• Paul Rutherford

THE 'GATE KEEPERS

Have you seen All the President’s Men (AtPM)? It’s available on BBC iPlayer Film for the next couple of weeks.


If you have, it is endlessly re-watchable. If not, see it now, before ‘shoe-leather’ journalism disappears all together.


After all, it is the 50th anniversary of ‘Watergate’.

Except it’s not. ‘Watergate’ didn’t happen on a single date. Sure, an event on 17 June 1972 started the ball rolling, but the twine took two-and-a-half years to unravel. AtPM only shows the first six months.

What follows is my short-form version of the full story, and why it recently came to mind. To show why ‘-gate’ is the suffix for every political ‘scandal’ ever since. Including 2022.


Most dramas have three acts, and Watergate fits neatly into three years (1972-74). But to make more sense of why it happened at all, let’s start with some context:


Prologue

Republican candidate Richard M. Nixon is elected President of the USA in Nov 1968. Aside from putting a man on the moon (1969), his in tray contains the endless Vietnam War and the strengthening US anti-war movement.

At the end of 1969 Nixon addresses the nation, saying that he has a plan to “end the war in a way that we could win the peace”. He asks the ‘Silent Majority’ (i.e. not hairy, shaggy, druggy, students) for their support.


In the following days, the White House floods with affirmative letters and telegrams. Nixon concludes that he is on the winning side of public opinion.


Unfortunately for him, in 1971 a military analyst leaks ‘The Pentagon Papers’. They show US government involvement in Vietnam since1945 to 1967. Worst, the Johnson Administration had ‘lied, not only to the public, but also to Congress’.

(By the way, don’t think that the ‘Papers’ are in a brown envelope left on a park bench. There are 4,000 of original government documents and 3000 pages of analysis in 47 volumes.)


Truth about the Vietnam War is now out. Government agencies are leaky. And Nixon has to stand for re-election in November 1972.

The scene is set.


ACT 1: “Follow the Money”

On 17 June 1972, an odd thing happened at the Watergate hotel and office complex in Washington DC. Five men in business suits are caught bugging the Democratic National Committee headquarters.

The next day, The Washington Post reports that one of the burglars was ‘security coordinator’ for the Committee for the Re-election for the President. Then, and ever since, called CREEP.


Head of the re-election campaign, John Mitchell, says “This man and other people were not operating on our behalf or with our consent. These is no place in our campaign, or in the electoral process, for this type of activity.” Case closed.


Or maybe not.


Two of the burglars have address books in their jacket pockets. They contain details of a ‘Hunt’, and a ‘George’.

By 20 June, the first name identifies as Howard Hunt, a former CIA agent and White House ‘advisor’. The latter G(eorge) Gordon Liddy, a former FBI agent and CREEP finance counsel.

(Press PAUSE for a moment. All this, and much of what follows, might seem obvious now, after the fact. But think in real time. You’re a journalist with bits of a story. Partial information. Hearsay and denial. A newspaper like The Post shouldn’t make 2+2=17 in three days – then find out it is wrong. The Post is already in Republican bad books. It ran much of ‘The Pentagon Papers’ the previous year.)


One source of Watergate information is ‘Deep Throat’. He is an anonymous government official who provides ‘deep background’.


While he existed (indeed, later self-identified), he is best known for a made-up line of dialogue in AtPM :


DEEP THROAT:

I have to do this my way. You tell me what you know, and I’ll confirm. I’ll keep you in the right direction if I can. That’s all… Just follow the money.


At the start of August 1972, a Miami attorney discovers that one of the accused burglars had received a cheque from CREEP. The Post covers this.


President Nixon decides to clear the decks on this ‘Watergate matter’. He announces that John Dean, the White House counsel (in-house lawyer) has investigated. No-one from the White House is involved. Case closed.


By the end of September, it was clear that John Mitchell had controlled secret CREEP payments. They were to gather intelligence on the Democrats. There is a trail back to March 1972.


