An Essay on Watergate

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Bill Moyers examines the Watergate morality and asks whether it is intrinsic to American life today. Opening with clips from speeches by President Richard M. Nixon, Moyers traces his own ideals, discusses the skepticism created by Watergate, and says desire for power caused abuses of power.

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PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: (Atlanta, October ’72) There is in this part of the country a deep religious faith; there is a great respect for moral values; there is a great devotion to what we call character. But let me say that in that religious faith and in that devotion to moral values and in that respect for character, while it exists in the South, it exists throughout this nation. Oh, you can call them old-fashioned, but the day. America loses its moral values, its dedication to idealism and religion, this will cease to be a great country. We’re not going to let that happen …. (applause)

PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON : (Election Night, ’72) I would only hope that in these next four years, we can so conduct ourselves in this country and so meet our responsibilities in the world, in building peace in the world, that years from now people will look back to the generation of the 1970’s, at how we’ve conducted ourselves, and they will say: God bless America. Thank you very much.

BILL MOYERS: Events have tinged those words with irony, and one casualty of Watergate, following so closely on the heels of Vietnam, has been the easy talk about American virtue. Men who extolled high ideals in public have-been accused of secretly corrupting them, and disturbing questions have risen anew about our government, our system and our values. Was Watergate a string of deplorable incidents by a handful of men or an attitude toward power and law that could recur? Were the men linked to it acting out of character with the times or responding to something intrinsic in American life today? This report is a personal attempt to explore those questions, to get to the roots of the Watergate morality. It was prompted by a survey I saw this summer of young people who expressed the opinion that Watergate is something everybody does; it’s politics as usual. But is it? I’m Bill Moyers. Scratch almost any American, and you’ll find a self-proclaimed idealist. We like to think of ourselves as moral human beings, our country as an instrument of high and uncompromising ideals. While this has contributed to idolatry and chauvinism and some ugly epochs in our life, it has also created a profound sense of nationhood. “Call it a dream, or call it a vision,” the philosopher John Dewey wrote, “the American creed has had an immense effect upon American life.”- I first came to the nation’s capital twenty years ago to work as a summer intern on the Senate staff of Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson. On my first weekend I came here, to the Washington Monument, to look down on the display of a nation’s ideals expressed in a few historic shrines of simple dignity and design. There’s a simpler way up, but in those days I climbed every one of the eight hundred and ninety-eight steps.

P.A. SYSTEM: The elevator you are now riding in was installed in 1959 and reaches the top landing in one minute; in height above the floor, the monument is five hundred and fifty-five feet, five and one-eighth inches. Please walk to the right as you leave the elevator. This monument towers above a city which is itself a memorial to the deeds and accomplishments of George Washington. You stand in its heart, and you are truly following in the footsteps of freedom.

BILL MOYERS: The White House. Every President except George Washington slept here. Across the Tidal Basin, the Memorial to Thomas Jefferson. “The whole of government,” Jefferson wrote, “consists in the art of being honest.” He left us other things to ponder, as well. And the pensive figure of Lincoln, brooding, it seemed to me on those summer Sundays, over the unknown destiny of the Union for whose survival he had become a martyr. The Capitol. A teacher in high school used to tell us, “There is no sight more beautiful in the world than a people governing.” And the first time I saw that enormous dome, I remembered what she said — and got a lump in my throat. It was all so intoxicating to a schoolboy who had never been east of the Red River, that I would make this same round almost every Sunday, starting early in the morning and seldom getting back to the room I rented on Capitol Hill before twilight. I used to sit for an hour on the steps of the Supreme Court, across from the chambers of the Senate and House. The city was safe in those days, and the possibility of being arrested for loitering never occurred to me. It was a fitting place to conjure up the folk heroes of one’s adolescence, to imagine all the grand and mighty things enacted around here by epic figures like Adams, Clay and Sam Houston. Over there, on the steps of the Eastern Portico, every President since the time of Monroe has received his oath of office, and twenty years ago, fresh out of Texas, I thought all of them had to be giants, that somehow the office made them bigger than life. I had never been able in grade school to remember the name of Millard Fillmore when the teacher asked us to list the Presidents in order, but during that first summer in Washington, even his portrait evoked images of Titans. Like so many of my peers, I had, of course, come out of school with a one-sided view of American history, and these splendid monuments and scenes merely confirmed the altruism we had been taught to believe was the essence of the American experience. To this day, I remember one teacher insisting, and I’m quoting him, that “In the five thousand years of the human race, there has never been a more principled, moral or virtuous nation than the United States of America.” He believed it, and we believed him. The books and legends told a romantic tale of selfless people in the service of God and nation. Where I grew up, the Almighty and Uncle Sam were inseparable, and the preacher on Sunday seldom failed to remind us that we Americans were the Chosen People — because we deserved to be.

PREACHER: Would you stand, please, as we sing.

BILL MOYERS: We were great because we were good, and if we remained good, we were assured, naturally, we would remain great. We were taught to look upon government as a blessing and to respect authority for its own sake. Those early Puritans, peering out from our history books, would have been pleased with their descendants in the mid-twentieth century; we still nurtured their vision of an elect people, conquering a new land, fulfilling a divine mandate. Kate Smith assured us it was so.


