The Pardon

Nixon, Ford, Haig, and the transfer of power. (Hersh's book The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House was published in 1983).
More

Schlesinger did not need Laitin to provoke his suspicions of the President and the men immediately around him. He had watched, while serving in the Bureau of the Budget, as Nixon and Kissinger, invariably using Haig as their executive agent, repeatedly bypassed Melvin Laird, then secretary of defense. Laird would simply be eliminated from the chain of command, as combat orders for the war in Vietnam would go directly from the White House to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. At one point early in the Administra­tion, Schlesinger had expressed his concern about such practices to Haig, who shrugged it off. Schlesinger's doubts about the White House's integrity deepened soon after he was named to replace Richard Helms as CIA director. Within weeks, the Agency was embroiled in Watergate, as it became known that the White House, working in 1971 through General Robert D. Cushman, Jr., deputy CIA director, had authorized Agency support for a series of illegal escapades involving E. Howard Hunt, Jr., and G. Gordon Liddy, members of the White House "Plumbers" team. Cushman, who had grown close to Nixon while serving as his military aide during the Eisenhower years, had been promoted by Nixon to commandant of the Marine Corps after leaving the CIA—he was thus one of the five members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the one feared by Schlesinger in 1974.

Since moving to the Pentagon, Schlesinger had had occasion to learn firsthand of the desperation in the White House, he told an acquaintance recently. Late in 1973, a few weeks after the White House had been criticized for what seemed to be an eighteen-and-a-half minute erasure in a crucial tape recording, Haig had telephoned Schlesinger with a disturbing order. Acting on behalf of the President, he told Schlesinger to arrange for the National Security Agency, the nation's communications intelligence agency, which is under Pentagon control, to produce a duplicate set of White House recordings. Schlesinger worried that any attempt by Nixon and Haig to involve the nation's most sensitive intelligence service in Watergate could only hurt national security. The NSA, of all agencies, had to be above suspicion. After consulting his closest associates in the Pentagon, among them Martin R. Hoffman, the secretary of the Army, Schlesinger telephoned Haig with a counter-offer: it was, of course, perfectly proper for the NSA to duplicate tapes at Nixon's request, he said; but the Defense Department felt that it would have to inform the Watergate Special Prosecution Force of the request and allow it, if it so chose, to have a representative witness the procedure. Haig was, as Schlesinger anticipated, enraged at the suggestion, and became only more so when Schlesinger persisted by telling him that if the White House's purpose was solely to reproduce the recordings so that more persons could listen to them, there could be no objections to permitting the Special Prosecutor's office to participate. Haig abruptly hung up; there would be no more Watergate-related calls to Schlesinger from Haig's office.

Laitin's warning, Schlesinger's experiences in the Bureau of the Budget, the dispute with Haig, and Schlesinger's suspicion of General Cushman were the driving forces behind Schlesinger's next move. As he told the acquaintance, "I had seen enough so that I was not going to run risks with the future of the United States. There are a lot of parliamentary governments that have been overthrown with much less at stake." Sometime in late July of 1974, Schlesinger called in Air Force General George S. Brown, the newly appointed chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Brown was known as an officer who was far more comfortable behind the stick of an airplane than in an office; he never seemed to master high-level politics, with its subtle language and indirection. Bearing that in mind, and aware that Brown had taken an oath of office that made him responsible to Nixon as Commander-in-Chief, Schlesinger trod delicately during their talk. His goal was to express his concerns about the White House and somehow to get Brown to reach the same conclusion that he himself had already reached. In essence, Schlesinger asked Brown for a commitment that neither he nor any of the other chiefs would respond to an order from the White House calling for the use of military force without immediately informing Schlesinger. Brown dutifully relayed Schlesinger's message to the other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at a meeting a few hours later. He began the session, one of the joint chiefs recalls, by announcing, "I've just had the strangest conversation with the Secretary of Defense." Schlesinger had urged him not to "do anything to disturb the equilibrium of the Republic, and to make sure we're in accord." He had said, "Don't take any emergency-type action without consulting me." Brown was troubled by Schlesinger's remarks, and so was everyone else at the meeting. "We were confused, and George had to be confused," the chief says. 'We sat around looking at our fingernails; we didn't want to look at each other. It was a complete shock to us. I don't think any of us ever considered taking any action. We didn't know whether to be affronted or flattered at the thought." The chief recalls that one of his colleagues commented that Schlesinger must have been "thinking of something out of Seven Days in May." If there was any consensus, the chief says, it was that "Schlesinger was coming unglued."

