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.
Now presumably Kleindienst thought he was delivering news. He was at least the third to think so. Pat Gray had told the President that some of his people were inflicting mortal wounds, and Mr. Nixon had taken the news with perfect equanimity, instructing Gray to persist in a thorough investigation, the same one that he and Haldeman, back on June 23, 1972, if not before, had conspired to obstruct. Dean, on March 21, 1973, had admonished the President that the cover-up was about to explode, and the President took that pretty well also, brilliantly contriving later to persuade much of the nation, for a while, that the report of trouble in the obstruction plot in fact constituted his first notice that the plot existed. Kleindienst, on that Sunday afternoon, quite plainly thought that he was sounding an alarm that Haldeman’s assistant, Gordon Strachan, would be compromised by the testimony of Dean and Jeb Magruder, and might thus do something that would implicate Ehrlichman and Haldeman. And he personally suspected them. The President professed inability to understand how that could possibly happen, since Haldeman and Ehrlichman were not, he said, involved:
“I have asked both Haldeman and Ehrlichman,” the President said.
“I know you have,” Kleindienst said.
“And they have given me absolute . . . , you know what I mean,” the President said, cleverly allowing the Attorney General of the United States, moved by loyalty, to infer whatever falsehood might suit him best. “You can only . . . , it’s like . . . , you’d believe John Mitchell, I suppose, wouldn’t you?” he said, thus invoking the virtue which he sought to pervert.
“John Mitchell and I were a little off more by ourself,” Kleindienst said, thinking about what it meant to have friends but not quite buttoned up on the idea that the President wanted him to get. It took a little more conversation, and another nudge or two from the President.
“Oh, in other words,” the President said, “the obstruction they are talking about is what happened after the conviction [of the six burglars]?”
“Yes, sir,” Kleindienst said, one of the few who demonstrated any conversational respect for the President. Dean was another, along with Petersen.
“Rather than before the conviction?” the President said, getting his hopes up a bit that perhaps not so big a lie was needed.
“Yes, sir,” Kleindienst said.
“Well,” the President said, “who the hell would . . . , you mean . . . ,” thinking that perhaps the whole secret would yet survive even Dean’s and Magruder’s defections, “I can’t see Haldeman or Ehrlichman or anybody in that. . . .” Because, of course, it was Dean he had directed to pay off Hunt after Hunt’s plea of guilty, and not Haldeman at all. But he had misunderstood. Kleindienst stuck to his prediction that Haldeman and Ehrlichman were also in danger of indictment for pre-conviction obstructions.
“Let’s get back to this concept of the Presidency, sir,” Kleindienst said, which concept was, for him, the cornerstone of the President’s ability to fool him.
“Right,” the President said, having remarkable grasp of just how such concepts could be used. Henry Petersen, Earl Silbert, most of the country—including, as he would demonstrate two weeks later, Elliot L. Richardson—simply did not believe that the President would obstruct justice and then lie to them about doing it.
“What you do is the right thing,” Kleindienst said, exposing his lack of sophistication, “and then, when having done it, it would be recognized as the right thing.” Mr. Kleindienst appears to have had here either a failure of memory, or else a very vivid recollection, of the President’s respect for the right thing, which he demonstrated in his directive a year before to drop the ITT appeal. It was that directive that Kleindienst had failed to tell the Senate Judiciary Committee about during his confirmation hearings, and which led to his conviction of a misdemeanor.
“Right,” the President said, having counseled, commanded, procured and induced the wrong thing about ten months before. “And I know,” Kleindienst faltered, “I don’t know, but I believe, feel, that we should have. . . . I think the options that you have to consider there are two.
“One: do you, the President, what I have told you today, that might be forthcoming. And before that comes out, would you ask ‘em to step aside until this whole thing blows over? If it all blows over, maybe you’re not indicted, or culpable, finally you come back. And they do wind up having been indicted, you at least have off of your personal staff, those people who are going to be involved in the criminal justice system. If you don’t take that step, and I really don’t pretend to advise you on it, sir, and then if it comes out, it’s leaked out, and then you’ve got to do it after the dis-closure is made publicly. You know, I think, it...”
The President was masterfully misleading. “Let me ask you this: let us suppose, let’s suppose the worst.” Okay: supposing the worst, it was that Silbert and Titus and Petersen and the grand jury and Judge Sirica, and ultimately the country and the press, would find out that the President who had told them that March 21, 1973, was his first information of the cover-up had in fact demanded that Haldeman get the cover-up going at least as early as June 23, 1972. That was the worst, and the President, in conversation with his Attorney General, knew it. But he also knew that Kleindienst didn’t know it, and he was pretty sure that he would never find out.
He knew what concept Kleindienst had of the Presidency, after all, and he knew that Kleindienst would never surmise that a presidential supposition of “the worst” was in fact a presidential falsehood intended to conceal “the worst.” Thus he implied his own innocence, which Kleindienst assumed anyway, while minimizing what had been done. “The worst,” he invited Kleindienst to believe, and Kleindienst, of course, did, was “that it does . . . , that it does come out, on Haldeman and Strachan. with his testimony that he had papers, et cetera.”