All this was part of Parson Weems’ America, and I was only one of his countless heirs. My generation in the fifties may, in fact, have been the last of the clan. Later, in less certain and optimistic times, we would begin to see how unawares we had been, and the missing pages for the civics books would be filled in with accounts of gang rule, graft and political incompetents. I’m not sure just exactly when I started to come to terms with the other America. It may have been the McCarthy Hearings. Washington was still littered with their wreckage the year I arrived, and their bludgeoning tactics appeared all the more cruel and unfair. A United States senator shot himself to death in the office above mine one afternoon, and I remember thinking my old civics teacher wouldn’t understand; in her classroom, senators wore togas and were immortal. One of my earliest heroes had been General of the Army Dwight Eisenhower, and when he admitted he had lied about the U2, I wouldn’t believe it — until I got back to Washington in the early sixties and discovered that in our infirmity, we were all susceptible. Then a promising young man named Bobby Baker, with whom I had once worked, -went to jail for criminal misuse of the influence he had gained as Lyndon Johnson’s ubiquitous lieutenant in the Senate.

BILL MOYERS: By now I was wondering who had written those textbooks we used back in school or produced all the movies we watched at Saturday matinee. They had told us that democracy is a noble possibility without warning us how vulnerable it is to the venal sway of ordinary men cloaked in office. My generation would have to learn from experience that along with all the courage and high-mindedness have gone the damndest greed and chicanery the mind can imagine. High ideals compete all the time in this city with the grubby demons of human nature, usually in the – same personality, — and they often lose. Monuments turn out to be only marble, Presidents only men, — and their boy wonders come and go like cherry blossoms in the spring. I suspect my journey from naivete is far more typical than exceptional. In the last decade Americans have been taking larger and larger doses of disillusionment, from assassination, to war — to Watergate and now to the resignation, under fire, of a Vice President. Layer after layer of self-esteem has been stripped away, until the very mention of ideals can produce raised eyebrows and outright ridicule. One result is to blunt the desire of young people to leave Texas, or Oregon, or Illinois, to come here as others have with a sense of high purpose.

SENATOR JOSEPH MONTOYA (Dem., New Mexico): Now, because of Watergate, many young people are writing to us, to the different members of the Committee, expressing great consternation about the future of our country and also saying that public service is not as attractive as before Watergate. Now, the Gallup Poll indicates this. What advice do you have for these young people?

GORDON STRACHAN (Former Haldeman aide): Well, it may sound — may not be the type of advice that you could look back and want to give, but my advice would be to stay away.

BILL MOYERS: For a perspective on Watergate, we almost need to begin here, at 1701 Pennsylvania Avenue, headquarters of the Committee to Reelect the President, or CREEP, as it was known. John Mitchell, Jeb Magruder, and others who worked here, only had to walk three hundred and forty-five steps to reach the White House, where Gordon Strachan worked. There were ghosts to keep them company, ghosts from the shadowy and shabby corners of our past. The Executive Office Building, next to the White House, once housed the Department of War, and these few blocks of Pennsylvania Avenue were the breeding ground for some of the worst scandals in our history. It’s worth looking back at them briefly, in light of the contention that Watergate is more of the same.

So much corruption flourished during the Civil War, that an exasperated General Sherman raged at the universal cheating in clothes, blankets, flour and bread. And Carl Sandburg closed one chapter of his Biography of Lincoln with a lament: “The unremitting quest of individual profits and personal fortunes behind warfronts when men were dying for proclaimed sacred causes made a contrast heavy for the human mind to hold and endure.” Since 1818, Presidents and other dignitaries have often stayed at this site, two blocks from the White House. The Willard Hotel is closed now, but a hundred years ago congressmen and bureaucrats would gather here to hoist their glasses to the hospitality of jobbers looking for government contracts. A predacious character named Jim Fisk summed it up: “You can sell anything to the government at almost any price you’ve got the guts to ask.” I once asked a historian why Ulysses S. Grant looked so dour in the pictures we see in textbooks. He replied, “You would look dour too if you had his friends.” By the time Grant left office, his Vice President, the Navy Department, the Department of the Interior, the Diplomatic Service, almost the whole government, were soaked in scandal. Henry Adams would write that for the next twenty-five years one could search the whole of Congress, the Judiciary and the Executive and find little but damaged reputations. Great fortunes were made through the collaboration of distinguished senators and industrial barons, who literally plundered the nation’s resources. “You steal a pair of shoes, and you go to jail,” Mother Jones said. “You steal a railroad, and you go to the U.S. Senate.” Theodore Roosevelt lowered his lance and charged these citadels of privilege — with some success. But few of the Titans were nonplussed. “If we’ve done anything wrong,” J.P. Morgan said to the President, “send your man to see my man, and they will fix it up.” Roosevelt wanted to stop it, not fix it.

BILL MOYERS: In time, Harold Geneen, whose ITT empire might well have turned old J.P. Morgan green with envy, would have better luck; he would send his men to meet with the President’s men, and the Justice Department would suddenly drop antitrust proceedings against ITT. This is 1625 K Street, three blocks north of the White House; it’s now an office building, but in the 1920’s there stood on this site a modest Victorian house known as the headquarters of the Ohio Gang. Friends of President Warren Harding who wanted a favor from the White House, and were willing to pay for it, came here; they could get liquor by the bottle, or by the case, even during Prohibition. And thousands of dollars were won or lost in all-night poker games attended by the President himself. High officials of this Administration were frequent visitors to this little green house, and in return for a share of the spoils, they hatched a scheme to help a few private oilmen get control of government oil reserves. Their names are not very familiar today, but what they did will long be remembered as The Teapot Dome Scandal.

