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Watergate: The Corruption of American Politics and the Fall of Richard Nixon.

"There was a whiff of the Gestapo in the chill October air," Fred Emery, then the Washington bureau chief of the Times of London, wired his newspaper after Richard Nixon accepted the resignations of his attorney general and deputy attorney general, dismissed the Watergate special prosecutor, and sent a squad of FBI men in to seal off the prosecutor's office, preventing its stunned staff from taking materials home.

Some in London thought his comparison of the 1973 Saturday Night Massacre to the activities of Adolf Hitler's secret police a bit "excessive," Emery recalls now. Since the skeptics, he suggests, included the paper's editor, William Rees-Mogg, one can imagine with some relish the cables on that subject flashing back and forth across the Atlantic. But Emery thought his arresting comparison perfectly apt, and was pleased to find some time later that Leon Jaworski, who replaced Archibald Cox as special prosecutor, had the same reaction that eventful Saturday evening.

Now, two decades after Watergate and its cover-up compelled Nixon's resignation, the indignant Mr. Emery has written a devastating indictment of the 37th president and his inner circle that goes a long way toward supporting that disputed Gestapo metaphor. Indeed, perhaps more than any book that has yet appeared on this much-chronicled subject, Watergate presents a bleak portrait of the chief executive who--in Jaworski's words--violated his presidential oath "by transforming the Oval Office into a mean den where perjury and low scheming became a way of life."

After the warm bath of forgiveness that attended Nixon's funeral this spring, Emery's book and the recently published Haldeman Diaries are icy plunges into reality, stern correctives in our assessment of a president who betrayed the trust of the American people.

The project grew out of Emery's work on a BBC-TV program about the fall of another leader, Margaret Thatcher. A young associate, after listening to Emery's Watergate stories, said: "We have to tell it again." Four years later, this bears fruit in a television series to air this summer on the Disney Channel and in Emery's simultaneously released book.

Series and book are nourished by fresh interviews with such Watergate principals as G. Gordon Liddy, John Dean, Charles Colson, Alfred C. Baldwin, Eugenio R. Martinez, Howard Baker, Archibald Cox, Robert Bork, Leonard Garment, Gerald Ford, Robert Reisner, and mour Glanzer. Emery also draws on some recently released White House tapes and a host of primary sources, all of which greatly enrich his narrative.

Despite his assiduous research, Emery's account does not significantly alter the broad outlines of the Watergate story as it has come down to us across these two decades (with the exception of a hitherto unreported, and ultimately fruitless, offer by John Mitchell to accept responsibility for Watergate, and to plead guilty, in exchange for the special prosecutor's pledge to eschew further pursuit of the president). Indeed, the net effect of this volume is to reassert the main themes of the Watergate story against certain revisionist efforts that have excited attention in recent years.

An article in The New York Times suggests that the BBC-TV series was inspired, in part, by a provocative theory about what was really behind the Watergate break-in, presented in 1991 by independent journalists Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin in their best-selling book, Silent Coup (and originally explored by Jim Hougan in his maverick 1984 account, Secret Agenda). The Colodny-Gettlin book suggests that one major reason for the Watergate burglaries was efforts by then-White House Counsel John Dean to uncover--and presumably exploit politically--dealings between the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate complex and a call girl operation located across the street in the Columbia Plaza apartment complex.

Silent Coup was roughly treated by some well-credentialed critics, in part because it was seen as an effort to exculpate Nixon and Mitchell and throw the blame for Watergate on the man whose testimony nearly sealed the president's doom--Dean.

But others were intrigued, among them the most tenacious of our investigative reporters, Seymour Hersh. The "revelations" of Silent Coup were among the factors that led Hersh several years ago to sign a major book contract for a fresh look at Watergate. Hersh has now abandoned that book and says today that he was unable to confirm most of the central tenets of the Colodny-Gettlin version.

Emery is even more disdainful of Secret Coup. Archly noting an "alleged connection between a ... call-girl operation and its links to White House and congressional personalities," he concludes that "hard evidence of the link to Watergate is lacking."

That two reporters as able as Hersh and Emery should find the "hooker theory" wanting does not--in and of itself--destroy the notion's credibility. Those of us who helped tell the Watergate story 20 years ago should, of course, beware any tendency to defend the received version against challenge by latecomers. I, for one, remain intrigued by the sleazy world of prostitutes and private eyes--the underside of the underside--which Colodny and Gettlin explore in their book. Where it all leads I'm still not sure. I am still inclined to believe that the principal motive of the Watergate break-ins was to find out what DNC Chairman Larry O'Brien knew about Nixon's surreptitious dealings with Howard Hughes. But even at this relatively late date, we ought not close the door on fresh avenues of research that may help us better understand the full dimensions of the Watergate story.

I wish Emery had been less loftily dismissive and more eager to grapple with some of the Hougan-Colodny-Gettlin material: for example, the key to a DNC secretary's desk that was found on burglar Eugenio Martinez the night of the second Watergate break-in. Martinez said he had gotten the key from Howard Hunt, and presumably it would have provided access to a principal target of the burglary. But by the time police got around to opening the secretary's desk some days later, whatever the burglars wanted was apparently gone. Hougan stumbled across the key in the FBI archives and soon proclaimed it "quite literally, the key to the breakin." But, strangely enough, it never surfaced during the Ervin Committee hearings in the Senate or in the House Judiciary Committee deliberations; indeed, nobody I know had ever heard of it before Hougan's book.

