The Great Unsolved Nixon Mystery: Did He Order Watergate Break-In?

As the impeachment of Bill Clinton heads for a climactic resolution, could it be that I’m the only one who cares that we still haven’t solved the Watergate break-in, the crime that precipitated the last impeachment process? Could it be you’re not aware that nearly three decades after the June 1972 break-in and bugging, after hundreds and hundreds of books about the fall of Richard Nixon, there’s no definitive answer to the question of whether or not he was the one who ordered the break-in?

You do know, of course, that the articles of impeachment drawn up against Nixon by the House Judiciary Committee in 1974, the “smoking-gun” tape that forced him to resign, did not link him to the original order for the break-in, they link him only to the cover-up afterward. There is a kind of poorly examined consensus among journalists and historians that has enshrined as truth Nixon’s self-exculpatory version of the question: that he was shocked, shocked when he first heard about the break-in, and that he was guilty only of the cover-up, that he destroyed his Presidency to shield himself from the mistakes of misguided subordinates; that he, Nixon, was in effect a victim of the Watergate break-in rather than a perpetrator.

And yet the evidence for this view-adopted by almost every scholar and historian now-consists of little more than Nixon’s own repeated assertion of it. An assertion that, I would argue, is challenged by his own words on recently released White House tapes in two passages, two clues overlooked when the huge volume of previously unheard tapes were unsealed, transcribed and published by Prof. Stanley Kutler last year (in his book Abuse of Power ). Overlooked because of the volume, perhaps, but overlooked as well because no one, it seems, except me, was looking-because there exists a curious lack of concern about historical clarity on this question, a complacent negligence about a matter at the heart of one of the great political and historical turning points in American history. In part, perhaps, it derives from a retrospective compassion for Nixon by the journalists and commentators who helped drive him from office, in the wake of his resignation-he’s gone, let’s not belabor the details, let’s not pile on. But the complacent negligence, the willful ignorance about this kind of detail-who ordered the break-in that started it all-is the very thing that breeds paranoia and conspiracy theories. And yet those commentators and columnists who regularly deplore irrational conspiracy theories seem content not to subject this central unanswered question of recent political history to the rigorous light of rational analysis.

As someone who covered the 1974 impeachment hearings and who was present in the East Room of the White House to watch Nixon’s weepy exit, I’ve been fascinated by the way the truncated impeachment process left so many key questions about the Watergate affair unresolved-by the desire to close the books not just on the break-in order but on such other unresolved questions, as what the burglars were looking for, what the buggers were listening for when they broke in, who were the moles within the Nixon Administration who helped bring it down and what interests were they serving (whether or not you believe in the centrality-or existence-of Deep Throat, the identity of the insiders whose leaks helped bring about the fall of an elected government is both highly significant and still unknown).

For a number of years, I’ve tried without much success to interest people in these questions. In a June 1982 New Republic piece on unresolved Watergate questions 10 years after the break-in, I argued that knowing whether or not Nixon himself ordered the break-in “would change our entire understanding of the internal dynamics of the collapse of the government.” I would add now that it would also change our understanding of the internal dynamics of Richard Nixon, one of the great, complex, tormented emblematic American characters. Did he really confess all in his many memoirs and mea culpa s after he left office, did he come clean in a soul-cleansing way when he kept insisting he made mistakes in covering up the break-in but never would have considered ordering it? Or did he go to his grave with one final-perhaps defining-big lie?

One would think that supporters as well as opponents of Nixon would want this question resolved definitively. He might be exonerated or, even if he were not, it might still be possible to defend his conduct if it were discovered he took this last secret to his grave: After all, there are those who still defend Alger Hiss in spite of, or because of his having taken his final secret, his final lie to his grave. It would not necessarily invalidate the best case to be made for Nixon, the one made by Leonard Garment in Crazy Rhythm , for instance.

Nixon supporters could say he kept that secret for the good of the cause or what he construed as the cause. Nixon might have felt that concealing this last secret was essential to eventually receiving a more balanced judgment from history. After all, history has proven him right about Hiss, even though he’s still vilified for his rhetoric and methods in the Hiss case, a vilification that led to his paranoia about enemies, paranoia which, one could also argue, gave rise to Watergate. Because the motive that has emerged for the break-in-whether or not Nixon was the one to order it-is fear about what his enemies had on him.

I would also suggest that the lack of historical clarity on the defining act of the last President who faced impeachment argues that even defenders of President Clinton should call for the fullest possible examination of the evidence in the Senate rather than some truncated trial.

I do not claim to answer the question definitively herein, but the new clues I’ll point out suggest that there is one living person who could come forward to help history resolve it. First we need to go to the tapes. As the surfacing of new Nixon tapes last month (in the context of a Nixon estate lawsuit) demonstrated once again, our understanding of Nixon must remain provisional until all the tapes come out. But we know now from the 1997 publication of Professor Kutler’s transcripts that Nixon was hardly averse to ordering break-ins.

