Finally, we have answers to the most important remaining questions about Watergate: What were the burglars after and why Nixon was willing to risk his presidency to get it? Watergate: The Hidden History: Nixon, The Mafia, and The CIA by Lamar Waldron lays it all out in extraordinary detail.
Perhaps equally important, it also shows how today's poisonous political climate and questionable campaign tactics originated with Nixon, yielding ominous lessons for the 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
Last week was the 40th anniversary of Watergate, when the arrest of White House operatives at the Watergate offices of the Democratic National Committee triggered a scandal that eventually led to President Richard Nixon's resignation. And perfectly timed, Waldron's new book is filled with bombshell revelations about Nixon's many crimes, that puts Nixon and the scandal in a whole new light.
While much of the recent Watergate anniversary news coverage rehashed decades-old information or Nixon's own spin, Watergate: the Hidden History contains a surprising amount of new information, most of it from the National Archives, some released as recently as April 2012. Some is completely new, while other information has been known for years to historians and investigative journalists who focused on the Mafia or the CIA, but the information never made it into conventional Watergate histories.
Waldron's book shatters the common myths of Watergate, which many on the right are trotting out as a way to smear President Obama over the politically-manipulated "Fast and Furious" matter. (The book shows that Nixon was a master at spreading political smears, including those he knew were false.)
Conservatives leaders still like to call Watergate a "third rate burglary," the term Nixon's spokesman used soon after the arrests. As the book documents, there wasn't one burglary, there were actually four attempts to burglarize the DNC offices at the Watergate. In addition, the same crew burglarized the Chilean Embassy in Washington two weeks before the first Watergate burglary attempt, something Nixon admitted in a White House tape that wasn't released until 1999. As one of the burglars later admitted, they were looking for the same document at the Chilean Embassy they were hunting for at the Watergate.
Another Watergate myth is that "the cover-up was worse than the crime," which overlooks the massive amount of criminal activity on the part of the Nixon White House of which the Watergate break-ins were only a small part. The book quotes historian Stanley Kutler as saying "more than seventy persons were convicted or offered guilty plea as a consequence of the Age of Watergate."
Waldron also demolishes the myth that two intrepid Washington Post reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein "brought down" President Richard Nixon. As Woodward and Bernstein themselves admitted in their recent Post editorial, it was the president's many crimes that "brought down" Nixon, and their reporting -- summarized in All the President's Men -- covered only a small faction of those crimes.
However, journalist Ron Rosenbaum pointed out on June 18, 2012, in a piece entitled "Woodward and Bernstein Don't Know Who Ordered Watergate" that the Post reporters have never answered crucial questions about the scandal, ranging from the "real purpose" of the break in to "how much was the CIA involved?" The latter question is important since, as Waldron's book documents, all of the Watergate burglars, and their supervisor E. Howard Hunt, were current or former CIA agents or officials. Even The New York Times's Tim Weiner recently wrote that "no one knows...precisely what the burglars wanted" at the Watergate.
Many people assume that Watergate was only about bugging, but planting or fixing a few bugs could have been done with a two or three-man crew, not the five people arrested at the Watergate with enough film to photograph 1,400 pages of documents. What files did they want to photograph? And why were all of the burglars CIA veterans of the agency's secret war against Fidel Castro that began back in 1960, when Richard Nixon was vice president?
All of those questions are answered in Watergate: The Hidden History, which not only documents what the burglars were looking from, but actually prints the entire file that the burglars and Nixon wanted so badly. The book also includes the first Watergate memos to ever officially link the Mafia to Watergate, which help to show how Nixon's past ties to the Mafia triggered the Watergate break-ins.
As one of the Watergate burglars admitted, and Senate Watergate Committee investigators indicated in their secret questioning of Mafia don Johnny Rosselli, Nixon was worried about a Cuban Dossier of CIA attempts to kill Fidel Castro. Those attempts began in earnest in September 1960, when Nixon was seeking an edge in his close presidential race against Senator John F. Kennedy. A Nixon associate involved in the attempts said that in 1960 "the CIA had been in touch with Nixon [and] it was Nixon who had him to a deal with the Mafia in Florida to kill Castro."
CIA attempts to assassinate Fidel continued until a December 1971 attempt in Chile, when Nixon was president and had ordered a huge covert war against Chile's socialist government. Remarkably, at those same key times -- September 1960 and December 1971 -- Nixon accepted $500,000 bribes from Mafia leaders, including some involved in his CIA-Mafia attempts to kill Fidel. Those Nixon-Mafia bribes were extensively documented by the FBI, Time magazine, and author Dan Moldea. Those Mafia bribes and Nixon's efforts to have the CIA work with the Mafia to kill Fidel Castro were the secrets that Nixon could not afford to have come out during the 1972 campaign.
