wing Authoritarianism that Nixon resigned, not because of his plummeting poll ratings, but “because [Nixon]‘s attorney had forced the disclosure of evidence so damaging that it seemed certain he would be convicted of high crimes by the Senate.” Dean approvingly cites Altermeyer’s conclusion and adds, “This is true, but there is more to the story.” Nixon had a number of legal recourses to answer any charges brought against him, Dean writes, “many of which [President] Bush and [Vice President] Cheney are promoting today under the rubric of national security and the inherent power of the presidency.” Nixon finally resigned, Dean argues, not because of public opinion, or of fear of the law, or even because of the erosion of support he suffered among members of Congress. It was the abandonment of Nixon by his own defenders in the White House that finally drove Nixon to resign. “Other than White House counsel Fred Buzhardt, and possibly chief of staff Al Haig (with whom Buzhardt had roomed at West Point), no one was aware that Nixon was lying about what he knew and when he knew it once the cover-up had initially fallen apart. Nixon provided the lawyer he had hired to defend him in the House’s impeachment inquiry (see May 9, 1974), James St. Clair, with false information, and St. Clair—as it happened—was a man of integrity and not a right-wing authoritarian follower. When he found out that his client had lied to him he had two choices: to resign or to join the new cover-up. He was, as it happened, interested in participating in the latter.”
Bush, Cheney Would Defy Law, Dean Argues - Dean continues: “Nixon at one point considered defying the Supreme Court ruling that he turn over his incriminating tapes (evidence that revealed that his defense was a sham) (see July 24, 1974) on the very grounds that Bush and Cheney argue. They have authority under the Constitution to read it and comply with it as they see fit. Once it was apparent that Richard Nixon had broken the law, he made the most significant decision of his presidency: the decision to honor the rule of law and resign.… [T]here is little doubt in my mind that Bush and Cheney, in the same situation, would not budge; rather, they would spin the facts as they always have, and move forward with their agenda. The president and vice president, it appears, believe the lesson of Watergate was not to stay within the law, but rather not to get caught. And if you do get caught, claim that the president can do whatever he thinks necessary in the name of national security.” (Dean 2006, pp. 181-182)

James Reston Jr.James Reston Jr. [Source: James Reston, Jr]James Reston Jr., a member of David Frost’s research team for the famous Nixon-Frost interviews (see Early 1976), publishes his book, The Conviction of Richard Nixon, about those debates and their echoes in the actions of the Bush administration. Reston writes that “it might be argued that the post-September 11 domestic abuses find their origin in Watergate. In 1977 the commentators were shocked when Nixon said about his burglaries and wiretaps, ‘If the president does it, that means it’s not illegal’ (see April 6, 1977).… These brazen words… come eerily down to us through the tunnel of the last thirty years.”
Presidential Immunity - Reston writes: “In the area of criminal activity, Nixon argues, the president is immune. He can eavesdrop; he can cover up; he can approve burglaries; he can bend government agencies like the CIA and the FBI to his own political purposes. He can do so in the name of ‘national security’ and ‘executive privilege.’ And when these acts are exposed, he can call them ‘mistakes’ or ‘stupid things’ or ‘pipsqueak’ matters. In the 21st century, Nixon’s principle has been extended to authorizing torture, setting up secret prisons around the world, and ignoring the requirement for search warrants. A president can scrap the Geneva Convention and misuse the Defense Department and lie about the intelligence analyses. He is above the law. This is especially so when the nation is mired in an unpopular war, when the country is divided, when mass protests are in the streets of America, and an American president is pilloried around the world. If Nixon’s words resonate today, so also does the word Watergate.”
