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Watergate: The Most Famous 'Third-rate Burglary' in American History Turns 50

Author Garrett Graff talks about the truths he uncovered while researching 'Watergate: A New History'

By Richard Harris

Fifty years ago this month, a week that began with my high school graduation in Massachusetts ended with a botched break-in at Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters in Washington, D.C.

There was no way to know at the time that the break-in would eventually mushroom into one of the biggest political stories of our time, prompting the only presidential resignation in U.S. history.

A man standing on a balcony in from of the Watergate hotel. Next Avenue, watergate anniversary
Author Garrett Graff in front of the Watergate  |  Credit: David Snider

The burglary took place at the Watergate Office Building, part of a six-building apartment/office/hotel complex along the Potomac in the Foggy Bottom section of Washington.

Just a few months later, I'd be off to journalism school at Northwestern. The Watergate story would unfold slowly, drip by drip. The work of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, among others, would inspire my generation of journalists that investigative, accountability reporting was noble.

A month before I arrived on campus, the Washington Post reported that a $25,000 check intended for President Nixon's reelection campaign wound up in the bank account of one of the five burglars arrested for breaking into the DNC.

The work of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, among others, would inspire my generation of journalists that investigative, accountability reporting was noble.

By the next summer of 1973, millions of Americans would be riveted hour after hour to the televised Senate Watergate hearings. And as a summer intern for a local newspaper in Salem, Massachusetts, one of my first assignments was to survey folks on the streets of the tourist town on the latest bombshell revelation at the hearings — that President Nixon had installed a taping system that recorded his every phone call.

There would be more bombshells to come. In October 1973, there was the "Saturday Night Massacre" when Attorney General Elliott Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus resigned the same night after both refused President Nixon's order to fire Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. 

Many Bombshells to Come

Watergate was so embedded in our culture by the spring of 1974 that when the Chicago Tribune published a complete transcript of the Nixon tapes released to that point, a group of us at our residential college at Northwestern recreated portions of those tapes — expletives undeleted — where I took on the persona of White House Counsel John Dean.

Years later, as fate would have it, I would meet some of the Watergate principals, including John Dean and Richard Nixon himself during my years as senior producer of "Nightline."

Dean appeared when a fresh batch of damaging Nixon tapes was released in 2000, including his famous warning to the President: "We have a cancer close to the presidency and it's growing." 

And just a few years before he died in 1994, Nixon appeared on "Nightline" to promote his book "Seize the Moment" and was as socially awkward as I expected him to be, barely making eye contact with me as I greeted him in the green room.

An old newspaper clipping. Next Avenue, watergate anniversary
The story that Richard Harris wrote for the Salem News  |  Credit: Richard Harris

A Surreal Moment at the Haldeman Home

The one surreal moment I felt more than an observer of Watergate was when I found myself sifting through boxes of Super 8 film shot by H.R. Haldeman, Nixon's former White House Chief of Staff, with his widow, Jo, at their California home. 

"Nightline" had an exclusive arrangement with the publisher of "The Haldeman Diaries," the then never-before published daily diary entries and transcripts of audio recordings. So I was sent to the Haldemans' Santa Barbara ranch home to screen some of the many hours of Super 8 movies Haldeman had taken during Nixon's trips to help illustrate a two-part "Nightline" special.

For those who lived through the Watergate drama, distilled half a century later as the break-in, the Senate Watergate Committee Hearings featuring Sen. Howard Baker's question "What did the President know and when did he know it?" and the revelation of President Nixon's 's taping system,  culminating in Nixon's resignation, we could be forgiven for thinking it all started at the Watergate.

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As the 50th anniversary approaches on June 17th, author Garrett Graff — a third-generation journalist from Vermont  — says the story of Watergate that many of us grew up with, baked into our memories, doesn't hold up in some fundamental ways.

Next Avenue: Here we are overlooking the Watergate complex. Fifty years later, the word Watergate remains synonymous with the Nixon administration scandal. You were born nearly a decade after the break-in, yet you spent the past few years piecing together a fresh historical record on Watergate. Why?

Garrett Graff: Growing up in a journalism family, wanting to be a journalist, there is no more powerful inspirational force in the world than the movie "All the President's Men." And understanding how that movie has shaped and misshaped our perceptions of this epochal event in modern American political history was one of the most enlightening parts of this entire book research process. Having worked in the Watergate complex as an intern for The Atlantic Magazine, I've sort of lived the transition in Washington as Watergate moved from memory into history. And that was part of what really drew me to retell this story for the first time in a quarter century. Start to finish, soup to nuts. Because it turns out we really misremember a lot of Watergate. 