I won't attempt to explain everything the book documents in this brief review. Though Waldron's book is over eight hundred pages, he summarizes everything in an excellent photo section and in the book's Chapter One. The rest of the book unfolds in clear chronological order, and is backed by over two thousand endnotes. The book uses the epic sweep of Nixon's political career to show that everything he did in Watergate was simply doing on a larger scale what Nixon had been doing for years, sometimes decades. Waldron's book builds on the work of PBS and others to firmly establish Nixon's culpability for Watergate.
All of these revelations about Nixon have important ramifications for politics today, since this -- like 1972 -- is a presidential election year, with control of Congress also hanging in the balance. Knowing what's in Watergate: The Hidden History, it's not hard to see Nixon's legacy in the current political situation, from the "win at any cost" tactics he developed to the current involvement of some he worked with in his victorious campaigns, like Roger Ailes.
The recent election results in Wisconsin show that Nixon's techniques still work, just as they did for Nixon in 1968, 1972, and his earlier elections. Any time you see a conservative candidate making -- and continuing to make -- outrageous claims about their opponent, you can thank Richard Nixon, who used that technique much more effectively than his friend, Sen. Joe McCarthy. Such claims, even after they've been debunked, keep press and voter attention off the real issues, and away from the record (and often unsavory connections) of the person making the outrageous claims.
For Nixon, it was often all about money and power, and he knew that the candidate with an overwhelming funding advantage usually wins. To Nixon, taking money from the Mafia was no different from taking huge sums -- legal and illegal -- from business tycoons, large corporations, and even foreign governments. The parallels with today are all too obvious.
Nixon's extensive use of "dirty tricks" documented in the book were brought to mind by the mysterious "robo calls" in Wisconsin, and the attempts to limit college student voting there, as well as the growing cottage industry of disruptive techniques applied to progressive and Democratic candidates.
Nixon was reelected by a large margin in November 1972, almost five months after Watergate first hit the headlines, and the scandal was not a factor at all in that election. In the same way, the investigation of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's "former staff and associates" for "allegations of campaign finance malfeasance, embezzlement of veterans funds, bid-rigging" and other crimes -- as reported by The Huffington Post on June 3 -- was not a factor in the recent election, in part, because it simply wasn't widely reported.
Just as in 1972, in 2012 the mainstream media is overwhelmingly pro-Republican -- even as Republicans make it sound like they're the underdogs fighting a huge liberal media. Nixon pioneered that technique, and even after Watergate, Nixon was endorsed by ten times the number of newspapers that endorsed his opponent, Senator George McGovern.
In 1972, only a few media outlets -- including The Washington Post, The New York Times, Newsday, the Los Angeles Times, CBS, and Time -- really focused on Watergate, while the vast majority of the news media ignored it or accepted Nixon's spin. The book shows that Nixon had what he called "the 10,000," which were the journalists and outlets he could always count on for favorable coverage. The PR effort that Nixon had to run out of the White House is now handled by the large conservative propaganda mills, who churn out a constant stream of anti-progressive rhetoric which is spread across America's public airwaves every day.
It also became obvious to me while reading the book that Nixon was constantly playing not checkers but chess against his Democratic and liberal opponents. Nixon was often thinking two or three moves ahead, knowing he could count on progressives to react in certain ways to his pronouncements (or those of his surrogates), and framing issues so as to distract -- and ultimately divide -- those opposed to his policies. In the same way, the right often seems to have the upper hand in framing issues today, in ways that suppress progressive voter turn out.
As the book shows, Nixon came to power using Congressional hearings, access to secret intelligence, and leaks to the press, and he would be proud of the current "Fast and Furious" hearings in the House. Those hearings and demands appear to have been timed so that President Obama would be forced to assert Executive Privilege the week of the Watergate anniversary, and Republicans spent last week trying to draw parallels between the two events.
There is so much more in the book that is important for the 2012 elections, as well as for the history of Watergate, including incredible revelations about Deep Throat and other Watergate matters. (Did you know that Nixon knew four months after Watergate that Associate FBI Director Mark Felt was leaking information to a Washington Post reporter? Or, that Felt was named as Deep Throat in the press two months before Nixon resigned?) Author Lamar Waldron has been researching Watergate: The Hidden History since 1990, and I helped him with much of his research through 1995.
More information about the book is available at watergatethehiddenhistory.com and you can see my interview with Waldron and at Conversations with Great Minds.