Now that was neat. Mr. Nixon was maneuvering Kleindienst into the belief that Haldeman, painted to ultimate blackness, at most had received a few reports and might have carelessly learned that $350,000 had left a safe in the White House and turned up in the paws of the Watergate Seven. Instead of what was true: that Haldeman was foreman of the cover-up, at the express direction of the President, who was still touching it up as circumstances required. “The question,” the President said, “really is basically whether an individual, you know, can he totally. totally . . . . I mean, the point is, if a guy isn’t guilty, you shouldn’t let him go.”
Again, the quick fake, executed expertly. The fellow had more moves than Bobby Orr. The question in the President’s mind was not about Haldeman’s guilt: he knew Haldeman was as guilty as hell, and he knew it because he was as guilty as hell himself. And because he was, and preferred, reasonably, not to be caught, he was covering up some more. What the President wanted was to instill in Kleindienst’s mind the lie that Haldeman was not guilty, and could not be guilty; that way, given what the President knew, he would run less risk of being found out himself.
“That’s right,” Kleindienst said, “you shouldn’t.”
Your run-of-the-mill liar, your journeyman perjurer, comes a cropper because he tries too hard to please, and thus, like John Mitchell denying political activity as head of the Committee to ReElect the President, finally delivers himself of a fib so incredible that it reduces the listener to helpless laughter. But the Nixon School of Lying was erected on the premise that people will hear what they want to hear, and all you have to do is give them something, some minimally committing murmur which will seem to deny what they shrink from asserting, some palliating remark which will seem to declare what they find repugnant to deny.
The President had Kleindienst well in hand now. “It’s like me,” he said, reflectively. “Wait, now. Let’s stand up for people, if they’re, even though they’re under attack.” Eisenhower, when I was under fire, didn’t stand up for me, the President did not say. Eisenhower, when Adams was under attack, didn’t stand up for him, the President seemed to say. But when Goldwater was under attack, and you, Clean Dish, were running his national campaign and getting your own ass clobbered at the same time, running for the governor of Arizona, I stood up for Goldwater. I stumped for him. Did Nelson Rockefeller do that? Did anybody ever do what I’ve done? I go through, Kleindienst, I’m a standup guy.
“I know,” Kleindienst said. In 1964 he explained to a reporter on the floor of the GOP convention at the San Francisco Cow Palace that Goldwater’s preference for old loyalists was nothing more than rational. “You’re a damned fool if you don’t have around you the people you know and trust,” he had said. “If you have big names working for you, you wake up in the morning, and you don’t know what deals they may have done in your name.”
“In Haldeman’s case, though,” the President said, “I want to ask you, if you think . . . , I just want to ask your opinion. And the same on Ehrlichman, based on this. Do you think that, where he had no knowledge of Watergate. . . ?”
It was perfect. It was as well-machined as a Porsche, as well-proportioned as a beautiful woman, as fragile and as strong as Charlotte’s web. Some pig. Kleindienst, radiant, jumped into it, accepting the bait—whether Ehrlichman had any knowledge of the burglary was scarcely germane to what the prosecutors were pursuing, under the guidance of the Attorney General of the United States, on the question of covering up the Watergate—and gushing: “I think neither one of them knew about it before.” If they got in trouble, he said, it would be because they’d made inconsequential remarks around John Dean, who was, by his own admission, involved in the cover-up, and those remarks might now seem to incriminate them.
The President now wanted to know if letting them go would increase their chances of indictment. When you get the pigeon interested, take him for everything he’s got. “You find them guilty before they have a chance to prove their innocence, don’t you?” Of course they aren’t innocent, but never mind that.
“Which is not very good,” Kleindienst said, “precise.”
“That’s the point that I am making,” the President said. “Can, on the basis of this kind of information. . . .”
“I don’t suggest anything, now,” Kleindienst said, backtracking quickly into the trap that had been set for him. “I’m just. . . .”
“No, no,” the President said, graciously absolving Kleindienst of even the slightest, inadvertent trespass upon the truth, “I know. No, I’m just trying, understand, I want to know what is the right thing to do. And, understand, we are going to come out of this thing. The Justice Department and the Presidency are going to come out clean, because I don’t tolerate this kind of stuff. But the point is, Dick, I also, I can’t, I can’t let an innocent man down. That’s my point.”
There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. By rebutting a suggestion that Kleindienst had never made—that the President was out to commence a program of abandoning innocent men to their undeserved disgrace—the President had thrown the Attorney General off balance, causing him to be anxious to make amends for proposing so unprincipled a course of conduct. Then the President generously afforded him a penitential opportunity: by agreeing that Haldeman and Ehrlichman should not be abandoned to disgrace, Kleindienst could expiate the sin which he had not committed, and in the fullness of his contrition would find it not only easy, but downright cleansing, to endorse the position that because they ought not to be sacrificed by the President, Haldeman and Ehrlichman were therefore innocent. Which premise, of course, Kleindienst desperately wanted to believe anyway, because Haldeman and Ehrlichman did only what the President wanted them to do, and to suspect them was to suspect him. It was easy. Weaving their names through the rest of the conversation, the President soon had Kleindienst practically babbling his certitude of their blamelessness.