Your book is being praised for widening the aperture of how we view Watergate. One great review came from no less than Len Downie, the former executive editor of The Washington Post, which won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of Watergate. You credit covering Donald Trump for stimulating part of your interest in revisiting Watergate. What was the connection there?  

Book cover of "Watergate: A New History" by Garrett M. Graff Next Avenue, watergate anniversary

I write about the intersection of national security and technology. So I spent most of the last five, seven years covering Russia's attack on the 2016 election and the investigation by Robert Mueller, the former FBI director, the first Trump impeachment, and all of the scandals that surrounded the Trump administration. When I was talking to my longtime editor at Simon and Schuster about what book I should write out of these stories with Mueller and Trump, we agreed that the story is still unfolding. Instead, we agreed I should look at the last time our country dealt with a criminal and corrupt president in the White House. And look at how that story unfolded. And then, try to answer the question of what worked then that didn't work now. How did we end up with such varying outcomes from Nixon to Trump?  

You say that Watergate, as we have now come to understand it, is not the story we believed it to be at the time.

The part of the story that I wanted to retell, recenter and reconceptualize is that Watergate didn't begin with the burglary on June 17th, 1972. This event, the most famous petty crime in American history, is when America thinks the story begins. But it was really the equivalent of walking into the second or third act of a play. What we now understand with a lot of subsequent research and histories, memoirs, declassified and released documents and tapes, is that Watergate was less an event and more mindset. And that it was this dark, paranoid, conspiratorial, corrupt mindset that permeates Richard Nixon's day-to-day presidency, his administration, his White House, his campaign, and ends up with Watergate basically encompassing a dozen distinct but interrelated scandals with overlapping players and differing motives that extend right from the campaign in '68 to Nixon's resignation in the summer of '74. 

What you describe as an umbrella scandal?

Part of what has always been confounding to people is how did this "third-rate burglary" by a bunch of wackadoos end up sinking one of the truly great presidents of the twentieth century? And the answer ends up being this mindset, this paranoid world view inside the Nixon administration, that means by the summer of '72, when the burglars are actually caught, that there are so many crimes, so many schemes, so many abuses of power going on that they can't come clean about this one little burglary without unraveling the thread to a whole bunch of other events that have already taken place. 

So you end up with this very weird, zany and dark story that knits together Vietnam, the Pentagon Papers and the dirty tricks in the '72 campaign in a way that we didn't really understand. And it certainly seemed in the seventies like Nixon doing some dirty tricks, when it was actually this much bigger iceberg looming underneath the presidency.  

"This event, the most famous petty crime in American history, is when America thinks the story begins. But it was really the equivalent of walking into the second or third act of a play."

Among the many revelations in the book, one you discovered through declassified documents, is the Chennault affair. For baby boomers like me who lived through Watergate, how does the Chennault affair connect Watergate to this bigger umbrella of scandals? 

There are really three big buckets of things that have come out in the last twenty-five years that fundamentally rewrite our understanding of Watergate. One is Mark Felt: The simple identity of "Deep Throat" really changes our understanding of what was taking place inside the Nixon administration in the midst of Watergate, because we have this vision from the film "All the President's Men" of Hal Holbrook ("Deep Throat") in the parking garage telling Robert Redford (Bob Woodward) to follow the money, that this was some pro-Democracy, Nixon insider, disgusted with the corruption of the president and out to protect truth, justice and the American way. Instead, this turns out to be a super bitter bureaucrat who is playing some sort of backstabbing, knife-fighting office succession politics.  

He was passed over for the top job at the FBI?

Right. He's pissed off that he didn't get to be FBI director. And Felt thinks that sinking Pat Gray, who did get the job, is his best chance to steal this thing that he has coveted for his entire career. There were numerous instances where Mark Felt had very damaging information about Richard Nixon that he never bothered to tell anyone because he doesn't really care about Richard Nixon. So recentering "Deep Throat" in the story is actually a really big change to the narrative. 

The second [bucket] is the way that we have seen newly declassified and newly released investigative files change our understanding of what took place in and around Watergate. And the Chennault affair is the major example here. Until about ten years ago when these new documents came out of the LBJ Presidential Library, we didn't really understand how the Chennault affair was linked to Watergate itself. What we now understand — and why the story of Watergate really begins with the Chennault affair — is that it appears Richard Nixon is working with John Mitchell to have Anna Chennault, this Washington doyenne, interfere in the Paris peace talks with the South Vietnamese government to keep the Vietnam War going. This treachery comes in the midst of the 1968 presidential campaign, where you have former Vice President Nixon locked in a tight race with [Hubert Humphrey], the sitting Vice President. 

