Saturday, August 13, 2011
Shadow: Five Presidencies and the Legacy of Watergate
Shadow: Five Presidencies and the Legacy of Watergate
By Bob Woodward
Bob Woodward played a formative role in the downfall of President Nixon, therefore is fully qualified to examine the legacy of Nixon’s deception of the country (as well as that of Lyndon Johnson) and how those lies and deceit changed the nature of the relationship of the presidency, the men who held the office, and the media.
The presidents who followed Nixon withstood greater scrutiny than their predecessors. They withstood it to varying degrees. Woodward examines the scandals that befell the Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton presidencies and how each president dealt with them.
He also examines the “Ethics in Government Act” and how that law that created the office of special prosecutor dramatically changed the relationship between the president, his attorney general, Congress, and the American people.
Woodward opens with a narrative account of a meeting between President Nixon and his chief of staff, Alexander Haig on August 1, 1974. Nixon has spent the evening prior listening to tapes of conversations he held with his then chief of staff, Bob Haldeman in June 1974. Nixon, who still believes he’s innocent of any wrongdoing, is a smart enough lawyer to comprehend the damning nature of the Smoking Gun tape. He knows it will end his presidency. He’s preparing to resign he tells Haig.
Al Haig immediately contacts Vice President Gerald Ford’s staff and informs them that they need to be prepared for a transition. He asks for permission to meet with Ford to prepare him for that transition. That meeting is set for the next day.
Inexplicably, Haig shows up at that meeting, not with notes on how an unprecedented transfer of power will take place, but with a list of pardon options for the man who will soon be president of the United States. He starts to list for Ford his options and the precedents of presidential pardons. Ford listens for awhile before telling Haig he will consider pardons later.
That meeting would cause Gerald Ford and his staff great trepidation in the months ahead.
Ford would assume the presidency on August 9, 1974 upon the resignation of Richard Nixon. Approximately one month later, Ford would grant Richard Nixon a full and unconditional pardon for all crimes that were committed in Watergate.
Woodward examines the behind the scenes battles among Ford’s staff over Nixon’s pardon. Most of Ford’s staff – especially his younger staffers – were against the pardon. They saw it as political suicide. Ford argued that constant questions about Watergate and Congress’ ongoing obsession with the scandal were hindering his ability to address the country’s problems which were vast and deep at the time. He wanted to put Watergate behind him and behind the country.
There was also a personal aspect to the Nixon pardon. Gerald Ford genuinely liked and cared about Richard Nixon. They had been colleagues in Congress for years and Ford had worked closely with Nixon’s White House. The reports he was receiving from San Clemente (Nixon’s home in political exile) were alarming. Nixon was physically frail, emotionally exhausted, and seemingly had lost the will to live. Ford was not going to allow the scandal to physically kill Richard Nixon the man as it had Richard Nixon the president.
The political backlash against President Ford upon his pardon of Nixon shocked him and even his most cynical staffers. Immediately, rumors of a secret deal between Ford and Nixon whereby Nixon would relinquish the presidency in exchange for the pardon developed. Congress was demanding a full scale investigation of this alleged deal.
To meet the challenge, Ford resolved to take the unprecedented step of going to Capitol Hill and testifying before a House subcommittee investigating the matter. Ford disclosed his meeting with Haig on August 2, but did not reveal its true substance. As Woodward put it, Ford hid the truth in plain site.
The pardon and the rumors of a secret deal haunted Jerry Ford throughout his presidency and for many years after. Time and the forgiving nature of the American people erased that ire, but there is little doubt that the pardon of Richard Nixon was the largest factor that cost Gerald Ford the presidency in 1976.
Through the primaries of the 1976 election, Jimmy Carter’s stock line had been, “Hi. I’m Jimmy Carter and I’m running for president.” After the primaries, when everybody knew he was running for president, he came up with, “I’ll never lie to you.”
After Watergate and the uncertainty around President Ford and the pardon of Richard Nixon, it had a nice ring to it. It was simple and from the heart. But Carter’s campaign people – and even Carter’s own mother – tried to discourage him from using it. It was not a standard any president could meet.
