When it comes to the three most traumatic events of recent United States history, the Kennedy assassination, Watergate, and 9/11, there is a vast gulf between the political and media elites, and the American people. For the elites, the Kennedy assassination was about Lee Harvey Oswald, a none nut who hated John F. Kennedy for his money and power. 9/11 was about the inspiring leadership of George W. Bush. “He kept us safe.” And Watergate was about two crusading Washington Post reporters who saved The United States of America from Richard Nixon. Democracy worked. For the American people, it’s always been a lot more complex. There will probably be conspiracy theories about what happened in Dallas on November 22, 1963 and in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001 for as long as the United States exists, and probably long after that. Whatever evidence that could have answered all the questions that the Warren Commission and the 9/11 Commission Report left unanswered is long gone.
Unlike the Kennedy assassination or 9/11, Watergate has always had an enigmatic quality that only seems to get more enigmatic as it fades into the past. Even if you don’t believe the Warren Commission or the 9/11 Commission Report, there’s nothing very mysterious about the the events of November 22, 1963 and September 11, 2001. The President of the United States got his brains blown out. Someone destroyed the two biggest skyscrapers in the western hemisphere and killed 3000 people. But Watergate? What was that all about? The break in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate Office Complex on on Saturday, June 17, 1972 seems more comic than anything else. Four Miami Cubans and a washed up CIA operative with rubber gloves, a walkie talkie and a pair of 35mm cameras trying to bug the McGovern campaign? It sounds like a Saturday Night Live skit. Yet what people originally dismissed as a “second rate burglary” had real consequences. There was an extensive investigation. People went to jail. Even though he had recently been reelected by a convincing landslide, the President of the United States was forced to resign.
You won’t learn much by watching All the President’s Men, Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 dramatization of the 1974 book by by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. In fact, unless you already know the history of the Watergate scandal, you’ll probably just scratch your head in confusion trying to follow the plot. But you sure do find out how cool it is to be a newspaper reporter, and what great men Bernstein, Woodward, and Washington Post Editor Ben Bradlee were. A space alien who got his entire history of the planet earth from All the President’s Men could be forgiven if he came to the conclusion that humanity could be divided into two categories, superior beings called “newspaper reporters” — who were either earnest young men in their twenties or cranky yet wise middle-aged veterans — and a race of shifty, rat like, scuttling, terrified and secretive beings called “government employees.” The scene where the lordly Ben Bradlee, Jason Robards, puts his feet up on a desk, leans back and critically slices and dices an article by Woodward, Robert Redford, and Bernstein, Dustin Hoffman, is worth the price of admission alone. Jason Robards was 5’8” but he looks like he was 6’4”. Like Redford and Hoffman, we are mesmerized by the presence of his character, Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee, a direct descendant of Heinrich XXIX, Count of Reuss-Ebersdorf, a king among his courtiers. They don’t make liberal elites like that any more.
From the men who broke the Watergate scandal to the deferential stooges who helped George W. Bush lie American into Iraq, how could the fifth estate have fallen so far so fast? According to Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin, who authored Silent Coup, the partially suppressed and now largely forgotten revisionist history of the fall of Richard Nixon, the legend of the heroic Woodward and Bernstein is just that, a legend. You won’t find the usual cast of ogres in Silent Coup. Nixon, Haldeman, Ehrlichman, John Mitchell and Charles Colson come off more like incompetent corporate executives, oblivious to the way their badly managed company is being snatched out from under them by their subordinates, than threats to American democracy. The villains of Silent Coup, the slimy, manipulative John Dean, and the backstabbing, tinhorn, authoritarian, militarist Alexander Haig appear nowhere in the film All the President’s Men. While both are well known – John Dean has recently come back into public life as a liberal critic of George W. Bush and Haig served as Secretary of State during the Reagan Administration – and have never been particularly popular, Colodny and Gettlin see them as figures of an almost Shakespearean evil. Dean, who plays Iago to Richard Nixon’s Othello, was so outraged by Silent Coup he sued both authors, twice.
Silent Coup is not a well-written book. It took all the energy I could muster to push my way though all 500 pages, and I suspect that its obscurity owes as much to its convoluted, unfocused style as it does to John Dean’s lawsuit. To its credit, however, it does have a perfectly coherent theory of the Watergate affair. Silent Coup begins with an almost totally forgotten prelude to Watergate. In 1970 and 1971, Admiral Thomas Moorer, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, frustrated by the way Richard Nixon tried to go around the Pentagon and the State Department and use the National Security Council – an end run that put Henry Kissinger in de facto control of the military and of foreign policy – operated a spy ring out of the Pentagon against the White House. Navy Yeoman Charles Radford, a low-level Pentagon courier cloaked from public view by obscurity, stole top secret NSC documents for his immediate superiors Admiral Rembrandt Robinson and Admiral Robert Welander. After Radford was caught, Nixon and Kissinger covered up for Thomas Moorer, burying a potential scandal so as not to further weaken the reputation of the United States military, already damaged by the war in Vietnam.