Schlesinger was clear, however, about his concerns. He continued to believe that Cushman, with his personal loyalty to Nixon, was a weak link in the new chain of command. He carried his own deliberations further and quietly investigated just which forces would be available to Nixon. He found out how quickly the 82nd Airborne Division could be brought to Washington from its home base at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The Marines, he learned—Cushman's troops—were by far the strongest presence in the Washington area, with an honor-guard barracks in southeast Washington and a large officer-training facility at Quantico, Virginia, some thirty miles to the south. Schlesinger began to investigate what forces could be assembled at his order as a counterweight to the Marines, if Nixon—in a crisis—chose to subvert the Constitution. Schlesinger's overriding concern, in case a crisis did arise, was the possibility that the armed forces would follow their inherent loyalty to the Commander-in-Chief. One comfort was his firm belief, based on what he had seen in the previous five and a half years, that any such order, if given, would come not directly from Nixon but from Haig. The Joint Chiefs would respond to an order from the secretary of defense, Schlesinger believed, before they would respond to one from Haig. As he explained to the acquaintance, "If an order came from below the Commander-in-Chief level, I could handle it."

Schlesinger knew that many might view his precautionary steps as the actions of an alarmist, but years later he remained proud of his decision: "First protect the country and then the Department of Defense."

The notion that Nixon could at any time resort to extraordinary steps to preserve his presidency was far more widespread in the government than the public perceived in the early days of Watergate or perceives today. One of the original Watergate prosecutors recalled in a recent interview the immediate fear, once the full implication of John Dean's allegations in the spring of 1973 became known, that "the government could topple." When the case against Richard Nixon was initially outlined that April to Henry E. Petersen, head of the Justice Department's Criminal Division, the prosecutor says, Petersen responded by exclaiming, "The government's going to fall. And then what's going to happen?" The concern was that Nixon would not comply with the judicial process: instead of accepting subpoenas for his internal records, he would defy the courts and any contempt summons. "Who ever heard of a President subjecting himself to a court?" the prosecutor recalls asking himself. "What if Nixon goes on TV—and openly defies the court? Who is the public going to support? Thousands of telegrams come in his support, and Nixon calls in the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Then what is Congress going to do?"

"I'll tell you what," the prosecutor says. "They'll run for cover. One third of the country still supports him, and we're on the verge of civil insurrection. If he told the Joint Chiefs, 'I want the troops out and I want to dissolve Congress,' they would have done it."

It was to Nixon's credit, the prosecutor insists, that Nixon chose to accept service of a judicial subpoena and not to jail the marshal delivering it. "You've got to say this for him—he had respect for the government, because he stepped out. If he were a Hitler or a Stalin, he'd have gone all the way, brought the house down. And that's what Jaworski was afraid of and that's what we were afraid of."

Haig has been described repeated in Watergate literature as the architect of Nixon's resignation, as the man who helped maneuver the President out of office. Haig did play that role, but his essential loyalty to Nixon remained constant throughout the difficult last days, and his mission in easing out Nixon was to strike the best deal possible for him. His greatest successes in the summer of 1974 were with Gerald Ford and with Leon Jaworski, who arrived in November of 1973 as Watergate Prosecutor with the firm belief that there was no constitutional basis for indicting a sitting President. Haig had initially offered the job to Jaworski, on Nixon's
behalf, in late October of 1973, two weeks after Nixon fired Archibald Cox, the original Special Prosecutor—an act that triggered the resignations and protests that became known as the Saturday Night Massacre. The high price to the nation of Cox's dismissal was a bargain to the men in the White House: one aide recalls Haig's description of Cox, a Harvard law professor, as "a silver bullet that missed."