Remember the Five Percenters? Officials of the Truman Administration, including a high White House assistant, got government jobs, contracts and other favors for their friends in return for a commission. And Sherman Adams, President Eisenhower’s right-hand man, resigned after it became known he was receiving gifts from a Boston textile merchant in trouble with the regulatory agencies. Not a great deal of money was involved, but in those days people could still get indignant that a public official would accept gratuities from a man who had business with the government.

BILL MOYERS: Today the ante has gone up, and the motives are different. Two former Cabinet officers, John Mitchell and Maurice Stans, have been indicted not for receiving money personally but for their role in a $200,000 campaign contribution from a wheeler-dealer wanting help from the Securities & Exchange Commission. Dairy producers kicked in over $300,000 to the President’s campaign, and the Administration increased price supports, costing consumers five hundred to seven hundred million dollars in higher milk prices. The President’s personal attorney solicited an illegal contribution from American Airlines, while the government was weighing a decision vitally important to the company; American made the unlawful donation, apparently, because it was afraid not to. Other corporations went along, too, buying protection, as it were, from the government. That’s nothing new in itself, different from campaigns before it only in the ingenuity and sheer gall that went into raising $60 million. If that’s all there were to it, we could write Watergate off to Original Sin and go on about our business, reminded again of the pernicious side of human nature. “But what about everything else Watergate has come to represent: the burglaries and forgeries, the wiretapping and perjury, the destruction of evidence or efforts to use the FBI, the CIA. the IRS and Secret Service for political purposes; what about the enemies’ list, the dirty tricks or schemes to obstruct justice, and what about the White House spirit that invested these acts with legitimacy? More than a weakness for the quick buck produced those ambitious efforts to discredit the press, to stifle debate in the Executive Branch, to deny the legitimacy of the opposition party and to humiliate Congress. All of this makes Watergate different from scandals of the past.

WILLIAM S. WHITE: You have no — here, you have no strictly monetary motive, discernible motive; that is to say, you have no direct motive of somebody saying, “I put a lot of money in my pocket at the expense of the government.”

BILL MOYERS: William S. White, the syndicated columnist and author, has been observing Washington for almost forty years.

WILLIAM S. WHITE: You have some gross violations of — of spirit, so to speak. Some people would think that the theft of however many millions were involved in Teapot Dome was worse; some people would think this is worse. I would think this is worse, because I think, frankly, that standards of honesty in politics-I’m afraid I have perhaps a slightly less than moral view here, that the money dishonest politician, as the politicians call it, is less appalling to me than the — than the integrity-dishonest politician, because a great deal of what occurred here was not indictable. It went to ethics; it went to morality; it went to decency. These could be — it’s a somewhat pompous term, but these could be termed “spiritual offenses,” that is to say, against the spirit of the country, against the spirit of the way in which we think the country ought to go, ought to be. We both know that politics is extremely rough but that most people in it do, at some point, recognize a somewhat, admittedly, indefinable line beyond which you just don’t go, you know.

RICHARD L. STROUT: Bill, I have spent a large part of my professional life in this room. And the first scandal I covered was Teapot Dome, right in this…

BILL MOYERS: Richard L. Strout, of the Christian Science Monitor, is the only reporter to have covered the Senate Hearings on Teapot Dome, and fifty years later, in the same room, Watergate. For his views on how Watergate is different, I sought him out in the Senate Caucus Room.

RICHARD L. STROUT: … And this is an historic room. This room here is the story of Congress’ Investigations.

BILL MOYERS: Tell me about the fellows that you saw here, the men who perpetrated the Teapot Dome Scandal.

RICHARD L. STROUT: Well, the Teapot Dome, the great drama there was when it started off, it started off very quietly, and Secretary Fall came in here, he — with long mustaches — he looked like a barker at a circus. He was an arrogant man, a landowner. And he came here and denied everything, and he said he’d done a benefit to the nation in saving this oil. And then — let’s see, that was in October, and then February the story came out, and Fall came in. He was a crushed man; he was — he’d taken to drink. He came through that door and walked up here and on the — leaning on the stick he had, and he’d been exposed. And that — that was the whole story of it, those two entrances of Fall into this room.

BILL MOYERS: How was his crime different from the crimes of Watergate?

RICHARD L. STROUT: His crime, as crime generally was in those days, was for money and for all the carnal sins, sins of the flesh. And he was after money. He got a very famous little black satchel that had a hundred thousand dollars in it. Now, in Watergate, they’re not after money; apparently, it’s hard to find anybody who’s put — got very much money out of this; they’re after something else ….


RICHARD L. STROUT: … this time. Power. Power. If — if Watergate had succeeded, you ask yourself what would have happened to our form of government. John Mitchell, the Attorney-General, and — I hope this isn’t libelous, but I sometimes wonder that he was so — he cer … — he must have read the Constitution, but did he know, does he realize what the separation of power is? He claimed the inherent rights of the — the inherent right of the President to tap wires of his subordinates, to tap wires without the permission of a court. The Supreme Court threw that out, unanimously. I would have thought almost anybody would have known that that was unconstitutional. But Mitchell didn’t know it was unconstitutional. And I use this as an example of the kind of thing that was going on here.