“You see,” the President said, “I realize that the fellows, like up at the Ervin Committee, and now the grand jury, they’re going to smash the likes of Haldeman all the time. But you can’t let a guy go without a (unintelligible) if he’s guilty, if you know he’s innocent.”
“Right,” Kleindienst said. A bit later: “The obstruction, of justice is what’s bad,” the President said.
“And the perjury,” Kleindienst said. “The suborning of witnesses, the perjury, and perjuring yourself.”
“You don’t have Ehrlichman involved in that,” the President said. “You don’t have Haldeman involved in any of that?”
“No, no,” Kleindienst said.
Kleindienst had gone into that seventy-minute meeting on April 15 at 1:12 P.M. with two strategies in mind: he thought he ought to disqualify himself from any action in the investigation and prosecution of his friend, former superior, and predecessor John Mitchell, and he thought his replacement as supervising prosecutor should be someone from outside the Administration. Barnabas Sears, the Chicago lawyer who gets to handle all the especially dirty cases there, was his primary selection, but he thought Henry Petersen might be an acceptable alternative.
The tape of the discussion ran out before the conversation did. The transcript is fifty pages long. Each page carries about 250 words; while there are wide variances in the rapidity of speech among individuals, it is unusual to find a conversationalist talking at less than 200 words per minute, and the upper limit of intelligible discussion is probably somewhere around 400. No pauses are noted in the transcripts of the tape, although some probably occurred without notation. What the White House reproduced of that conversation, then, probably represents about forty-five to fifty-five minutes of the seventy passed between Kleindienst and the President, omitting the portion where they reached some sort of concord; and Kleindicnst went out on the understanding that he would be back later in the day (that is implicit in the transcript of a telephone conversation between the President and Kleindienst, recorded at 3:48 on the same afternoon; Mr. Nixon, placing the call, had evidently expected Kleindienst to return more quickly than he did, and was somewhat impatient. It also suggests that the end of the seventy-minute conversation found them in tentative agreement that Petersen should take over ultimate supervision of the Watergate prosecutions. “May I bring Henry Peter. sen with me?” Kleindienst said. “Yeah,” the President said, “I want to ask him to do something”). What Mr. Nixon had in mind was to blow as much smoke at Petersen as he had managed to get past Kleindienst; the President was of a mood to make converts that day.
On the face of it, Henry Petersen was not a promising prospect. Then fiftytwo, he had all his life trusted the precepts of a sterr. Roman Catholic upbringing to keep him from harm’s way. Later, describing his ordeal to the media, he compared his handling of Watergate to a progress through a minefield: then, shifting similes abruptly, he said: “1 am not a whore.” That evening, at home, his youngest daughter asked him why he said that. Miserably he said: “I don’t know.”
But he did know, if he thought about it: his gimleteyed scrutiny of all actions for occasions of sin lurking beneath their placid surfaces had been too limited, and the discovery of its insufficiency grieved him.
Sex. money, and laxity in the practice of traditional morals: those he understood, and accorded to them the profound respect he believed them to deserve as engines of personal destruction. Appointed Deputy Chief of OCRS (Organized Crime and Racketeering Section) by Robert Kennedy, after nine years with Justice in the Antitrust and Criminal Divisions, he recruited a willing corps of nomads for the Field Offices (informally known as Strike Forces). It was plain to him that temptations would lie in the paths of those starting out to bedevil the Mob, because the Mob has done rather well, over the years, catering to human weaknesses. Familiarity, he reasoned, breeds more familiarity, and a man who knows his town too well may be too well known in his town to be ruthless in pursuit of his prosecution target. Concomitantly. a prosecutor in his hometown may be bent upon becoming well known, but only in that Goodfellow configuration that attracts business to a private practice established after three or four years of publicity-generating Mafia-chasing, or beguiles the electorate into ardent consent to political aspirations.
Henry Petersen wanted none of his prosecutors going easy on somebody who did not deserve easiness by reason of his virtue. He wanted gunslingers whose sole loyalty was to Justice. It was a United States Marines sort of attitude, perhaps explicable by reference to Petersen’s three years as a Marine sergeant in the Central Pacific during World War II.
Nobody in the world could question Henry Petersen’s integrity. And nobody with any sense has. It’s his intelligence that’s been questioned. He thought Justice was important, too, because Justice had been good to him. After a year at Georgetown University, Petersen made his way through law school by working as an FBI clerk. Except for his Marine service, Petersen never held a fulltime job anywhere but with the United States Department of Justice. He was Career Justice.