Carter came to DC a decided outsider. He spurned the Washington establishment and brought in his own people from Georgia. Among those he brought with him was a banker named Bert Lance who was to serve as Carter’s budget director. Lance was Carter’s close friend and the two prayed together to start every morning.
It wasn’t long before Carter’s sterling reputation for honesty and squeaky clean deportment would take a serious hit. Bert Lance came to him one day in late 1977 and told him he was in deep financial trouble. He was heavily leveraged, heavily mortgaged, and Congress would soon be asking questions. Before the situation could taint Carter and his administration, Lance wanted to resign.
Carter thought it was nonsense. He refused to allow Lance to resign despite Lance’s reservations. It wasn’t long before Congress schooled Jimmy Carter in the ways of Washington.
The scandal broke into the mainstream when former Nixon speechwriter William Safire wrote a column in the New York Times about mismanagement at Calhoun First National Bank in Atlanta. Safire revealed assets double and triple leveraged, schemes to fool bank inspectors, and sweetheart loans for friends. The column won Safire the Pulitzer Prize.
Carter piously held onto Lance, despite the overwhelming appearance of impropriety. (Lance was later found not guilty of all charges related to Calhoun First National). Republicans were eager to take shots at Carter who, before the scandal, enjoyed high popularity. Democrats in Congress, whom Jimmy Carter immediately alienated upon his arrival in Washington, were not willing to expend any political capital on his behalf. Lance was doomed and eventually resigned – but not before putting a hit on Carter’s sterling reputation. Carter’s poll numbers went up and down for another year before starting their final plunge, but the American people never looked at Carter the same way again.
The combined congressional classes of 1974 and 1976 were eager to prevent future Watergates and future Saturday Night Massacres (referring to when Nixon fired special Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox on Saturday, October 20, 1973). They authored the Ethics in Government Act which required a three judge panel to appoint an independent prosecutor to investigate wrong doing by administration officials. The threshold for triggering the act was exceptionally low (painfully low as Democrats would find out decades later). It didn’t take long for the law to find its first test case.
Hamilton Jordan was a young, brash good ole boy from Georgia who worked in the Carter administration, eventually becoming Carter’s Chief of Staff. But in 1978, his world came crashing down around him when the owners of New York’s notorious Studio 54 night club claimed that Jordan had used cocaine and tried to purchase cocaine at the club.
Forget that the charges were leveled by two men facing multiple felony drug and conspiracy counts. There was an appearance of wrong doing and an independent prosecutor was named. Jordan endured six months of hell as a lawyer armed with a staff of lawyers investigated the claims. Only two witnesses claimed to have seen Jordan use cocaine. Neither could provide specific dates, locations within the club, or other witnesses to corroborate their story. Eventually, the prosecutor cleared Jordan. But not before his reputation was smeared.
With weakness and political ineptitude being the hallmarks of the Carter presidency, Carter might have looked to hang his hat on the political peg of honesty. Despite the fact that no one had ever proven any of the charges against Carter’s men, his well known penchant for honesty in government was a joke by the 1980 election.
Ronald Reagan’s ordeal with the independent prosecutor’s office would last much longer, be much more painful and result in real convictions – and deservedly so, because Reagan’s national security staff subverted Congress and the law to trade arms for hostages and to divert profits from illegal weapons sales to the Contra rebels in Nicaragua.
However, before Iran-Contra, was the quixotic investigation of EPA counsel Ted Olson. Olson’s case demonstrated how the Ethics in Government Act could be deployed for political purposes.
Democrats in Congress alleged that, in testifying before a congressional committee, Olson had deliberately withheld information about EPA policy. Of course he did. Testifying before a hostile Congress, the opposing party doles out as little information as possible. In 1986, three years after his testimony before the committee, some Democratic congressmen alleged that Olson had withheld documents and provided false and misleading testimony. The accusation had been made, creating an appearance of impropriety. A special prosecutor had to be appointed, even though Olson had been out of government for nearly three years.
