You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Shades of Meaning

The Nixon Watch

If the members and staff of the Senate Watergate committee were smarter than they have been up to now, they would be preparing to make the President sorry that, at his August 22 press conference in San Clemente, he mentioned Clark MacGregor and thereby drew attention to a deposition that MacGregor gave under oath in a civil suit last July 20. MacGregor was the second and last director of Mr. Nixon's Committee for the Re-election of the President. With notable speed and foresight he resigned from that job on November 8, the day after the 1972 election, and became the United Aircraft Corporation's chief lobbyist in Washington. Before he replaced former Attorney General John Mitchell as the reelection committee's director, 14 days after the Watergate burglar-buggers were caught at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington, MacGregor was in turn a Republican congressman from Minnesota, a defeated candidate for the Senate in 1970, and a White House counselor in charge of Mr. Nixon's congressional relations. The last thing MacGregor would want to do, one presumes, would be to embarrass Mr. Nixon or add the merest whit to the evidence that the President has been less than truthful in his pleas that he knew nothing about the campaign misdeeds now connoted by "Watergate" when they were perpetrated and, until very late in the game, nothing about the effort at the White House and the reelection committee to conceal and minimize high-level participation in and responsibility for them. But this is what MacGregor did in his deposition. His account of a conversation that he had with the President on June 30 of last year, when Mr. Nixon asked him to replace Mitchell at the reelection committee, differs to the point of contradiction with the President's statement at San Clemente that MacGregor undertook on that occasion to "conduct a thorough investigation" of "his entire committee staff" and any involvement of its members in the Watergate affair. More generally and more importantly, insofar as the viability of the President's basic claim of ignorance and consequent innocence is concerned, MacGregor's sworn account of his relationship with Mr. Nixon during the campaign is substantially inconsistent with two Nixon statements. The President said on April 30 that "to the maximum extent possible . . . I sought to delegate campaign operations, to remove the day-to-day campaign decisions from the President's office and from the White House." On August 22, in the course of deploring Watergate for the umpteenth time, Mr. Nixon said that "had I been running the campaign rather than trying to run the country and particularly the foreign policy of this country at this time, it would never have happened."

Exact though repetitious quotation of a part of the President's reference to MacGregor at San Glemente is necessary if the full contrast between the two accounts is to be conveyed. Mr. Nixon was asked if he could "tell us who you personally talked to in directing that investigations be made both in June of '72 . . . and last March 21." The relevant portion of his reply began; "Certainly. In June I, of course, talked to Mr. MacGregor first of all . . . He told me that he would conduct a thorough investigation as far as his entire committee staff was concerned. Apparently that investigation was very effective except for Mr. Magruder"—and here the President said that "Mr. MacGregor does not have to assume responsibility" for believing the lies that the committee's deputy director, Jeb Stuart Magruder, was telling at the time.

MacGregor said in his civil deposition that he met with the President in his Oval Office "at or shortly before 5 p.m. on Friday, June 30," and indicated that they were together well over an hour. "Most of the time," MacGregor said, "he and I spent talking about his hopes and dreams for a second term and what he hoped to accomplish." One of the interrogating lawyers asked MacGregor: "In the course of your conversation with the President, did he mention the Watergate affair. . . . ? " MacGregor answered: "It was discussed briefly by us. I said . . . that I was familiar with the fact that it had been asserted by several people, both at the White House and at the Committee for the Re-election of the President, that no person in a position of authority or responsibility had any foreknowledge of or involvement in the Watergate and I indicated that I was assuming that I could rely on that and he said, 'I believe you can,' or words to that effect." MacGregor swore that during his first days with the committee he told John Mitchell and others, in effect:

"I am taking the position with the understanding that nobody who is holding over from the Mitchell era had any foreknowledge of or any involvement in . . . the Watergate." He also said that he made some inquiries of staff members, rather casual inquiries by his description, in order to be able to say at press conferences that he "had been given personal assurance" that nobody "in a position of authority or responsibility" was involved. By that time the official view was that G. Gordon Liddy, the committee's counsel, was not "in a position of authority or responsibility" and, later on, that his indictment and conviction therefore had no significance. Fred Maiek, a White House assistant who soon joined MacGregor and Magruder at the reelection committee as a second deputy director, swore in a similar civil deposition last July 4 that he and MacGregor accepted John Mitchell's finding and report that there was no high-level involvement. Maiek then said under oath: "We [meaning he and MacGregor made a conscious decision not to seek information on it." So much, in sum, for Mr. Nixon's assertion at San Clemente that MacGregor "told me that he would conduct a thorough investigation" and that "that investigation was very effective."

