Lesson one: If you are going to lie, don't record the truth.
The Great American Scandal
The biggest political scandal in American history began with a lie and contained so many different lies told by so many different people that it's almost impossible to keep track of who wasn't lying. Looking back on the affair, the curious thing is that Richard Nixon, hailed by many as the consummate American politician, made so many missteps—mistakes that ultimately led to his resignation in August 1974. Yet had Nixon been able to pull himself free of an almost pathological fear of the truth, he might have ended the scandal almost before it began.
The events that were to consume the national consciousness for two years began in the early morning hours of June 17, 1972, when a security guard at the Watergate hotel in Washington, D.C., noticed tape over the lock of an entry door. He removed the tape, but when, an hour or so later, he found it had been replaced, he called the police. An unmarked squad car responded, and the cops swiftly searched the building's offices. In the suite housing the national headquarters of the Democratic Party, they arrested five men wearing business suits and surgical gloves, carrying photographic equipment and walkie-talkies.
Clearly this was no ordinary burglary, but the D.C. police weren't sure what they had. One of the men, James McCord, identified himself as a "security consultant" who had just left government service.
"What service?" the judge later asked.
"CIA," McCord answered.
Later that day, it was revealed that McCord's security consulting had been done for the Nixon reelection campaign, then in full swing.
John Mitchell, former attorney general of the United States and chairman of the Committee to Reelect the President (CRP), announced, "We want to emphasize that this man and the other people involved were not operating on either our behalf or with our consent. There is no place in our campaign or in the electoral process for this type of activity, and we will not permit or condone it." The statement is notable for being the first major lie of Watergate.
On the surface, there seemed to be no reason for Mitchell not to be telling the truth. By June it was clear that the Democratic presidential candidate that fall would be George McGovern, considered by most analysts to be the weakest opponent Nixon could face. Nixon's campaign committee had already raised vast sums of money and had a highly efficient and ruthless campaign organization in place, ready for the post-convention season of campaigning.
What no one outside a small circle of White House officials knew was that Watergate was merely part of a larger program of dirty tricks, spying, and political sabotage organized by Nixon's aides. Nixon especially feared a Ted Kennedy candidacy, and he was willing to do anything to avoid it.
The spy campaign had first been organized around a plan proposed by a young Republican activist, Thomas Charles Huston. The "Huston Plan," as it came to be known, was personally approved by Nixon and included spying on political opponents through illegal wiretaps, mail opening, and burglary, as well as drawing up plans to intern thousands of dissenters in the event of a national emergency. Shortly after approving the plan, though, Nixon rescinded his approval, and the Huston Plan was quietly put on the shelf.
The second plan of operation was code-named Gemstone and was drawn up by G. Gordon Liddy, a White House aide with a fascination for the world of spies and secret intelligence. Liddy's plan included "black bag jobs" (burglaries), bugging, and even less savory ideas. (Part of the plan suggested that leaders of the protests at the Republican National Convention should be kidnapped, drugged, and spirited over the border to Mexico.) Liddy and his backers presented the plan to John Mitchell. Though Mitchell later testified that he was "aghast" at the plan, he gave no indication of this at the time, and his underlings began to carry out elements of it.
At the same time, Nixon himself, furious at the leaking of the Pentagon Papers study of the war in Vietnam, raged against Daniel Ellsberg, a military analyst employed by the RAND Corporation, who had leaked the papers. With Nixon's knowledge, if not exactly his consent, operatives broke into the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist, Dr. Lewis Fielding, hunting for information that could be used to discredit Ellsberg.
Nixon also grew increasingly paranoid about leaks from the administration to the press. Under the direction of Charles Colson, one of the president's advisers on domestic policy, Liddy and a compatriot, E. Howard Hunt, a former CIA operative, formed a unit within the White House to seek out and prevent leaks. When one of those affiliated with the unit told his mother-in-law about it, she joked that now they had a plumber in the family. From that remark, the unit was named the Plumbers.
Watergate, therefore, was simply part of a much larger plan designed to disconcert and upset Nixon's political opponents. Much of the plan came under the direction of Jeb Stuart Magruder. Typical of the young men working in the Nixon White House, Magruder was bright, fanatically devoted to Nixon, and beholden to the White House chief of staff H. R. Haldeman. It was Haldeman who had picked Magruder to be the first director of CRP, thus setting in motion the events that led to Watergate.
When Magruder was replaced by Mitchell, the younger man kept his new boss, Haldeman, in the loop, though Mitchell rarely knew the details of what was being done against "the opposition."
Liddy and Hunt recruited a group of Cuban anti-Castro activists and a mercenary named Frank Sturgis, who had trained Cubans for action in the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, as well as the ex-CIA man McCord, to carry out the burglary at the Democratic National Headquarters. When the burglars were caught, their handlers panicked. Liddy told his wife, "There was trouble. Some people got caught. I'll probably be going to jail." He began shredding documents and records having to do with the Plumbers and their secrets.