A handwritten log on notebook paper. Next Avenue, watergate anniversary
The log filled out by security guard Frank Willis on the night of the Watergate break-in  |  Credit: Simon & Schuster

Lyndon Johnson discovers this treachery in the final hours of the presidential race. It is, in many ways, the most credible set of allegations approaching treason that we have against any major political figure of the twentieth century. And Johnson confronts Nixon. Nixon denies the whole thing. The clock runs out. The election happens. Nixon wins. Johnson decides he can't publicly out Nixon's treachery because of what it will do to Nixon's moral legitimacy and to his authority as president. And also because they only discovered this because they were wiretapping the South Vietnamese embassy, their close ally. So Johnson classifies the whole thing.

This treachery becomes the thing that Richard Nixon wants to keep buried more than anything and we now understand the extent to which it drives his overreaction to the Pentagon Papers in '71. 

And Nixon is scared stiff that this is going to come out?  

And this becomes the only burglary that Richard Nixon is actually on tape ordering people to commit — not the Watergate burglary — but the burglary of the Brookings Institution in the summer of '71 to steal back the papers related to the Chennault affair. It's this overreaction that drives the creation of [the secret White House group] the Plumbers, that brings Gordon Liddy and Howard Hunt and all of their wild misdeeds into the president's orbit. And then they are handed the dirty tricks portfolio for the '72 campaign and end up with the "black bag jobs" at the Watergate in the summer of '72 from which the whole Nixon presidency unravels.

"What makes Richard Nixon one of the most fascinating characters in all of American history is the dichotomy of his light and dark."

The third bucket is the Nixon tapes. We now have these three-thousand pages of transcripts. We forget how few of the tapes actually came out during Watergate, between '72 and '74.

Based on what you've read and researched about Nixon's personality, going all the way back to his anti-Communist credentials in the House in the 1940's, was his downfall inevitable given his paranoid, dark side? 

Definitely. What makes Richard Nixon one of the most fascinating characters in all of American political history is the dichotomy of his light and dark. By almost any measurement, Nixon is one of the two or three most consequential presidents of the twentieth century. This is the man upon which the hinge of the entire American century turns. He ushers out the New Deal, Great Society liberalism of FDR and LBJ and ushers in the beginning of what we now recognize as the Reagan revolution and turns the Republican Party much more racist, nativist and populist.

And, along the way, Nixon has incredible successes as president. He reopens China, is the first president to visit Moscow, to visit Beijing and to visit a communist bloc country in the Cold War. He brings detente with the Soviet Union, for better and for worse. He escalates and then winds down the Vietnam War. He signs Title IX, creates OSHA, EPA, launches the war on cancer. He brings one-thousand women into middle management of the federal government and brings the first female military aides to The White House. 

But Watergate would erase all those accomplishments.

If you ask ten people on the street today, what do we remember about Richard Nixon, nine out of ten of them are only going to say, "Watergate," "resigned" or "I'm not a crook." This is a man who appeared on the national presidential ticket five times in the twentieth century, a record tied only by FDR. He was on fifty-five covers of Time magazine, more than any other human in history. That's more than a year's worth of newsmagazine covers at a time when the newsmagazine was the biggest thing in the country media wise. 

Given all the painstaking research that you've done to update the entire Watergate saga, what's the moment you would have loved to witness firsthand if you could magically turn back the clock? 

It's a great question. I'll give a couple of different answers. It's incredible to me that fifty years later, we still don't know who ordered the Watergate burglary. And in the same way that Mark Felt's identity radically changes the arc of the narrative, it would have been fascinating to witness and understand who gives that order and what presumably their motives would have been for the burglary at the Watergate.  

And then the second answer, which would have been impossible to experience, was probably the greatest single revelation and moment in my research. I realized how Watergate and the tapes consumed Richard Nixon's presidency week-by- week, hour-by-hour in that period from summer of '73 to August '74. He's in his hideaway office and entire days go by when he's doing six minutes of Presidential work. 

So, being in the room alone with Richard Nixon as he's listening to the tapes and taking notes on a yellow legal pad in that final year would have been the thing I would have found most fascinating.

Richard Harris is a freelance writer, consultant to the nonprofit iCivics, former producer of NPR's "All Things Considered" and former senior producer of "ABC News Nightline with Ted Koppel." Follow him on Twitter @redsox54.  Read More
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