Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Final Days By Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein

The Final Days
By Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein
Copyright 1976

Woodward and Bernstein chronicle the last year of the Nixon administration as it crumbles slowly under the weight of disclosures of cover up and deception on the part of the president.

Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman are out as Nixon’s top advisers. Stepping into the role of chief of staff is Gen. Al Haig. Stepping in as chief political adviser on all matters Watergate is Ron Ziegler, the president’s press secretary who will soon be elevated to communications chief.

The book opens with the president’s two lawyers, Len Garment and Fred Buzhardt traveling to Florida to tell Nixon he ought to resign. This takes place in late 1973, before the existence of the Oval Office taping system or the existence of tapes is revealed.

As Woodward and Bernstein described it, these two men said Nixon, in defending himself, had “laid time bombs,” with a series of lies. These lies would eventually be revealed as the Ervin Committee went about investigating and hearing testimony from former aides.

Alexander Butterfield, who worked in Nixon’s appointments office before being appointed head of the FAA disclosed the existence of the White House taping system. Immediately, the Senate Watergate Committee, the House Judiciary Committee, and special prosecutor Leon Jaworski began demanding tapes.

Nixon and his lawyers fought hard against releasing the tapes. First they released redacted and altered transcripts, which reflected badly on the president who appeared to conspire with John Dean on March 21, 1973, to pay Howard Hunt’s hush money demands. Hoping to appease all parties, the president and his lawyers began releasing tapes a few at a time. But the release of some tapes just created demands for more.

Nixon and his lawyers encountered greater problems when a gap of 18 minutes and 15 seconds was found on one of the tapes. The gap seemed to be the result of two separate erasures. The first lasted approximately four minutes. The second lasted 14 minutes.

Ultimately, Nixon’s personal secretary, stood up to take the blame for the “accidental” erasure. Rosemary Woods claimed that she’d accidently hit the erase/record button when she paused to take a phone call and kept her foot on the dictabelt pedal. When someone demonstrated how the 56 year old Woods would have had to contorted herself, skepticism of Nixon’s veracity increased. The contortion became known as “The Rosemary Stretch.”

Much of the book details the negotiations of the lawyers with the special prosecutor and judge John Sirica over the tapes and testimony. Nixon’s lawyers were in constant legal jeopardy themselves because they would make claims before the grand jury and before judge Sirica based on lies told to them by Nixon.

To Woodward and Bernstein’s credit, they did not hype up or overplay the “drama” of the firing of special prosecutor, Archibald Cox. They described how the lawyers advised Nixon that he had the constitutional power to discharge any member of the executive branch. Nixon deliberated a great deal over this decision before he pulled the trigger. This is much contrary to the drama the media created by dubbing it the “Saturday Night Massacre,” and showing on live television the FBI agents sealing his office.

Nixon and his lawyers did not expect the strong public and congressional rebuke that came after Cox’s firing. That is because they are lawyers, unschooled in the ways of politics. Nixon should have known better. Haig, being a man of military with a clear chain of command, did not anticipate it either. Nixon was ill served by having Haig’s tin ear as his chief advisor.

It’s not stated by the authors, but it’s painfully clear that the Nixon White House chose to fight its primary battle on the legal battlefield. This was a horrible miscalculation because the tapes clearly demonstrated that Nixon had conspired with his aides. Some aides and friends suggested that Nixon make a full disclosure and apologize to the American people (the strategy that worked for Ronald Reagan in Iran/Contra and Bill Clinton in the Monica Lewinksy case). Instead, the lawyers fought Nixon’s battle in Judge Sirica’s court.

Sirica is portrayed as an even handed, impartial dispenser of justice in The Final Days. In fact, Sirica routinely overstepped his bounds as a judge. He sentenced the Watergate burglars to many years in prison for a simple breaking and entering, despite the fact that the men had no prior criminal records and years of public service. His goal was to force their testimony against those who had given the orders. That is the prosecutor’s role, not the judge. Sirica was a glory hound, pure and simple.

Al Haig is also held up as a paragon of leadership in difficult final days of the Nixon administration. That is probably because he was the primary source for Woodward and Bernstein’s book. Haig was a leader. That much is true. But he was politically tone deaf. He failed to recognize pitfalls political veterans would have recognized. Watergate was a political matter. While criminal acts were committed, Nixon’s ultimate fate was determined by the politics of the situation.