BILL MOYERS: Tell me, in a nutshell, what Watergate represents to you.

RICHARD L. STROUT: Watergate represents to me the culmination of the encroachment on the balance of power of the Executive, put through by a series of strong-willed subordinates who had their own sense of morality. It was not a money morality; it was a desire to do things, to get power for their team, and they considered this to be moral.

BILL MOYERS: The growth of the Executive power Richard Strout speaks of made Watergate possible but by no means inevitable. At the Philadelphia Convention, the Founding Fathers knew they would have to give future Presidents latitude to deal with events that couldn’t be foreseen in 1789; they fretted over leaving so much to chance, but the failure of the Articles of Confederation convinced them the new Republic needed a strong Executive. They would try to check his powers with the Bill of Rights and the watchdogs of Congress and the courts. But there was no good alternative, they decided, to a President with a largely unwritten mandate. In the library of George Washington’s home at Mt. Vernon, I talked about the Presidency, then and now, with an authority on the Office: James David Barber, of Duke University. Do you think the Presidency today bears any resemblance to what Washington and the other Founding Fathers conceived it to be?

JAMES DAVID BARBER: Well, yes, I do. I know it’s much bigger and much more powerful, and so forth and so on, but it’s still the number one office; it’s still the focus of feeling, the focus of patriotism, the focus of a lot of political emotion. Washington had a tremendous influence on the respect that Americans still have about the Presidency. When the Constitutional Convention was meeting and trying to decide whether to have a monarchy or whether to have the President elected by Congress, as they voted to do five times during the Convention, there sat George Washington, who all of them knew would be the first President. Being pragmatic people, as they were, they were much influenced by the presence of that man. They knew he was going to start it off. They were willing to write the provisions in the Constitution for the Presidency in very general language. I think that’s been important, because it’s left a lot of leeway for Presidents, from Washington to Nixon, to fill in the blanks in the Constitution with their own ways, their own purposes, their own personalities.

BILL MOYERS: What’s present in the Presidency today that didn’t exist in Washington’s day that contributes to this abuse of power?

JAMES DAVID BARBER: I think you could have abuse of power back in Washington’s day. I think the temptations of power are very great today, because the magnitude of Presidential choice is much greater. But, look, you had inadequate Presidents, in some ways, from the first. James Madison was pretty ineffectual in the Presidency. I don’t buy the idea that — that the corruption is some sort of long-term trend in the Presidency. Now, you look as recently as Eisenhower. It’s hard to remember back, but the taking of a vicuna coat, or a deep-freeze, was cause for scandal in those days, and you remember that Mr. Nixon’s Checkers Speech was made in response to accusations that he had a campaign fund of $18,000. Now, times have changed in that respect; we have a tremendous escalation with all this money, for one thing, or the opportunities for corruption.

HENRY STEELE COMMAGER: When you remember that Washington had to borrow five hundred dollars to go to his inauguration, when you remember that Jefferson went bankrupt, and Monticello was sold at his death, when you remember that John Adams worked in the fields, pitched hay back in Braintree, during — in between, when he ….

BILL MOYERS: Dr. Henry Steele Commager, distinguished Professor of History at Amherst University.

HENRY STEELE COMMAGER: … What’s happened is that we’ve — well, what’s happened is the government has become enormously big, that everything’s enormously expensive. But deeper than that, what has happened is a sense — especially in recent years, and it’s more with the last two Presidents, perhaps three — a sense that the President is a kind of royal figure, that he should not live like other people. It has often been noted, for example, that when Jefferson took the Oath of Office, he walked back to his boarding house — no limousines then — and there was no room for him at his table, so he waited until there was room at the boarding house table. The notion that the President is a special kind of person, who is like a monarch, or like a god, and therefore everything must be done for him, is a relatively new notion.

BILL MOYERS: What did the authors of our liberty most fear in regard to the growth of the Executive power?

HENRY STEELE COMMAGER: The fear of the corruption of power. They were all students of history, especially of ancient history, and of the Classics. And history had one inescapable lesson: namely, that power corrupts; power invariably corrupts.

BILL MOYERS: So this is why they put restraints on ….

HENRY STEELE COMMAGER: On all power, not just on the Executive. They put fewer on the Executive than would otherwise have been true, had it not been absolutely certain that Washington would be the first President as long as he lived, or wanted to be, and they knew perfectly well that he was incorruptible.

BILL MOYERS: When did that equilibrium of power begin to come unravelled?

HENRY STEELE COMMAGER: Oh, I don’t think it did become unravelled. There were charges that Jackson had seized power, had usurped power, but that — these charges were unfounded, on the whole. I do not think it even became unravelled under Lincoln, though Lincoln stretched the Constitution rather further than anyone else had in the past; he had to do so. He knew he was doing so, and every time he did, he would go to the Congress and ask for retroactive sanction in what he did. You see, he — he emancipated the slaves by Proclamation and then asked the Congress for a Constitutional Amendment to nail it down. Mr. Lincoln did not do — expand the Constitution secretly.