“I want the break-in,” he tells H.R. Haldeman on the tape of June 30, 1971, insisting for the second time that his White House plumbers squad break into the Brookings Institution, the liberal think tank associated with the release of the Pentagon Papers. “You’re to break into the place, rifle the files and bring them in,” he adds. (This break-in and a corollary plan to stage a firebombing at Brookings as cover for it were never carried out.)

In the past, Nixon had tried to use the tapes to claim they exculpate him on the who-ordered-the-Watergate-break-in question. In his memoir, RN , he argues that the release of the (heavily edited) White House version of the tapes in 1974 “proved conclusively that I had not known about the break-in in advance.” A statement that should itself arouse skepticism, since the transcripts prove no such thing. It is a transparent logical fallacy to argue that just because he’s not heard on his edited selection of the tapes directly confessing he’s ordered the break-in, just because he denies it on a tape when he knew he was being recorded “for history,” therefore, it’s “conclusively proven” that he didn’t do it.

The transparency of the fallacy suggests desperation or lack of any other “proofs” he didn’t do it. Except one: the argument from sophistication. In his memoir, in his tapes, in his copious “diary” entries in the days after the break-in, RN repeatedly expresses just how shocked, shocked he was, not so much by the break-in itself but by the choice of target, Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate. Savvy, sophisticated pols such as himself, RN tells us (and his diary), would know that there was never any useful political intelligence to be found in Party headquarters, the real dirt is to be found in the quite separate Presidential candidate’s headquarters. The newly released tapes (the 1997 Kutler transcripts) offer a new version of this line-but with a stunningly candid twist that reveals it to be just a line.

It is June 20, 1972. The President, who had been down at his Key Biscayne retreat the weekend of the June 17 break-in, is back at work at the White House conferring with H.R. Haldeman, his chief consigliere on the strategy for the cover-up that will ultimately bring him down. Their first recorded conversation on the subject that day took approximately 2 minutes and is now just a loud electronic hum, most probably of deliberate erasure.

But in the next conversation that day, the earliest recorded conversation to survive, Nixon and Haldeman are discussing who’ll have to take the blame on Watergate: In this context, the President exclaims, “My God, the committee isn’t worth bugging, in my opinion.” Not worth bugging because political sophisticates know party headquarters are dry holes. We’ve heard that from him before, or seen it in previously released tapes and memoirs, but then he adds an astonishing admission about this rationale, “That’s my public line.”

That’s my public line. The unmistakable implication is that the private truth on the matter is different; that the private truth is that he knows very well there was a reason why he and his henchman thought the Watergate headquarters of the Democratic National Committee was “worth bugging.”

It is an implication that seems to be confirmed by the response of Haldeman, who says it wasn’t worth bugging “except for the financial thing. They thought they had something going on that.”

To which Richard Nixon replies, not exhibiting the slightest surprise, as if this were old news, this “financial thing”: “Yes, I suppose.”

If this exchange doesn’t prove foreknowledge of the break-in on Nixon’s part or that he ordered it, it does give the lie to his repeated insistence that the whole thing was inexplicable to him because he was too sophisticated to regard the Watergate as a target. But what about the “financial thing” Haldeman speaks of, the idea “they”-whoever they were-”thought they had something going” on? It seems to be further corroboration for the theory that has emerged to explain perhaps the second most important unresolved issue in Watergate theory: What were the burglars looking for, what were the buggers listening for?

The “financial thing” seems likely to refer to the perhaps dangerous knowledge of shady Nixon financial dealings that might have been in the possession of Democratic Party chairman Larry O’Brien, whose office was in the Watergate and whose phone was the target of the bugging. As the late J. Anthony Lukas, one of the most judicious historians of Watergate put it, “The Nixon forces were trying to determine what O’Brien knew about some shady dealings between Nixon and Howard Hughes, particularly $100,000 passed from the multimillionaire to the President’s friend Charles (Bebe) Rebozo, part of which was apparently later spent on furnishings and jewelry for the President and his family.”

Jeb Magruder, the man who gave the Watergate burglars the go-ahead after getting pressure from higher-ups, confirmed to Lukas at a public forum in 1987 that “the primary purpose of the break-in was to deal with the information that has been referred to about Howard Hughes and Larry O’Brien and what that meant as far as the cash that had been supposedly given to Bebe Rebozo and spent later by the President possibly.”

It is Mr. Magruder who is the focus of the second striking clue to the who-ordered-the-break-in mystery, buried in the Kutler transcripts. Well, not really buried at all, it seemed to glare out at me, but it also seems to have been ignored by just about everyone else. Some reviewers and commentators on the 1997 tape release actually took the Nixon line that the new tapes further proved that Nixon didn’t order the break-in-on the strength of Nixon’s word alone, the word of a man who, it must be said, much like Bill Clinton, never admitted a thing until smoking-gun or stained-dress evidence forced him to.