Olson had the temerity to challenge the constitutionality of the Ethics in Government law. He claimed the law essentially established a fourth branch of government and usurped the congressional authority to oversee and check the executive branch. He lost in the Supreme Court with only Justice Scalia agreeing with his arguments.
The special prosecutor dissected Olson’s life. Olson had made casual remarks to some friends at a basketball game. They were summoned to testify. Olson himself withstood hours of grilling by the prosecutor and his staff. Millions of dollars were spent. The conclusion: Olson had been artful and evasive, but had not perjured himself or deliberately mislead Congress.
Another special prosecutor was needed to investigate Iran Contra in 1986. I have dissected and examined Iran-Contra in my review of Lou Cannon’s President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime. Clearly, there was wrongdoing within Reagan’s National Security Council and Judge Lawrence Walsh was appointed as special prosecutor to oversee the investigation.
Walsh’s investigation would set the gold standard for slow, inefficient, sometimes mindless examination of facts and witnesses and would cost the taxpayers millions while yielding few convictions. Many of the convictions Walsh did obtain were overturned on appeal because of prosecutorial misconduct.
While Walsh managed to convict Admiral Richard Secord (overturned), Lt. Col. Oliver North (overturned), and Admiral John Poindexter (overturned), for trading arms to Iran in exchange for hostages held in Lebanon, and then taking cash earned in these transactions and diverting it to Contra rebels, he was never able to nail Reagan with the charges.
Reagan was in deep political trouble in 1986 at the height of Walsh’s inquiry and a competing congressional inquiry. There was talk of impeachment. Reagan’s standing with the public had taken a severe nosedive. However, Reagan did something that no president had ever done. He went on television and told the American people that what he’d told them earlier was not true; that people within his administration had misled him and the American people.
That solved Reagan’s political problem and got him through his presidency. It was not until 1991 that Walsh got around to cross examining Reagan. By then, it was too late. The Alzheimer’s that would eventually take his life was already at work on the former president. Not only could he not remember details, he could not remember the names of his closest aides. He did not provide any information the prosecutors could use. Walsh concluded that Reagan set the tone, allowed the crimes to be committed, but had not instigated any criminal activity nor been a participant in it.
But Walsh wasn’t done yet. A new president was soon to take office and Walsh set his sights on George Bush.
If the Lawrence Walsh couldn’t nail a president in his years and millions of taxpayer dollars investigating Iran-Contra, perhaps he could nail the vice president. After it was clear to Walsh that Reagan’s declining mental faculties had put him out of reach, he set his sights on George Bush.
Ronald Reagan often complimented George Bush as the most effective and most engaged vice presidents in history. That was a true statement at the time. pessimists would argue that VP Dick Cheney was the power behind the George W. Bush presidency and one could make a strong case for the effectiveness of Joe Biden. George H.W. Bush was certainly the most engaged vice president since Richard Nixon served Dwight Eisenhower.
Yet, when suspicion began swirling around the vice president just as he was launching his own pursuit of the presidency, he fell back on the traditional role of the vice president as not being a figure in policy making. Bush argued he was “out of the loop” in Iran-Contra decision making.
History seems to have borne out the fact that Bush (despite his intelligence background) was not involved in the planning or execution of Iran Contra, his own journal entries as well as the testimony of Reagan advisors put him in the loop and in the know.
Walsh was desperate to show something for all the time and effort he’d put into his investigation. He decided to indict former defense secretary Casper Weinburger on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice for providing misleading testimony regarding Bush and Reagan. Walsh hoped to get Weinberger to divulge what Bush knew and when he knew it.
Walsh announced the Weinberger indictment on October 30, 1992, on the eve of the presidential election. Furthermore, Walsh’s statement directly implicated Bush in the plot, despite any tangible evidence other than Bush mentioning the episode in a couple passing diary entries.
Bush had run behind Clinton throughout the entire campaign, but had been closing the gap. The Walsh announcement took the wind out of the sails of the Bush campaign. George Bush, bitter and angry upon losing the campaign, took the wind out of Walsh’s sails, pardoning Cap Weinberger on Christmas Eve of 1992.