Cover stories

Emery's focus, to be sure, is less on the arcana of the Watergate break-ins and other "White House horrors" (Mitchell's phrase) than on the cover-up. And here he is splendid. For what he brings to this intricate story is not just a high tolerance for, but a positive welcoming of, complexity and ambiguity--an object lesson to many American narrators, myself included.

True, Emery has at his disposal a far wider range of sources than did those of us who were writing more or less contemporaneously. Many participants in the story--notably Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Liddy, Cox, Alexander Haig, Robert Hartman, Richard Kleindienst, John Sirica, and Tony Ulasewicz--have published memoirs in the past few years. Newly released tapes have further complicated the story.

Emery displays an admirable ability to resist premature closure, to hold several versions of an event in his mind at once, and to divine--and explicate--the motives for each version.

Consider his multi-layered account of "the first top White House Watergate meeting," held in Ehrlichman's office at 9 a.m. on June 20, 1972--three days after the second Watergate break-in. The participants were Ehrlichman, Haldeman, Mitchell, Dean, and Deputy Attorney General Kleindienst (who fares particularly badly in this book), later joined by Assistant Attorney General Henry Petersen.

"All accounts make it seem to have been a falsely cheerful session," Emery begins.

Dean's account was most sardonic. He wrote in Blind Ambition that the White House faction did not trust the Justice Department faction, and no one wanted to acknowledge how serious the problem might be...Kleindienst's version of this meeting is totally self-exculpatory. He later testified before the Senate Watergate committee that he and Petersen wanted Dean to know of their 'apprehension and the grave seriousness with which we received the news.'

When Kleindienst left the two alone, Dean's version is that he told Petersen, 'I don't think the White House can stand a wide open investigation...there are all kinds of things that could blow up in our face.' Dean feared it could lead directly to the president.

When Petersen later testified, he said he could not recall Dean saying anything about 'leading to the president' ... Petersen's willingness to limit the prosecutor's authority to the break-in itself was just what they wanted. It was the key to containing the scandal.

Had this scene been written in the conventional style of American popular non-fiction, it would have been a seamless narrative, with the omniscient narrator utterly sure of where each participant stood and exactly what he said. Such scenes are cinematic, vibrant with dialogue, bursting with vivid characters, reeking of conflict. They are the building blocks of best-sellerdom.

But Emery's penchant for intricacy does not allow him to build this kind of scene. One wonders whether Watergate--even with the TV series to publicize it--will capture the public imagination, much less "hit the list," as they say in New York publishing. Occasionally, Emery's reveling in complexity produces a sentence so clotted that the mind reels. But if this approach does not earn Emery a lot of money, it is brave and honest.

Above all, this is a reporter's book. As a reporter, I mean that as high praise. Not only has Emery done his legwork, talked to many of the participants, ransacked the archives, and listened to every availble tape, but each page of his book gives evidence of a fresh reporter's eye and a shrewd reporter's skepticism. It is interesting to contrast this, the first reporter's book with some perspective on these events, with Stanley I. Kutler's The Wars of Watergate, the first work of a respected historian on the same events.

Kutler's book is full of praise for the men entrusted with uncovering the wrongdoing: Assistant U.S. Attorney Earl Silbert, his deputy Seymour Glanzer, and Petersen. "The U.S. Attorney's office," Kutler wrote, "had in fact discovered the cover-up conspiracy and had broken the case by the time Cox took control." Silbert's statement in autumn 1972 that "There is no evidence of a wider conspiracy" had "unfairly" subjected him to criticism. In effect, Kutler argues, the system worked.


Emery comes to a very different conclusion. Watergate is peppered with sardonic references to the failure of the prosecutors--indeed of the criminal justice system--until the press and Congress got into the act.

As early as June 1972, the FBI and the prosecutors were making "the first of their huge gaffes." That fall, the prosecutors "swallowed the cover story of Liddy's running Watergate on his own." They were "badly embarrassed" by James W. McCord's letter to the Judge Sirica which broke open the cover-up. Their failure to question Robert Reisner, Jeb Magruder's administrative assistant, was a "blunder." As late as April 1973--10 months after the break-in, a month after McCord's letter to Sirica--the prosecutors "still did not understand the immensity of the cover-up and the obstruction of justice that had been perpetuated," Emery writes.

But Emery is too committed to complexity to let blame rest there. That the White House almost got away with its plan to contain Watergate by loading all the blame on Gordon Liddy, argues Emery, "says little about their skill as liars and not much more about the gullibility of the FBI and the prosecutors.... The Nixon administration from the president down skillfully used and abused not only the powers but also the continuing presumption of office."

Finally, Watergate is the story of the reckless abuse of presidential power. At least twice in his concluding pages, Emery uses the term "breathtaking" to describe the atmosphere of an "underworld cabal" that had penetrated the Oval Office. Clearly, the gentleman from the Times was rendered breathless by the events of 1972-74. To his credit, he stayed with the story, sounded its true depth, and now has told it in a relentlessly discerning book that should make all Americans catch their breaths as well.
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Author:Lukas, J. Anthony
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1994
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