Woodward and Bernstein routinely portray Nixon as drunk, distracted, and out of touch with reality. This flies in the face of all other published accounts of Nixon’s last days in the White House. Was he distracted? Sure. Watergate consumed Nixon’s time and caused him great distress. But, White House insiders and historian Stephen Ambrose have claimed that Nixon never lost control. He was always the man in charge. Ambrose asserts that Nixon’s drinking did increase during the Watergate battle, but was far from the disconnected drunk depicted by Woodward and Bernstein.

One can look to Al Haig for creating this perception. Haig’s character as a control freak and glory seeker would be publicly displayed many years later in the Reagan White House. Haig probably wanted to show how it was he who stepped up and led the nation while the president wallowed in self pity.

The authors also go out of their way to disparage the Nixon marriage. They claim the couple were distant and detached from each other. They also claim that Pat Nixon was going to divorce Nixon after the failed 1962 campaign for governor of California.

The Nixon marriage has fascinated historians and has been closely examined by scholars, primarily because Nixon gave the appearance of detachment. He did not hold hands with Pat in public. He rarely acknowledged her. Pat exacerbated this problem by appearing aloof from politics. She hated politics and hated being in the spotlight. Many historians have noted how distant the couple appeared, but none went as far as Woodward and Bernstein in saying the couple were completely emotionally detached and on the verge of divorce.

Nixon undid some of this damage in his memoir, In the Arena when he wrote about Pat, her courage, her love of her family, and how much she meant to him in those and other troubled times.

The final portion of the book deals with Nixon’s last struggles to stay in power. After each disclosure of tapes came more and more calls for his resignation, so he emphatically refused to turn over any more of the tapes. Leon Jaworski appealed directly to the Supreme Court to try to force the release of the tapes.

Meanwhile, the White House – actually Nixon himself – discovered a damning piece of evidence in one of the subpoenaed tapes. On June 23, 1972, He and Bob Haldeman sat in the Oval Office and discussed the Watergate break-in. Haldeman told Nixon that acting FBI Director, L. Patrick Gray wanted to work with the White House in containing the investigation, but his agents were finding evidence that was indicating others were involved. Haldeman then proposed a plan, recommended by John Mitchell and approved by John Dean. Nixon would tell CIA Director, Richard Helms, to call Gray and tell him that the break in was a CIA operation and the FBI should back off, lest they expose the operation.

It was a plausible plan. Several of the Watergate burglars were former CIA men with Cuban ties and ties to the aborted Operation Mongoose of the Eisenhower years. The burglary’s mastermind, E. Howard Hunt was an old CIA hand who trained operatives for Mongoose. The problem for both men was, they knew that the burglary was not a CIA operation.

It is very clear from the language on the tape that Nixon and Haldeman had no national security concerns on their mind as they discussed the plan. They wanted to halt the FBI investigation – thus, obstruct justice. Nixon asked Haldeman if John Mitchell knew of the plan. Haldeman told Nixon that Mitchell didn’t know the details, but he knew of the plan.

So on that day, less than a week after the burglary, Nixon sealed his fate. He had worked with Haldeman, Mitchell, and Dean to obstruct justice. The tape also refuted his claim that he had no knowledge of administration involvement in Watergate prior to John Dean’s disclosure of March 21, 1973.

Nixon at first thought the tape was fatal. Then he thought perhaps it could be managed. Others in the administration listened to the tape. The lawyers thought it was fatal. Haig thought it also fatal. Only Nixon’ most ardent supporters within the administration – Ron Ziegler, Pat Buchanan, and Tricia Nixon-Cox, thought that the situation could be managed.

The White House tried a damage control operation. They began alerting the president’s supporters in Congress that a new, damaging disclosure was on its way. They hoped that these men would find a way to salvage the Nixon presidency in the inevitable Senate trial. But nobody saw any hope. As they heard the information revealed, Nixon’s supporters in the House and Senate fell away, one by one.

