"Washington: Gung Ho on O'b"

New proof from the Nixon archives of Nixon’s personal involvement in the “dirty tricks" campaign against the Democrats

WHAT WE STILL haven’t found out about Watergate is exactly what Richard Nixon knew and when he knew it. When the National Archives opened Nixon’s confidential White House papers to the public, in 1987, the initial users were disappointed to discover that Nixon’s lawyers had withheld 150,000 pages of the material, mainly on the grounds that it did not pertain to Nixon’s running of the government. Perhaps only coincidentally, the material that was released contained no front-page news about Watergate. Much of what Nixon withheld may eventually be made public, after a special review board has finished going through it, but in the meantime the prevailing opinion about Nixon’s papers has been that there’s next to nothing on Watergate there.

Actually, though, there is something there: material that ties Nixon personally to the official harassment of Lawrence O’Brien, the former aide to John F. Kennedy who, as the head of the Democratic National Committee in the early seventies, was the target of the two Watergate break-ins in 1972. In 1987, at a conference on the Nixon Administration at Hofstra University, J. Anthony Lukas, the author of Nightmare, the best history of Watergate, got Jeb Stuart Magruder to confirm that the primary purpose of the break-ins was to see what O’Brien had in his files about the reclusive billionaire (it’s impossible to improve on the standard newspaper epithet) Howard Hughes. O’Brien had been a wellpaid consultant to Hughes in 1969 and 1970, and Nixon’s businessman friend Bebe Rebozo had received from Hughes $100,000 in secret contributions, ostensibly for Republican campaigns. The break-ins were evidently meant to produce hard evidence of O’Brien’s relationship with Hughes or to determine whether O’Brien knew about Hughes’s contributions to Nixon, or both.

Back in the fifties Hughes lent money to Nixon’s brother, Donald, and the loan became a last-minute spoiler issue in the Nixon campaigns for the presidency in 1960 and for the governorship of California in 1962. These experiences apparently convinced Nixon that a proven connection to Hughes would be extremely damaging to the career of any political figure—even if the figure was Larry O’Brien, who wasn’t running for anything, and the connection was a perfectly legal consulting contract. There is clear evidence in the archives that Nixon repeatedly ordered his aides to look into the Hughes-O’Brien relationship— before and especially after the Watergate burglars were caught.

Bruce Oudes, in his collection of material from the Nixon archives, From: The President, reproduces several White House memos on the subject, including two written by Nixon. Also, Nixon’s two closest aides, H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, took detailed handwritten notes during their meetings with Nixon. While going through these notes recently, as part of the research for an unrelated project, I came across a series of notations of instructions from Nixon concerning the harassment of O’Brien; they are quoted here for the first time. Taken together, the memos and the notes constitute hard proof that Nixon was directing (on an almost daily basis, for a while) at least one phase of his administration’s abuse of the power of the presidency in the 1972 campaign.

ON JANUARY 14, 1971, Nixon wrote his chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman,

It would seem that the time is approaching when Larry O’Brien is held accountable for his retainer with Hughes. Bebe has some information on this although it is, of course, not solid but there is no question that one of Hughes’ people did have O’Brien on a very heavy retainer for “services rendered” in the past.

This led Haldeman to send John Dean, the White House counsel, to talk to Rebozo and others to find out more. Dean reported back that O’Brien had been on the Hughes payroll, but evidently the White House couldn’t find a way to get this information into the newspapers.

For the next year and a half O’Brien’s past consulting work for Hughes remained unpublicized, even after the break-ins at O’Brien’s office in the Watergate complex. This must have rankled Nixon. On July 31, 1972, six weeks after the second Watergate break-in, Nixon told Haldeman, according to Haldeman’s notes of the meeting, “Go gung ho on O’B—& the others.” Ehrlichman’s notes about another meeting with Nixon, on August 7, contain this notation: “Larry O’Brien. Tax. Hughes.” The meaning becomes clear in a memo that Nixon wrote to Haldeman on August 9, in which he said that “O’Brien’s name had popped up in the investigation by IRS of Hughes Tool Company.” His source for this information, apparently, was John Connally, who at the time was the head of Democrats for Nixon and a great favorite of Nixon’s. Connally had been the Secretary of the Treasury, and thus the official ultimately in charge of the Internal Revenue Service, until May of 1972.