In that practice his prosperity was most remarkable, equaled only by that of Career Justice attorney Richard McLaren, whose relentlessness in pursuit of ITT, as head of the Antitrust Division, so displeased the President that it won McLaren a federal judgeship just to get him out of there. Career Justice employees, lacking political clout, seldom come to savor the satisfaction of bossing the divisions which they in fact operate. About the best they can hope for is promotion to Deputy Assistant Attorney General, where they get to do the work of running the operation while the politically connected Assistant Attorney General goes posturing about the country as chief of whatever division, making a big fool of himself.
In 1969, the Nixon Administration selected Will Wilson to be Assistant Attorney General, Chief of the Criminal Division. Mr. Wilson is a very personable man, polite and nice, and, in the grand tradition of political appointees to high Justice slots, knew not a damned thing about what the Criminal Division of Justice is supposed to do, and what it means to the people who work in it. The Texas lawyer buffooned his way around the Republic, making a great many speeches devoid of content but full of sound and fury. On October 15, 1971, he stepped down, in apparent bafflement that his departure should be dictated by his habit of accepting loans from bankers under investigation by his own division, for fraud in the Sharpstown Bank scandals.
That made Henry Petersen Acting Assistant Attorney General by virtue of his 1969 designation as deputy to Wilson. It also middled the Administration very nicely: hot in public for law and order, its principals were significantly embarrassed, also in public, by Mr. Wilson’s clumsiness in management of his financial affairs. While Congress was in recess, the President escaped the bind by appointing Petersen to take Wilson’s place. On January 11, 1972, sixteen days before Gordon Liddy visited the Department to broach call girls, wiretaps and kidnappings to Attorney General Mitchell, Henry Edward Petersen became an Assistant Attorney General of the United States.
Nobody in the world could question Henry Petersen’s integrity. And nobody with any sense has. It’s his intelligence that’s been questioned, and that not justifiably, though certainly understandably. Henry Petersen, to widespread astonishment, turned out to have been not savvy. He proved to be the kind of man who, when asked by the President of the United States “to do something,” would do it. And thus undo himself.
What the President wanted Petersen to do was more faithfully, though not completely, reflected by what Nixon said on the telephone to Haldeman right after Kleindienst left the White House to talk to Petersen. Haldeman was mildly surprised that the President was favorably considering appointment of a Special Prosecutor; the idea might have made him a little nervous. The President was reassuring: “For a reason. This is not to prosecute the case. A Special Prosecutor, to look at the indictments, to see that the indictments run to everybody they need to run to. So that it isn’t just the President’s men, you see.”
Haldeman did not fully understand. “In other words, he is above Silbert rather than replacing Silbert?” It was not the best idea he had heard all day.
“Oh, no,” the President said. “Silbert runs the case, and that’s all. But he is just in there for the purpose of examining all this, to see that the indictments cover everybody.”
Now Haldeman was having less trouble with it. He understood that what the President had in mind was only another improvement in the cover-up, not something that would torpedo it.
“Uh huh,” he said, “well, that does protect you a lot, because if they don’t indict some of us, then you have a cover-up problem. If you have that guy, then you have a basis. . . .”
“Then he goes out and says,” the President said, quite certain of the behavior which this still unselected fellow would adopt, “‘I have examined all of this. These men are not guilty, and these men are not indictable, and these are.’“ In other words, we’ll just call him a Special Prosecutor; his real function will be to apply a coat of whitewash to keep the surface of the cover-up opaque.
Yeah,” Haldeman said. That was much, much better.
The President mentioned Charles Alan Wright of the University of Texas Law School as one prospective choice. Wright would later prove temporarily useful as a member of Nixon’s revolving legal staff, quitting in disgust when misled or stonewalled once too often. There was further conversation. Then the President found another reason to appoint another public relations man, and call him Special Prosecutor: because it “helps in another way. It gets one person between me and the whole thing.”
What he was doing was reinventing the Mafia, the same Mafia that Henry Petersen knew and loathed so well. The Mob’s rulers are hard to catch because there are so many layers of underbosses and lieutenants and buffers and consiglieri between the man who lets the contract for the hit and the man who pulls the trigger. It’s virtually impossible to break all the people in the chain. The President of the United States was adding another layer of insulation. “Yep,” Haldeman said, “that’s right, and I think that is a darn good route for it, especially if it can be done. I hadn’t thought about it, or understood it at the level you are now talking about, and that would seem to me exactly what you are after.”
It was that flexibility which made the cover-up so successful for so long; that, and the unimaginativeness of a Henry Petersen who did not look for plots at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W. Whenever something happened to threaten disaster, Nixon stuck the lever of the Presidency in place to shift things back in his favor. Magruder was talking, Dean was talking, Strachan was talking, but justice had been obstructed for ten months with responsive modifications to the plot, and a Special Prosecutor would be just one more.
At 8:14, April 15, 1973, the President called Petersen at home. “Anything further you want to report tonight before our meeting tomorrow at 12:30?” the President said, which indicates that he had seen Petersen sometime that day, that Petersen had told him a great deal about the investigation, and that the discussion, if recorded at all, was not disgorged by the Nixon White House.
