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Watergate: What the President Knew

July 28, 2003 at 12:00 AM EST
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GWEN IFILL: The Watergate scandal 30 years later. Some of the details have faded but the impact remains historic. A president resigned; his top aides went to jail in a political and criminal scandal that still casts a long shadow. Now a new PBS documentary reveals that Jeb Stuart Magruder, who at the time was the deputy director of the president’s reelection campaign, believes Mr. Nixon directly ordered the 1973 break-in of the Democratic National Committee’s Watergate headquarters.

FORMER SEN. HOWARD BAKER: The question at this point is simply put: What did the president know and when did he know it?

SPOKESMAN: It is a question that has gone unanswered for three decades. But Jeb Magruder, now a retired Presbyterian minister, has finally decided to tell what he claims to have witnessed. At this moment we only have his word.

JEB STUART MAGRUDER, Former Nixon Campaign Aide: I had about 25 decision papers because Mitchell had been so sort of off track with these other issues. So we meet in the morning, and we go through the first 24, and they’re typical campaign decisions about polling, advertising. Whatever.

SPOKESMAN: It was Thursday, March 30, 1972 attorney general Mitchell attorney general Mitchell, head of the campaign to reelect the president, met with his deputy Magruder. Magruder had put Gordon Liddy’s proposal to bug the telephone of the chairman of the national Democratic Party, Larry O’Brien, at the end of their agenda.

JEB STUART MAGRUDER: We didn’t like the idea, it was going into Watergate Democratic National Committee headquarters and bugging Larry O’Brien’s phone. So Mitchell said call Haldeman, find out do we really have to, is this really important — so I called Haldeman and he talks to me, and I say, you know, we’re not sure it’s worth doing. And Haldeman said yes, the president wants it done. He said is John there? I said yes, and I give the phone to John, and Haldeman talks to him. And then the president comes on the line and talks to Mitchell.

I could hear the president talking to him, and it was simply, you know, John, we need to get the information on Larry O’Brien, the only way we can do that is through Lee’s plan, and you need to do that. Nixon was saying we want Libby to break into the Watergate. Mitchell gets off the phone, and says to me, he says, well, Jeb, tell Maurice to give Libby $250,000 and let’s see what happens.

GWEN IFILL: For his role in the Watergate scandal, Jeb Magruder spent seven months in prison for perjury and obstruction of justice. He is joined tonight by Sam Dash, who served as chief counsel of the Senate Watergate Committee. He now teaches law at Georgetown University Law School. Jeb Magruder, it’s been 30 years. Why are we hearing of this now?

JEB STUART MAGRUDER: Well, it was not something that I did in a meaningful way. I had retired from full-time work in December. And had moved back to Columbus, Ohio, and began to do some writing. So I was thinking about some of these things when PBS called me and asked me to participate in this two-hour special documentary Watergate plus 30 in the shadow of history. And during that period of time when I talked with them both on the phone and then when I went to Washington, the subject came up and I talked about it because it was what happened.

GWEN IFILL: But surely in all the years that have passed since the events that you talk about in this, you’ve been approached by other people, you’ve cooperated with the BBC documentary, countless books have been written, and somehow it never came up that you heard this phone call?

JEB STUART MAGRUDER: Well, I was really never asked in a specific way — certainly not during my testimony at the Watergate trials. To the best of my recollection, I wasn’t asked that either at the Senate Watergate hearing, but I really need to go back and look at that testimony. I didn’t have it at home. So I wasn’t really able to review that. But it was a question of loyalty; it was a question of survival. I was hoping, as we all were, to get either executive clemency or a pardon.

And it took about a year and a half, two years later for all of us to find out that that was not going to happen. By that time I had gone through Princeton Seminary and became a minister, and I really made a decision to separate the past as much as I could. That would not have been my parishioners certainly didn’t want to spend time just dealing with Watergate.

GWEN IFILL: There’s been so much discussion about what President Nixon really knew, how directly he was involved in the event surrounding Watergate and the break in particular. Do you think that what you now know what you’re sharing with us, solves a puzzle?

JEB STUART MAGRUDER: Well, I think it does. In the sense that, and I’ve talked to john dean as an example, and both of us agree that there were other cases. There was the Ellsburg break in, there was President Nixon on the tapes talking about potential break ins at the Brookings Institutes. So this was a pattern of behavior that followed us, followed me certainly from the White House over to the committee to reelect the president.

GWEN IFILL: And why do you think anybody would believe you now? Why is it that after all this time the prosecutors who put together this case in the Senate and the House, they say they had briefed you extensively, why would they believe you now?

JEB STUART MAGRUDER: Well, it really doesn’t matter to me whether they believe me or whatever else is true. I know what the truth is, and I’m telling the truth. That’s all.

GWEN IFILL: Sam Dash, you were obviously there, this is information which may have been useful to the work you were doing at the time. What is your reaction to this?

