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Journalism Was Only a Bit Player in Exposing Watergate Crimes

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Posted on Jun 14, 2012
History in an Hour (CC BY 2.0)

President Richard M. Nixon

By Stanley Kutler

No leak, no “investigatory journalism” ever revealed any facet of what we know as Watergate that was not already a subject of investigation and inquiry by authorities. The marking of the 40th anniversary of the June 17, 1972, Watergate break-in nevertheless appears to focus on the role of a few journalists. Robert Redford will reprise the 1976 movie “All the President’s Men” with a documentary version. Now, of course, he can identify Mark Felt, aka “Deep Throat,” as the leaker who destroyed Richard Nixon’s presidency. Felt indeed played a part, and Nixon knew of his actions in October 1972, as revealed in Nixon’s tapes released in 1997, eight years before the elderly and ailing
Felt went public. Nixon was furious because he had considered Felt, “that Jew”  (he was not), for the post of FBI director. Nixon realized he could do nothing, for Felt “knew too much”—as, for example, the illegal break-ins committed by Nixon’s “plumbers.” 

The media’s canonization of its primacy in “breaking the case” threatens to leave us with “Hamlet” absent the Prince of Denmark. Inevitably the Watergate narrative will be reduced to its bare essentials. G. Gordon Liddy surely will not make an index, and the “President’s Men” will slip into their deserved place as largely anonymous spear carriers. But Richard M. Nixon, the 37th president of the United States, and his story will endure. Future textbooks (assuming we will have them) will render his history roughly as follows: “Richard Nixon, the first president of the United States to resign as a result of his abuses of power and criminal obstruction of justice…,”  perhaps then followed with several sentences describing other parts of his presidency. For certain, Nixon is the principal player of Watergate; journalism will at best be remembered as a bit player in bringing him down. 

Leaks are a way of life in Washington circles; their purpose and motive are self-evident and self-serving. Onetime Nixon presidential counsel Leonard Garment regularly talked with media people to reveal forthcoming potentially explosive news, hoping to defuse it. Sam Dash, the Watergate Select Committee counsel, once remarked: “Leak? I leaked all the time”—to advance his committee’s work.

Watergate was “done” by many: Judge John Sirica, the District of Columbia U.S. attorney, Sen. Sam Ervin and his colleagues, administration and campaign officials who testified, the Watergate special prosecutor force, the bipartisan House impeachment inquiry, a unanimous Supreme Court and, of course, the tapes of Richard Nixon.     

As Assistant U.S. Attorney Earl Silbert prepared to turn the Watergate case over to incoming special prosecutor Archibald Cox in May 1973, he prepared a report of witnesses to be interviewed or presented to the grand jury. He named 27 individuals, detailing probable grounds for criminal indictment. Silbert and his colleagues have received scant credit for making the case, but the essential charges are all contained in this document—with no trace of Mark Felt and his “leaks.”

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No. 27 was no less than “Richard Nixon, President of the United States.” “Were he not President,” Silbert wrote, “there is no question but that President Nixon would have to be questioned about a number of matters.” He cited conversations Nixon had with a variety of aides after the break-in, most important one with John Dean. Silbert had crossed the Rubicon in his trust of the president. Nixon’s May 22, 1973, statement proclaiming his innocence (“I neither authorized nor encouraged subordinates to engage in illegal or improper campaign tactics”) “rather than answering all these questions, raises a host of others,” Silbert observed. He suggested that his successors interview Nixon. 

Cox read the prosecutor’s report and advised his staff to “lay off [the president] for now,” as he wrote on the document. His plate already was full. Furthermore, the prosecutors lacked strong corroborating evidence to support what John Dean and others had told them. Alas, the gift of the gods came in July 1973 when Alexander Butterfield revealed that the president had taped his Oval Office conversations. With that, the story of Watergate turned into a protracted legal battle for possession of the tapes. Leakers and their journalistic enablers largely became irrelevant. The president and his taped conversations provided the decisive leak.

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