“Not anything, specially,” Petersen said, “that I didn’t give you today.”
The President’s interest stemmed from the fact that Dean had been chatting with Titus and Silbert that afternoon, while the President was snuggling up to Petersen.
Petersen was unfortunately vulnerable to presidential manipulation, though it is hard to say that he was more vulnerable than any other lawyer in his position would have been. Named Assistant Attorney General because he was indisputably honest, he erred by assuming that the Administration would invariably call upon him, if it called at all, because desirous of irreproachable service, not merely its appearance. In twentyfour years of public service, he had previously visited the White House only to form part of the human backdrop for the signature of new criminal legislation. Until 1973, he had no direct, personal contact with Presidents. Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and, until then, Nixon had not sought his firsthand views on matters of national importance; when those views were heard at all, it was by presentation through intermediary Attorneys General. To be called directly, by the President did not floor him, but it certainly flattered him.
“Nothing that adds to what we had earlier, eh?” the President said, using Petersen.
“That’s right,” Petersen said. “They concluded the meeting with Dean. His counsel says he will not permit him to plead, that a. . . .”
The President, trifling most obscenely with Title 18 of the United States Code’s prohibitions of conspiracy and obstruction of justice, had almost no acquaintance with the criminal law. This, paradoxically, inured to his benefit: people like Petersen were always explaining things to him, and thus assisting him, unwittingly, in his purposes. “Permit him to plead?” the President said. “What do you mean by that?”
“To plead guilty,” Petersen said. “In other words, he will go to trial.”
The President didn’t know what the hell that meant, but he was afraid he didn’t like it. “He is going to plead not guilty, huh?”
“That’s right,” Petersen said, “unless we come to some agreement with him. His counsel’s position is that it would be a travesty to try Dean and not try Ehrlichman and Haldeman.” John Dean, it would turn out, was on his way to jail, and Ehrlichman and Haldeman en route to trial, but Gerald Ford would have the means to provide a travesty of even greater proportions, and in September, 1974, he used them; without time’s vast excuse, he pardoned his predecessor for plotting well.
“Uh huh,” the President said, scared and trying to think of the next thing to do.
“That is the basic information to the extent that it developed in these preliminary negotiations,” Petersen said. That wasn’t good enough.
The President waffled. “Well, let me ask you this,” he said, perceiving that the issue was whether Dean would make a deal, which meant talk or not talk. “Based on this, though, you mean that inhibits you from using the information, then?” He wouldn’t have minded that. “Or do you use it, or how do you do it, or do you use it for leads, but you can’t use it unless he pleads, right?”
“We cannot use it for any purpose unless he pleads,” Petersen said, which was correct if the prosecutors adhered to the President’s dictum that nobody in the White House was to get immunity from prosecution, but wrong if somebody with the bit in his teeth took it in mind to get some immunity for Dean. Thus did it imply Henry Petersen’s respect for White House policy.
The President wished to be sure. “For no purpose?” he said. “That’s right,” Petersen said. “That’s incorrect,” he said, meaning not done, “unless we strike some agreement with him.”
The President knew what he thought of that idea. “Hmph,” he said.
Petersen rushed on, heedless of the possibility (well, not heedless, exactly: to him it was unthinkable) that the President of the United States was hustling around obstructing justice, and thus that it might be imprudent to furnish information to him. He had a call from Ehrlichman,” Petersen said of Dean. “Ehrlichman wanted to meet with him tonight.”
“I see,” the President said, cagily.
“About eight o’clock,” Petersen said, ingenuously. “We advised him he would have to make his own determination,” which is disingenuous standard operating procedure for prosecutors: they always tell prosecution witnesses like Dean that they don’t have to talk to anybody, making it very clear that it would be much better if they didn’t, but that they have a right to talk to anybody, “but suggested that he not.”
“I see,” said the President.
“He then,” Petersen said, “through his counsel, informed us that he was writing a note to you, in which he would say: one, that what he was doing was in your best interests, and that that would all become apparent as this situation unfolded.”
Perfectly gorgeous, as far as the President was concerned, just what he had in mind, ranking with a fall down a flight of stairs. “Right,” the President said. “Let me ask you this: why don’t I get him in now, if I can find him, and have a talk with him?”
Henry Petersen’s job existed in order to enable the President to exercise care that the laws be faithfully enforced. “I don’t see any objection to that, Mr. President,” the dutiful and trusting Petersen said, and he didn’t.
“Is that all right with you?” the President asked.
“Yes, sir,” Petersen said.
“All right,” the President said, “I am going to get him over because I am not going to screw around with this thing, as I told you.”
“All right,” Petersen said, thus ratified in his primary assumption, if he needed to be, and thus in turn reassuring the President in his deliberate hope of successfully perverting that assumption.
