This is another in a series of essays taking a new look as we approach the 50th Anniversary of the unfolding of the Watergate Scandal.
Watergate is easily the 20th century’s greatest political scandal, but even after fifty years, much more remains to be learned. Here are three prominent myths that have been refuted, but remain a part of its conventional wisdom.
1. Deep Throat’s Identity. Bob Woodward is the cub reporter for the Washington Post who achieved national prominence as an investigative reporter, by breaking a series of Watergate stories. We were actively encouraged to believe his secret source was a member of President Nixon’s own White House staff, a member who becoming so disillusioned by the criminality around him that he leaked details to this heroic investigative reporter — details that were of material assistance to the ongoing criminal investigations. This misperception was allowed to continue for over thirty years, leading to no end of speculation and cocktail chatter about just who that secret source might be. And, for all that time, Woodward knew full well that his source wasn’t on Nixon’s staff at all — but keeping his identity secret sure helped further the narrative that criminality was rampant in the Nixon White House and everyone there knew it.
It was not until June 1, 2005, that former FBI Associate Director Mark Felt was outed as Woodward’s principal source, although he was too senile to provide any proof. His purpose, confirmed by Max Holland’s Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat (2012), was to undercut the Acting FBI Director in hopes of becoming his replacement. It had nothing to do with Nixon himself — and what was being leaked by Felt were details of FBI investigations already underway. Thus, Woodward’s dramatic stories were not revealing matters in need of further investigation; they were reports of what the FBI already knew and was already investigating (although then unknown to the general public). Merely publicizing what is already being pursued by investigators may inform the public, but is hardly a basis to claim prominence as a top-flight investigative reporter.
2. Smoking Gun Tape Transcript. Public release of the transcript of Nixon’s June 23, 1972, meeting with his chief of staff, quickly nicknamed the “smoking gun,” triggered his resignation three days later. Little wonder: Nixon is clearly heard to concur his staff’s recommendation of getting the CIA to have the FBI put off its intended interviews of two individuals. This conversation, coming just six days after the Watergate break-in arrests, was seen as irrefutable proof that Nixon was in on the cover-up from its very outset.
It was not until the 2014 publication of his book, The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It, that John Dean, the President’s former lawyer and his chief accuser, got around to admitting that tape had been misunderstood from the beginning. Putting off the two interviews was not meant to interfere with the FBI’s criminal investigation at all, but to protect identities of two major campaign donors who happened to be prominent Democrats. Dean had known this all along; it is abundantly clear from the transcript that it was Dean’s own idea of using the CIA that was being passed along to the President. As Dean later wrote, “Had Nixon [realized the misinterpretation], he might have survived [the transcript’s] disclosure to fight another day. In short, the smoking gun was shooting blanks.” (Footnote at pp. 54-55.)
In spite of this eight-year-old revelation, by John Dean himself, most Americans still believe that transcript proves Nixon’s cover-up participation.
3. The Road Map. Nixon was on the ropes well before the August 5, 1974, release of the smoking gun transcript. The grand jury had named him a cover-up conspirator on March 1 and the House Judiciary Committee had formally recommended his impeachment on July 27. Both actions were based on the Special Prosecutors’ claim that they had irrefutable evidence of Nixon’s personal cover-up involvement, all set forth in their secret report quickly dubbed the Road Map. Since it contained evidence gathered by the grand jury itself, this material had to remain sealed — from the public, as well as from Nixon’s own defense team — and it stayed that way until 2018, when opened by Chief Judge Beryl Howell in response to my court petition [11 mc 44 (BAH)].
Only at that point did we learn for the very first time that the Special Prosecutors claimed their “irrefutable evidence” showed Nixon had personally approved a blackmail payment to one of the Watergate burglars. Little wonder grand jurors and HJC members acted as they did — but “prosecutors” evidence was never made public nor subject to any challenge. Now having become public after four decades, their secret allegations are easily refuted — and by the sworn testimony of their own witnesses. Worse, it appears they knew all along that they lacked convincing proof and intentionally disguised their secret report as a result.
In spite of this recent revelation, detailed in Chapter Nineteen of my recent book, The Nixon Conspiracy, most Americans claiming an appreciation of Watergate still believe the Road Map contains irrefutable evidence of Nixon’s personal cover-up involvement.
Yes, almost fifty years ago President Nixon resigned in disgrace and two dozen members of his administration were convicted of various crimes. But there is still much the public does not know as to what was going on behind the scenes as the scandal unfolded. Many of these topics will be explored in future essays.
Geoff Shepard served as deputy counsel on Nixon’s Watergate defense team and has authored three books based on documents he has uncovered in recent years at our National Archives. Learn more on his website at www.ShepardOnWatergate.com.
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