Jaworski, sixty-eight, a past president of the American Bar Association, was known as a conservative Democrat with strong ties to Lyndon Johnson and as a man with a strong ego. He was a firm believer in national security and the sanctity of the presidency. In their first meeting, Jaworski later wrote in his memoirs, Haig praised his qualifications and added, "You're highly regarded and it's no secret that you're high on the list for an appointment to the Supreme Court." Jaworski described the remark as perhaps "part flattery" and perhaps "part fact." Their relationship flourished over the next few months; he and Haig would often talk by telephone and confer in the White House Map Room. The Prosecution Force attorneys were increasingly troubled by Jaworski's willingness to meet privately with Haig, particularly since the attorneys all understood—as did Jaworski—that they had accumulated extensive evidence by the end of 1973 showing that Nixon was guilty of participation in the Watergate cover-up. The Prosecution Force attorneys did not question Jaworski's basic integrity, for he clearly was a man of principle; it was his sophistication that was at issue. One senior Watergate prosecutor recalls that he and his colleagues would discuss Jaworski's belief that "he was a better poker player" than Haig. "Leon thought he had become a good friend of Haig and could trust him," the prosecutor says, "and that Haig had the country's needs at heart." The prosecutors feared that Jaworski was relaying inside information to Haig. They speculated that Jaworski, perhaps because of his service as a colonel in World War II and later as an Army prosecutor at Nuremberg, and because of his inherent respect for the uniform, had convinced himself that Haig was a career professional and not a politician.

An aide close to Haig characterizes Haig's selection of Jaworski as one of his shrewdest moves. "Jaworski was thoughtful and patriotic, but he didn't know all of the many parts," the aide, who was the notetaker at some of their meetings, says. Jaworski viewed Haig as a peer, equally thoughtful and patriotic.

"Haig was the opposing general," the aide says. "It was Rommel versus Montgomery in the North African desert. They were the heads of armies, and it wasn't personal between them. Underneath them were all the emotions and the tumult, and both men knew that the guys below would sell them out." Jaworski had consistent conflicts with the younger members of the Watergate Prosecution Force, and Haig, the aide says, was distressed by what he viewed as disloyalty among the junior White House aides to the President—and ultimately to himself.

"So they would meet in the Map Room, and Haig would move close to Leon, stare at him intensely with his blue eyes, and warn Leon about the dangers to the nation that Watergate posed." The aide says, with obvious admiration, "Haig understood the play."

The Watergate Prosecution Force had drawn up a 128-page "Prosecution Report" by early February of 1974, outlining what it described as conclusive evidence of Nixon's involvement in criminal activity. There was no need in that office for a "smoking gun." During the next months, Jaworski was in a constant struggle with the Watergate grand jury, composed of twenty-three Washington residents, over the question of indicting Nixon. Jaworski, not content merely to discourage the grand jurors from indicting the President, warned them that as long as Nixon was in office he, as Special Prosecutor, would not sign an indictment. His was the ultimate authority, because no indictments could be issued without his personal approval. Jaworski held back none of his fears in his attempts to maintain control over the grand jurors. In a June, 1982, segment of the ABC television show 20/20, Harold Evans, deputy foreman of the grand jury, described some of Jaworski's arguments against indictment: "He gave us some very strange arguments .... He gave us the trauma of the country, and he's the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, and what happens if he surrounded the White House with his armed forces? Would the courts be able to act?" Did Alexander Haig, who is known to have spread similar concerns inside the White House, discuss this possible use of force with Jaworski?

