Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Watergate Silences: Gaps in the historical record

Ron Rosenbaum has an interesting two-part question in this New York Observer article:

1. Did Nixon order the June 1972 break-in at the Watergate?
2. Why haven't journalists and historians pursued this question with more energy?

Rosenbaum thinks the answer to #1 is 'yes" which leaves him struggling to answer #2. And he most definitely does think it deserves an answer.

This is the real scandal for journalists: Amidst the orgy of nostalgic self-congratulation that the Mark Felt revelation has prompted, it seems to have been forgotten that journalists have abandoned the most basic crime-reporter responsibility-pin down whodunit. As in who ordered it. None of the official investigations, the Senate Watergate Committee, the House Impeachment Committee, the Special Prosecutor's report were able to pin it directly on Nixon. As a result, as Mr. Greenberg attests, in most mainstream biographies and histories of Nixon and Watergate, Nixon gets a pass. He lied about everything else, but on this one thing-the initiating act of the fall of a government-we should just take his word; he's telling the whole truth.

I think that Rosenbaum is right to argue that we need close this gap in Watergate history. But I think that there are other gaps as well-gaps that call into question Rosenbaum's certainty about question #1. However, these gaps are troublesome because they raise troubling questions about the Standard Account of Watergate: brave press and investigators bring down evil Nixon and his Praetorian Guard.

First off, though, let's say that Rosenbaum is right. Nixon had potentially scandalous dealings with Howard Hughes and was afraid Larry O'Brien (DNC chair) would use them against him. A big question immediately comes to mind: why was Nixon and crew so certain that O'Brien had this information? Had they unearthed evidence that someone had collected evidence for the DNC or that someone there was attempting to use it?

They must have been certain because the break-in was not a routine matter. The Nixon White House had many enemies but they sent out Liddy and Hunt only a few times to do black bag jobs. Why were they so certain that the evidence was in that office at that time?

If the evidence was in the Watergate it certainly did not arrive via a public-spirited citizen. Too much digging around in this matter might bolster one of the Nixon camp's first defense-"everyone does it." If the Plumbers just got carried away in a game of political "Spy versus spy", then Watergate loses its moral clarity. The mythic power of the Standard Account is best maintained by focusing on the cover-up. Only one side could misuse the power of the Presidency so there was less danger of moral ambiguity.

Rosenbaum does not address one of the big reasons for this puzzle about the break-in. That is that the Standard Account took shape based on only a few sources. In the critical year-1973-the big Watergate disclosures came from James McCord, John Dean, Jeb Magruder and Deep Throat.

Now we know that all four were self-interested and often dishonest in crafting their stories. Dean, for example, could not reveal the details of the break-in authorization because he maintained that he was not involved. By deflecting attention from himself, he sent investigators and reporters down blind alleys that led to dead-ends. Similarly, Dean shifted responsibility for the loss of the Hunt notebooks to Patrick Gray, which helped obscure Dean's pre-break-in culpability while also making Nixon and Haldeman look more guilty.

Journalists are understandably loath to dig into the evasions of Dean, Felt and McCord. Any serious attempt to do so takes some of the shine off the boys of Watergate summer. It's hard to sustain a myth about heroic reporters when the heroes get conned by their sources and help them concoct false, misleading stories in pursuit of plea bargains or promotions.

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