40 years ago tonight

Richard Nixon’s resignation, which became effective one day later, ended the Watergate crisis. (Except that it didn’t. Nixon’s replacement, Gerald Ford, pardoned him one month later. Republicans got hammered at the polls in 1974, and after narrowly defeating former California Gov. Ronald Reagan for the GOP nomination, Ford lost his election in 1976 to a candidate who as president turned out to be basely incompetent.)

Conventional wisdom says that the break-in at Democratic national headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington was about the 1972 presidential campaign. George S. Will passes on a theory that the break-in wasn’t about 1972:

At about 5:15 p.m. on June 17, 1971, in the Oval Office, the president ordered a crime: “I want it implemented on a thievery basis. Goddamn it, get in and get those files. Blow the safe and get it.”

The burglary he demanded was not the one that would occur exactly one year later at the Democratic National Committee’s office in the Watergate complex. Richard Nixon was ordering a break-in at the Brookings Institution, a think tank, to seize material concerning U.S. diplomacy regarding North Vietnam during the closing weeks of the 1968 presidential campaign.

As they sometimes did regarding his intemperate commands, Nixon’s aides disregarded the one concerning Brookings. But from a White House atmosphere that licensed illegality came enough of it to destroy him.

Forty years have passed since Aug. 9, 1974, when a helicopter whisked Nixon off the White House lawn, and questions remain concerning why he became complicit in criminality. Ken Hughes has a theory.

Working at the University of Virginia, in the Miller Center’s Presidential Recording Program, Hughes has studied the Nixon tapes for more than a decade. In his new book, Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate, Hughes argues that Nixon ordered a crime in 1971 hoping to prevent public knowledge of a crime he committed in 1968.

In October 1968, Nixon’s lead over his Democratic opponent, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, was dwindling, partly because Humphrey had proposed a halt to U.S. bombing of North Vietnam. Five days before the election, President Lyndon Johnson announced the halt, hoping to convene peace talks. One impediment, however, was South Vietnam’s reluctance to participate. Its recalcitrance reflected its hope that it would be better supported by a Nixon administration.

On July 3, 1968, a Nixon campaign aide, Dick Allen, sent a memo proposing a meeting with Nixon and Anna Chennault, a Chinese American active in Republican politics. She would bring to the meeting South Vietnam’s ambassador to Washington. The memo said the meeting must be “top secret.” Nixon wrote on the memo: “Should be but I don’t see how — with the S.S. [Secret Service].” On July 12, however, she and the ambassador did meet secretly in New York with Nixon who, she later said, designated her his “sole representative” to the Saigon government.

The National Security Agency was reading diplomatic cables sent from South Vietnam≠±=’s Washington embassy to Saigon, where the CIA had a listening device in the office of South Vietnam’s president. The FBI was wiretapping South Vietnam’s embassy and monitoring Chennault’s movements in Washington, including her visit to that embassy on Oct. 30.

On Nov. 2 at 8:34 p.m., a teleprinter at Johnson’s ranch delivered an FBI report on the embassy wiretap: Chennault had told South Vietnam’s ambassador “she had received a message from her boss (not further identified). . . . She said the message was that the ambassador is to ‘hold on, we are gonna win.’ ” The Logan Act of 1799 makes it a crime for a private U.S. citizen, which Nixon then was, to interfere with U.S. government diplomatic negotiations.

On June 26, 1973, during the Senate Watergate hearings, Walt Rostow, who had been Johnson’s national security adviser, gave the head of the LBJ library a sealed envelope to be opened in 50 years, saying: “The file concerns the activities of Mrs. Chennault and others before and immediately after the election of 1968.” Rostow died in 2003.

Based on examination of the available evidence, Hughes concludes that Chennault was following Nixon’s directives (which Nixon denied in his 1977 interviews with David Frost). Hughes’s theory is:

June 17, 1971, was four days after the New York Times began publishing the leaked “Pentagon Papers,” the classified Defense Department history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Nixon worried that further leaks, including documents supposedly in a Brookings safe, would reveal his role in sabotaging negotiations that might have shortened the war. This fear caused Nixon to create the Special Investigations Unit — a.k.a. “the plumbers” — and to direct an aide to devise other proposals such as the one concerning Brookings. This aide suggested using the Internal Revenue Service against political adversaries, but added:

“The truth is we don’t have any reliable political friends at IRS. . . . We won’t be . . . in a position of effective leverage until such time as we have complete and total control of the top three slots at IRS.” Forty years later, the IRS has punished conservative groups, and evidence that might prove its criminality has been destroyed. Happy anniversary.

So here’s an interesting mental game: What if the public had known in 1972 about Nixon’s shenanigans in 1968? First, let’s say that Nixon had been forced to resign before the 1972 election. Imagine President Spiro Agnew.

Second, would that have helped the Democrats that much in 1972? I think few historians believe Nixon really needed Watergate to win, because the Democrats were in complete disarray at the presidential-candidate level. Two Republican Congressmen, Pete McCloskey of California and John Ashbrook of Ohio, actually did run against Nixon, McCloskey as an anti-Vietnam War candidate, and Ashbrook because he was critical of Nixon’s reaching out to the Soviet Union and China. Irrespective of the fact that Nixon was extremely popular in the polls, who else would have run? Perhaps two supposed GOP candidates for vice president (because Nixon’s people wanted to get rid of Agnew but feared a conservative backlash), New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller (who ran against Nixon in 1968) or Nixon’s favorite Democrat, former Texas Gov. John Connally (yes, the same Connally who sat next to John F. Kennedy Nov. 22, 1963). Or perhaps Reagan, who briefly also ran against Nixon in 1968.

(One theory, according to Rick Perlstein, author of Nixonland, is that Nixon somehow compelled George Wallace, who had run for president as the American Independent Party candidate in 1968, to run as a Democrat in 1972. I’m not sure how Nixon’s mental powers compelled Wallace to do anything, but all Wallace did was get 46 electoral votes and deny Nixon a popular-vote majority. Nixon got 301 electoral votes and Wallace 46, and Hubert Humphrey got 43 percent of the vote and 191 electoral votes. It seems likely that had Wallace not been on the ballot, few of his voters would have gone for Humphrey. On the other hand, had Wallace won one or two more states, that result could have thrown the election into the House of Representatives.)

The maddening thing for Nixon, though, was his complete lack of GOP coattails. Republicans never came close to winning a majority of either house of Congress while he was in office. Even though Nixon won 49 states in 1972, Republicans gained just 12 House seats, and Democrats gained two Senate seats. Nixon was popular, but his party wasn’t.

 

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