JUNE 19, 1997
Former Nixon White House counsel Leonard Garment discusses his book "Crazy Rythm: My Journey from Brooklyn, Jazz, and Wall Street to Nixon's White House, Watergate, and Beyond."
JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, a Gergen dialogue. David Gergen, editor at large of U.S. News & World Report, engages Leonard Garment, former Nixon White House counsel, author of "Crazy Rhythm: My Journey from Brooklyn, Jazz, and Wall Street to Nixon’s White House, Watergate, and Beyond."
DAVID GERGEN: In preparing this book of memoirs, Len, you went back and took a hard look at events 25 years ago, and the great mysteries of the Nixon presidency, and found a direct connection between decisions he made early on about Vietnam and Watergate. Tell us about all of that.
LEONARD GARMENT, Author, "Crazy Rhythm": Well, the first decision that President Nixon and Henry Kissinger had to make when Nixon became President, the first major decision, was what to do about Vietnam. Nixon and Kissinger decided--felt that they had no alternative but to withdraw slowly from Vietnam.
DAVID GERGEN: As opposed to a quick withdrawal.
LEONARD GARMENT: They couldn’t just pull out--that was their view--because it would have pulled the cork out of a bottle--that was one of Nixon’s favorite statements--evocative of the situation; that our allies in Asia, that the Chinese with whom secret negotiations were planned--the Russians with whom detente was being formulated--would all say this--this is a paper country run by a paper president. Nixon and Kissinger really had to bite their lips and do it gradually. The strategic withdrawal was bombarded domestically, was bombarded by people who thought the war was wrong; that we should end our engagement. It was bombarded by very anxious students who were afraid that they’d be drafted and be sent to Vietnam. It was bombarded by the press, many who had been in Vietnam and hated what they saw there.
Nixon and Kissinger had to hold on through Kent State, through Jackson State, through the mobilization against the war. And by 1970, they pretty much had that under control. The summer of 1970, after the invasion of Cambodia, miraculously the country suddenly turned quiet. It had vented the spleen against Nixon. I think they were convinced that we were getting out. The draft was ended or was in the process of being ended. Student troops that were sniping at this great withdrawal were no longer anxious about their being involved, and then Elsberg came along in 1971, spring of 1971. DAVID GERGEN: I should say parenthetically, by the way, for the interest of full disclosure, that I also joined the Nixon administration and was working with you during this time, so I--
LEONARD GARMENT: And you look familiar. (laughing)
DAVID GERGEN: So tell us about Daniel Elsberg then.
LEONARD GARMENT: David, one of my favorites. So you’ll go easy on me for the balance of this interview. Elsberg--huge dump of papers in the spring of 1971.
DAVID GERGEN: The Pentagon Papers.
LEONARD GARMENT: Pentagon Papers. Secret, top secret, classified, super eyes only, what have you--and it involved the revelations with respect to Kennedy and Johnson administrations, not Nixon. But Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon felt--and with--with pretty good reason--that this would have a very negative effect; that they couldn’t keep secrets; and I think while Nixon wanted to protect the withdrawal from Vietnam, he was in a real rage at Elsberg and at the New York Times and at the Washington Post for disclosing the secret material--went to court, lost in the Supreme Court--then, as a result of that, he asked that the White House staff create a unit that would--that would plug leaks of this sort, and that was the birth of the plumbers.
And the plumbers included Gordon Liddy, the genius of bravery we saw later on, if not discretion, and Howard Hunt, whose whole life was in a sense fictional in that he wrote forty or fifty spy novels and he lived that kind of life, and they with the Cubans went off on various missions to carry out the President’s will under the general direction of Field Marshal Colson. That included political intelligence activities and then of course it led straight to the break-in at Watergate.
DAVID GERGEN: So you have a plumbers unit that was set up essentially for national security purposes, originally, which took on--took on political coloration--
LEONARD GARMENT: Because it--the timing merged with the--with the 1972 election planning. And in ‘71, the fall of ‘71, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, who were working out their--their vast triple play involving the Soviet Union and China and North Vietnam, one played against the other--were not paying that much attention to politics and suddenly the polls showed that Richard Nixon was in a dead heat with Muskie, so that led to the instructions to get out every piece of political intelligence, to find out what they could about the Democrats, to find out what they could, and do things to Muskie and then Nixon went off to carry out his foreign policy activities, certainly with at least the constructive if not the actual knowledge in general terms of what Colson and his plumbers were doing.
DAVID GERGEN: And that’s what got him into Watergate.
LEONARD GARMENT: And that’s what got him into Watergate.
DAVID GERGEN: They went in--
LEONARD GARMENT: And they never got out of Watergate.
DAVID GERGEN: But they went in in Watergate what, in May?
LEONARD GARMENT: They went in three times in May--on one weekend--finally we’re distant enough from the events that we can--there are a few things about it that are--that are fairly humorous. The plumbers or the burglars went into Watergate--they went in--they actually went in, they came out, they went in. There were three entries, I believe, on this--during this weekend, where they planted the bug in Democratic headquarters. And why did they go that many times? Well, when they first went in, one of the--one of the plumbers--I think it was Bernard Baker--had forgotten a crucial tool that was needed to open the door. So they said, Bernie, where’s that tool, and he said, well, I left it home, and they said, where is home, and he said, it’s in Miami. They said get on the airplane and go back. So he flew down and he picked up the tool and came back, they did it again; they had some other problems; and finally they planted the bug and, as we know, in the next two weeks they had a problem with its--its operational capacity, and that led to the June 17th adventure which I think the Democrats were fully primed for by then.
DAVID GERGEN: Your general view then is a decision early on about Vietnam, instead of getting out quickly, which they didn’t want to do for foreign policy reasons, to get out slowly, may have worked on the foreign policy terms but it invited this domestic uproar.
LEONARD GARMENT: Right. Nixon--
DAVID GERGEN: And then led to Watergate.
LEONARD GARMENT: In the mixture of intellectual anxiety about his whole withdrawal plan and personal emotional rage that the fellow, Daniel Elsberg, would invoke his power as an individual to just--to break the law--in Nixon’s view--and that led to the plumbers--that led straight line--so this is the spine that really connects the presidency from beginning to end, another casualty of Vietnam that has bee said, and the spine was broken in the end by Nixon’s impeachment and resignation.
DAVID GERGEN: Well, Leonard Garment, thank you very much.
LEONARD GARMENT: Thank you.
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