Nixon Thought LBJ Tapped His Campaign Plane in 1968

Nixon and Johnson, 1968
Nixon and Johnson, 1968

I first met John Dean in 2004, when Dick Cheney and John Edwards debated at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. We became friends and in 2011, we created a program for lawyers on Watergate that used his experience as White House Counsel to teach lawyers what not to do when your client is a bad-acting CEO.

In the process of creating our programs, I noticed that January 1973 was a watershed month in American politics. Truman died at the end of 1972 and his memorial was in Washington in the first week of January 1973, the Vietnam War ended for the U.S., the Watergate burglars went on trial, Roe v. Wade was decided in the Supreme Court and Lyndon Johnson died on the same day Roe came down.

I listened to a lot of White House tapes to write the book, January 1973, Watergate, Roe v. Wade, Vietnam and the Month That Changed America Forever. I had this feeling of looking back at distant history that at times seemed even quaint.

Little did I know that I was just preparing for current events in the Trump Administration. With Trump, past is prologue. Journalists around the world are starting to write about the echoes of Nixon and Watergate.

So there is no surprise to me that Trump accuses President Obama of wiretapping. Nixon thought the same thing about Lyndon Johnson.

Here is an excerpt from my book that covers this territory:

Oval Office, Week of January 8, 1973.

He kept coming back to it. During the week that Henry Kissinger wrapped up negotiations in Paris, Richard Nixon grappled with the mushrooming Watergate scandal. With Hunt’s guilty plea, Nixon knew that the burglars’ trial was going to run its course—however that might turn out. There was little he could do now to control it, beyond what he had already done with his clandestine and roundabout promises of executive clemency. His only hope in the court was that the remaining defendants would keep their mouths shut.

The same was not true of the Congressional investigations that Senators Mike Mansfield and Sam Irvin, among others, had fired up, largely in reaction to the Christmas bombings and the worry that too much unfettered power was being amassed in the Executive. Nixon wanted to find a way to turn off Congress when it came to Watergate. But to do so—it was becoming increasingly clear—he would need to mount a frontal attack on his predecessor, Lyndon Johnson. This was a dicey business, especially since Nixon was simultaneously zeroing in on a peace agreement in Vietnam that would bring an end to what, in many respects, had been Mr. Johnson’s ruinous war. The last thing he needed, as he moved towards his victory in Paris, was for former President Johnson to become alienated, or worse—furious and perhaps even pressed into a nasty counter-offensive.

But a certain desperation was starting to creep into the Oval Office, and desperate times called for desperate measures.

The strategy de jure to turn off the Congress found origin in Nixon’s belief that his campaign plane had been bugged by LBJ during the 1968 campaign. Nixon said he had been so informed by J. Edgar Hoover himself—but Hoover was now dead and Nixon could not be the one to be the source of the story. John Mitchell, too, had been told of the plane bugging by Hoover, but he also suffered from the infirmity of a lack of credibility given the allegations of that he played a role in authorizing the Watergate break-in.

John Dean suggested to Bob Haldeman on Monday, January 8, that if some corroborating proof could be dredged up of the plane bugging, they could use it to force “Congress to investigate hanky-panky both in ’68 and ’72, rather than just letting them go to an investigation of ’72 activities.”[1] The pressure created by the expanded inquiry, Dean reasoned, might cause Congress to back away from digging into Watergate, for it potentially could open Pandora’s Box for the Democrats and expose their own questionable behavior during the waning days of the campaign four years earlier.[2]

There were three people who might provide confirmation. LBJ himself, but that would never happen. George Christian, Johnson’s press secretary who replaced Bill Moyers in 1967.[3] Christian was a conservative Texan who was sympathetic to the Nixon administration. Haldeman was friendly with Christian and asked him about the allegation of the plane bugging. According to Haldeman, Christian inquired of Johnson, who admitted it to him. And then there was Cartha “Deke” DeLouch, the longtime assistant to J. Edgar Hoover, number three in the FBI (behind Hoover and Clyde Tolson). DeLouch was known to have been close to LBJ. Indeed, because of their personal relationship from Johnson’s Senate days, LBJ asked Hoover to assign DeLoach as liaison to the White House in November 1963, immediately after the Kennedy assassination. To his credit, DeLoach oversaw vigorous FBI investigations into civil rights murders in the Deep South. But he also got caught up in Johnson’s political intelligence investigations, which included domestic wiretappings of people like Martin Luther King, Jr.[4]

Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Nixon believed that DeLoach, at the request of LBJ, was the FBI official who actually oversaw the operation to bug Nixon’s plane.

Nixon was greatly uncertain about what to do, so the topic kept popping up like a mid-summer afternoon thunderstorm in the Texas hill country. If true, the revelation would hurt the FBI and Johnson, two things he was loathe to do. “It’s a hellava reflection on Johnson,” he said to Haldeman and Ehrlichman. “It’s a messy business.”

But first things first. Mitchell needed to be consulted to see if he had any hard proof of the bugging and to see what DeLoach may have told him about it. DeLoach retired from the FBI in 1970, so he had served for a short time under Mitchell as attorney general and the two men had developed a decent rapport. If some solid proof emerged, Nixon thought that maybe entreaties could be made to Hubert Humphrey or even Johnson himself to intervene behind the scenes to try to get the Congressional Democrats to stand down on Watergate.[5]

Mitchell’s response would come towards the end of the week.

[1] Haldeman Diaries, January 8, 1973.

[2] Tape 835-8, Part A (January 8, 1973)

[3] “George Christian, 75, Aide to President Dies,” New York Times, November 29, 2002.

[4] “Cartha D. DeLoach, No. 3 in F.B.I., is Dead at 92,” New York Times, March 15, 2013.

[5] Tape 835-8, Part B (January 8, 1973).