The Friends of Richard Nixon

Some were trusting; some were not. Either way, they lived to regret it, because what was going on was “obstruction of justice.”

Even now, with proof beyond a peradventure of a doubt in hand, it is difficult to comprehend what a scoundrel we selected, twice, to be President of the United States. It is difficult, too, for men who thought they ought to know him well, men such as Elliot Richardson, and Richard Kleindienst, and perhaps even Gerald R. Ford. It is difficult for Henry Petersen, who didn’t think he needed to know the President to trust the President. They thought he was, at least, their friend.

It was not that he was arrogant, not merely that. The job and the trappings invite, perhaps require, arrogance. (Lyndon Johnson’s Lincoln Continental sorties through the ranch on the Pedernales necessitated disposal not only of the beer cans, but also of the contents processed through the presidential kidneys. Procedure called for a Secret Service agent—one was named Henderson—to stand at the Connie door and shield the presidential anatomy from vulgar view. One day Henderson, disbelievingly, felt at his station something warm and wet on his trousers. “Mr. President,” he said, when continued sensations precluded further disbelief, “you’re pissing on my leg.” “Hinderson,” the President said, “ah know ah am. That’s mah prerogative.” And for LBJ, as for Presidents before and after him, exercises of prerogative and indulgences of arrogance sometimes worked and sometimes backfired. Thomas Jefferson affronted his own and his supporters’ cherished “strict construction” view of the Constitution to consummate the Louisiana Purchase, but consummate it he did. “I took the Canal Zone and let Congress debate,” said Theodore Roosevelt, “and while the debate goes on, the canal does also.” Woodrow Wilson would not deign to treat with the Senate over the League of Nations, and so helped to ruin his own hopes for it. At the peak of his popularity, Franklin Roosevelt set out to “pack” an unfriendly Supreme Court; Congress did not agree that was his prerogative.)

It was not merely that Mr. Nixon was ruthless. Most successful politicians have a capacity for ruthlessness that compares nicely with the high standards set by private industry. It was not only that Richard Nixon was petty, ungenerous, somewhat bigoted, and monumentally cynical. It is that he was a liar and a deceiver, a man who did not keep his word.

It is impossible, now, to ascertain with any assurance when it was that Richard Nixon first began to practice to deceive. But it is clear that over the years he perfected his art at least to the point of ‘trusting his monstrous craftsmanship completely, and believing it sufficient unto the most anxious of days. He became a virtuoso of deception, a wizard as a manipulator of reality and facts, and of the nation’s trust. Harry Houdini would have been hard pressed to imitate him with a set of handcuffs.

He guarded his ambition closely. A few intimates—Bob Haldeman, for example, who knew for more than two years what whoppers the President was piously reciting to the country on the subject of the cover-up—may have guessed at his prodigious skill in mendacity, but he was enough of an artist, with others, never to confide in them the truth about his fondness for lies, the final conceit of his mastery. It was that which led to Attorney General Richard Kleindienst’s disgrace, and to Attorney General Elliot Richardson’s stunned fury, and to the helpless rage and sorrow of James St.

Clair, and Leonard Garment, and William Ruckelshaus, Charles Wiggins, Hugh Scott, Robert Dole, and everyone else who placed himself in hazard in order to assist the President in his travail.

On April 2, 1973, John Dean’s lawyers went to Assistant U.S. Attorney Earl Silbert and the other prosecutors and, as Dean told the Ervin Committee, “told them that I was willing to come forward with everything I knew about the case.” That was the beginning of an extremely busy fortnight for Dean, who discovered as he went along that the cover-up had succeeded as well as it had because the prosecutors had not perceived the dimensions of what was under way.

“I think we owe it to ourselves,” the President said on Saturday, April 14, 1973, “to find out about John Dean, for example. . . .”

“All right,” Haldeman said. “I think that’s right,” Ehrlichman said. “This is probably a golden opportunity, in a way.”

“Right,” the President said. “To find out, let me put it this way: you’ve got to find out what the hell he is going to say. (Unintelligible) which is frightening to me...”

It should have been frightening. Haldeman and Ehrlichman had seen Dean’s grocery list. “Dean thinks everybody in the place is going to get indicted,” Ehrlichman said. Haldeman morosely recited the names.

The question was, how to find out? Ehrlichman had an idea: “Now,” he said, “the question is whether I ought to get hold of Kleindienst for, say, five o’clock, and get this thing all wrapped up.”

“Have you determined that it should be Kleindienst rather than Silbert?” the President said.

“Yeah,” Ehrlichman said. “Dean’s right about that, I am sure.”

“How do you know?” the President asked.

“I asked him for his advice on this. He said,” Ehrlichman said, “Silbert would ask you to wait a minute, and he would step out of the room, and he would come back to get you, and walk you right into the grand jury.”

“Oh,” the President said.

By 5:15 on that Saturday afternoon, they had found out about John Dean. “Well,” Ehrlichman said, “he and his two lawyers, who are very bright young guys, came in. So I said: ‘Evidently, judging by your phone call earlier, this is moot.’ He said: ‘Yes, we have just come from our informal conference with the United States Attorney.’ He proceeded then to voluntarily give me his whole testimony.”

The President’s reply was unintelligible.

Ehrlichman went on, summarizing Dean’s summary of his testimony before the grand jury. “Now,” Ehrlichman said, “I have the Attorney General of the United States sitting at home, waiting to go to this dinner party”—the annual White House Correspondents’ dinner, and it would have caused comment if Kleindienst had not appeared as scheduled. Ehrlichman proposed calling Kleindienst and telling him nothing about Dean, confining himself to the statement “that Magruder has just disclosed to me what he has shown to the U. S. Attorney, and that I really don’t have anything to add. . . .” Thus perpetuating the myth that Ehrlichman was investigating the matter for the White House.

Then he did it, lying to exclude Dean when Kleindienst asked him whom he’d seen. Kleindienst said he would call his Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Criminal Division, Henry Petersen. Along with feeding Kleindienst the facts about Magruder, Ehrlichman reported Dean’s defection, but none of his proposed testimony. Then he sent Kleindienst off to the dinner, and hung up. Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and the President himself were also going to dine with the press, whom they hated.

To the President, Ehrlichman said: “He wants me to meet with Henry Petersen tomorrow. I’m possessed of information establishing the commission of a crime. And I’ve got to be darn careful about who I talk to.”

Kleindienst did call Petersen. He also went to the dinner and had sufficient refreshments. Dean’s lawyers reached Dean around 1 A.M. on Sunday, the fifteenth: Charles Shaffer told him “that the prosecutors had called him and that they were going to have to breach the agreement they had made, regarding keeping all of my conversations with them private. The prosecutors had reported to Mr. Shaffer that the Attorney General had called Mr. Petersen, and them, and wanted a full report on everything that was going on before the grand jury, and where the grand jury was headed. The meeting with the Attorney General was to occur about 2 A.M., at the Attorney General’s home.”

Accompanied by Harold Titus, U. S. Attorney for the District, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Earl Silbert, Petersen kept Kleindienst up all Saturday night, describing the remarkable story that John Dean had told. Kleindienst had not expected it, and he wept. The next day, April 15, 1973, the Attorney General went to the White House, waited for the President to finish a prayer breakfast, and reported what he had learned.

Presented by

George V. Higgins is a lawyer who served as an assistant U.S. attorney in Massachusetts before undertaking an assignment to report on Watergate for The Atlantic. He has also written three novels: The Friends of Eddie Coyle, The Digger’s Game, and Cogan’s Trade.

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