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Context of 'May 14, 1969: Fortas Resigns from Supreme Court Due to ‘Ugly Bluff’ by Nixon Justice Department'

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Abe Fortas.Abe Fortas. [Source: US Senate]Abe Fortas resigns from the Supreme Court under pressure. Fortas, a liberal Democrat and political crony of outgoing president Lyndon Johnson, was originally chosen by Johnson to replace retiring Chief Justice Earl Warren, but conservatives in the Senate blocked Fortas’s confirmation (see June 23, 1969). President Nixon intended to fill the Court with as many of his choices as possible, and he, along with conservative Republicans and Democrats who do not agree with Fortas’s liberal stance on civil rights, targeted Fortas for a smear campaign designed to force him off the bench. Nixon used what White House counsel John Dean will later call “an ugly bluff” against Fortas: He has Attorney General John Mitchell inform Fortas that he intends to open a special probe into Fortas’s dealings—while on the bench—with a financier already under investigation. Mitchell insinuates that he will put Fortas’s wife, herself an attorney and partner at Fortas’s former law firm, and other former partners of Fortas’s on the witness stand. Whether Fortas actually had any direct illegal dealings with this financier is unclear—certainly his dealings had such an appearance—but the bluff worked; Fortas agreed to retire early, thus clearing a position on the Court for Nixon to fill. Nixon will find it difficult to replace Fortas with one of the Southern conservatives he wants on the Court; Senate Democrats will lead successful efforts to block the nomination of two of Nixon’s nominees, the respected, moderately conservative Clement Haynsworth, and the virulently racist G. Harrold Carswell, himself recommended by Mitchell’s assistant, William Rehnquist. (Carswell’s failed nomination will produce a memorable statement from Senator Roman Hruska (R-NE), who, in defense of Carswell, tells the Senate: “Even if he is mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they, and a little chance?”) Nixon will use the defeats to make political hay in the South by claiming that Senate Democrats do not want a Southerner on the bench. [Dean, 2007, pp. 127-129]

Entity Tags: Richard M. Nixon, US Supreme Court, William Rehnquist, Roman Hruska, Lyndon B. Johnson, John Mitchell, G. Harrold Carswell, John Dean, Clement Haynsworth, Earl Warren, Abe Fortas

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties, Nixon and Watergate

June 23, 1969: Burger Becomes Chief Justice

Warren Burger.Warren Burger. [Source: US Government]Former appellate judge Warren Burger begins his term as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Burger was named months before by newly elected president Richard Nixon after two earlier candidates, former Eisenhower attorney general Herbert Brownell and former GOP presidential candidate Thomas Dewey, turned down the job. Supreme Court Associate Justice Abe Fortas was to be Chief Justice as one of then-president Lyndon Johnson’s last acts, but Senate Republicans, supported by conservative Senate Democrats who oppose Fortas’s civil rights rulings, successfully filibustered Fortas’s nomination and actually forced Fortas’s premature resignation (see May 14, 1969). The blocking of Fortas has an additional element: in June 1968, Chief Justice Earl Warren announced that he would step down, giving Johnson ample time to place Fortas in the position. However, Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon wanted to name the Chief Justice himself, if he won the national election. To that end, Nixon sent word to Congressional Republicans to block Johnson’s naming of a replacement for Warren. Senate Republicans launched the filibuster after being given information that intimated Fortas had received an inordinately large honorarium for teaching a course at American University, a sum said to have been raised by one of his former law partners. [Dean, 2007, pp. 127-128]

Entity Tags: Herbert Brownell, Earl Warren, Thomas Dewey, Warren Burger, Abe Fortas, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, US Supreme Court

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Official portrait of Justice William O. Douglas.Official portrait of Justice William O. Douglas. [Source: Oyez.org]After the second of President Richard Nixon’s conservative Supreme Court nominees is rejected by Congress (see May 14, 1969), House Minority Leader Gerald Ford (R-MI) leads an unsuccessful fight to impeach Justice William O. Douglas. Nixon, through White House aide John Ehrlichman, mobilizes Ford to go after Douglas, presumably in retaliation for the rejection of Clement Haynsworth and G. Harrold Carswell. When legal scholars say that Douglas’s unconventional views and behavior come nowhere near constituting grounds for impeachment, Ford says that “an impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be in a given moment in history.” Ford uses unusually strong language (for him) in denouncing Douglas; he questions Douglas’s association with a charitable foundation, his association with the “leftish” Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, and blasts Douglas’s most recent book, Points of Rebellion, saying that it gives “legitimacy to the militant hippie-yippie movement” and is little more than an incitement to rebellion. (Ford is particularly outraged by the recent publication of an excerpt of Douglas’s book in Evergreen magazine, an excerpt preceded by photographs of nudes that Ford calls “hardcore pornography.” Ford expresses his moral outrage by ensuring that his colleagues have the chance to view every photograph.) Although Ford does enough in-chamber logrolling to get the matter working in the House Rules Committee, two weeks later Nixon abruptly backs off, leaving Ford, in the words of author Barry Werth, “to look foolishly partisan.” [Time, 4/27/1970; Werth, 2006, pp. 233-234]