The Walsh investigation was a travesty that should have demonstrated to Congress just what a poor mechanism for oversight the special prosecutor was. Walsh didn’t release his final report until 1993 – seven years after he was appointed to investigate.
Walsh should have come away with more convictions than he did because there is no doubt that those within the Reagan intelligence community had thwarted the will of Congress. But because of his ineptitude, nobody got punished.
President Bill Clinton was destined to be a special prosecutor’s delight. An affable man who was exceptionally intelligent and as politically shrewd as any in Washington, he often had trouble telling the truth – even in the simplest of matters. Clinton’s series of half truths and outright lies soon landed him in the sights of the most onerous and prolonged investigations in American government history.
The Clintons – both Bill and Hillary – came under investigation after the New York Times reported the accusations of a Little Rock Banker, David Hale, that, while he was governor of Arkansas, Clinton had pressured him into providing loans to Jim and Susan McDougal.
The McDougals were partners in a land investment along the Whitewater River in Arkansas. The deal soured and the Clintons lost money. A federal investigation had implicated the McDougles in illegal doings, but found no evidence that either Clinton had done anything wrong. Nonetheless, there was an appearance of wrongdoing and that was enough to trigger the appointment of a special prosecutor. Robert Fiske
Fiske investigated the land deal. He was also handed the investigation of the death of Clinton aide and long time family friend, Vince Foster, who had apparently committed suicide in a Washington, D.C. park. Some speculated that Vince Foster may have been murdered and that records from when he and Hillary Clinton had worked together at the Rose Law Firm.
Fiske quickly disposed of the Foster investigation, concluding that there was no evidence of any foul play and that Vince Foster had indeed committed suicide. His ambiguous suicide letter, where he declared that Washington was a place where people were ruined for fun and sport, was the source of much speculation long after Fiske wrapped up his investigation.
On the same day Fiske released his report on the Foster death, Clinton signed a new law that changed the title of special prosecutor to independent counsel. With the change of title came a new investigator -- Ken Starr.
Starr soon found his operation the repository for a number of accusations of wrong doing by the Clintons. Starr was called upon to investigate the firings of employees of the White House Travel Office – allegedly ordered by Hilary Clinton. When some of Vince Foster’s files mysteriously appeared in the White House residence, seemingly out of thin air, Filegate as it came to be called, landed in Starr’s lap.
Ultimately, Starr would get convictions of Jim and Susan McDougle was well as Arkansas Governor, Jim Guy Tucker, for their roles in the botched Whitewater land investment. That alone gave Starr a better track record than Walsh.
Meanwhile, in Little Rock, an Arkansas government employee by the name of Paula Corbin Jones was suing Bill Clinton for having sexually harassed her in a Little Rock hotel room, groping her and inviting her to perform oral sex. A federal judge ruled that the lawsuit could go forward, ruling that the president of the United States was not immune from civil litigation. A criminal investigation was also proceeding.
Clinton was forced to provide grand jury testimony in the case. He testified that he’d not behaved in the manner in which Jones described. Prosecutors were trying to establish that Clinton had a pattern of behavior with women that lent credence to the Jones allegations. They had a list of women they suspected Clinton of having affairs with. One name on that list was a former White House intern named Monica Lewinsky. Clinton denied ever having a sexual relationship with Lewinsky. The die was cast for one of the most dramatic showdowns in U.S. government history.
Lewinsky’s name got on the list because a woman by the name of Linda Tripp had informed prosecutors that Lewinsky, a friend and coworker with her at the Pentagon public affairs office, had confided in her that she’d had a physical, sexual relationship with the president. Furthermore, she had tapes of phone conversations with Lewinsky discussing the relationship and how Lewinsky acted to make sure that evidence such as gifts exchanged could be returned to cover up the relationship.
Lewinsky had signed a false affidavit in the Jones case, saying she did not have a physical relationship with the president. Starr knew he had this young girl cornered before she even knew that the independent counsel was looking at her.
Starr forced Lewinsky to recant her affidavit, offering her immunity from prosecution. Lewinsky would go on to testify, in graphic detail, each sexual encounter she had with the president.