BILL MOYERS: The equilibrium of power in Washington has become unravelled in the last three decades, as events gave activist Presidents a chance to fill in some of those blanks left by the architects of the Constitution. For seventeen of the last thirty-two years, the United States has been involved in wars abroad; the rest of the time we’ve lived through a state of Cold War. Whether hot or cold, a wartime mentality breeds secrecy, enhances the role of the President as Commander-in-Chief and makes objectives simple and absolute: there’s no substitute for victory; it’s “us” against “them,” and the only goal is to win, with no quarter asked or given. This is the House the Cold War built, the Central Intelligence Agency. It symbolized a change in the American conduct of government in the years after World War Two. In the battle for democracy against a totalitarian enemy, we would back up virtue with a Division of Dirty Tricks. Howard Hunt and James McCord once worked for the CIA, trained upon orders from above to pursue altruistic ends by any means necessary. Dr. Commager, among others, says that most of the roots of Watergate began in this era.

HENRY STEELE COMMAGER: The Cold War, beginning about ’47, induced a kind of paranoia that we were a beleaguered people under constant threat of attack, that we were surrounded by enemies — something of the paranoia that Germany had when Hitler came in — enemies in Russia and enemies, of course, in Japan — in China, as well — and that it was essential, therefore, to build up an enormous military, to resort to secrecy, to use the weapons that the Communists used in order to fight Communism. This was a cross between the Kafka world and the Orwell world, where you defeat your enemies by using their weapons and using their weapons — perhaps more lavishly and more recklessly than they themselves are prepared to use them.

BILL MOYERS: What led to using those tactics that have been employed abroad in domestic politics?

HENRY STEELE COMMAGER: Ah, that was very easy. I think that began, really, with McCarthy and McCarthyism, the notion that America was — was infected with Communism; we kind of became enmeshed in conspiratorial psychology, where McCarthy persuaded large segments of the American people that there was a Communist under your bed at night, that the teachers were Communists, that the clergy were Communists, that — that bureaucrats were Communists, that, indeed, the Communist Party was almost as large as the Democratic and Republican, but all-secret, and therefore they had to be rooted out.

BILL MOYERS: For a long time national politics were to be infected with a warlike passion that warped men’s judgment and wounded whatever s:pi,rit of civility occasionally tempered our :politics. Richard Nixon first ran for ·office as the Cold War Era began; even then, his opponents were not just other politicians, competing legitimately for an office. They were somehow linked to international conspiracies, and :politics was war waged to save the nation. Just as significantly, the Cold War concentrated in the White House almost unlimited discretion to define the national security. Actually, national security turned out to be a concept easier to act upon than define. In World War Two, it hadn’t been necessary to spell it out; Hitler and Pearl Harbor had done that for us. Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon both served in that war, when · patriotism was simply defined as support of the Commander-in-Chief in a time of clear-cut danger. But they would come to power in a world befogged with paradox and ambiguity; as Presidents, they would be frustrated and riled as millions of Americans refused to accept their word that Vietnam was vital to national security.

Such a challenge to the Commander-in Chief had been simply unthinkable when their views were shaped in the 1940’s, and in the 1960’s they would take the challenge personally. “I’m the Commander-in Chief,” President Johnson once said, watching demonstrators on television. “Why are they doing this to me?” At first, “they” were Nervous Nellies, but by the end of the term they were thought to be subversive, subject to widespread military surveillance. By now the events of the sixties had created a fierce and unbridled momentum, and Mr. Nixon would reach the White House in a time of raging intemperance. The ruling passion in those years had been for everyone to do his own thing, to gratify his own appetites by any means necessary. For diehard segregationists, this meant dogs in the street and defiance in the doorways. For a fanatic it meant a gun in the crowd to settle his personal score with the world. (SHOTS AND SCREAMS) For political extremists it meant a bomb in a public building, to make the world safe for idealism. And for the government it became exorbitant means to accomplish limited ends. The war President Nixon inherited untied dark and brutal forces and gave them official legitimacy. “This is not a conventional war,” said the Colonel who served as foreman on one of the My Lai juries. “We have to forget propriety.” And we did. At first the aims of the war seemed to a lot of us worthy and intelligible. But an Army major, standing in ruins and ashes, finally summed up what had gone wrong. “It became necessary to destroy this town,” he told a reporter, “to save it.” No longer were the means proportioned to the end. Like the headless horseman, the war raced on, and the pattern was set. Excess abroad provoked excess at home. Rage met rage until the whole nation seemed to have abandoned the protocol of law.

JEB MAGRUDER: During this whole period of time that we were in the White House — during this time that we were directly employed for the purpose of trying to succeed with the President’s policies, and I knew how he was trying very diligently to settle the war issue, and we were all at that time against the war, as an example (I think this is a primary issue) — we saw continual violations of the law done by men like William Sloane Coffin. Now, he tells me my ethics are bad, and yet he was indicted for criminal charges. He recommended on the Washington Monument grounds that students burn their draft cards and that we have mass demonstrations, shut down the city of Washington. Now, here are ethical, legitimate people who I respected; I respect Mr. Coffin tremendously; he was a very close friend of mine. I saw people that I was very close to breaking the law without any regard for any other person’s pattern of behavior or belief. And I believed that firmly as they did that the President was correct in this issue. So consequently, and let me just finish, when these subjects came up, and although I was aware they were illegal, and I’m sure the others did, we had become somewhat inured to using some activities that would help us in accomplishing what we thought was a cause, a legitimate cause.

