Getting Watergate History Right

As we approach the 40th anniversary of Watergate a number of books are being published to mark the occasion.  Several of my friends report that they are reading Thomas Mallon’s novel, Watergate and they have asked me if Pat Nixon really did have an affair.  To my knowledge, she didn’t, and it certainly was not possible that an affair could have occurred as Mallon describes it happening in the novel.  A reporter also called me with a question about Don Folsom’s recently released Nixon’s Darkest Secrets: The Inside Story of America’s Most Troubled President, which, based on the questions the reporter posed to me, sounds more like fiction than Mallon’s work does, although I’ve not read it.

Strikingly, and ironically, as more information has become available about Watergate, more writers are getting this history wrong.  I suspect this is happening because the record is so massive that it has become overwhelming for most.  For this reason, it is nice to discover a writer who not only get the facts right, but actually sheds light upon this dark history as never before.  That is precisely what Max Holland has done with his terrific new work, Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat.  As the title indicates, this work is about why the FBI Assistant Director leaked key information about the Watergate investigation to the news media.

Because I was asked by the publisher to read Holland’s work in manuscript form, I do not consider this a review.  Rather, I believe it is a pre-publication opportunity to call attention to excellent work, and to take note of how Holland tackled the massive, complex, and often confusing record. The short explanation is that he did so very carefully, which takes time.

To show how Holland effectively dealt with this difficult record, I will point out how another very able author fell short when recently writing on the same subject.  Albeit, he wrote only cursorily and quite broadly about Watergate, unfortunately, he did so incorrectly.

Dealing With a Massive Record

The primary records of the Nixon presidency, together with the related Watergate investigation materials, have been conservatively estimated to exceed forty million pages, along with four thousand hours of secretly recorded conversations (most of which has never been transcribed).  In addition, there are literally hundreds of thousands of pages of secondary sources.  To effectively navigate this vast body of material requires not only familiarity with it, but a clear focus on what to look for and a knowledge of where to find it, at least if such research is to be undertaken in any reasonable period of time.

Max Holland did a great job in using this material effectively and accurately.  He started exploring it in 2007, some five years ago, broadly at first. Then, about two-and-a-half years ago, he became particularly interested in Mark Felt’s motive in leaking the FBI Watergate investigation to reporters.  Holland’s narrowed focus then enabled him to deal with this massive record.  By seeking the assistance of others who know this record well, he was able to be certain he had found virtually all of the available material that was relevant to his inquiry.  In writing his book, Holland has carefully documented where he found everything, thereby further explaining why and how he drew the only reasonable conclusions that could be drawn from the clear and convincing evidence.

Holland’s fast-paced narrative runs just under 200 pages.  It’s a great story, well told. But the narrative is also the tip of an iceberg. From page 201 to page 274, Holland lists his sources, the foundation underlying his narrative.  There are approximately 81,000 words in the narrative.  There are some 37,000 words in the endnotes and references (much employing truncated abbreviations that are the norm for citations, but keys to the underlying documents).  For most readers, endnotes and references are of little interest, which is surely why the narrative is printed in a very readable 11-point font, while the documentation is condensed into a 9-point font.  But to a knowing reader, like yours truly, those notes are gold, and they show a level of scholarship that is to be admired.

By way of comparison, Tim Weiner, a former New York Times reporter who has won a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, and who has just published Enemies: A History of the FBI, has totally misread this history.  Weiner, who appear to have only taken glimpses at some of the same terrain that Holland plows in depth, got it very wrong.

Getting It Wrong About Felt and Watergate

Tim Weiner is a terrific journalist, but he’s not a very good historian—at least regarding the material he has written with which I am personally familiar.  He recently posted an except from his new book Enemies on the Huffington Post: The FBI, Watergate And Deep Throat-What Really Happened When Nixon Fell.”  While this except is a small slice of a large book, it is deeply flawed.  It reveals a writer who does not really grasp the record, and apparently did not spend the kind of time that Max Holland did to dig into that record. (Journalists ask questions and report, which Weiner does well.  Those writing history must examine what others got right and what they got wrong, which Weiner appears not to have made the effort to do.)

Just looking at the Huffington Post excerpt, Weiner made too many mistakes—such as getting dates wrong, and distorting facts—when he compressed information.  Much more troubling, however, is the fact that he gets the big things wrong, as well.  Based on Weiner’s documentation, it appears that he must have glanced at a few historical documents, primary and secondary, and that he talked to a few people.  But he only skimmed the surface.  His Watergate material is not good history.

For example, Weiner claims, based on information from former FBI agent Paul Daly, that Mark Felt (and the others) leaked the information “because of the White House obstructing the investigation.” Max Holland, on the other hand,  discovered by digging into the record, as can anyone who takes the time, that this was simply not true. The FBI’s investigative record shows that the subject of White House obstruction was discussed in a number of high-level memos by the men who Weiner (via Paul Daly, a person with only twice-removed hearsay) reports were involved in leaking.  But all these men agreed that the White House, in fact, had not obstructed the FBI’s investigation.

These confidential and contemporaneous exchanges show that these men had concluded—both before and after the Watergate cover-up had fallen apart—exactly the opposite. These memos were written at the time they were leaking.  Which is better evidence: Second-hand after the fact hearsay from a single source, or a number of contemporaneous memoranda by the very person involved in writing about the subject?  The answer is obvious.  So Holland, who discusses Daly’s claim in passing, relied on the primary source material that Weiner appears to have ignored.