H. R. Haldeman, then the President's chief administrator and his deputy for practical purposes in management of the 1972 campaign, figured importantly in MacGregor's description of the relationship between him as the committee director and the President. MacGregor summarized Mr. Nixon's instructions to both of them on June 30 as follows: "One, that I would take direction in the conduct of the campaign from and after July 3 from the President and the President only" and "when either I was traveling or he was traveling and we might have difficulty in reaching each other personally, that Bob Haldeman would be the channel of communication between the President and me." MacGregor quoted the President as saying: "Clark, as you know, everybody has suggestions, particularly those who have been associated with me in past campaigns, as you have. I will be offering suggestions to you and making recommendations. I know that you will weigh them as you have [in the past], but you make the decision. If you want to consult with me about any decisions you may make, let me know directly or communicate it through Haldeman." MacGregor said that both the President and Haldeman indicated that they were pleased with the way he operated, "so that there was very little direction or instruction" from the White House. He indicated that his fairly frequent meetings with the President dealt mostly with the President's "personal campaign," rather than with the overall effort. But he also said that Mitchell when he was the committee director, and MacGregor after he succeeded Mitchell, regularly attended Haldeman's senior staff meetings at the White House each morning and that campaign matters were discussed. All in all MacGregor's total account just didn't square with Mr. Nixon's contention that he effectively removed campaign operations and decisions "from the President's office and from the White House."

MacGregor's account squared much better with one that Jeb Magruder gave at a Harvard seminar last January, when he was in trouble but not yet indicted and not dreaming that he'd soon be pleading guilty to perjurious obstruction of justice. Harvard University Press has just published an edited transcript of the seminar discussions (Campaign '72 —The Managers Speak) and in it Magruder says: "There was basically a triad of decision-makers —the President, Bob Haldeman and John Mitchell — until July of '72. They were in constant consultation with each other over major activities. . . . We agreed that the Committee to Re-elect would . . . stay out of the policy decision-making process . . . Similarly, the White House stayed out of the political organizational process . . . We [at the committee] used the same staff system that is used at the White House. We broke up the campaign initially into 16 groups and had deadlines as to when we had to have decisions made; we put the decision papers together and fired them off through John Mitchell into Bob Haldeman and the President . . . When Clark MacGregor came over [to the committee] in '72, we remained exactly in the same posture and continued along in exactly the same process that we had started back in May of '71. . . . I don't think it was a mystery."

It wasn't a mystery, except to the extent that the President and his principal political advisers contrived a protective mystery with their associated reelection and finance committees. Such words as "lies" and "liar" are too easily thrown about in this corrupted time, on regretted occasion by me, and it is not contended here that MacGregor and Magruder make an outright liar of Mr. Nixon. Differences of interested recollection don't have to be dishonorable differences. Shades of meaning flicker over the Watergate scene and defy precise judgment. With this allowed, however, the kindest possible judgment has to be that Mr. Nixon really ought to watch his words and respect the facts with more care than he frequently does.

At a televised press conference in Washington on September 5, the President's second in two weeks after five months of hiding from Watergate questions, Mr. Nixon demonstrably departed from fact—in this instance, his own previous version—only once. He answered "nothing whatever" when he was asked whether anything in the White House tapes that he is withholding from Senate investigators and the courts would "reflect unfavorably on your Watergate position." He seemed to have forgotten that he had said in a letter to Senator Sam Ervin last July 23 both that "the tapes are entirely consistent with . . . what I have stated to be the truth" and that "they contain comments that persons with different perspectives and motivations would inevitably interpret in different ways." The President's evident purpose was to further the notion that snide journalists, leering and sneering television commentators and a hostile and dilatory Congress were frustrating his effort to get away from scandal and on with "the business of the people." He had a point and he made it well.

This article originally ran in the September 15, 1973 issue of the magazine.