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I keep looking for Donald Trump’s missing piece of duct tape but it isn’t there yet. Half a century ago Richard Nixon over-reached himself in the “Watergate fiasco” that brought him down. But so far Nixonian overplaying his hand seems to be part of Trump’s winning style.
On the night of June 17, 1972, Frank Willis, a low wage African American security guard at Washington’s luxury Watergate office complex, noticed a piece of duct tape on one of the door locks to the Democratic National Committee kept reappearing after he’d removed it. He called the police who arrested five CIA employees on one of their several “black bag” operations to burglarize anywhere Pres. Nixon believed his enemies lurked. Previous break-ins included the psychiatrist of former war hawk Daniel Ellsberg who had leaked the “Pentagon Papers” tracing official lies that led to, and persisted in losing, the Vietnam war.
Ellsberg in particular drove Nixon nuttier. A White House-based ‘plumbers unit’ (to plug leaks) was formed that, with Nixon looking the other way, ran wild with serial burglaries and fantasies of assassinating The Boss’s enemies. Nixon was too busy to pay full attention since he was conducting several wars at once, against the press (his near-psychotic obsession), black people, the antiwar movement and almost as an afterthought the Vietnamese.
For months the Watergate break-in was a minor police matter and hardly appeared in the press except as a tiny item on an inner page.
But due to the reality later dramatized by Robert Redford (as reporter Bob Woodward) and Dustin Hoffman (as Carl Bernstein) in All The President’s Men, and the persistence of a powerful Beltway paper the Washington Post, it all came undone.
The break-ins would have faded into history (as indeed the Watergate scandal itself has) except for Nixon’s hysterical attempts at cover-up. All it needed was these two stubborn reporters and one CIA conspirator to lose his nerve and confess, and the whole house of corruption came tumbling down with Nixon’s impeachment and indictment of 69 – no less- federal officials for perjury, fraud, obstruction, whatnot.
A major conspirator, Atty Gen John Mitchell, a Jeff Sessions predecessor, served 19 months prison.
As also did two UCLA school pals and drinking buddies of mine, Nixon’s top aides Bob Haldeman (“I’m the president’s sonofabitch”) and the President’s snarling spymaster John Ehrlichman. I spent tons of time with Bob at (a rather comfortable) prison and with Ehrlichman. The bottom line of our talks was with dark energy. They despised the press and journalists, the basic fuel for the Watergate fiasco.
Unbelievably, their hatred of reporters went back years to my college newspaper UCLA Daily Bruin which in Haldeman’s view was a cabal of “Jewish liberals”. (And we wonder where Nixon got his spewing anti-Semitism on his office tapes?)
Roll to Today. Give Robert Redford, who got the movie made, the next to last word. A few days ago on Watergate’s 45th anniversary, he drew the parallel:
“When President Trump speaks of being in a ‘running war’ with the media, calls them ‘among the most dishonest human beings on Earth’ and tweets that they’re the ‘enemy of the American people,’ his language takes the Nixon administration’s false accusations of ‘shoddy’ and ‘shabby’ journalism to new and dangerous heights.”
Back then, Redford says, “politicians from both sides of the aisle put partisan politics aside to uncover the truth”. He’s talking about a long-ago political Brigadoon, almost lost in the mists, when now forgottens like Judge Sirica, Sen. Sam Ervin, Archibald Cox – we musn’t forget ‘Woodstein’s secret source Deep Throat the FBI’s 2d in command Mark Felt – outwrestled a once-popular and impregnable Pres Nixon.
But Redford is concerned that in today’s “divided” America, things might be different. “If we have another Watergate, will we navigate it as well?
In the 1970s America was also “divided”. But today somewhere out there another Frank Willis is alive, alert and has an I-phone.