Watergate Revelations: The Coup Against Nixon, (Part 3 of 3)
This is the third installment of a three-part series, featuring chapters related to Nixon and Watergate from WhoWhatWhy editor Russ Baker’s book, Family of Secrets: The Bush Dynasty, America’s Invisible Government and the Hidden History of the Last Fifty Years.
Notes: (1) Although these excerpts do not contain footnotes, the book itself is heavily footnoted and exhaustively sourced. (2) To distinguish between George Bush, father and son, George H.W. Bush is sometimes referred to by his nickname Poppy, and George W. Bush by his, W. (3) Additional context can be found in the preceding chapters.
Downing Nixon, Part II: The Execution
If, as it appears, Watergate was indeed a setup, it was a fairly elaborate covert operation, with three parts: 1) creating the crime, 2) implicating Nixon by making him appear to be knowledgeable and complicit in a cover-up, and 3) ensuring that an aggressive effort would be mounted to use the “facts” of the case to prosecute Nixon and force him from ofﬁce. The third area is where Lowell Weicker was absolutely indispensable.
The very day after Dean went to see Nixon to deliver his “cancer on the presidency” speech, Weicker, preparing for the hearings, received a visitor.
According to Weicker’s memoir, the visitor was Ed DeBolt, a Republican national committeeman from California. “DeBolt opened my eyes wide,” Weicker writes, “In sum, what he said was that many people in California politics considered Nixon to be a ‘chronic gutter ﬁghter.’ If that had reached the East, I didn’t know about it.”
As presented in the memoir, this visit played a major role in convincing Weicker that Watergate might be more serious than he had understood— and that it would have been in character for Nixon himself to have sanctioned the break-ins.
At a minimum, Weicker comes across as oddly sheltered, having missed a good two decades of acclaimed Herblock cartoons characterizing Nixon as a gutter ﬁghter, beginning with a 1954 comic showing him crawling out of a sewer. Indeed, by 1973 Nixon had been widely represented as a political smear artist.
In fact, the DeBolt-Weicker story turns out to be more complicated than the senator indicates in his memoir. In a 2008 interview, DeBolt told me that it was actually Weicker who called and summoned him, and that Weicker knew DeBolt was not merely a party activist from California, but a Washington insider. During the 1972 campaign, DeBolt had been one of the Nixon campaign’s key operatives. By the time Weicker called him, in March 1973, DeBolt was a high-ranking staffer for the party—on the payroll at Poppy Bush’s RNC.
“He called me up one day—he knew where I was because he had my phone number at the RNC—and he asked if I would come see him for a few minutes,” recalled DeBolt, who served as the RNC’s deputy chairman for research and campaigns. They met in the Senate cafeteria.
DeBolt said that he characterized Nixon to Weicker as a complicated individual, a mix of good and bad: “I liked [Nixon] . . . He was very, very smart, and he really cared about me and the staff; he just didn’t show it . . . I would see this man who knew so much but he was more insecure than my puppy. So, I always felt sorry for him. I just think he got in over his head.”
The most curious aspect of DeBolt’s interaction with Weicker was that when he responded to the senator’s summons, he found him sitting with a prepared list of detailed questions, based on information that only someone high up in the White House or RNC could have known about DeBolt. “I don’t remember volunteering a whole lot of stuff. He had a list in front of him, of questions, and he was going down the list and checking them off. He was clearly asking questions that his staff had put together . . .”
In Weicker’s memoir, he suggests that DeBolt’s purported revelation about Nixon’s “gutter ﬁghter” reputation caused him to spring into action. One thing he did, according to DeBolt, was to enter a part of DeBolt’s comments into the committee records.
After DeBolt’s visit, the senator excitedly called his staff and met with them over the weekend. His press secretary, Dick McGowan, started to devote “enormous amounts of time” to the scandal. McGowan, who, intriguingly, would himself later go to work for Poppy Bush, would turn Weicker’s ofﬁce into what he called “a gold mine” of information. At times, reporters were stumbling over each other as they waited for their daily handout. Many of the “exclusives” that appeared in the media were from the Weicker team’s own investigation.
On March 29, barely nine days after he had met with Nixon and recommended having Dean testify, Poppy called the White House with an even more urgent request. As recounted in Haldeman’s diaries, the purpose of Bush’s call was to get the president to start talking about Watergate publicly:
George Bush just called. It [i.e., disclosure] must be from the President at the President’s earliest possible convenience. This is the most urgent request he has ever made of the President . . . This is an outgrowth of conversations he’s had with Gerry Ford and Bryce Harlow . . . He doesn’t necessarily have solutions but feels that this political advice . . . is of the utmost urgency. [emphasis added]
Poppy Bush was almost frantic to get Nixon’s ear—again claiming to be carrying input from inﬂuential Republicans. And his message was always the same: it’s urgent that you confess White House misdeeds.
DeBolt, who worked at the RNC from 1971 to 1973, said he found Bush’s presence at the party’s helm bizarre. “I wondered how in the heck Bush got to be RNC chairman,” he said. “He had been a ﬂop in everything he had done, and he had nobody at the RNC who was rooting for him—nobody. [The order to install Bush] came directly from Nixon, and we always wondered about that.”
And who had the best access to intelligence overall in and between the FBI, the White House, the RNC, and the reelection campaign? One guess. “Dean got copies of every single report,” DeBolt recalled. “We were led to believe that Dean was keeping us out of trouble; he was checking on stuff, for Nixon.”