In retrospect, Jaworski seems almost to have been a confidant of Haig in the last days. Internal Watergate Prosecution Force records, made available under the Freedom of Information Act, show that Haig matter-of-factly told Jaworski at a private lunch on August 8 that Nixon had finally decided to resign, effective at noon the next day, and would announce that decision in a televised address to the nation that evening. Haig said that Nixon would be taking all of his documents to California with him, and that—according to a Prosecution Force memorandum summarizing a report Jaworski gave his three top aides that afternoon—"there will be no hanky-panky." Haig also told Jaworski that there was "no question" that someone in the White House had tampered with the presidential tapes, but added that he had no further knowledge. The records show that Haig told Jaworski that Nixon "will not be doing anything for defendants—there will be no pardons." Haig further assured Jaworski that he, acting for Nixon, was not asking for anything in relaying all of this information; Nixon's resignation was not part of any understanding or bargaining, "tacitly or otherwise." On August 9, Jaworski met with about a dozen members of the senior prosecution staff and, according to notes of that meeting, once again relayed Haig's report that Nixon was taking "some things" with him. Jaworski added that Haig had assured him that "there will be lawyers at San Cle­mente who will know about these things" (the status of pending Prosecution Force requests for White House documents).

That Jaworski would take Haig's assurance at face value, after more than a year of repeated White House lies, deletions, and erasures in a broad array of subpoenaed documents, says much about his relief at not having to face the indictment and trial of Nixon. From the day of Nixon's resignation, Jaworski became, in effect, one of the White House's strongest allies in the struggle to avoid an immediate indictment. Jaworski saw Nixon's resignation as enough punishment, as did Haig. Jaworski argued as early as August 9, according to the Prosecution Force memoranda, that Nixon would never be able to receive a fair trial in the United States, because of the heavy pre-trial publicity, and that his indictment would delay the impending trial of the other Watergate defendants. "There are conflicting factors for us that [the] general public does not have to grapple with," Jaworski told his staff. He was alone in that view among all of the attorneys at work in the Prosecution Force, but he prevailed.

One senior Prosecution Force attorney recalls a conversation in which Jaworski disclosed that he had a compelling financial reason to end his involvement in Watergate by November 5, 1974, when he would have been away from his law practice one full year. If he were gone for a longer period, Jaworski said, he would be required to receive a cash payout, on which there would be hundreds of thousands of dollars due in taxes. The Watergate attorney recalls his understanding at the time that Jaworski was referring to an arrangement he had made with his firm, Fulbright & Jaworski, one of the largest in Houston, with which Jaworski had been associated since 1931. "It was a legitimate tax-planning concern," the attorney says. Jaworski's deputy, Henry S. Ruth, Jr., recalls a similar conversation with Jaworski over an "equity problem" in connection with his law firm. However, Gibson Gayle, chairman of the executive committee at Fulbright & Jaworski, insisted in an interview last May that Jaworski had severed all financial links to the firm upon becoming Special Prosecutor in 1973 and that, to Gayle's knowledge, there were no assets remaining that could have posed a tax problem.

Jaworski died in 1982, and the exact nature of his tax liability may never be known, but it is a fact that his senior associates in the Prosecution Force remain convinced that he was worrying excessively about his financial status at a time when the most critical decision of Watergate was yet to be made. It was their understanding that Jaworski stood to lose a great deal of money by staying too long in Washington, and it was obvious that if he indicted Richard Nixon, he would have to stay on as Watergate Prosecutor for as long as it took to try the case. His subsequent resignation as Watergate Prosecutor took effect October 25, six weeks after the pardon; he served slightly more than fifty weeks on the job.

Haig, in telling Jaworski on August 8 that there would be no pardons for the other Watergate defendants, was leaving out an important part of the story. It began in early August with Nixon's determination to pardon his former aides, and was played out largely on the telephone. Haldeman and Ehrlichman were scheduled to go on trial September 9, 1974, for their role in the Watergate cover-up. Their efforts to receive presidential pardons were reported in the press at the time, and Nixon was said in one account to have "deeply resented the tone and character of the pleas by his two former deputies." Haig, too, was reported to have been angry.