Vice President Gerald Ford’s people had been secretly meeting with White House officials for more than a month to plan a transition. This was the most delicate political operation in U.S. history with stark constitutional ramifications. Ford had not been elected vice president, having been nominated by Nixon to take over from Spiro Agnew who resigned in his own scandal. Any inference that Ford was planning to take power might taint Ford. Ford feared (justly) that it would look like a coup by an unelected vice president.

Yet, wise men knew that Ford could not just jump in and start leading the nation without some groundwork being laid. Finally, in August, when it became clear that Nixon would have to resign or face impeachment, Jerry Ford began meeting with these men who had been planning the transition. Gerald Ford was finally accepting the reality that he, a congressman from Michigan, was soon going to be president of the United States.

Nixon lost badly in the Supreme Court with the court voting 8-0 (with Nixon appointee Renquist abstaining) demanding that Nixon turn over the tapes. For just a few moments, the White House considered defying the court. But the constitutional ramifications were just too dire. The president was not above the law and would comply. The tapes were turned over.

The June 23rd tape – or Smoking Gun Tape – had just the effect the White House feared. What support Nixon had collapsed. Friends that had supported him found out they’d been duped. His detractors had the sword with which to slay him. It was now not a question as to if the president would resign, but when.

Nixon struggled with the decision, but ultimately decided he could not survive a senate trial. He informed his family that he would resign. The moment of disclosure to his family was captured on film by the White House photographer at Nixon’s request. Nixon then informed Haig who informed the cabinet. Nixon would resign on August 9th. He would make a televised announcement on August 8.

Bob Haldeman, facing multiple felonies in relation to Watergate made an eleventh hour plea for a pardon. Haldeman suggested that Nixon pardon all involved in Watergate and offset the political fallout with a pardon of Vietnam draft dodgers. Perhaps with a sense of morality, or a mind’s eye on his place in history, Nixon refused all pardons – including of himself.

Woodward and Bernstein do a wonderful job of describing those tense moments in the Oval Office as Nixon prepared to announce his resignation. Just minutes before he was scheduled to go on air, he began to tear up. He composed himself and distracted himself by making small talk with the network photographers in the room. Just seconds before air, he put on his game face. When the light went on, he began speaking. “. . .therefore, I shall resign the presidency effective at noon tomorrow. Vice President Ford will be sworn in in this office at that time.”

A one sentence letter of resignation, addressed to secretary of state Kissinger was typed and Nixon signed it.

The next day, the Nixon family left the residence and came to the East Room where they bade farewell to the White House staff. There, Nixon spoke extemporaneously in a rambling, but heartfelt speech. He warned his friends and supporters to not hate those who hated them – that that hate would ultimately be their downfall. Apparently Nixon finally got the hard lessons of his own downfall.

The Nixon family was escorted to the Marine One helicopter by President Ford and his wife. Nixon shook Jerry Ford’s hand and said, “Good luck Mr. President.” Betty Ford simply said, “Have a nice trip, Dick.” With that, Nixon turned and gave his trademark V for Victory salute and boarded the plane. The somber new president and first lady walked slowly back to the White House.

The Final Days
is an interesting chronicle of the inside workings of the White House during the last battles of Watergate. One wonders how much is entirely accurate because the men who gave their accounts knew they were framing their own places in history. Nixon would tell his story several years later.

That Bob Woodward hates Richard Nixon is undisputed. As the 40th anniversary of the break in approached, the Washington Post ran a story headlined, “Nixon was worse than we thought!” over Bob Woodward’s byline. The story then goes on to quote the Nixon tapes darkest moments.

Nixon was foolish to tape himself. That is certain. But how many of us would want to be defined by our darkest thoughts uttered? Bob Woodward works hard to assure that Nixon is defined in just that way.

Historian Stephen Ambrose sees Nixon much differently. Ambrose was not a Nixon supporter, having never voted for him. Like most of the country, he was outraged at Ford’s pardon of the former president. But Ambrose, like most Americans, has come to weigh Nixon’s achievements against Watergate and finds that there was much to be liked about Richard Nixon. His war on cancer, his efforts on behalf of workers and the environment, and his great international achievements. None of those things mean as much to Bob Woodward as his own aggrandizement. Ambrose was a scholar. Woodward is a reporter. I’ll go with the scholar.

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