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Drippings from the Watergate

The Ervin committee demonstrates some of the lessons of Watergate.

The Ervin committee, while concentrating on the planning, execution and coverup of the break-in at Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate Office Building, is instructing us on other matters having to do with politics, government and the mores of Washington.

The fine art of misleading the press and the public.

Richard Moore, the wealthy, gray-haired, 59-year-old special counsel to President Nixon, told the senators of his assisting “the President and his staff in communicating their positions in the most convincing manner to the general public. Since convincing communications depend on having a convincing position to communicate,” Moore added, “my job necessarily involves me in the substance of particular issues in the public eye.”

With that as background Moore gave an inside peek into how “convincing communications” was applied in October 1972 to Washington Post and Time magazine stories. Here is what happened: information had been leaked by government investigators that the President’s appointments secretary, Dwight Chapin, had hired an old college friend, Donald Segretti, to conduct sabotage against Democratic presidential candidates in the fall of 1971 and the spring of 1972, for which Segretti was paid $35,000 by Herbert Kalmbach, the President’s lawyer. A Post reporter had called the White House press office, prior to publication of the story, and asked for a comment. (In addition to the original leaked information, the Post had a deposition from a California friend of Segretti to whom the saboteur had described some of his activities.) The comment then and the comment of White House Press Secretary Ronald Ziegler after the story appeared was: “hearsay, innuendo and guilt by association,” which he would not further “dignify.” Ziegler’s statement, Moore told the senators, was the product of a White House consultation among himself, Ziegler, Chapin and the President’s chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman. They gathered to discuss what “convincing” reply could be made to the upcoming news reports. One of the first things to come out at that meeting was that the substance of the article was correct — Chapin did hire Segretti who was paid by Kalmbach. Moore also stated Chapin wanted to tell the truth and that Moore agreed it should be told. It was never made clear, since Moore was never asked by the senators, why the truth did not emerge. Publication of the story came shortly before the election, so the White House had to treat it as a smear.

Moore blandly told the Senate committee that since neither Chapin, Segretti nor Kalmbach was quoted or would comment, the facts in the published story were based on hearsay and, in some parts, innuendo. The facts were correct, Moore acknowledged, but Ziegler had never said they weren’t; he just implied they weren’t by refusing to comment.

Some Washington newsmen last October wrote that Ziegler’s refusal to affirm or deny could imply the stories were correct. But that sort of “analysis” is the type of “innuendo” the the Nixon administration — and Vice President Agnew — have attacked as irresponsible. In short the Ziegler statement was meant to serve the doctrine of “convincing communications.”

The Ervin committee has been treated to other examples of this doctrine. Thus former White House counsel John Dean described the manner in which the White House and the Nixon reelection committee persistently denied any advance knowledge of the Watergate break-in. The line was: no one other than the five men caught inside Democratic headquarters plus the other two men directly on the scene, knew an entry was to be made on June 17. If a newsman thought he was asking about planning for the break-in or the earlier successful entry when the bugs were planted, the response of Nixon spokesmen was limited to denying the specific events of June 17. Dean also described how the White House got around admitting the existence of a “secret” cash fund under the control of Haldeman, even though $350,000 had been placed in a bank prior to April 7, 1972, from the reelection committee’s campaign cash. Since the fund was no “secret” to the White House, Dean explained, it could not be accurately called “secret,” and so any story terming it “secret” could be denied. But perhaps the best example of “convincing communications” was Moore’s own presence before the Ervin committee. His message was simple: “it is my deep conviction … that the critical facts about the Watergate did not reach the President until … March 21, 1973.” In two days of questioning Moore displayed remarkable forgetfulness, not only of past dates but also of events that put his basic message in doubt. For instance his opening statement failed to refer to a meeting he had with the President April 19, 1973, at which Moore revealed his own knowledge of the Ellsberg psychiatrist burglary. He did not say whether the President had prior knowledge of that event. The President did know, it turns out. But Moore said, “I have long since learned not to try to draw impressions from the President in that fashion.” So Moore could not hazard a guess about what the President knew about the Ellsberg matter, but the doctrine of “convincing communications” permitted him to assert sweepingly that the President did not know about the Watergate affair and the coverup.

What limits are there on the use of campaign funds?

Herbert W. Kalmbach, the President’s personal lawyer, fund-raiser and cash dispenser testified to numerous uses for contributions. Though the 1968 Nixon pre-convention donors may have thought they were giving to help their man get the GOP nomination or later win the election, more than $1 million of that money collected five years ago went for such things as support of George Wallace’s 1970 gubernatorial opponent in Alabama and the private investigative services from 1969 through 1972 of a former New York City policeman who was under the direction of White House aides John Ehrlichman and John Dean. And at least $75,000 that had been contributed with the understanding it would go to the 1972 Nixon reelection effort was used instead as support money for the Watergate defendants. Recent reports from the Nixon reelection committee disclose that over $50,000 in 1972 contributions is paying for lawyers defending former committee officials Jeb S. Magruder, a confessed perjuror, and Maurice Stans, indicted by a New York grand jury in a case stemming from the handling of a $200,000 cash donation.