If you think that by now the story is out and that heads will roll, think again. On 7 November, Richard Nixon is re-elected with a landslide result. He takes more than 60 percent of the vote, and 48 of the 50 states.

As the urbane commentator Alistair Cooke wrote in his BBC Letter from America (11 November 1972):


‘It looks as if the Democrats were more out of touch with the American people than at any time since the 1890s and the early 1900s. For it's fair to say that the great silent majority found its voice last Tuesday, and for some time to come, wherever Nixon stands, there stand they.’


(Another PAUSE. In hindsight, it appears that America hadn’t registered Watergate. And if they had, well, ‘it was a lot of gossip and didn’t matter. Nixon’s a good man, and I have other things to worry about.’ )


It is worth noting that one of the two states that he didn’t win was Washington DC, home of The Post.


ACT 2: The Trial and The Tapes

January 1973 hosts the trial of the ‘Watergate Seven'. The five bugging burglars (including Howard Hunt), and the two look-outs (including G. Gordon Liddy).

Hunt immediately pleads guilty. He states that ‘no one higher in the Nixon Administration was involved in the plot’. The other four also plead guilty.


The look-outs try not guilty. But at the end of the month they're convicted for conspiracy, burglary and wiretapping. Case closed.


Or maybe not.


In February, the US Senate unanimously votes to create a Committee of Presidential Campaign Activities. What have all the rumours been about?


In March, one of the ‘Seven’ writes a letter to the Judge of his trial. It claims that the defendants had pleaded guilty under duress. Days later, before the Senate committee, he says that White House counsel John Dean knew about the scheme all along.


And the dominoes start to fall.


John Dean begins co-operating with Watergate prosecutors;


Another member of the Seven tells that John Mitchell and John Dean both approved the bugging and conspired to buy the silence;


Nixon appears on national television. He announces the dismissal of John Dean and the resignation of two of his “closest advisers”.


Again, I turn to Alistair Cooke for his perspective of that moment (5 May 1973)


“Is it conceivable that Mr. Nixon knew nothing of the Watergate bugging, the elaborate cover-up planned by his own top staff, the fakery of the telegrams, the enormous slush fund (some of it illegal) being raised on his behalf? He says it is so, that he is a man more sinned against than sinning.”


On 17 May, another Senate Committee starts investigating the break-in and cover-up. Hearings are televised. The nation is transfixed.


On the 20 May, Nixon issues a 4,000-word statement, to clear himself of having known about it, or sanctioning any cover-up. Case closed.


Or maybe not.


John Dean goes on record saying that he had discussed the cover-up with the President ‘at least 35 times’

.

On 7 Jul, Nixon tells the Committee that he will not testify before it and will not grant access to Presidential documents, claiming Executive Privilege.


A week later, a former presidential appointments secretary drops a bombshell. ‘Since 1971, Nixon has recorded all conversations and telephone calls in his office.’


Doesn’t everybody?

A three-month legal arm-wrestle begins. The Committee wants the tapes and the White House won't release them. The Committee supoenas some of the tapes, Nixon again claims Executive Privilege. He addresses the nation (again). This time even Alistair Cooke is losing his patience (25 August 1973):


“The president did not say again what must have been an ordeal to admit to a national audience, that he, the President of the United States, had all the resources of the FBI and the CIA, and his closest White House advisors and pals, all working on it, and yet everything he was told, for nine months, was wrong.”


On 23 October, Nixon releases some tapes. And the Committee discovers a 18-and-a-half minute gap in a recorded conversation between the President and his (then) Chief of Staff…


… on 20 June 1972.


ACT 3: The Smoking Gun

The US government system does not rush, anywhere. After the year of a trial and tapes, the House of Representatives votes to authorize a Judicial Committee to investigate whether there are grounds to impeach President Nixon.


A Special Prosecutor issues another subpoena, for another sixty-four White House tapes. And once again, Nixon refuses to hand them over. He appears on television to explain his decision to only release edited transcripts.