The real mastermind behind the Pentagon’s spy ring turned out not to be Thomas Moorer, Rembrandt Robinson or Robert Welander, but Haig, who as Kissinger’s deputy at the National Security Council made it easy for Radford to steal whatever he wanted. In 1970 and 1971 Alexander Haig was, in effect, a Pentagon mole in the White House. All the while that Haig was trying to undermine Nixon’s opening to China and Kissinger’s peace talks in Vietnam, John Wesley Dean was trying to wrest control of the day to day operation of the White House from Haldeman, Mitchell, Ehrlichman and Charles Colson. After Dean consolidated Nixon’s dirty tricks and domestic intelligence operations (basically Cointelpro run out of the West Wing) under his control, he learned that there was a call girl operation being run out of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate. Hoping to dig up dirt on the Democrats, he sent in a team of burglars led by the former FBI man (and current right-wing psycho radio talk show host) G. Gordon Liddy and the perpetually fascinating CIA operative E. Howard Hunt. Hunt is the Zelig of post-War American politics. If there was something slimy going on between 1945 and 1980, Hunt was probably there. In any event Hunt and Liddy were successful in digging up dirt on the Democratic Party. To John Dean’s horror, however, they also managed to dig up dirt on a prominent Republican, himself.
John Dean’s girlfriend Maureen, an ex-prostitute, used to work with the very same call girl ring that was now operating out of the DNC. This put the young White House lawyer in a difficult situation. If word of his girlfriend’s profession got out to the general public, it would destroy his promising career, a career which had already led him to getting virtual control of the White House at the tender age of 34. Why did 5 men being run out of the White House break into the Watergate a second time? Why did attempt to bug the hapless McGovern campaign? It had less to do with wanting to destroy the DNC, which was already destroying itself, then it did with Dean’s urge to get control of his girlfriend’s past, to sweep the DNC headquarters for any more signs of Maureen’s membership in the world’s oldest profession, and put a bug in place to monitor what happened after that. Sadly, and more sadly for the Nixon administration than for Dean himself, the second break in was much less successful than the first. A security guard discovered a door in the Watergate parking garage taped up. He called the cops, and the rest is history.
Enter Bob Woodward. In 1969 and 1970, Woodward, a Yale graduate and naval veteran who had recently landed the job at the Washington Post, worked out of the Pentagon as a “briefer,” a young officer who would summarize and then present military intelligence to the National Security Council. According to Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin, and vehemently disputed by Woodward himself, the senior White House official Woodward was charged with briefing was none other than Alexander Haig. Colodny and Gettlin, as far as I know, never managed to get any confirmation from Haig himself but did get Admiral Thomas Moorer to go on the record saying that Woodward had indeed briefed Kissinger’s deputy at the NSC. According to Silent Coup, when news of the Watergate break in hit the Washington Post, Haig saw his chance to get rid of Richard Nixon and the troublesome Henry Kissinger, becoming one of the people who made up the character of Deep Throat. Deep Throat in 1991 was widely considered to be a composite. Mark Felt’s coming out as Deep Throat in 2005 has obviously weakened Silent Coup’s main argument, but it hasn’t, to my mind, totally destroyed it. After the Watergate story “broke,” Haig, according to Colodny and Gettlin become Woodward’s source, manipulating the young Washington Post reporter in a way that not only brought down Richard Nixon, but insured that the story of Moorer/Radford spy ring never received the kind of wide exposure that would have destroyed his own career. Haig had, in fact, especially after Dean’s resignation, managed to gain such complete control of the White House that he, not Richard Nixon, was the real author of the Saturday Night Massacre, replacing the independent-minded Elliot Richardson and Archibald Cox with the pliable and easily manipulated Leon Jaworski.
Silent Coup argues that Alexander Haig continued to manipulate the fallout from the Watergate Scandal right through the Nixon resignation and the Ford pardon, determined to make sure there would never be impeachment hearings, which would have uncovered the Moorer/Radford spy ring, and his own role in the downfall of Richard Nixon. Was Haig the ultimate villain of the Watergate Scandal? Perhaps he was. Perhaps he wasn’t. In the end, I don’t think it matters. By 1974, the American elites were in full damage control mode. So they threw Richard Nixon to the wolves in order to head off a full scale uprising from a population that was in a rebellious mood over the long Vietnam War and the Kent State Massacre. Then, after they gave the people their blood, they snatched the corpse of the Nixon administration out from under the angry mob to make sure there would never be a real autopsy. Silent Coup is a poorly written book, and for all I know it could be nothing more than fiction, but it does succeed in pointing out how the Watergate Scandal has never really gotten the investigation it really deserved. The elites pulled a fast one on the American people, then, like Tommy Lee Jones in Men in Black, waived the magic wand and made us forget it ever happened.