Kalmbach said that he held the 1968 surplus funds in trust. But in trust for whom? Should any rules be set on what is done with campaign gifts? Should surpluses be returned?

Can you trust taped conversations?

The disclosure that all the President’s conversations in the Oval Office and Executive Office Building were tape-recorded, along with his telephone calls, has led to the supposition that these tapes could be the final arbiter of what the President knew and when he knew it. Though it is doubtful that the White House will release the tapes, the possibility remains that some arrangement could be worked out permitting review of discussions pertinent to the investigation. But who then will listen to the tapes to determine their relevance to the Senate inquiry? Who will make the selections? Who will certify that disclosed portions of tapes released are complete, if the entire conversation is not released? It is difficult to fake tapes, but they can be cut or blurred. As an illustration of the suspicions that can arise, take the recorded March 28, 1973 conversation between John Ehrlichman and then-Attorney General Richard Kleindienst. The coverup, or at least John Dean’s part in the coverup, was wearing thin. A week earlier on March 21 Dean had told the President the awful truth, including his suspicion that Mitchell new of the Watergate wire-tapping project before it was carried out. The Ehrlichman-Kleindienst conversaton — taped without the attorney general’s knowledge — brings out that the President wanted to be informed privately if the Justice Department received any “evidence or inferences from evidence” on Mitchell. However intriguing that is, it may only indicate the President’s concern about his friend, nothing more. Twice, however, the participants’ voices went inaudible. A reading of the transcript shows that on both occasions the discussion was about the President and Mitchell. The first time Ehrlichman had just passed on the President’s request for a “private communication” if Kleindienst had information about Mitchell. “Now he …,” the conversation goes on, and then turns inaudible. It picks up with Kleindienst talking about perjury and the fact that others had testified under oath and that this would create “a very serious problem” if Mitchell or any of these guys know about it. …” The second sound failure came in the midst of Kleindienst’s reference to Mitchell’s being brought back before the grand jury. “You have to do it in this case,” he told Ehrlichman, and then the tape is inaudible though the phrase “quite a limitation is imposed on us John” is heard. Was this tape that Ehrlichman turned over to the committee doctored? Could others including those from the White House be made inaudible at key points?

The quality of the Ervin committee investigation.

Bright lights, an appreciative audience and television cameras give the hearings a theatrical quality, but is it good theater? Occasionally. Good theater has high and low points, heroes and villains, occasional comic relief. A serious factual investigation such as this may have none of these. Strong drama needs a clear plot line the audience can follow, as well as dramatic tension and some arresting language. By and large the questioning has been weak. The senators often do not follow through and their questions are sometimes as rambling and vague as the answers they elicit. When the staff counsels have their turns they seem pressed for time, apprehensive over holding up the stars — the senators — who are waiting to go on. For instance, John Mitchell testified that a June 20, 1972 telephone conversation with the White House, logged by him as occurring at 6 pm, was the only time the President asked him what had happened and what he knew. Mitchell said that during that conversation he apologized to the President about not keeping tighter control over his staff, but he didn’t tell Mr. Nixon about the involvement of others (except for five who’d been arrested) because he, Mitchell, had no further information. He also testified that he learned all about Watergate and the White House “horrors” only when his two aids, Frederick LaRue and Robert Mardian briefed him on a conversation they had with ringleader G. Gordon Liddy. And that briefing, testified Mitchell, came well after he spoke to the President on June 20.

LaRue was subsequently asked by the committee about that meeting he had with Liddy. LaRue described in full Liddy’s account of the operation and who was part of it. Committee chief counsel Sam Dash then asked LaRue when he relayed this Liddy information to Mitchell. On June 20, LaRue replied “in the afternoon or evening.” The exact time was critical. Was it before the President’s 6 pm call to Mitchell? Dash never inquired.

Mitchell, during his three days of testimony, set forth an entirely new rationale for his actions, and neither the staff questions nor those by the senators budged him. He switched the focus away from the illegal Watergate operation — where he had responsibilities — to something he termed the “White House horrors,” for which he had no responsibility. When Mitchell said he did not have to cover up, because the coverup was already well publicized by the press, the committee never reminded him that throughout the election campaign he and other Nixon spokesmen vehemently denied any responsibility for or ties to the burglary and bugging. The senators were more intent on faulting Mitchell for having been a faithless friend than for having himself connived in wrongdoing.

If the hearings were sharper, crisper, tougher, would they be more convincing to the audience? Perhaps not. For it is the image of sincerity, however humbling, that comes across and so Sam Ervin becomes a folk hero. The very inefficiency of the questioners, the occasional errors and the high-minded though irrelevant pronouncements may add to the committee’s credibility, convincing the public of its honesty and unmalicious intent. And so in the end the hearings persuade and the job of relentless questioning is left to Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox.

This article originally ran in the July 28, 1973 issue of the magazine.