Entity Tags: US Supreme Court, Richard M. Nixon, William O. Douglas, John Ehrlichman, House Rules Committee, Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr, Barry Werth, Evergreen Magazine, G. Harrold Carswell, Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, Clement Haynsworth

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

Frank Wills, the security guard who discovers the taped doors and alerts the DC police.Frank Wills, the security guard who discovers the taped doors and alerts the DC police. [Source: Bettmann / Corbis]Five burglars (see June 17, 1972) are arrested at 2:30 a.m. while breaking in to the Democratic National Committee (DNC) Headquarters offices in Washington’s Watergate hotel and office complex; the DNC occupies the entire sixth floor. [Washington Post, 6/18/1972; Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum, 7/3/2007]
Discovery - They are surprised at gunpoint by three plainclothes officers of the DC Metropolitan Police. Two ceiling panels have been removed from the secretary’s office, which is adjacent to that of DNC chairman Lawrence O’Brien. It is possible to place a surveillance device above those panels that could monitor O’Brien’s office. The five suspects, all wearing surgical gloves, have among them two sophisticated voice-activated surveillance devices that can monitor conversations and telephone calls alike; lock-picks, door jimmies, and an assortment of burglary tools; and $2,300 in cash, most of it in $100 bills in sequence. They also have a walkie-talkie, a shortwave receiver tuned to the police band, 40 rolls of unexposed film, two 35mm cameras, and three pen-sized tear gas guns. Near to where the men are captured is a file cabinet with two open drawers; a DNC source speculates that the men might have been preparing to photograph the contents of the file drawers.
Guard Noticed Taped Door - The arrests take place after a Watergate security guard, Frank Wills, notices a door connecting a stairwell with the hotel’s basement garage has been taped so it will not lock; the guard removes the tape, but when he checks ten minutes later and finds the lock taped once again, the guard calls the police. The police find that all of the stairwell doors leading from the basement to the sixth floor have been similarly taped to prevent them from locking. The door leading from the stairwell to the DNC offices had been jimmied. During a search of the offices, one of the burglars leaps from behind a desk and surrenders. [Washington Post, 6/18/1972] The FBI agents responding to the burglary are initially told that the burglars may have been attempting to plant a bomb in the offices. The “bomb” turns out to be surveillance equipment. [O.T. Jacobson, 7/5/1974 pdf file]
Last Mission for Martinez - One of the burglars, Cuban emigre and CIA agent Eugenio Martinez, will recall the burglary. They have already successfully burglarized a psychiatrist’s office in search of incriminating material on Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg (see September 9, 1971), and successfully bugged the DNC offices less than a month previously (see May 27-28, 1972), but Martinez is increasingly ill at ease over the poor planning and amateurish behavior of his colleagues (see Mid-June 1972). This will be his last operation, he has decided. Team leader E. Howard Hunt, whom Martinez calls by his old code name “Eduardo,” is obviously intrigued by the material secured from the previous burglary, and wants to go through the offices a second time to find more. Martinez is dismayed to find that Hunt has two operations planned for the evening, one for the DNC and one for the campaign offices of Democratic candidate George McGovern. Former CIA agent and current Nixon campaign security official James McCord (see June 19, 1972), the electronics expert of the team, is equally uncomfortable with the rushed, almost impromptu plan. Hunt takes all of the burglars’ identification and puts it in a briefcase. He gives another burglar, Frank Sturgis, his phony “Edward J. Hamilton” ID from his CIA days, and gives each burglar $200 in cash to bribe their way out of trouble. Interestingly, Hunt tells the burglars to keep the keys to their hotel rooms. Martinez later writes: “I don’t know why. Even today, I don’t know. Remember, I was told in advance not to ask about those things.”
Taping the Doors - McCord goes into the Watergage office complex, signs in, and begins taping the doors to the stairwells from the eighth floor all the way to the garage. After waiting for everyone to leave the offices, the team prepares to enter. Gonzalez and Sturgis note that the tape to the basement garage has been removed. Martinez believes the operation will be aborted, but McCord disagrees; he convinces Hunt and the other team leader, White House aide G. Gordon Liddy, to continue. It is McCord’s responsibility to remove the tape once the burglars are inside, but he fails to do so. The team is well into the DNC offices when the police burst in. “There was no way out,” Martinez will recall. “We were caught.” Barker is able to surreptitiously advise Hunt, who is still in the hotel, that they have been discovered. Martinez will later wonder if the entire second burglary might have been “a set-up or something like that because it was so easy the first time. We all had that feeling.” The police quickly find the burglars’ hotel keys and then the briefcase containing their identification. As they are being arrested, McCord, who rarely speaks and then not above a whisper, takes charge of the situation. He orders everyone to keep their mouths shut. “Don’t give your names,” he warns. “Nothing. I know people. Don’t worry, someone will come and everything will be all right. This thing will be solved.” [Harper's, 10/1974; Spartacus Schoolnet, 8/7/2007]
'Third-Rate Burglary' - White House press secretary Ron Ziegler will respond to allegations that the White House and the Nixon presidential campaign might have been involved in the Watergate burglary by calling it a “third-rate burglary attempt,” and warning that “certain elements may try to stretch this beyond what it is.” [Washington Post, 5/1/1973] The Washington Post chooses, for the moment, to cover it as a local burglary and nothing more; managing editor Howard Simons says that it could be nothing more than a crime committed by “crazy Cubans.” [Bernstein and Woodward, 1974, pp. 19]
CIA Operation? - In the weeks and months to come, speculation will arise as to the role of the CIA in the burglary. The Nixon White House will attempt to pin the blame for the Watergate conspiracy on the CIA, an attempt forestalled by McCord (see March 19-23, 1973). In a 1974 book on his involvement in the conspiracy, McCord will write: “The Watergate operation was not a CIA operation. The Cubans may have been misled by others into believing that it was a CIA operation. I know for a fact that it was not.” Another author, Carl Oglesby, will claim otherwise, saying that the burglary is a CIA plot against Nixon. Former CIA officer Miles Copeland will claim that McCord led the burglars into a trap. Journalist Andrew St. George will claim that CIA Director Richard Helms knew of the break-in before it occurred, a viewpoint supported by Martha Mitchell, the wife of Nixon campaign director John Mitchell, who will tell St. George that McCord is a “double agent” whose deliberate blunders led to the arrest of the burglars. No solid evidence of CIA involvement in the Watergate conspiracy has so far been revealed. [Spartacus Schoolnet, 8/2007]