“But I want to be sure you understand,” the President said, meaning that he wanted to be damned sure that Petersen never even came close to understanding, “that you know, that we are going to get to the bottom of this thing.” Meaning, of course, that he was going to do everything in his enormous power to make sure that nobody ever got to the bottom of it, because that’s where he was; and part of the means to that end was to convince Henry Petersen to the contrary.
“I think the thing that. . . ,” Petersen began.
“What do you want me to say to him?” the President cut in, planning to dazzle Dean to a fare-thee-well to avert the dangers that lay ahead when he started to talk. “Ask him to tell me the whole truth?”
“Yes, sir,” Petersen said. He also wanted the President to signal Gordon Liddy to come clean, finally. The President, knowing that Liddy had nothing on anybody higher up than John Mitchell, who was already in trouble, swiftly agreed to do that, but only (the condition was added by the President in a second conversation the same night) by transmitting a message through Petersen. That ensured, of course, that Liddy would remain steadfast in his silence. He was, after all, the original “standup guy.” It also took care of the small risk that Liddy might in fact know something that would cause further damage. There was no way that Liddy would take the prosecutor’s word for something the President was supposed to have said, and the President knew it. No point in taking chances. Later that evening (at 9:39 p.m.), the President used Petersen again, evidently to program John Dean in his testimony. “I discussed with him,” Dean said of his 9 P.M. meeting with the President, “the fact that maybe if Liddy’s lawyer met with him, that Liddy would begin to open up, because, I said, that I thought it would be very helpful if Liddy did talk. It was during this part of the conversation that the President picked up the telephone and called Henry Petersen and pretended with Petersen that I was not in the room, but that the matter of Liddy’s coming forward and talking had arisen during our conversation. The President relayed to Petersen that if Liddy’s lawyer wanted to see him, to get a signal, that the President was willing to this.”
By the time the President made that call, he and Dean had been talking for thirty-nine minutes. It was exactly seventy-three minutes after his second call to Petersen, when the whole Liddy affair had presumably been settled. Petersen must have been absolutely mystified.
“Henry,” the President said, “I talked to John Dean, and haven’t quite finished, but he stepped out for a minute.” Dean was sitting right there, and the President hoped Dean would be favorably impressed by the President’s prompt action, and reason from it to the inference that the President yearned for complete demolition of the cover-up. And thus to the further inference that he had had no part in arranging it in the first place. “I wanted to ask you this,” the President said. “He” (meaning Dean) “says he thinks it is important that I tell Liddy’s attorney—I don’t know who he is—by the name of Maroulis, do you know him? That, what I told you, a few minutes ago.” Remembering, of course, just in time, that Dean and Petersen had talked a lot since the previous June, and guarding against the possibility that they might get together for note comparison again, when Dean started testifying before the grand jury.
Petersen said he had been trying to reach Peter Maroulis.
“Let me say this,” the President said. “You tell him, if necessary, you haul him in here and I will tell him. OK?” Precisely what he had earlier retreated from doing.
“All right,” Petersen said.
“You tell him I have called you directly tonight,” the President said, “and that you have it direct from the President: if he needs it from me, will tell him.”
“Very good,” Petersen said.
“Because you see,” the President said, ostentatiously relying, in Dean’s presence, on Dean’s recommendation of Petersen to promote an inference of his own good faith (Dean, after all, seemed rather to admire Petersen, and thought no special evil of the man he had so used, and would therefore assume from the President’s call to Petersen that the President was determined to get to the bottom of things). “John felt that maybe he wouldn’t take it from you. But I think he would. Or, what do you think? What is your judgment?” Thus demonstrating to Dean that he intended to rely upon Petersen’s advice, when in’ fact he intended to subvert the man’s loyalty. Dean, cold and shrewd enough to have acted as cover-up foreman as long as he had, was cold and shrewd enough not to be convinced. Two hours later, the President was back on the phone to Petersen for the tburth time that day, chatting about how Dean would have to resign.
Henry Petersen was fully up to dealing with duplicity; he had, after all, been supervising the hot pursuit of gangsters for twenty years. But he was only up to it when he began with the expectation that it would occur. He did not have that expectation when he dealt with the President.
Elliot Richardson was different. Confronted with the inappropriateness of his own judgment, Richardson got mad, fast, and stayed mad, too.
“The soldiers at the Pentagon,” Elliot Richardson found, were “a little wary” when he first took over as Secretary of Defense. But by April of 1973, after three months of watching him at close range, they had warmed up a little, and he thought they liked him and “trusted me pretty well. I listened. I understood what they were saying. I had a sense of what they had in mind. It was the same kind of approach that had served me well with the foreign service, at State, and at HEW.” So he had once again, at least as far as he was concerned, accomplished his initial objective in supervision of a new agency: staff acceptance of him as a man of good faith and purposes common with theirs.
On Saturday, April 28, 1973, Richardson took a day off to visit his daughter’s school—the Madeira School—in Virginia. There he was given an urgent message to call William Rogers. Kleindienst, appalled by the prospect of prosecuting John Mitchell, was resigning. Rogers told Richardson he had “been talking to the President about the best possible person” to succeed Kleindienst. Richardson was their choice.
