Despite writing that John Dean's new The Nixon Defense was "too much Watergate detail even for me," I kept reading it, especially once I came upon his description of his March 21, 1973 talk with Nixon, the one in which he warned of the "cancer on the presidency." Despite the lengthy and almost unedited quotations from the tapes, this book is otherwise the most clearly-written account of Watergate that I've ever read, and it made much clear to me that already should have been, but wasn't.
Dean began the March 21 meeting by laying out the entire history of the break-in as he knew it. (Nixon already knew much of this, but he wasn't revealing that fact.) Then he turns to the "cancer," by which he primarily meant the demands for hush money by Hunt and the other arrested men.1 Dean was trying to make the point that this was a bottomless pit, and that the solution was to cut out the cancer by saying no and taking the resulting heat (Hunt had threatened to tell all he knew) instead of letting it get worse.
So Dean was shocked when Nixon asked him how much money it would take in total to buy these guys off. Floored, he made a guesstimate of a million dollars, and Nixon started musing about how to get hold of the money.
This was the point at which Dean realized that, in a word, Nixon was a crook, and that he, Dean, should not be tied to this sinking ship any longer.2 It was a few days later that he secretly went to the prosecutors to make a deal, which led to his fatal testimony before the Senate - fatal because it was backed up by the tapes, which, it turns out, Nixon did mean to destroy, but never got around to doing, partly because of mixed feelings about it - he felt they'd be his only defense against Kissinger subsequently painting himself as the sole hero of Nixonian diplomacy.3
Once Dean went "off the reservation," Nixon and his loyalists saw him as a scum-sucking traitor, because they couldn't imagine any other reason for his action, and they talked big about destroying him. Nixon started rewriting his version of the conversation, including claiming that it was Dean who brought up the amount of money and the suggestion of paying it, and/or that Nixon was joking when he seemed to be going along with it.
Nixon also claimed that the story Dean had begun with was the first time he learned any of it, which had the advantage of painting Dean as having maliciously withheld it earlier - untrue; previously he'd lacked a direct channel to the President, and had been desperately trying to send signals through Ehrlichman, who'd brushed him off4 - and of Nixon as a wounded innocent.
The fact is that Nixon had been painting this picture of himself all along. It's true that the Watergate burglary itself took the White House men by surprise - the specific plot had been hatched at CREEP and was none of their doing - but it took only a couple days of inquiry of Magruder and Liddy there before they had essentially the whole story, and Haldeman told it all to Nixon. But it did implicate the White House, so the cover-up began automatically. But then every time a made-up cover-up story broke down, Nixon had to erect a new one by claiming that new information had come to his attention, etc etc. That's what happened when it became known that Dean had talked to Nixon on March 21, but that wasn't the only time.
I've long inchoately thought, but have only recently realized explicitly, why this seemed, even at the time, to be a completely non-credible line. The way Nixon talked in public about Watergate, it was if he was performing deep speculative spelunking into unknown and unrecorded events, like a criminal investigation into the mysterious inner workings of the Mafia, or a diplomatic speculation about what was going on inside the hidden walls of the Kremlin. Yet what Nixon claimed to be investigating this way was what his own top aides had been doing in his name!
An honest President who knew nothing about Watergate would have immediately called all the relevant aides in on the carpet - or, if he trusted Haldeman, have him do it; that's what a chief of staff is for - demanded the whole story, and used cross-examination to iron out gaps and inconsistencies. And, if he then still suspected that they were lying to him, fire their sorry asses on the spot.
And, as I noted above, that's what the White House men - primarily Ehrlichman, Haldeman, and Dean - actually did, only it wasn't that difficult. Dean himself was the one sent to query Liddy, who, in a subsequently famous conversation on a park bench, acknowledged all and admitted he was to blame for the goof-ups.
Why couldn't they just tie it off at that point, blame it on Liddy - and possibly Magruder, who had issued Liddy's orders - and let them take the heat and save everyone else? Why did they instinctively begin a cover-up, instead? One which started off badly enough by claiming, ludicrously, that the burglars had acted on their own initiative, with no connection to CREEP, even though 1) their leader, McCord, was CREEP's security director and a retired CIA man [the revelation of which in court is what first convinced Bob Woodward that there had to be something serious going on here], 2) somebody had to have given them their fancy equipment, sheafs of unmarked bills, etc., and 3) nobody but CREEP could possibly be a customer for what the burglars were tapping. (Then when that story fell through, they had to act shocked, shocked! that they'd been misled so, and come up with another ludicrous story, this one about it being a secret CIA national security operation - thus McCord and Hunt, the retired CIA men - so the FBI should keep its investigating hands off.5 But Helms, the CIA director, refused to certify this, so that was off; and on they went to invent more cover-ups.)