Charles Colson, then serving a federal prison term for his activities against Daniel Ellsberg, recalls being telephoned in jail by his attorney the night before Nixon's resignation and told "to pack my bags." Colson was told, he says, that "Haig was seeing the Vice President and getting pardons for everyone." Haig did, in fact, meet with Ford in his offices early in the morning of August 7—a meeting, as noted earlier, that was not recorded in the vice presidential logs. Colson was not surprised by the news of such intense activity, he says: "It was not in the President's personal self-interest to walk out of the White House with his own pardon buttoned up but not that of his aides. It wasn't just because the boss wouldn't want to leave the wounded on the battlefield, but also because he was worried about being torn up. They'd walk all over him."

John Ehrlichman, in an interview last March, agreed to discuss a series of telephone calls he had received from Haldeman on August 7. He had been out of touch with Haldeman for many months, and he took careful notes. "Things are moving fast," Haldeman said at 11 A.M. Nixon had decided to resign, after a week of indecision prompted largely by pressure from his family. Haldeman told Ehrlichman, according to the notes, that Nixon had resolved the issue of his personal papers and was contemplating a "blanket pardon" of all those caught up in Watergate. Nixon had discussed with Haldeman his belief that the aides had acted not for personal gain but "for the President." Now they were facing prison terms, stiff fines, and personal and family abuse—"and for what?" Nixon had asked. "Serving the President not wisely but well." Therefore, Nixon had said, he was going to "put the Special Prosecutor out of business by leaving nothing unpardoned." Six hours later, Haldeman telephoned again, in distress. He had talked to Haig, and things had fallen apart: Haig announced that his request for a pardon had been "extensively considered and rejected as impossible." Nixon was no longer taking his calls, Haldeman told Ehrlichman. Could he try? Ehrlichman, whose loyalty to Nixon was suspect by mid-1974, did manage to reach Nixon's daughter Julie, but the moment clearly had passed.

 In fact, according to an aide of Haig's, Nixon had made a flat commitment to Haldeman for a pardon. The aide eavesdropped on an August 7 telephone call between Hal­deman and Nixon, he says, as Nixon tried to “crap out” on the agreement. Nixon couldn't face telling Haldeman that no pardon would be forthcoming, the aide says, and turned the call over to Haig. "Nixon and Ford had the same deal that Haldeman thought he had with Nixon," the aide surmises. "Ford delivered; Nixon didn't."

Haig's role throughout this sequence of events is difficult to fathom. Was he in favor of blanket pardons at one point, as Colson was led to believe? Or was he, as was widely reported at the time, and as he said to Jaworski during their lunch the next day, firmly opposed to them? Or did he simply change his mind when others in the White House—among them Leonard Garment, a White House counsel to Nixon, who had not been tainted by Watergate—raised an immediate objection to blanket pardons? One firsthand source describes Garment's role on August 7 as crucial: "He stopped Nixon from pardoning Colson, Haldeman, and Ehrlichman by telling him [through Haig] that if he did he'd go to the slammer, for sure." The source, an attorney who was involved in the pardon process, says that Garment's protest "turned Haig around—there's no question that Garment killed it." Garment refused recently to discuss his dealings with Haig, but he did acknowledge that he favored a pardon for Nixon "on principle," and thought that pardoning the others would have been a "bizarre and unacceptable act."

With all of the frantic telephoning that day, Ehrlichman did learn new information. Haldeman told him during their morning conversation, "I'm calling to tell you something specific and I'm not sure whether I'm supposed to or not." Ehrlichman's notes to himself continue, "The specific thing has to do with the rest of the tapes... while some are embarrassing to Nixon, they create no major problems. Except in one conversation, the President tells Haldeman that there is a big fund of cash held by Bebe and Abplanalp"- Charles G. (Bebe) Rebozo and Robert H. Abplanalp, Nixon's closest friends, who were under investigation, along with Haig, for their role in the handling of a $100,000 presidential campaign contribution. Investigators for the Senate Watergate Committee suspected that the contribution, which they believed came from Howard Hughes, was part of a larger fund and was put to Nixon's personal use. Haldeman told Ehrlichman that the President had said, "That's Higby's $400, 000." Lawrence M. Higby was Haldeman's closest aide and considered by many on the White House staff to be his alter ego.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

What makes a story great? The storytellers behind House of CardsThis American LifeThe Moth, and more reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Politics

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In