He was not certain he agreed. Conceding that “the President needed somebody promptly,” Richardson, in conversations with his wife and a few friends, reached the conclusion which he reported back to Rogers: “I told him I thought it would be a mistake if I were to take responsibility for the Watergate, because I had been so closely identified with the Administration.” At, he might have added, the price of some fairly serious damage to his political reputation in Massachusetts, where editorial eyebrows were raised very high in response to his support, as Secretary of HEW, of the Administration’s health, education, and bussing views. “I said I thought the President needed an independent outsider.”
“Rogers called back an hour later,” Richardson said. “He had talked with the President”—whose aloofness from direct contact with the course of human events was so complete that he employed an intermediary’ to conduct conversations with his Secretary of Defense about becoming his Attorney General. It gave Rogers something to do as Secretary of State while Henry Kissinger conducted the nation’s foreign policy. “He said,” Richardson said, quoting Rogers, “that it would take too long to find an independent outsider. The President did not want a pig in a poke”—as he had demonstrated in his recruitment of Henry Petcrsen—”and was willing to consider an independent Special Prosecutor.”
That ostensible agreeableness was the beginning of the end of Mr. Richardson’s service to President Nixon, because he took it at face value: as an assurance from a client. At State and at HEW, and also at Defense, Elliot Richardson acted like a lawyer for the President, according to him the same courtesy which he had, over the years, unfailingly extended to his Assistant United States Attorneys and his Assistant Attorneys General in Massachusetts; to his deputies at State and his assistants at HEW; and to the generals subordinate to his direction at the Pentagon. He supplied his views to the President, on matters within his jurisdiction. He presented them as forcefully as he thought appropriate. When his counsel was accepted, he declared the decision as the position of the Administration, without claiming authorship of it. When his counsel was rejected, he declared the resulting position without disclaiming the personal endorsement which seemed, incorrectly, to be implied by his making of the declaration. One of a lawyer’s functions is to lay out alternatives for his client, recommending that course which seems best to him but genuinely ready to advocate the other if the client so chooses, so long as there is nothing improper about the client’s choice. Leonard Garment, James St. Clair, J. Fred Buzhardt and Charles Alan Wright governed their relationship to President Nixon by the same rule. Elliot Richardson did not think the President of the United States would lie to his Secretary of Defense, not even to persuade him to become his Attorney General.
Richardson went to Camp David on April 29, 1973. “I was to have full discretion to determine who the Special Prosecutor should be,” he said later. But not full knowledge—the President was too cagey to confide that to Richardson—of what he would be. “The President mentioned Will Hastings”—Richardson’s brilliant aide, lured from the Boston law firm of Bingham, Dana & Gould to help him as Attorney General of Massachusetts, as Under Secretary of State, and as Secretary of HEW—”and J. Edward Lumbard”—of the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit of the United States—”as possible men.”
Considering what the President had in mind, his choice of auditor and his selections of names to propound as Special Prosecutor were very remarkable. Neither Hastings nor Lumbard would have gone into the tank for him, any more than Richardson himself would.
“Those were good suggestions,” Richardson said, assuming the intention to enforce the fact of integrity, and consequently stressing the secondary obligation to insure also its appearance, “but Hastings was too close to me. The President suggested John J. McCloy.”
There have been a lot of mean things said and written about John J. McCloy, but nobody in his right mind has ever said that John J. McCloy will take a dive. By adding McCloy’s name to the list of prospective candidates for the job of Special Prosecutor, the President reinforced Richardson’s basic assumption that the President was sincere in his quest for total disclosure of Watergate and related matters.
The President, of course, was not sincere. If he was rational, he was proceeding with great confidence upon at least one, and probably three, gravely mistaken judgments:
—He unquestionably believed, on April 29, 1973, that the problems of Watergate were entirely cosmetic, like the unfortunate jowls and the fiveo’clock shadow that should have been prettied up before his first 1960 television debate with John Kennedy. Nixon accorded the press the sort of hostility which hateful men reserve for their most threatening enemies; he believed that newsmen fabricated the stuff that made voters and other politicians dislike and oppose him. There was that, too: in his mind, opposition was proof of dislike, which he at once requited. When President Nixon fulminated about wallowing in Watergate, during the summer of the Ervin Committee hearings, he was articulating the same basic premise that informed his approach to Elliot Richardson in April: he acknowledged no substantive issue in Watergate, seeing only the fantastic vapors of foul, malicious opposition. He was not a hypocrite at all, although he surely looked like one; he was a man of utter consistency, who obtained his power by outpretending those who, in his estimation, had perfidiously mounted spiteful pretenses to resist him, but had luckily, at long last, fallen short.