The Supreme Court (the highest in the land) upholds the Special Prosecutor’s subpoena. It orders Nixon the make the tapes available. Meanwhile, the Judicial Committee adopts three Articles of Impeachment. The President is near the end of the road.


As if that wasn’t damning enough, transcripts of 23 June 1972 tapes become the smoking gun. They prove that Nixon ordered a cover-up - only six days after the Watergate break-in.

On 8 August, televised to the nation, Nixon announced he’ll resign the next day.


Coda

If you have the time and the inclination to read the president’s speech, here’s a link to draw your own conclusion. If not, here’s a Cooke comment (16 Aug 1973):


"What had Nixon said about Watergate? Nothing, but the hint that he'd made a mistake of judgement. Not that he'd plotted, conspired, obstructed justice, lied, was aware of bribes and hush money, that he'd used the two chief intelligence agencies of the government to cover up a plot he publicly pretended to abhor.


"And why had he been forced out? There was not even a hint that he had been. He'd mentioned only that he had lost his political base in Congress... that for some obscure reason he wouldn't go in to, a bunch of craven politicians in the House had deserted him. Too bad after all that dedication to splendid causes."


Which brings me to the reasons for re-watching All the President’s Men this time around. For reading many articles and websites about Watergate. For taking you through the events step by step:


Partygate, Boris Johnson, and his resignation speech.

In 2016, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson led the campaign for the U.K. to leave the European Union. He rode around the country in a red Brexit bus emblazoned with bold white letters claiming Britain could choose to fund its National Health Service instead of "[sending] the EU 350 million pounds a week".

Sir David Norgrove, Chair of the UK Statistics Authority, wrote to Johnson (who was then Foreign Secretary):


"(the figure of £350 million per week) confuses gross and net contributions. It also assumes that payments currently made to the UK by the EU - including, for example, the support of agriculture and scientific research - will not be paid by the UK government when we leave. It is a clear misuse of official statistics."


It’s doubtful that Johnson (the UK one, not the American) painted the bus himself. But the notion of him confusing and misusing statistics sets the tone for all that followed:


Becoming Conservative Leader on 23 July 2019 and insisting Britain will leave the EU on 31 October, with or without a deal; shutting down Parliament until mid-October, giving less time to challenge a no-deal Brexit approach (the UK Supreme Court ruled that was unlawful); instructing his MPs to change ethics rules to delay the suspension of one of his supporters (much of Parliament rebelled); becoming the first UK Prime Minister shown to be breaking the law by attending a party in Downing Street during Covid lock-down – then claiming that the ‘Partygate’ investigation “vindicated” him.


The straw that broke the camel’s back: denying that he knew anything of sexual misconduct allegations about one of his senior officers, then being reminded he had been told six years earlier.


Enough was enough. Within two days, 62 members of the government resigned.

Johnson had to go.


There must be a playbook somewhere, a how-to give a Government Leader Exit speech. Nixon and Johnson follow the same framework:

1. Focus on your greatest hits:

Nixon – Vietnam, China, Russia.

Johnson – Brexit, Covid, Ukraine


2. Blame someone/everyone else:

Nixon – the ungrateful Congress.

Johnson – the ungrateful ministers and back-benchers


3. Repeat your commitment to serve:

Nixon – “to do what was best for the nation”.

Johnson – “to keep levelling up”


4. Make your promise:

Nixon – “the wisdom I can summon to the cause of peace among nations”

Johnson - while you select a new Conservative leader “your interests will be served”


5. Don’t apologise:

Nixon – (see Alistair Cooke summary)

Johnson – forget about breaking lock-down rules, losing recent by-elections, not getting Brexit done, lying about the alleged groper you appointed, and the chaos you leave behind.


Or, as Nixon advised his first vice-president Spiro Agnew, who was being investigated for tax evasion: “Never give in! Never admit you’re down!”


Nor that you’ve done anything wrong.

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