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How a Dead Dog Came Back to Bite Richard Nixon’s Watergate Conspirators

Copa de Oro, just off Sunset Boulevard, in LA, is a lovely evening’s drive in a Kappa Alpha Theta’s ragtop Buick convertible just around a leafy curve from the luxurious Bel Air hotel. It’s a mile or so up from the swanky East Gate, a few minutes from UCLA, where I was a GI Bill student at the start of the cold war.

This rebel sorority girl would park us behind tall dense hedges that hid the homes of America’s best paid executive, MGM’s Louis B Mayer, and lots of movie stars. And under the dark ficus trees, I’d bring out a copy of Lenin’s What is to be Done? or Marx and Engles’s Communist Manifesto – why else date a sorority princess if not to enlighten her? And Connie, Tracy or Carolyn would scoff and push my hand away, and we’d both reach for the safety pin of the Scotch plaid skirt she and many of her sorority sisters wore that year’s fashion.

Then she’d drive us back down to sorority row on Hilgard Avenue, and we’d quietly sneak her through a window back into her KAT house so the house mother wouldn’t wake up and fine her for breaking curfew. And if a side door to nearby Kerckhoff Hall, the student activities building, was still open, I’d run upstairs to the campus newspaper office of the UCLA Daily Bruin, where as the managing editor, I’d prepare a “hell sheet”, marking up reporter errors, for the next morning’s issue. I didn’t know which I enjoyed more, playing barking-mad drill instructor to cub reporters or those stolen moments up at Copa de Oro.

Sorority girls, mostly from Gentile houses, weren’t supposed to date Jews or communists, or “non-orgs” unaffiliated with Greek Row. I was all three, a non-org Jewish red. And loud. My bully pulpit was the Daily Bruin columns, where I fulminated against the proto-McCarthyism that was sweeping the nation – and hitting UCLA, the “little red schoolhouse”, especially hard. Alumni, many students, their nervous parents, University of California regents, the newspapers and the cops worried that the 200 or so campus radicals in a student population of 15,000 would devalue the worth of a college education. They ganged up on us at the Daily Bruin, a slightly bohemian democracy unsupervised except by its own reporters.

Greek Row and the administration obsessively hated the free and easy Daily Bruin, which campus conservatives hysterically saw as the spearhead of a Soviet armed invasion of America. No sense of humor in these clean-scrubbed, frightened people in their saddle shoes, cashmere sweaters and Pepsodent-brite smiles. Always those smiles.

My drinking buddy and nemesis, John Ehrlichman, kingmaker-svengali of Greek Row politics and full-time spy on student protestors, was fixated, as he later wrote, with “shutting up Sigal” and “chopping the Bruin”. His best friend Bob Haldeman let John do all the heavy espionage lifting, while he and his fraternity brothers and football jocks harassed a lonely band of student activists picketing a local barbershop that refused to cut the hair of African Americans. Both Bob Haldeman (Beta Theta Pi) and John Ehrlichman (Kappa Sigma) were Christian Science frat boys who drank. Their other bar buddy, and mine, Alex Butterfield (Sigma Nu), was a genial, non-political lost soul who was into having good times.

That’s where the dead dog comes in.

Nobody remembers the name of the poor cocker spaniel puppy killed during a Beta fraternity hazing led by its pledge master Bob Haldeman – later a co-conspirator, with his friend John Ehrlichman, in Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal whose 40th anniversary we’re celebrating.

The poor dog is gone. But Alex Butterfield, who rose to be President Nixon’s military aide and is the forgotten “third man” in the Watergate fiasco, and who (by pre-arrangement or not) spilled the beans in front of a congressional committee about those incriminating Oval Office tapes, is still with us. After his sensational testimony delivered our college pals to jail, one afternoon, I collared Alex at LAX on his way through Los Angeles. I asked him if the rumors were true, that he was a CIA plant in the White House whose mission was to destroy Nixon before the president’s recklesness destroyed the agency. Just nod if true, I said. (Just as Robert Redford, playing Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, in the underground garage, tells shadowy Deep Throat in the film All the President’s Men. In reality, Deep Throat was FBI assistant director Mark Felt, perhaps by no coincidence a Beta Theta fraternity brother of Haldeman’s.)

Tall, handsome and bronzed, Alex gave me that old Sigma Nu smile while refusing to deny, “Write it the way you see it, Clancy. Remember, there was nothing personal.” Meaning, he played the game and Bob and John simply were collateral damage to a larger scheme.