BILL MOYERS: But civil disobedience was done in the open, by people willing to take the consequences, not secretly, from behind the shield of executive privilege, by trusted officials, sworn to uphold the law. Government was supposed to protect society against lawlessness; now it became a lawbreaker, violating the Constitution, in effect, in order to save it, and the lethal mutation occurred in the idea of national security, Anyone who disagreed with the view espoused by Jeb Magruder and his colleagues that the President was right became suspect. If his were the infallible last word on the national security and he the only one to save it, then re-electing the President was essential to the nation. The distinction between the President and the country paled, and critics of official policy not only became a threat to the Republic but to his personal equilibrium. This is John Dean.

JOHN DEAN: I was made aware of the President’s strong feeling about even the smallest of demonstrations during the late winter of 1971, when the President happened to look out the window of the residence of the White House and saw a lone man with a large ten foot sign stretched out in front of Lafayette Park. Mr. Higby called me to his office to tell me that the President’s — of the President’s displeasure with the sign in the park and told me that Mr. Haldeman had said that the sign had to come down. When I came out of Mr. Higby’s office, I ran into Dwight Chapin, who said he was going to get some thugs to remove the man from Lafayette Park. He said it would take him a few hours to get them, but they could do the job. I told him I didn’t believe that was necessary. (CHANTING)

BILL MOYERS: Wall Street, May 8th, 1970. Angry construction workers attack a group of anti-war demonstrators. Three weeks later, the leaders of the New York construction workers were invited to the White House to be personally thanked by the President for their support of his Vietnam policies. If any of the young men on his staff needed a sign that tough measures against the President’s opponents were okay; this was it. Extremism in the defense of the White House was no vice. They went after it with a gusto. The enemies list grew. But were they enemies of the President — or enemies of the State? It was hard to discriminate, and John Dean proposed that the machinery of government be used to screw them all. White House agents went after Daniel Ellsberg, and the President’s men hired agents to sabotage the Democratic primaries and assure his election. I spent four and a half years in the White House and can testify as to how tempting it is to put the President’s interests above all others. You begin to confuse the office with the man and the man with the country. Life inside those iron gates takes on an existential quality. I think with the President’s mind. Therefore I am. To some extent this happens in every administration. But the men around the Nixon White House were measured by their zeal. Pity any grandmother who got in the way.

JOHN CAULFIELD: I felt very strongly about the President, extremely strongly about the President. I was very loyal to his people that I worked for. I place a high value upon loyalty.

BERNARD BARKER: Sure. I am not — I wasn’t there to think. (LAUGHTER) I was there to follow orders, not to think.

HERBERT PORTER: My loyalty to this man, Richard Nixon, goes back longer than any person that you will see sitting at this table throughout any of these hearings.

H.R. HALDEMAN: Those who served with me at the White House had complete dedication to the service of this country. They had great pride in the President they served and great pride in the accomplishments of the Nixon Administration in its first four years.

JOHN EHRLICHMAN: I do not apologize for my loyalty to the President any more than I apologize for my love of this country. I only hope that my testimony here has somehow served them both.

JOHN MITCHELL: And I was not about to countenance anything that would stand in the way of that re-election.

BILL MOYERS: This loyalty was given, not only to the man, but to the cause, and the cause reflected the old American will to win, with a modern twist. “When the one great scorer comes to write against your name, he marks not that you won or lost, but how you played the game.” The sports writer Grantland Rice formulated that ethic in 1923. In theory, at least, the name of the game was fair play. By the 1960s football had a new ethic, articulated by Vince Lombardi of the Green Bay Packers and Washington Redskins. “Winning isn’t everything,” Lombardi said. “It’s the only thing.” In the situation room of the Committee to Re-Elect the President, a windowless well-guarded command post across from the Committee’s headquarters, the President’s team hung a sign borrowed from the President’s favorite coach: “Winning in politics isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” The name of the game was victory.

DR. WILLIAM MILLER: It certainly is an American success ethic which is a central strand in American culture.

BILL MOYERS: This is Dr. William Miller of Yale and Indiana Universities. His fields are ethics and politics.

WILLIAM MILLER: The way the success ethic has developed in this country has been a certain winking at sharp practice; if it’s successful and it is to your credit, it shows you to be a superior man, you have won, been number one ….

BILL MOYERS: So when politicians do that ….

WILLIAM MILLER: When politics do that, it’s bad, because it becomes circular things; you think politics is just a jungle, and if you think it’s just a jungle, then you invite the Southern California advertising men and the municipal bond lawyers from New York who are cynical about it; they come in and treat it that way, regard it that way; it’s quite evident on the Ervin hearings they did. Perhaps the most shocking was the former Attorney General who confessed to Senator Talmadge’s question.

SENATOR HERMAN TALMADGE: (D-Georgia) Am I to understand from your response that you placed the expediency of the next election above your responsibility as an intimate advisor to the President of the peril that surrounded him? Did you state that the expediency of the election was more important than that?

