Nixon Campaign Staff member John Ehrlichman comments on key aspects of Richard Nixon's Career.
You have to bear in mind that the Watergate break-in took place just before the '72 election. It took place in June and the election was going to be in early November. So there were not very many days in there. And I think everybody in the White House and probably the committee to re-elect felt that this break-in was potentially embarrassing regardless of how it happened and nobody really knew how it happened. But the feeling was that whatever was going to happen about that break-in had to happen after the election so that it didn't impair the President's re-election. Moreover, Richard Nixon was passionately desirous of having the largest plurality in the history of the presidency. So he didn't want anything to get in the way. So the cover-up really was not a cover-up, it was a question of timing and the desire that this potentially embarrassing trial, if there was going to be a trial of these burglars, take place after the election. At the same time, we had a lot of discussion with the President about the fact that this was an episode that occurred because of something that happened over at the Committee to Re-elect the President. It didn't happen because of anything in the White House. So if we could be successful in keeping it out of the White House and away from the President, it ought not to be a political embarrassment for him. So those were really the two legs of the effort to control the Watergate problem right after the break-in.
I suppose the break-in affected the election results marginally. McGovern kept pounding away on it especially in the last couple weeks in the campaign. But those two efforts to postpone the trial and to keep it out of the White House failed. The trial was postponed, but Richard Nixon pulled it into the White House. He couldn't leave it alone. And so within a week after the break-in, or maybe two weeks, he had personally involved himself in the intrigue of the whole thing. And the famous smoking gun tape, which was what six days after the break-in, was Richard Nixon involved in this plot to get the CIA to forestall the FBI investigation on the theory that CIA assets were involved and all that kind of thing. So Nixon sealed his fate, as in terms of keeping away from the tar baby, on the 23rd of June.
Budd Krogh was chosen by the President to try and stanch leaks in the government. And we had Krogh come out to San Clemente and the President sat down with him and talked to him face to face and told him what he had in mind. That there were serious leaks, that the departments were not doing their job in watching their people to make sure they weren't leaking to the press. And that he wanted Krogh to assemble a group of people in the White House to energize the various departments to do a better job at plugging leaks. And that was basically his franchise. It evolved into something very different. That was the so called plumbers who were in the business of stopping leaks. It evolved into a kind of operational unit when Howard Hunt and Gordon Liddy and some other people were recruited. And eventually were sent off to California to investigate Daniel Ellsberg because the FBI was not doing so. The FBI was not doing so because J. Edgar Hoover was a very close friend of Daniel Ellsberg's father, Ellsberg's father-in-law, who was a man named Marx. And every time the middle level people in the FBI started to focus on Marx, Hoover prevented it. In fact, [he] disciplined one of the fairly high ranking guys who insisted on going after Marx and sent him off to Missoula, Montana or some place. So the attorney general was very frustrated. The assistant attorney general in charge of this investigation came to the White House and said I can't get the FBI to do anything. So that was the origin of the plumbers going off to California to break into Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office.
For Richard Nixon, the big play was almost always in the foreign policy area. And it was almost always something that was going to change the face of the world. And he saw himself as being ready. As constantly having the little things, the minutiae pushed away so that he could handle, he could focus, on the big decision that had to be made. And there were some big decisions, like the incursion into Cambodia turned out to be a big decision. He knew that was a big decision before it happened. He took me aside and he said, I'm going to be out of the play for ten days here. I won't be able to handle any domestic decisions for ten days. So come back this afternoon and tell me all the things that need to be decided for the next ten days and then I won't be able to see you because I'm going to be focusing on this business in Vietnam. We're going to try and bring it to a head.
Well there was an ex-cop named John Caulfield who had been one of Richard Nixon's bodyguards when he lived in New York and came to Washington, worked at the Treasury Department after Nixon became President. Caulfield very much wanted to get into the private detective business, the security business. And so at some point, as we were approaching the '72 election, he came to me with a plan for the development of an intelligence operation. And I looked at it. It was done up in a little folder and so on. And did nothing with it. I didn't see that it was germane to anything that I knew anything about that was going to happen in connection with the '72 election, so I just tossed it into the to-be-filed basket. It developed later that Caulfield took this to Gordon Liddy and other people at the Committee to Re-elect The President. And it probably was the seminal origin of all that business of Gordon Liddy and Operation Gemstone and eventually the break-in at the Democratic headquarters. But it sort of bears the same relationship to the Mississippi River that, I mean that Watergate, that one of those little lakes in Minnesota has to the Mississippi River. It's kind of up there at the headwater someplace.
I'm not sure what took place between, let's say the 6th of July, my last conversation with the President on this subject. And a day in mid February of 1972, which was the next time that I really talked to him about it. But my understanding is that during that period of time, John Dean kind of ran this whole problem single-handedly. He was the fellow in the White House who was picked out to monitor and presumably did so. Long about the middle of February, after the '72 election, the middle of February of '73, Richard Nixon and the rest of us came down from Camp David. We all went to San Clemente for a week or so. And Nixon said," What are these fellows in the Senate doing? What's this hearing they're talking about on Watergate? What's going on?" And those of us who were with him said, well we really don't know. This fellow Dean has been looking after all this. And Nixon said, "Get him out here, let's find out what's going on ." So we had a meeting in San Clemente, with John Dean and a fellow named Richard Moore to find out what had been going on during these ensuing months. And the story he told us was a bad story. There had been money passed to the burglars to keep them under control. There had been a certain amount of pressure brought on them and their lawyers to testify certain ways. There were grand jury proceedings. The Democrats in the Senate were running away with this thing and about to have a big public hearing. And we were very, very much behind the power curve at that point, had badly underestimated the implications of this thing.
At that point the President's options were pretty narrow. And I felt strongly, one of his options was to step out as the hugely re-elected President for this country and say, I've got the back end of this ballgame now and I've checked around and some really bad stuff has happened, and I'm sorry. But I'm going to correct it right now. Bingo. His response to that was, I think Bob Haldeman ought to do that. And Haldeman sat down and wrote out a long statement in which he tried to act out that role. And it didn't wash. He didn't have enough personal knowledge for one thing. And it didn't sit well having him do this and we talked about it. And said no. And I came back to it, I said, Mr. President, I think this is something you've got to do. He was really turned off by that. I didn't know that he had been involved in this June 23rd meeting. I thought he was clean as a hound's tooth at that point and that it was possible for him to separate himself from what other people had done. He knew in his heart of hearts that he couldn't do that I guess. And he was reticent to do it. More than reticent, he just wouldn't do it. So then the options get even narrower. And he sent me to negotiate with Sam Ervin and Howard Baker, the senators who are going to run this senatorial committee. And the first thing that he wanted proposed was it not be televised. The second thing he wanted proposed was that no members of the White House staff would be witnesses. And the senators obviously were encouraged by what they knew up to that point and they were adamant. They wouldn't give them those things.
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