It is March 27, 1973. Nixon and Haldeman are again caught on tape, this time at a moment when the cover-up they hatched in that last tape was crumbling, various Watergate subordinates like Mr. Magruder, Hugh Sloan and James McCord are going to grand juries and trying to cleanse the perjuries they’ve committed in support of the cover-up (which succeeded in holding and helping RN to a landslide victory in November 1972). On this tape, Haldeman has what turns out to be chilling news for RN: that Mr. Magruder is “scared” of a perjury charge to the point where Mr. Magruder “figures that he’s got to-he’s now got to-if they’re going to haul everybody up, he’s got to clean himself up too.”

Then Haldeman tells Nixon what he’s heard Mr. Magruder is going to say: “that what really happened on the Watergate was that all this planning was going on … they had the plan all set but they were not ready to really start with it, and then [Haldeman's aide Gordon] Strachan called [Mr. Magruder] or went through him or something and said: Haldeman has said that you cannot delay getting this operation started any longer and the President has ordered you to go ahead immediately and you’re not to stall any more, you’re to get it done.”

There it is: The President has ordered you to go ahead. It’s a thirdhand report of what Mr. Magruder said, but a thirdhand report if true, of the ultimate smoking gun. None of the previous investigations of Watergate have offered a definitive answer as to who-which higher-up-was the Aristotelian Efficient Cause of the break-in. The Formal Cause was the atmosphere of paranoia about Enemies in the Nixon White House, but who gave the final go-ahead push: Was it Haldeman, Mitchell, Charles Colson or the President himself?

What follows this apparent implication of the President on tape is nothing like the definitive denial one might expect. What follows instead is a fascinating uneasy colloquy in which Nixon and Haldeman-both aware of the tape running-toss this hot potato of a Nixon order back and forth, ever so gingerly. Neither one of them seems entirely confident or unequivocal in denying it.

“Well, Bob,” says Nixon. “Let’s look at the actual facts there. Could that have happened?” One would think he would be the one to know if it happened, but that’s not what he says.

“No,” Haldeman replies loyally, it couldn’t have happened. But Nixon still seems to need further reassurance: “Ever?” he asks Haldeman.

“I don’t believe so,” Haldeman says without complete conviction. “It couldn’t?” RN asks again.

“Not the version about Watergate,” Haldeman says somewhat cryptically.

Then twice RN says, “I can’t believe that it’s true,” to which he appends his classic defense: “You know damn well that we-well the utter shock we had when we heard about the goddamn thing.”

RN: shocked, shocked once again.

The question of whether to believe the Magruder report on RN’s break-in order is muddied a bit by a somewhat different Magruder account of a Presidential break-in order. As I pointed out in a 1991 afterward to my New Republic story (published in a collection of my journalism Travels With Dr. Death , to be reissued by Macmillan U.K. later this year) there is another important Magruder account that appears in another overlooked source: a footnote in Citizen Hughes , the 1985 biography of the eccentric billionaire and secret Nixon funder by Michael Drosnin. In it, Mr. Drosnin recounts a conversation he had with an unnamed figure who appears from the context (unmistakably to me) to be Mr. Magruder. In it, he says that he was present in the office of RN campaign chief John Mitchell when Mitchell received a phone call from RN urging him to put the mission against Larry O’Brien into motion.

This is not necessarily a contradiction to the smoking report in the March 27, 1973, tape: RN could have been so eager to find out what his archenemy O’Brien had on him (what O’Brien might have learned in his role as consultant for Hughes) that he might well have called both Mitchell and Haldeman to urge them to get off the dime and put the plan in motion. In my 1991 afterword to the New Republic story, I suggested that the report on the Magruder conversation in the Drosnin book might be “the closest we’ll ever get to linking RN directly to the command decision,” although even that remains the not-for-attribution account of a telephone call from RN by a bystander.

But that despair about a definitive resolution to the question might be due more to my habitual pessimism about historical clarity (a pessimism that deepened in writing Explaining Hitler ), and perhaps to a kind of reportorial reluctance. I’ve tried halfheartedly a couple of occasions to track down Mr. Magruder, who is said to have withdrawn from the spotlight to pursue a religious vocation. But even if I had reached him, one of my weaknesses as a journalist is my reluctance (or my inability) to twist people’s arms who don’t want to talk.

But come to think about it, why should we have to track Mr. Magruder down and twist his arm? One hates to disturb him in his devotional vocation, but doesn’t he owe it to us, to history, to his conscience and his Creator to finally come clean and clear things up? With Haldeman and Mitchell dead, Mr. Magruder might be the only one who knows the truth. I’m hoping somehow this column will find him and he will-at this most appropriate moment, when we’re going through another impeachment crisis, without the last one resolved-make his peace with God, with Richard Nixon and the American people and give us, if he can, the answer we lack to this momentous unresolved question.