JOHN MITCHELL: In my mind, the re-election of Richard Nixon compared with what was available on the other side was so much more important that I put it in just that context.

DR. WILLIAM S. WHITE: My understanding of democratic politics is that it does still have, with all the study of the irrationality of man that we have and need to have, there is a belief in reason and conscience playing a role. Much of our contemporary political science debunks that. It’s standard — kind of protective cynicism that a great many Americans have — newspapermen, as you know, have it in great degree; it’s kind of the rule of hard-boiled, the ironclad rule of hard-boiled newspaperman that the guy’s just trying to win an election, however he can. I think they underestimate the newspaperman of this hard-boiled stripe, many in the public; they underestimate the degree to which, as you in your heart know, a lot of people in politics do care about the public good. They wouldn’t be a little embarrassed to put it that way; it’s mixed with a lot of other things, including wanting to win themselves, to be sure. You shouldn’t, in picturing either the political world or the rest of the world, obscure the element of man as oriented toward what’s good. It’s very important to democracy not to do that.

BILL MOYERS: There are many opinions in this city as to why the men linked to Watergate failed to live up to those standards Dr. Miller described. In my own search for the answers, I went back to Mt. Vernon where Dr. James David Barber was joined by John Lofton, until recently the editor of the Republican National Committee official newsletter and now a syndicated columnist, and by George Will, Washington editor of the National Review. George, in your opinion, what’s the chief offense of Watergate?

GEORGE WILL: Well, aside from the offenses of lying a lot and being casual about law, the meta-offense, as it were, that overarched all these was to distrust the American people. They said that virtually every possible Democratic candidate was a garish sham who would destroy the country, but we couldn’t trust the American people to choose that way in a fair fight. So they didn’t fight fair.

BILL MOYERS: What about you, John? What do you see as the chief offense of Watergate?

JOHN LOFTON: I think the kind of thing that led to it was symbolized by Jeb Magruder. He said, quote, “We felt only Nixon could save the world.” I think it’s this total lack of perspective that led to an atmosphere which brought the thing about.

BILL MOYERS: Magruder said, John, that Coffin had talked — there’s a higher law, that Coffin’s higher law was God. What was Magruder’s?

JOHN LOFTON: Well, I think it was clearly Nixon, and I think that therein lay the seeds to the whole problem.

GEORGE WILL: I can’t help but thinking what really got this White House into trouble is that they not only were second rate men but they knew they were second rate men. Lord Bryce came over and complained about it. People have been noting the fact that somehow the best don’t get to the top in American politics, and that’s not particularly alarming, it seems to me. But most second rate men don’t think of themselves as second rate men and are more and more convinced these people thought of themselves with uncanny accuracy. They didn’t have the saving delusions of adequacy that save the rest of us as we live through the world. These guys said: We really can’t cope with the Washington Post. We can’t cope with the bureaucracy. They’re leaking Pentagon Papers and doing these miserable things to us. Therefore we’ve got to send these odd people out to Los Angeles to break into offices. The whole behavior is the behavior at once of bullies who are usually scared and just plain scared people.

JOHN LOFTON: I think that what Watergate shows is that when you take Vince Lombardi’s philosophy and try to transform it into politics, you’ve got big problems, and I can remember talking to Jeb Magruder during the campaign and Chuck Colson during the campaign, and they didn’t really dislike George McGovern because he wanted to give everybody a thousand dollars or because he wanted to cut the defense budget thirty billion dollars. The big thing they had against him was he wanted to run against Richard Nixon. You know, who does this guy think he is?

JAMES DAVID BARBER: I think there are some signs of what you say. One of them is a lack of a certain detachment. And certainly a key one. This has been about the least jolly White House that we have had in history. It seems to me these are people who wanted to appear tough; you had various forms of that, the burglars themselves, the toughness of obedience; the James Bond types-Hunt and Liddy; toughness was — of that sort of spirit of carrying out the mission. Colson’s walk over the grandmother business and all that… I think it not only resonates with something in the President’s character which I think it very clearly does, that being manly and all of that means to — all of what that means to Nixon is part of it. It also resonates with something in the country. They fed on that. They got some encouragement in that field.

BILL MOYERS: The men in the White House might well have thought their toughness expressed what the public at large wanted. Our politics often do reflect our society. It was as if they agreed with H.L. Mencken: “Democracy,” said Mencken, “is the theory that the common people know what they want, and they deserve to get it — good and hard.” There was no general outcry when the government used mass arrests, informers and grand juries to harass anti-war groups. When the Justice Department refused to convene a federal grand jury to investigate the Kent State killings, most of us hardly seemed to notice. When the student demonstrators were beaten up on Wall Street, popular sentiment seemed to applaud. When the President called for punishing lawbreakers without pity, he struck a responsive chord throughout the country. It could have seemed in the White House that the Bill of Rights had been declared invalid by an invisible popular referendum.