Echoes of Nixon and Watergate - Reston continues: “Again the nation is in a failing, elective war. A Nixon successor is again charged with abuse of power in covering up and distorting crucial facts as he dragged the country, under false pretenses, into war. Again secrecy reigns in the White House, and the argument is made that national security trumps all.… In 2007 the issue has returned with a vengeance. And one can become almost wistful in realizing that the period after Watergate brought an era of reform. A campaign finance law was passed; Congress reasserted its control over intelligence activities; and moral codes were enunciated for public officials. National security, the New York Times editorialized after the interviews, was no longer ‘the magic incantation’ that automatically paralyzed inquiry. After September 11, the incantation became magic again. And so, people have asked, after the Bush presidency, who will be his David Frost? It is hard to imagine that there will be one.” (Reston 2007, pp. 9-10, 180)

California lawyer Orly Taitz, who has long questioned President Obama’s citizenship (see November 12, 2008 and After, March 13, 2009, August 1-4, 2009, September 16-21, 2009, September 17, 2009, October 29, 2009, March 15, 2010, April 16, 2010, July 7 - August 16, 2010, August 9, 2010 - January 11, 2011, and April 27, 2011) to the point where a Georgia judge has called her “delusional” (see October 13-16, 2009), says that she has doubts about the authenticity of Obama’s long-form birth certificate. Specifically, she says that a real birth certificate from 1961 would have listed Obama’s race as “Negro” and not “African.” She says: “Look, I applaud this release. I think it’s a step in the right direction. I credit Donald Trump in pushing this issue.” However, she adds: “In those years… when they wrote race, they were writing ‘Negro’ not ‘African.’ In those days nobody wrote African as a race, it just wasn’t one of the options. It sounds like it would be written today, in the age of political correctness, and not in 1961 when they wrote white or Asian or ‘Negro.‘… It looks like terminology that would be used today, not 1961.” She continues to insist that because Obama’s father is Kenyan, Obama is ineligible for the presidency because he is not a “natural born citizen,” in spite of being contradicted by the Fourteenth Amendment. (Reilly 4/27/2011; Weisman 4/27/2011) She also wants to know why the certificate lists the address of Obama’s grandparents, 6085 Kalanianaole Highway in Honolulu, and not his parents’ address. Still, she says the birth certificate is an improvement over the previous “short form” certificate released by Obama in 2008 (see June 13, 2008). “I have to say that this is a step in the right direction,” she says, “just as the release of the Watergate tapes was a step in right direction [sic] by Richard Nixon (see July 13-16, 1973). And like Richard Nixon, there’s a good chance this will cost him his presidency (see August 8, 1974). It is a much better document than we had before.” (Weisman 4/27/2011)

The US government’s Nixon Presidential Library begins making the grand jury testimony of former President Richard Nixon available to the public. In June 1975, Nixon testified about his involvement in the Watergate scandal after his resignation (see August 8, 1974) to a California grand jury. Although he was protected by the pardon granted him by his successor, Gerald Ford (see September 8, 1974), he could have been charged with perjury if he lied under oath. No such charges were filed against Nixon. Judge Royce Lambeth ordered the testimony made public in July 2011 over the opposition of the Obama administration, which argued that too many people from the Nixon administration were still alive for secret testimony involving them to be made public. Lambeth wrote, “The court is confident that disclosure will greatly benefit the public and its understanding of Watergate without compromising the tradition and objectives of grand jury secrecy.” The records are available at the California home of the library and online. Historian Stanley Kutler, who was one of the principal figures involved in the lawsuit to bring the testimony to light, says, “This is Nixon unplugged.” However, he adds: “I have no illusions. Richard Nixon knew how to dodge questions with the best of them. I am sure that he danced, skipped, around a number of things.” Nixon’s testimony, conducted for 11 hours over two days, was the first time an ex-president ever testified before a grand jury. The library is also releasing thousands of pages of other Watergate-era documents, several oral histories from that time, and 45 minutes of recordings made by Nixon with a dictating machine. Some portions of the Nixon grand jury testimony have not yet been made public, due to the fact that they deal with people still alive. Some or all of that information may be made public at a future date. Kutler says it is doubtful the public will learn much more about Watergate from the new records: “The grand jury after that testimony had a chance to sit and indict but they did not, so I don’t expect it to be that important.” He adds that the opening of grand jury records is a milestone by itself, “another precedent for opening up secretiveness in public life.” (Woodward and Benac 11/10/2011) After initially reviewing the transcripts, Kutner says: “It’s Nixon being Nixon. It’s a virtuoso performance. How about $10 for every time he says, ‘I don’t recall’?” (Daily Mail 11/11/2011) According to reporters who review the transcripts, Nixon spent much of his time before the grand jury defending his legacy as president and denying first-hand knowledge of any of the activities that made up the Watergate scandal, but acknowledging his administration committed some questionable acts. “I want the jury and the special prosecutors to kick the hell out of us for wiretapping and for the plumbers and the rest,” he said, “because obviously, you may have concluded it is wrong.” (Woodward and Benac 11/11/2011) Nixon reiterated the story that his secretary Rose Mary Woods accidentally erased 18 1/2 minutes of an audiotape that might have shown his complicity in the Watergate conspiracy (see November 21, 1973), saying: “Rose had thought it was four minutes, or something like that. Now the counsel have found that it is 18-and-a-half minutes, and I practically blew my stack.… If you are interested in my view as to what happened, it is very simple. It is that it was an accident.” Nixon was harsh with the Watergate prosecutors, accusing them of persecuting him and employing what he called double standards against him as opposed to his Democratic adversaries. “If I could give one last bit of advice,” he told the prosecutors, “taking the double standard is going to make you much more popular with the Washington press corps, with the Georgetown social set, if you ever go to Georgetown, with the power elite in this country. But on the other hand, think of your children—they are going to judge you in the pages of history.… I mean, I am not unaware of the fact that the great majority of the people working in special prosecutor’s office did not support me for president.” (Daily Mail 11/11/2011)