SAM DASH: Well, I’m not surprised with what Mr. Magruder is saying now. For the past 30 years, I have been telling the public that I’ve always believed that Richard Nixon was on top of everything and ordered it. As a matter of fact, the evidence was very clear. The meeting that really set out the Watergate break-in was a meeting in Attorney General Mitchell’s office in which John Dean attended, Jeb Magruder attended, and Liddy had a show and tell with an easel and cardboards and was explaining everything.

That meeting could never have been held without Richard Nixon’s approval. His counsel would never have been there. And John Dean testified at our hearings that he told Haldeman about the meeting that they were planning to do this. And Haldeman, as chief of staff, always reported to the president. So I’m not surprised, it really isn’t new information.

GWEN IFILL: So it doesn’t change what this revelation –

SAM DASH: No.

GWEN IFILL: Someone having directly heard the president’s voice.

SAM DASH: Well, I would liked to have Magruder to have told me that when we were questioning him, and our questioning was thorough. It’s a long time ago, it’s hard to recall specifically everything that happened. But I don’t believe it’s really very significant. I think too much time is being spent on that, because we’ve always known that there isn’t anybody who was involved with the investigation, whether it was the special prosecutor’s office, Mr. Coster’s office or my office as chief counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee, who ever doubted that Richard Nixon was a hands on criminal in this case.

GWEN IFILL: Are there other unclosed loops having to do with Watergate that are still –

SAM DASH: Not really. Not really. People ask questions about what was on the 17 and a half minute gap. I have known no doubt all along it was Haldeman telling the president, what John Dean just told him, that Liddy had come to him and told him that they had, excuse me, screwed up.

GWEN IFILL: You presume that’s what was?

SAM DASH: No, I have the whole evidence, we were using the computer and all do I is ask the computer to put in logical sequence, all of these things and it comes out. That Haldeman at exactly that time, when he went in to see the president, when the 17 and a half minute gap took place, and it was clear that that is exactly what he was telling the president, because it would take about that time to give that information, and why it had to be erased is that the president was lying to the American people by saying he didn’t know it until about a year later.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Magruder when we look back at this again every anniversary we look at it and once again are struck by how remarkable the event of that time, can you take yourself back to what the mind set was of people like yourself and John Dean and John Mitchell and Haldeman and Ehrlichman, and all the names now of scandal lore and why were people so loyal, what was it that propelled this into such a big deal?

JEB STUART MAGRUDER: Well, it was a sense in the White House, when I worked in the White House, that loyalty was the single most important factor. And as John Dean said a couple weeks ago at a press conference, he said, you know, when Nixon put on his hat, everybody put on his hat. So there was this ingrained sense of loyalty, plus the factors surrounding power, the fact that we were in the White House, we had access to the limousines and Air Force One and things of that kind. It’s a very heady time.

And for anyone, I was a heady time for me. And we liked working in the White House. The shadow side of the president started to emerge, and one of the reasons I took the offer to go over and run the campaign was I thought maybe I could sort of avoid the problems that I saw on the horizon. Well, of course it turned out that Gordon Liddy just followed me over to the campaign.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Dash, Mr. Magruder tells a story of a time in which people were so loyal, so kind of caught up in the idea of being in the White House and being loyal to this flawed man in the person of Richard Nixon that they would do anything, including condoning criminal activity. Have we learned any lessons from that time?

SAM DASH: I think we’ve learned some very serious lessons and it was much more grave than Mr. Magruder is even indicating. When you say they would have done anything, we asked Mitchell, the attorney general, who said I would have done anything to get Nixon reelected and when asked does that include murder and he puffed his pipe and said that’s a tough question. You know, this was a very serious tragic time in America, we almost lost a democracy and our constitutional government.

And the good time was that our government worked as the Constitution wanted it to work. It was a strong Senate, a strong Congress that was carrying out its constitutional oversight function, that exposed the criminal activities of the president, but not only exposed them but informed the public who were the ultimate sovereigns. So here a president resigned on the exposure of this based on the separation of powers, without bloodshed, it wasn’t a revolution, and a new president comes in without bloodshed. The government worked at this time.

GWEN IFILL: Because it worked does that mean that that would not, the lessons we learned from Watergate, does that mean those same mistakes would not be repeated again?

SAM DASH: No, no. It’s very important that this documentary be shown to the American people to remind them how close we came because although it worked then it doesn’t mean it would work now. And presidential abuse, even during this period when we so fear a terrorist attack that our present administration is seeking power that the constitution doesn’t really allow them to have, and an alert Congress, if they were alert and they’re not, would be holding this president accountable.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Magruder, same question to you. Do you think the lessons learned from water gate will prevent the same sorts of things from happening again?

JEB STUART MAGRUDER: Well, I would hope so. But if you look around history, you’ll see mistakes made in many administrations not just in our country but in other countries, history is rife with activities that are unethical, immoral, in high places — not just in the government, in corporations, Enron and WorldCom, and the church, the church has its problems as well. So I’m optimistic somewhat.

GWEN IFILL: All right. Jeb Magruder, Sam Dash, thank you both for joining us.

GWEN IFILL: “Watergate plus 30: Shadow of history” airs on most PBS stations Wednesday night.