Whatever they thought about the public mood, the men linked to Watergate clearly thought they were doing what the President wanted. They cloaked their criminal deeds in a boundless notion of national security, and by the President’s own admission they got that from him. This is the President’s statement of May 22nd, 1973. Quote: “Because of the emphasis I put on the crucial importance of protecting the national security, I can understand how highly motivated individuals could have felt justified in engaging in specific activities that I would have disapproved had they been brought to my attention.” Yet, two years earlier in 1970, the President personally had approved the use of clandestine techniques he had been warned were illegal: a secret intelligence operation coordinated by a White House assistant who was authorized to use surreptitious entry and other unlawful methods to supersede the Constitution, The staff memorandum approved by the President spelled it out clearly:

SAM ERVIN: “Use of this technique,” the document states, “is clearly illegal. It amounts to burglary. It is also highly risky. And could result in great embarrassment if exposed. However, it is also the most fruitful tool and can produce the type of intelligence which cannot be obtained in any other fashion.” Now, that’s what the record shows.

BILL MOYERS: J. Edgar Hoover wouldn’t go along with the plan for reasons that remain unclear. But the President later established anyway a secret police operation in the White House basement. They would bypass the regular investigating agencies of the government to engage in criminal acts. Breaking the law is not out of bounds. What the Constitution forbids, the President can permit.

SENATOR HERMAN TALMADGE: If the President could authorize a covert break in, you don’t know exactly where that power would be limited. You don’t think it could include murder — or other crimes beyond covert break-ins, do you?

JOHN EHRLICHMAN: I don’t know where the line is, Senator.

BILL MOYERS: There in brief is the Watergate morality embedded in the Nixon White House — belief in the total rightness of the official view of reality and an arrogant disregard for the rule of law, the triumph of executive decree over due process. By arbitrarily and secretly invoking the national security, the President or his men can nullify the Bill of Rights and turn the Constitution into a license for illegitimate conduct. The President is set above ordinary standards of right or wrong. What’s right is what works. And he alone decides what that is. One man, in effect, becomes the state. It was close. It almost worked. And it would pave changed things for keeps: the public conscience smothered, the Congress intimidated, the press isolated, and the political process rigged. The President would have been free to dictate the popular morality for his own ends. And we would have been at the mercy of unbridled, capricious and arbitrary rules. It was close. It almost worked. But not quite. Something basic in our traditions held.

TOUR GUIDE: We’re now standing in the Great Rotunda of our nation’s Capital. The Rotunda is the center of a sixteen and a half acre, five hundred and forty room Capitol building. If you’d all look into the ceiling of our dome. The dome that’s here above your heads is the largest ….

BILL MOYERS: In good times and bad they keep coming, millions every year. When things are going well, they seem merely to look, to take pictures and move on, satisfied simply to have been here. In troubled times, you can sense among some of them the doubts and questions and the need to believe. Through war, depression and scandal these people respond to some primitive intuition that ideals are not cancelled because men stop believing in them or fail to practice them.

TOURIST: I’m looking forward to seeing it. We’ve never been here. We were to Washington once before, and we didn’t make it because it was closed.

TOURIST: The President lives here.

MAN: A lot of Presidents have lived here. Right.

TOURIST: Yeah. I want to see what they were like. And if they have anything in here from…

TOURIST: I think we’re generally interested in the history of the country.

TOURIST: I’m curious just to look.

MAN: Right. You think you’ll look at it any differently because of recent developments?

TOURIST: Ah, well, that’s quite possible. I just came from the Watergate; take a look at that, so, you know, in that sense, I might very well look at it different.

TOURIST: Oh, I don’t know. I think the inhabitants of the White House come and go, but the White House is part of our history, and we just like to see it, see what it looks like.

WILLIAM S. WHITE: Speaking of some parts of the country, specifically, I suppose, the young and the more idealistic, I think, as the expression goes, it’s undoubtedly traumatized their ideals. I think it’s undoubtedly to some extent turned them off farther than they were, but I don’t — I think it ought not to be said that the whole of the country has had its idealism savagely rendered and torn apart; no, I don’t.

WILLIAM MILLER: What one would hope for out of this — the experience that we’ve had with the many recent events, including Watergate, — is America’s historic idealism which, despite all the faults in it, is what has made us a nation we can be proud of. We want that idealism to be based on a more realistic foundation than it has been, so that it won’t turn into the cynicism that breeds a Watergate. To state ideal purposes in life so that you don’t gag, so that it doesn’t sound preachy, so that Ernest — the Ernest Hemingways of the world don’t want to jump out of the window or the H.L. Menckens don’t want to flee, you have to have the ingredient of realism that truth, beauty and goodness are real, and we do have an attachment to them, but we are human beings whose service to them is always mixed. If you look at it that way, I think you can talk about ideals without being embarrassed and having a feeling that you want to go out and have a beer and forget all that stuff.

BILL MOYERS: This city can’t help but remind you of those ideals and of the reality that shaped them. From the beginning, the White House represented something permanent, something larger than the interests of the men who worked there for a season. The authors of this government perceived this distinction and acted to preserve it. They knew men to be by nature fallible, themselves included, and prone to abuse great office. They valued personal liberty above power and left us safeguards against men whose appetites for power might exceed their moral wisdom. They also left us examples of character. You think about these things in this city and the aftermath of the White House scandals known as Watergate and wonder why it took so great an affront to decency to make us realize how hard won rights can be lost simply by taking them for granted. So you come back, leaving behind the folk stories and myths and wide eyed innocence, believing that what is best about this country doesn’t need exaggeration. It needs vigilance. I’m Bill Moyers. Good night.

This transcript was entered on April 28, 2015.


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