Another example, and I won’t dwell on it, because it involves me, but Weiner claims that I lied to the FBI in a conversation that he conjured from what he apparently believe to be the record.  In fact, the conversation he created is a totally invented exchange that never happened.  The documents showing that Weiner got this wrong are in the record.  Since the error does not appear malicious, perhaps he thinks that—like most he writes about—I have passed on, so I’ve ignored it.  As it happens, Holland looked closely at the documents involved, and got it right.

In addition, Weiner relied on another imaginary exchange. He reports a conversation—purportedly occurring on June 17, 1972—involving FBI supervisory agent Daniel Bledsoe, who was on the FBI’s Major Crimes desk when the arrests occurred at the Watergate.  It appears that Weiner found this August 19, 2009 re-created conversation in the oral history assembled by the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI.  Regrettably, however, Bledsoe’s recall of the events that occurred on June 17, 1972, an account that was reconstructed almost four decades after the fact, is riddled with errors.  Clearly, Weiner quoted Bledsoe without checking into the veracity of his statements, even when these statements were patently false.

For example, Bledsoe claims that he immediately recognized G. Gordon Liddy as one of the persons arrested at the Watergate, because he had met Liddy a decade earlier when Liddy was an FBI agent.  In fact, Liddy was not arrested at the DNC on June 17, 1972 (and was not even a suspect until June 28, 1972).  Rather, it appears that Bledsoe has confused Liddy with James McCord, another former FBI agent who was arrested at the Watergate. Bledsoe also recalled a telephone call from John Ehrlichman, “the chief of staff at the White House,” who instructed the FBI “to terminate the investigation of the break-in” by order of the President.  In fact, Ehrlichman was not Chief of Staff.

Nor was it likely that Bledsoe told Ehrlichman, “Under the Constitution, the FBI is obligated to initiate an investigation to determine whether there has been a violation of the illegal interception of communication statute.” If Weiner had checked, he would have found no such provision in the Constitution, nor anything even close.

Bledsoe’s memory ends with a claim that he called Mark Felt, who laughed it off.  Yet if Ehrlichman had tried to halt the FBI investigation within hours of the arrests at the Watergate, Felt would never have laughed it off, nor failed to make a record of this fact, nor withheld this information from others.

If Bledsoe’s story were true, it would have been (and still is) what Bob Woodward, Felt’s reporter of choice at the Washington Post, would call a “holy shit” story. A top Nixon adviser’s passing an order from the President to turn off the FBI’s investigation within hours of the arrests at the Watergate would be big news anytime.  When Max Holland checked out this story, he discovered that none of the prosecutors (neither the Assistant U.S. Attorneys who handled the initial case, nor the lead prosecutor from the Watergate Special Prosecutor’s Office who handled the cover-up) had ever heard of this assertion, nor had the lead FBI agent on the case, who would have been told.  This information correcting Bledsoe was available to Weiner for the asking. (The outline of what, in fact, actually did happen with Bledsoe is buried in the 25,000 pages of the FBI’s investigation, and it is a fascinating bit of history, which I will report on in my own work-in-progress.  Suffice it to say, Bledsoe did get correct in his oral history that he had made contemporaneous notes, but he got it wrong when he claimed that those notes had vanished.)

Here is a final comparison between Holland and Weiner, when it comes to taking the time and care to get Watergate history right.  Both men quote from Nixon’s secretly recorded conversations. Holland prepared his own transcripts, and got them right.  Wiener, on the other hand, does not say where he got his information from the Nixon tapes.  But he quotes what has long been one of my favorite examples of people who are unfamiliar with Nixon failing to hear what he actually said during his conversations.  While the tapes remain difficult to hear and transcribe, their audibility is better today, because the digital versions can be enhanced for listening. Nonetheless, Wiener quotes Nixon from a conversation when he was reacting to information I had learned on October 19, 1972, which unequivocally established that Mark Felt was leaking information.  At one point, Nixon said to Haldeman, in Wiener’s (incorrect) version: “You know what I’d do with him [Felt]? Bastard!” In fact, what Nixon really said to Haldeman was much more telling, and interesting.  He didn’t say “Bastard!”  Rather, he said, “Ambassador.”

In short, Nixon  would have done with Felt what he would later do with CIA director Richard Helms, to keep him happy and get him out of the way: make him an ambassador in a foreign land.

Holland’s Excellent Work Ought to Be Deeply Appreciated, but Sadly, It May Not Be

I was delighted that the University Press of Kansas asked me to be one of several readers of Holland’s work.  Unfortunately, only a few people will fully understand what Max Holland has accomplished and appreciate how he has unraveled and documented an important and key bit of historical information that helps to explain Watergate history.  Indeed, based on the one review of Holland’s book that I have read so far, it is doubtful that reviewers will understand what Holland’s discovery means, and how it fits.

In fact, hereafter no legitimate history of the Nixon presidency or Watergate can be written, nor can anyone truly understand this history, without taking this work fully into account.  Holland does not explain the implications of his work, nor have I attempted to do so in this brief analysis, but they are of great significance to understanding this rather sorry chapter of American history.  While Holland is scrupulously fair in this account, the family and friends of Mark Felt will not been sending this book out for gifts.

Sophisticated journalists should appreciate this work because it is a glaring example of the reality they know well: Those who leak information almost always have a vested personal interest in doing so.  This work shows how a master manipulated the news media, but to an end of which he never could have dreamed or anticipated, and for less than noble motives.

John Dean served as Counsel to the President of the United States from July 1970 to April 1973.

This column originally appeared in Justia‘s Verdict.