Bill Clinton was once again forced to testify in a grand jury. This time, they were looking into the possibility the president had committed perjury and obstructed justice. The testimony, later released to the public, was not one of Clinton’s finer moments as he parsed the meaning of the word, “is” and gave evasive answers.
When the case went public, Clinton’s people opened up a new front in the battle. Through Whitewater, Vince Foster, Travelgate, and Filegate, the fights had all been handled by lawyers and courts. Now, the Clinton people started an all out war on Starr politically, trashing his reputation and making him appear to be an overzealous partisan on a witch hunt.
That was not true of Ken Starr early on. Woodward’s sources demonstrate a Ken Starr who respected the president and the presidency and pursued his investigation doggedly, but within the confines of his mandate and without an accompanying political campaign. The turning point, which one can conclude, turned the investigation into a truly sordid episode in American history came when Ken Starr attempted to resign to take a job as Dean of Law at Pepperdine University.
Clinton’s political attack dog, James Carville, took to the talk shows, calling Starr a coward and demanded that he stay and finish the job he started. Had Carville let Starr go, another prosecutor may have been more measured in his behavior than Starr was after the political attack. Instead, an angry, bitter, Ken Starr agreed to stay on. But he was angry at having his reputation besmirched by the likes of Carville. Starr’s tactics changed. Instead of an impartial lawyer, he became a political warrior.
From that point on, Starr’s release of information was timed to bring maximum embarrassment to Clinton. Finally, Clinton was backed into a political corner when it was revealed that semen on a dress owned by Lewinsky contained his DNA.
Clinton took to television and, in an angry, bitter address, admitted that he had had an improper relationship with Lewinsky. He denied he’d done anything illegal and from that point on, the matter was one between himself, his family, and his God.
Starr wasn’t going to let Clinton or his friends off that easy. He prepared a report to the House Judiciary Committee detailing what he believed to be incidents of perjury and obstruction of justice. The law stated that he needed to advise the committee of any impeachable offenses he found. But Starr went one step further in his report, actually advocating impeachment. He then released his salacious report which was 50 percent legalese and 50 percent cheap romantic novel. It was a bombshell.
The rest was history of the highest drama. The House Judiciary Committee voted out four articles of impeachment. While they deliberated, someone released information that Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL) who chaired the judiciary committee had carried on affair thirty years prior. Allegations of an affair came out against Clinton’s chief antagonist in the House, Rep. Dan Burton (R-IN). Eventually, allegations of an affair took down House Speaker Robert Livingston who had just taken over the job from the disgraced Newt Gingrich who had a litany of moral and legal issues that drove him from office. Livingston promptly resigned from the speakership and the House, inviting Clinton to do the same.
The House voted on and passed two articles of impeachment, mostly along party lines. In a moment of historical high drama, Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) and his delegation met Senate Majority Leader, Trent Lott (R-MS) in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol and formally delivered the articles to the Senate.
A trial was held in the Senate. All through the trial, public opinion showed that the American people thought that Clinton was a scumbag, but had made a good faith effort to conduct his office in a legal manner. His approval rating was in the 60s. Democrats in the Senate knew they had the political cover to vote for acquittal no matter what kind of case prosecutors put forward.
Wary Republicans and Democrats not too pleased with their president tried to find a means through which the drama of a president on trial could be avoided, yet see that Clinton was properly rebuked for his behavior. The idea of presidential censure was bandied about.
One of the most outspoken opponents of censure was my boss at the time, Sen. Mike DeWine (R-OH). DeWine, a trial lawyer and a man well acquainted with the Constitution, said that the Constitution laid out the remedy for a president who had broken the law and that censure was not a constitutional remedy. DeWine and his colleagues won the day. The trial went forward.
The senate voted not to remove Bill Clinton from office. But the Clinton presidency and his place in history are forever tainted. Soon after the vote, Starr wrapped up his investigation.