Nothing personal was the mantra among the campus Big Men. They’d hate your guts, kick you in the nuts, smiling all the while. That mortal enemies like us should backslap and drink with one another at local bars like the Glen and Mint was part of the prevailing Christian-spirit, good-sport atmosphere at Kerckhoff Hall, hive of student politics. We pretended it was all cordial even when everyone knew that Ehrlichman, as an inter-fraternity secretary, spied on me all through my college career, giving me up to the FBI and LAPD “red squad”. I caught him at it once, in the dean’s office, marking in red crayon snapshots of campus protesters, including me. He simply flashed his lopsided, guiltless Kappa Sig smile and said, “Nothing personal, Clancy.”

Of course, it was personal. Why else did their frat brothers beat the crap out of me at the top of Janss Steps – with a cricket bat no less! – except that I’d committed the crime of dating “their” women. They might have forgiven that, but not when I wrote a column exposing the dirty little secret everyone else knew: during lunch hour, the campus segregated itself in the quad, with Jews sitting on the steps of Powell Library and gentiles at Royce Hall. That, it turned out, was a taboo too far, and I was out on my ear.

When I went to see Bob Haldeman at his country-club prison at Lompoc, California, he too smiled in that chilling Don Draper way, and said, “It was nothing personal. A game. We won the first round. Watergate, it’s the second round to you; we lost. Not at all personal.”

The chilling thing is that Bob and John may have meant it sincerely. As Ehrlichman told me when I drove out to Santa Fe, New Mexico, before he entered prison, “It was just process. I’m a process guy. We had nothing against you guys.” There was a disconnect between action and consequences, in Ehrlichman’s creation of the illegal “plumbers” burglars’ unit that broke into Daniel Ellsberg’s therapist’s office and at the Democratic National Committee suite, and the wire taps on their “enemies list”, and Ehrlichman and Nixon’s abiding hatred of Vietnam war protesters, whom Haldeman always saw as the illegitimate spawn of the Beta-dog reporters.

 

In my long, pleasant talks at Lompoc with Haldeman – where he was in, like Ehrlichman, for conspiracy, obstruction of justice and perjury – he acknowledged that the roots of Watergate’s attempted coup d’etat lay in his, Haldeman’s, 30-year old grudge against the “Jewish liberals” at UCLA, who he believed ran the Daily Bruin and who exposed the dog-hazing scandal, causing him a rage he never forgot or forgave. When Reagan appointed Bob a University of California regent, his first act was to investigate campus newspapers like the Bruin. Bob played a long game.

 

We validate our beliefs not on a soapbox but in social relationships. Bob, a Beta, and his sorority fiancee, Jo, double-dated with Jeannie a Delta Gamma, who later married John, a Kappa Sig. Bob’s sister was in the same sorority as Alex’s wife-to-be. In short, the political relationships of almost all the top Watergate conspirators from UCLA were originally mediated through their sorority dates: the cast of Watergate was a function of Greek Row networking.

 

My personal story has a happy end. I flew from London to attend my 25th UCLA class reunion at Sportsmen’s Lodge in San Fernando valley. The reunion coincided with Watergate and the exposure of Bob and John’s criminality. Many of their Greek Row friends, who had organized the event, were truly stunned and ashamed because, at a previous emotional session at the LA Country Club, both Bob and John had personally lied to them that no criminal or unethical acts had been committed. My classmates tended to be orthodox, old-style Republicans for whom outright face-to-face lying was unacceptable. In the privacy of the Sportsmen’s Lodge men’s room, a few of the frat boys who had whacked me on Janss Steps told me, one sobbing in a bear hug, that they were ashamed and asked my forgiveness. Ah, bliss. (On the other hand, their Copa de Oro-recalling sorority wives glared at me coldly all night.)

 

The 1973 Senator Sam Ervin congressional hearings on TV, on which Bob and John, nicknamed Nixon’s “Berlin Wall” (possibly for their flat-top haircuts), appeared so arrogant and contemptuous, led us to believe that the Woodward-Bernstein scoop in the Washington Post would permanently improve American political culture. For a short time, it did, with all kinds of freedom of information reforms and serious attempts to rein in the imperial presidency.

Clancy Sigal is a novelist and screenwriter (“Frida”) in Los Angeles. His most recent book is A Woman of Uncertain Character. He can be reached at clancy@jsasoc.com

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Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist. His latest book is Black Sunset

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