They couldn't cut it off at Liddy's level for two reasons, and Nixon explicitly understood and approved this refusal to stop. One reason was that the burglary was already tied to the White House, not just CREEP, by the revelation that the burglars had Hunt's name and White House phone number in their papers, and Hunt, Woodstein quickly established, was known to be an aide to Colson there.6 The other reason ties in to Dean's approach to an answer to the biggest remaining mystery of Watergate: Who approved Gemstone?
Liddy had first presented his massive plan to bug the Democrats, spy on them, play dirty tricks, spread disinformation, and put them in compromising positions (by hiring call girls, etc.), which he code-named Gemstone, to a meeting with Magruder (then acting director of CREEP), Mitchell (still Attorney General but due to take over later), and Dean (representing the White House), and Mitchell turned it down more because it was too expensive than because it was, like, illegal and being discussed in the office of the U.S. Attorney General. At a later meeting, Liddy presented a new plan of the same stuff at half the cost, and it was turned down again. Dean says that, until the break-in, he thought that was the end of it, but it wasn't. Liddy again took Mitchell's nonspecific demurral as a finance issue, and prepared a third version at a quarter of the original cost, with bugging the DNC (and McGovern hq, which they were planning on going to next when they were caught) still in the plan. Neither Dean nor Liddy himself were present at the meeting where Mitchell and Magruder considered this version, so we have only their stories. Magruder testifed that Mitchell approved it this time. Mitchell insisted that he didn't. Impasse.
I've always assumed that one or the other of them was lying - both did so on numerous other matters - and that it was probably Mitchell. But it's possible that Magruder misunderstood Mitchell's instructions. And Dean in this book raises another possibility, which points to White House involvement. He says it's possible that both Mitchell and Magruder did drop it, but that pressure from the White House - specifically from Colson and Strachan - for campaign intelligence forced Magruder to revive it. Now, Haldeman, who would have issued Strachan's orders, claimed that the kind of campaign intelligence he had in mind was public stuff, like following Democratic speakers around with tape recorders to catch them making gaffes (this was before the media could be trusted to catch everything). I'm not sure I believe that, but the basic concept seems plausible.
The point is, despite claims that the real crime was the cover-up, not the burglary, the circumstances of the burglary were the reason for the cover-up. Watergate, the burglary, was an inseparable part of that whole series of nasty things that Mitchell aptly called "the White House horrors" that included the burglary of Ellsberg's psychiatrist - another Hunt/Liddy special - the Huston plan, Segretti, and more. This one just happened to be outsourced to CREEP, using the former White House "plumbers" to do it. It was the slow, agonized revelation of all these other things, and their web-like interconnections, over the next two years that buried Nixon.
1. Hunt, in his memoirs, explains his motivation. His view is that he committed all these crimes at the behest of the big enchiladas, so they ought to help and support him, at least financially, when he got into trouble at their behest. Hunt was supposed to be a professional spy, but apparently he never got as far in the Mission:Impossible opening scene as the point where the voice on the tape recorder says, "If you or any of your I.M.Force are caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions."
2. I find it amazing how long it took so many of Nixon's supporters to figure this out. They knew Nixon, they'd seen him up close. I never met Nixon, but I always knew he was a crook, regardless of his stated policies, or how much good he had also done. Same thing about the Iraq War. I'm just an uninformed punter, but I knew it'd be a hopeless quagmire, and others who shared that view broadcast it widely. Why didn't Democrats like Kerry and Clinton know better: who knew Bush and Cheney personally, who were supposed to be so learned in international affairs (and have both since been Secretary of State), and yet who voted to authorize the horrid thing?
3. Why didn't Nixon keep the Kissinger tapes and destroy the Watergate ones? Because separating them out would have been a herculean task. Dean emphasizes in his book how bad the sound quality on the tapes is. At one point Nixon sent Haldeman to listen to some tapes, and Haldeman came back shaking his head and saying, "You've no idea how hard a job that was."
4. Or so Dean says, and I see no reason to disbelieve him.
5. Nixon's explicit approval of this lie, its misappropriation of the CIA and its attempt to block a legitimate FBI investigation, was the "smoking gun" whose revelation two years later was what lost him the last vestiges of support against impeachment and conviction in Congress.
6. Dean answers one of the minor mysteries of Watergate, something often mentioned but never before explained. Why were the burglars carrying an envelope with Hunt's check made out to a country club? The answer turns out to be that Hunt was scamming the country club by claiming to reside out of town, so he'd thus owe a lower membership fee, and he'd asked the burglars to take the check back to Miami with them and mail it from there in aid of this deception. Did Hunt really think the office flunky who opened the envelope was going to care about the postmark? Well, he was a spy, and probably thought everybody else was, too. Why he didn't wait to give it to the burglars until after they'd finished their night's burglary ... but Hunt and Liddy were clowns, we already know that.