Nixon advocated getting the IRS to investigate the Hughes-O’Brien connection and then leaking the results. His memo to Haldeman continues,

Connally feels very strongly that any information we get in this matter should not be held, but should pop out just as quickly as possible. . . . The point here is that Connally’s very strong conviction is that dropping something on O’Brien will have far more effect now than at a later time and will keep all of our Democratic opponents a little loose. . . . I consider it of the highest priority to have John Ehrlichman [Nixon’s numbertwo aide], if he has the time, or you personally, to ride IRS on this matter. . . . What is most important is that the IRS audit of O’Brien begin Thursday—that means tomorrow—at the very latest. This means that today, Wednesday, the call must be made by the head of IRS to O’Brien so the stage can be set for a subpoena in the event that O’Brien does not show up voluntarily.

Johnnie M. Walters, who was the head of the IRS at the time, later told a Senate committee that George Shultz, who succeeded Connally as Treasury Secretary, asked him in the summer of 1972 to check O’Brien’s tax returns and see if O’Brien had reported his consulting fees from Hughes. Walters found that O’Brien’s tax returns were clean, but the White House kept pressing the IRS about O’Brien.

Haldeman’s notes from August 17 have Nixon telling him, “E: O’Brien investigation—report to P.” (E is shorthand for Ehrlichman, P for the President.) That day two IRS agents came to O’Brien’s apartment in Washington and interviewed him at length; O’Brien had asked his son, who is a lawyer, to sit in on the meeting. Two days later, according to Haldeman’s notes, Nixon described the meeting in O’Brien’s apartment: “E O’Brien deal. Showed up with son with all records. If true—gets off hook. Asked postpone till after election. He’s quite shaken.” (O’Brien told me recently it was the IRS agents who were quite shaken.)

On August 29 Shultz called Walters into his office at the Treasury and set up a conference call with Ehrlichman in the White House, the purpose of which was for Walters to tell Ehrlichman personally that O’Brien had reported all his income and paid all his taxes. The next day Ehrlichman met privately with Nixon, who, seeing that the IRS plan was not working, suggested several other ways to “worry O’Brien,” such as sending an anonymous letter to a journalist known to be hostile to Hughes. On September 11 Nixon apparently voiced impatience to Haldeman about Ehrlichman’s footdragging on this assignment. Haldeman’s notes say, “E O’Brien. E too busy to look into it. One of his minions.” Ehrlichman’s notes from two days later have Nixon saying, “O’B—Chotiner working on,” which seems to mean that the late Murray Chotiner, a veteran Nixon operative, had been given the O’Brien portfolio.

There are several other interesting fragments about O’Brien in Haldeman’s and Ehrlichman’s notes for August and September of 1972. For example, in one minor subplot the notorious Bobby Baker, the former Senate majority secretary who was the lord of the dirty side of Washington during the late fifties and early sixties, sent Nixon word that he had information on O’Brien. But either Nixon gave up on discrediting O’Brien after September or he has withdrawn subsequent references to O’Brien from the archives. From the material that is there, however, it is quite plain that not just overzealous aides to Nixon were interested in working the political back alleys to discredit the opposition. At least in this instance, the orders came from Nixon himself, and they continued to come after the apprehension of the Watergate burglars had made it clear that the O’Brien operation was a high-risk one. Rather than being fooled or manipulated by his staff. Nixon was much more zealous about going after O’Brien than the people around him were, which is why he had to ride herd on them about it.

Occasional remarks in the notes show that even if Nixon’s interest in O’Brien waned, the idea of using the government as an instrument for punishing political opponents lived on. On September 20, 1972, he told Haldeman, according to Haldeman’s notes, to “get Huston back for next Admin planning smoke ‘em out—need our spies.”Huston is Tom Charles Huston, the author of the “Huston plan” for expanding covert domestic intelligence-gathering. On November 11, four days after his re-election, Nixon told Haldeman, “IRS all major Dem contribs and all backers of new Sens.”If all this is what Nixon considered not worth withholding from the archives, it certainly whets the appetite for the material that he did withhold.

—Nicholas Lemann