Entity Tags: Nixon administration, Howard Simons, Lawrence O’Brien, James McCord, Martha Mitchell, Richard M. Nixon, Richard Helms, Washington Post, Ron Ziegler, George S. McGovern, Miles Copeland, G. Gordon Liddy, John Mitchell, Frank Sturgis, Carl Oglesby, Bob Woodward, Andrew St. George, Central Intelligence Agency, Carl Bernstein, Democratic National Committee, Daniel Ellsberg, E. Howard Hunt, Eugenio Martinez, Frank Wills

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate, Elections Before 2000

President Nixon urges House Minority Leader Gerald Ford (R-MI) to ensure that the House Banking and Currency Committee fails to investigate the source of the freshly minted, sequential stack of $100 bills found on the Watergate burglars (see 2:30 a.m.June 17, 1972). Ford, who has proven his loyalty to Nixon by mounting an unsuccessful bid to impeach Supreme Court Justice William Douglas at Nixon’s behest (see Mid-April 1970), complies without question. Ford will later lie about his actions during his confirmation hearings to become vice president (see October 12, 1973). Ford, according to reporter Seymour Hersh, “understood that personal and political loyalty would get him further in Washington than complete testimony.” [Werth, 2006, pp. 234]

Entity Tags: William O. Douglas, House Banking and Currency Committee, Seymour Hersh, Richard M. Nixon, Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

Gerald R. Ford, Jr.Gerald R. Ford, Jr. [Source: Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library]President Nixon names Congressman Gerald R. Ford (R-MI) as his nominee for vice president. Two days before, Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned his office after being convicted of tax evasion charges unrelated to Watergate (see October 10, 1973). [Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum, 5/3/1999] Nixon’s original choice for Agnew’s replacement is former Texas governor John Connally, in hopes that Connally can secure the 1976 GOP presidential nomination, win the election, and continue Nixon’s legacy. But Connally, Nixon’s Treasury Election, is himself under investigation for his handling of a secret Nixon campaign fund. Nixon’s close political ally and strategist Melvin Laird, Nixon’s first secretary of defense, and veteran political adviser Bryce Harlow advised Nixon to select Ford as his new vice president. Other Republicans are recommending better-known party stalwarts—former New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, California governor Ronald Reagan, Senate Watergate Committee co-chair Howard Baker, Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott, Senator Barry Goldwater, Republican Party chairman George H.W. Bush, Connally, Laird, and others—Ford is a complete party loyalist, popular among Congressional Republicans, and an influential member of the House Judiciary Committee. By naming Ford as vice president, Laird and Barlow hope to head off any impeachment vote by that committee. On October 10, Laird phoned Ford and, according to Laird’s later recollection, said: “Jerry, you’re going to get a call from Al Haig [Nixon’s chief of staff]. I don’t want any bullsh_t from you. Don’t hesitate. Don’t talk to Betty [Ford, his wife]. Say yes.” [Werth, 2006, pp. 30-31]

Entity Tags: Melvin Laird, Nelson Rockefeller, Spiro T. Agnew, Ronald Reagan, Richard M. Nixon, John Connally, Howard Baker, Bryce Harlow, Hugh Scott, Alexander M. Haig, Jr., Barry Goldwater, Betty Ford, Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr, House Judiciary Committee, George Herbert Walker Bush

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

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