Investigative journalist Robert Parry speaks at a conference in Heidelberg, Germany concerning the progression of journalism from the 1970s to the present. Parry tells the gathering that American investigative journalism may have hit something of a zenith in the 1970s, with the media exposure of the Pentagon Papers (see March 1971) and the Watergate scandal (see August 8, 1974). “That was a time when US journalism perhaps was at its best, far from perfect, but doing what the Founders had in mind when they afforded special protections to the American press,” he says. “In the 1970s, besides the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, there were other important press disclosures, like the My Lai massacre story and the CIA abuses—from Iran to Guatemala, from Cuba to Chile. For people around the world, American journalism was the gold standard. Granted, that was never the full picture. There were shortcomings even in the 1970s. You also could argue that the US news media’s performance then was exceptional mostly in contrast to its failures during the Cold War, when reporters tended to be stenographers to power, going along to get along, including early in the Vietnam War.” However, those days are long past, Parry notes, and in recent years, American journalism has, he says, gone “terribly wrong.” Parry says that the American press was subjected to an orchestrated program of propaganda and manipulation on a par with what the CIA did in many foreign countries: “Think how the CIA would target a country with the goal of shoring up a wealthy oligarchy. The agency might begin by taking over influential media outlets or starting its own. It would identify useful friends and isolate troublesome enemies. It would organize pro-oligarchy political groups. It would finance agit-prop specialists skilled at undermining and discrediting perceived enemies. If the project were successful, you would expect the oligarchy to consolidate its power, to get laws written in its favor. And eventually the winners would take a larger share of the nation’s wealth. And what we saw in the late 1970s and early 1980s in the United States was something like the behavior of an embattled oligarchy. Nixon’s embittered allies and the Right behaved as if they were following a CIA script. They built fronts; they took over and opened new media outlets; they spread propaganda; they discredited people who got in the way; ultimately, they consolidated power; they changed laws in their favor; and—over the course of several decades—they made themselves even richer, indeed a lot richer, and that, in turn, has translated into even more power.”
Building a Base - Right-wing billionaires such as the Koch brothers (see 1979-1980) and Richard Mellon Scaife, along with Nixon-era figures such as former Treasury Secretary William Simon (a Wall Street investment banker who ran the right-wing Olin Foundation) worked to organize conservative foundations; their money went into funding what Parry calls “right-wing media… right-wing think tanks… [and] right-wing attack groups. Some of these attack groups were set up to go after troublesome reporters.” Parry finds it ironic, in light of the CIA’s interference in the affairs of other nations, that two foreign media moguls, Sun Myung Moon and Rupert Murdoch, were key figures in building and financing this conservative media construct. Some media outlets, such as Fox News (see Summer 1970 and October 7, 1996), were created from scratch, while others, such as the venerable and formerly liberal New Republic, were bought out and taken over by conservatives. When Ronald Reagan ascended to the White House, Parry says, he brought along with him “a gifted team of [public relations] and ad men.” Vice President George H.W. Bush, a former CIA director, enabled access to that agency’s propaganda professionals. And Reagan named William Casey to head the CIA; Casey, a former Nixon administration official, was “obsessed [with] the importance of deception and propaganda,” Parry says. “Casey understood that he who controlled the flow of information had a decisive advantage in any conflict.”
Two-Pronged Attack - Two key sources of information for Washington media insiders were targeted, Parry says: the “fiercely independent” CIA analytical division, whose analyses had so often proven damaging to White House plans when reported, and the “unruly” Washington press corps. Casey targeted the CIA analysts, placing his young assistant, Robert Gates, in charge of the analytical division; Gates’s reorganization drove many troublesome analysts into early retirement, to be replaced with more malleable analysts who would echo the White House’s hard line against “Soviet expansionism.” Another Casey crony, Walter Raymond Jr., worked to corral the Washington press corps from his position on the National Security Council. Raymond headed an interagency task force that ostensibly spread “good news” about American policies in the foreign press, but in reality worked to smear and besmirch American journalists who the White House found troubling. According to Parry, “Secret government documents that later emerged in the Iran-Contra scandal revealed that Raymond’s team worked aggressively and systematically to lobby news executives and turn them against their reporters when the reporters dug up information that clashed with Reagan’s propaganda, especially in hot spots like Central America.” It was easy to discredit female journalists in Central America, Parry says; Raymond’s team would spread rumors that they were secretly having sexual liaisons with Communist officials. Other reporters were dismissed as “liberals,” a label that many news executives were eager to avoid. Working through the news executives was remarkably successful, Parry says, and it was not long before many Washington reporters were either brought to heel or marginalized.