—He thought Elliot Richardson was of the same mind. The President did not admonish Richardson to take the job at Justice to dupe the nation into thinking that a disease was being cured when it was not, because the President thought, genuinely and sincerely and devotedly, that the national malaise was psychosomatic, and assumed that Richardson agreed. Recalling that conversation at Camp David, Richardson said: “The President referred to discussions with Haldeman, about the Ellsberg breakin. He said Haldeman and Ehrlichman would have to resign. He mentioned the Kleindienst resignation. He wanted to make a simultaneous announcement of someone in whom the public could have confidence.” But, most emphatically, he did not want that public confidence to be fully rewarded. First at State, then at HEW, then at Defense, Elliot Richardson had served him dutifully, and with high marks from all except a few carpers among the Eastern Liberal press; and those high marks had eased, smoothed, and graced the Nixon Administration. Richardson had made him look good before, and he rather assumed that Richardson would make him look good again, a treatment which he seriously needed. That much, at least, he knew: he needed somebody to make up those Herblock jowls that Watergate was drawing upon his whole Presidency.
Richardson, of course, did not agree. He was more than willing to make the President look good, because the substantive accomplishments which reflected pleasurably upon the President were, to his mind, primarily significant in and of themselves. It was appropriate that the President be credited with the causation of those substantive achievements. But the credit was only a side effect to Richardson, arid he believed, just as mistakenly as the President, that Richard M. Nixon agreed with him. lie therefore did not seek presidential assurance that his function would be substantive, and only incidentally cosmetic, because when the President had asked him to do things before, his mandate had been substantive. What he did not know was that the Nixon interest and the national interest veered apart where Watergate was concerned: like Henry Petersen, Elliot Richardson was inexpert in thinking about the unthinkable. But he was a quick study.
—The President thought we were all stupid. He fell back upon his inveterate practice of being a tactician when he should have been a philosopher, concerned, to the exclusion of what was right, solely with what would work.
For his ploy to succeed. Richardson had to remain ignorant of the divergence between Nixon and national interests. For a while he did. He talked to his wife again, after the calls to Rogers, and “we agreed. ‘Oh, expletive deleted,’“ he said, “ ‘it would probably be better that I do it.’ I would just as soon have been left alone. But I was the only United States Attorney General in the history of the country who had ever been United States Attorney and a state Attorney General. The reason why I did it? The integrity of the system.”
What he had sought to show unimpaired by becoming Attorney General, Richardson promptly found to be in direct and immediate hazard. At Camp David he told the President he might he “a useful adviser” as Attorney General. Then the President discussed the Ellsberg breakin without any justiacation on the basis of national security: “F,hrlichman,” the President said, “had turned it down,” and therefore would not take the blame for it. Richardson understood the President to be saying that Howard Hunt and Gordon Liddy had acted on their own. Later, Richardson was startled, to put it mildly, when the White House publicly declared that the burglary had been committed for reasons of national security.
The President had said nothing about the authority he had issued to pay off Hunt on March 21st: “If I had known about Hunt,” Richardson said, “I could not have taken the job. The President would have had to agree that I was taking the job as opposing counsel, heading the investigative, prosecutivc drive. The hearings” (by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Richardson’s nomination) “made it clear that we were involved in an adversary situation.” After Archibald Cox was approved as Special Prosecutor, Richardson had no further personal dealings with the President until the Saturday Night Massacre in October.
“It was hard to take,” Richardson said of his knowledge of the President, whom it was perilous to trust and perfect folly to protect. “the same as combat in the war. Unassimilable. My disposition was to believe that he was not involved. He told me so, convincingly. It was implausible to me. He said in effect that Tye had no part in these things. It’s been extremely painful. The hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I can only say to you that I have had no part in this, and no knowledge of it. And if you don’t believe this, you shouldn’t take the job.’“
Richard Nixon was lying. And the best he would manage, even under the threat of virtually certain indictment by the Special Prosecutor, secluded in disgrace and hailed out, intemperately soon, by President Ford, was this: “. . . I can see clearly now . . . that I was wrong in not acting more decisively and more forthrightly in dealing with Watergate. . . . I know that many fair-minded people believe that my motivation and actions in the Watergate affair were intentionally self-serving and illegal.” Felonious, as a matter of fact, vicious, unprincipled, deceitful, corrupt, malicious, spiteful, vengeful and dead wrong. “I now understand how my own mistakes and misjudgments”—surely the most delicate phraseology ever employed by a President of the United States to describe a conspiracy to obstruct justice—”have contributed to that belief and seemed to support it.” Seemed, my lord? If this is seeming, what the hell is fact? “That the way I tried to deal with Watergate”—by paying hush money, and sacrificing friends, and lying to loyalists, and watching subalterns go off to jail while lying some more—”was the wrong way is a burden I shall bear for every day of the life that is left to me.” My God, he wanted sympathy.
Note: Quotations of White House transcripts throughout this article are as they appear in the Submission of Recorded Presidential Conversations To the Committee on the Judiciary of the House of Representatives by President Richard Nixon, April 30, 1974, printed by the Government Printing Office. In several places I have changed the punctuation supplied by the transcribers to conform to the meaning of what was said.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to email@example.com.