What emerges from the Clinton episode is that Bill Clinton was the cause of all of his own problems. He admitted that his administration, early on, were amateurs who bungled the travel office firings, the handling of the Vince Foster files, and the Rose Law Firm files. Clinton, like Nixon, sometimes parted ways from the truth and got away with it. Like Nixon, Clinton made enemies that would gladly use a sword thrust into their hands by the target of their ire. The political shenanigans of the Clinton White House in its early years coupled by Bill Clinton’s behavior with Monica Lewinsky and the lies he told to try to get out of it were the stuff of such swords. While his enemies did not slay him with that sword, they certainly did permanent damage.
Starr’s conduct later in the scandal was also beyond the pale. The notorious Starr report should never have been released in the manner in which it was written. Starr wanted to stab back at the Clinton people who had dragged his name through the mud. Much like Lawrence Walsh, he acted vindictively when he laid out the case for Clinton’s impeachment, far beyond his legislative mandate.
It was an episode that should have never happened. Clinton’s enemies were overzealous in taking advantage of the special prosecutor/independent counsel statute. They could produce just the flimsiest of evidence to trigger an investigation.
Clinton just could not bring himself to tell the truth when cornered. His entire career was checkered with lies and half truths. He also left a trail of women who alleged they’d had sexual relationships with him and at least two women came forward to say that Clinton forced himself upon them. Whether or not they were all true, some were. And Bill Clinton put himself in that position of not being believable. Then to be so reckless as to engage in a sexual relationship with an immature intern and put the country through nearly two years of political trauma was Clintons’ greatest misdeed. He and his behavior put this country through a needless constitutional crisis when it should have been enjoying some of the happiest and most tranquil times in its history.
I am fortunate to have actually lived day to day with this historic event. I worked in one of Sen. DeWine’s state offices, answering the phones and discussing events with hundreds of people as they unfolded. I was but a minor staffer and speechwriter, but I consider it a rare privilege to have been on the front lines of such historic events, however unpleasant and tawdry they might have been.
Woodward states that none of his successors truly learned the lessons of Watergate – that every deed committed in good faith or bad, was subject to the scrutiny of this ambiguous fourth branch of government. Woodward concludes that Watergate diminished the presidency inviting unprecedented scrutiny of presidential behavior – official and unofficial. I disagree.
To be president is to make huge decisions with huge ramifications. Sometimes, especially in crisis, those decisions can take a president outside the boundaries of the law. Ford may have not been truthful in talking about pardon discussions with Al Haig, but history has borne out Ford’s decision to pardon Nixon as the correct one.
I make no secret that I find Jimmy Carter to be a poor president and loathsome person. However, he made the correct call in standing by Bert Lance at least early on. A president willing to jettison aides at the first hint of scandal will not earn his staff’s loyalty. The Hamilton Jordan fiasco followed by the Ted Olson non-scandal should have served as evidence that the Ethics in Government Act was a horrible statute that was as effective in ruining the reputations of the innocent as anything perpetrated by the Red Baiters of the 1950s.
Iran-Contra certainly deserved scrutiny. But instead of employing a half-assed, vindictive jerk like Lawrence Walsh, Congress should have used the Watergate model of appointing a committee to investigate, take testimony, and forward it to the justice department for action. Yes, there was an Iran Contra committee, but Daniel Inouye’s committee did not come close to achieving the results of Sam Ervin’s Watergate committee. Walsh’s political indictment of Cap Weinberger will always taint him as a bitter man willing to influence elections and ruin reputations to justify his own incompetence. The fact that so many who were guilty escaped punishment while Walsh pursued what he regarded as big fish put the exclamation point on that tarnish.
The book ends shortly before the end of the Clinton presidency. Like Nixon, Clinton turned to foreign affairs where he had unmitigated influence. But Bill Clinton – the leader of domestic tranquility was diminished badly. No major legislation passed after the scandal. Domestic policy seemed to have shut down. Meanwhile, bubbling within the dark chambers of Wall Street, was the dotcom fiasco. Clinton’s people never made a move to defuse the crisis that would destroy the retirement plans of so many Baby Boomers.
Thankfully, the independent counsel law is dead. We still have the Constitution that clearly provides Congress with the legal means to investigate the actions of the executive branch.