'Perception Management' - Reagan’s team called its domestic propaganda scheme “perception management.” Parry says: “The idea was that if you could manage how the American people perceived events abroad, you could not only insure their continued support of the foreign policy, but in making the people more compliant domestically. A frightened population is much easier to control. Thus, if you could manage the information flows inside the government and inside the Washington press corps, you could be more confident that there would be no more Vietnam-style protests. No more Pentagon Papers. No more My Lai massacre disclosures. No more Watergates.” The New York Times and Washington Post, the newspapers that had led the surge of investigative reporting in the 1970s, were effectively muzzled during the Reagan era; Parry says that the two papers “became more solicitous to the Establishment than they were committed to the quality journalism that had contributed to the upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s.” The same happened at the Associated Press (AP), where Parry had attempted, with limited success, to dig into the Reagan administration’s Central American policies, policies that would eventually crystallize into the Iran-Contra scandal (see May 5, 1987). Few newspapers followed the lead of AP reporters such as Parry and Brian Barger until late 1986, when the Hasenfus air crash provided a news story that editors could no longer ignore (see October 5, 1986). But, Parry says, by the time of the Iran-Contra hearings, few news providers, including the Associated Press, had the stomach for another scandal that might result in another impeachment, particularly in light of the relentless pressure coming from the Reagan administration and its proxies. By June 1990, Parry says he understood “the concept of ‘perception management’ had carried the day in Washington, with remarkably little resistance from the Washington press corps.… Washington journalists had reverted to their pre-Vietnam, pre-Watergate inability to penetrate important government secrets in a significant way.” The process accelerated after 9/11, Parry says: “[M]any journalists reverted back their earlier roles as stenographers to power. They also became cheerleaders for a misguided war in Iraq. Indeed, you can track the arc of modern American journalism from its apex at the Pentagon Papers and Watergate curving downward to that center point of Iran-Contra before reaching the nadir of Bush’s war in Iraq. Journalists found it hard even to challenge Bush when he was telling obvious lies. For instance, in June 2003, as the search for WMD came up empty, Bush began to tell reporters that he had no choice but to invade because Saddam Hussein had refused to let UN inspectors in. Though everyone knew that Hussein had let the inspectors in and that it was Bush who had forced them to leave in March 2003, not a single reporter confronted Bush on this lie, which he repeated again and again right through his exit interviews in 2008” (see November 2002-March 2003, November 25, 2002, December 2, 2002, December 5, 2002, January 9, 2003, March 7, 2003, and March 17, 2003).
The Wikileaks Era and the 'Fawning Corporate Media' - Parry says that now, the tough-minded independent media has been all but supplanted by what former CIA analyst Ray McGovern calls the “Fawning Corporate Media.” This has increased public distrust of the media, which has led to people seeking alternative investigative and reporting methods. Parry comments that much of the real investigative journalism happening now is the product of non-professionals working outside the traditional media structure, such as Wikileaks (see February 15, 2007, 2008, and April 18, 2009). However, the independent media have not demonstrated they can reach the level of influence of institutions like the Washington Post and the New York Times. “[I]f we were assessing how well the post-Watergate CIA-style covert operation worked,” Parry says, “we’d have to conclude that it was remarkably successful. Even after George W. Bush took the United States to war in Iraq under false pretenses and even after he authorized the torture of detainees in the ‘war on terror,’ no one involved in those decisions has faced any accountability at all. When high-flying Wall Street bankers brought the world’s economy to its knees with risky gambles in 2008, Western governments used trillions of dollars in public moneys to bail the bankers out. But not one senior banker faced prosecution.… Another measure of how the post-Watergate counteroffensive succeeded would be to note how very well America’s oligarchy had done financially in the past few decades. Not only has political power been concentrated in their hands, but the country’s wealth, too.… So, a sad but—I think—fair conclusion would be that at least for the time being, perception management has won out over truth. But the struggle over information and democracy has entered another new and unpredictable phase.” (Parry 5/15/2012)


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