Nixon didn’t order all the Watergate break-ins, but he was OK with them

David M. Shribman.
David M. Shribman.

There is a crackle in the recording. And it’s easy to be distracted by the sound of the scratching of a pencil, a noise made by an obsequious aide furiously taking notes when he is not making self-serving interjections.

But the man at the center of this conversations is unmistakable, for there is only one person in the history of humankind who might have said this:

“I had no knowledge of the goddamned break-in, that’s for sure, no knowledge of the goddamned cover-up. Oh no. No participation and no authorization or knowledge of the goddamn cover-up.”

That is the 37th president of the United States shortly after 8 in the morning on May 8, 1973.

The other day, the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum released the final batch of secretly recorded White House tapes. They are a treasure.

We know the Watergate story, how it began (a third-rate burglary) and how it ended (the only presidential resignation in history). In these times, it is important to remember that none of it could have happened without a newspaper (the Washington Post).

So the value in these tapes isn’t in the broad but in the specific, not in the breathtaking size of this historical trove but in the tiny details in small bites of conversation.

It was less than two weeks after Mr. Nixon asked for the resignations of his top aides, John Ehrlichman and H.R. Haldeman, and fired his White House counsel, John Dean, hoping to create a firewall between him and those in legal jeopardy. He was without his closest confidantes and increasingly preoccupied with Watergate as his administration was collapsing around him.

But Mr. Nixon was determined that no White House slip-up suggest he might be implicated in a cover-up — or in the “dirty tricks” undertaken by Donald Segretti, a Nixon political operative.

“What’s astounding about Nixon is the extent to which he refused to acknowledge his role — his leading role — in the cover-up,” Timothy Naftali, former director of the Nixon library, said in an interview.

“He admitted making mistakes,” Mr. Naftali said. “He never presented himself as one of the architects of the cover-up. But the cover-up was brought to him every step of the way, and in some cases he offered ideas about how to strengthen it.”

Except for one. Repeatedly that morning Mr. Nixon and his press secretary, Ronald Ziegler, fussed over language that would keep the president far from accusations that he ordered, knew about, or covered up evidence of the break-in at the office of the psychiatrist of Daniel Ellsberg, reviled by the Nixon White House for releasing the Pentagon Papers in 1971.

Instead, Mr. Nixon and Mr. Ziegler reassured each other that the operation had been directed by Egil “Bud” Krogh, chief of the White House “Plumbers” operation. The president said: “I had no knowledge whatsoever of going out to Los Angeles” to break into the office of Dr. Lewis Fielding.

That’s true. The president approved of that undertaking but didn’t approve it, which is more than a nuance. Years later, only two weeks after his resignation, Mr. Nixon asked Mr. Krogh to refresh his memory about whether he had signed off on the Fielding operation.

Mr. Krogh told him he hadn’t. Mr. Nixon said he would have if he had been asked.

“There was a certain consistency there,” Mr. Krogh, the architect of the plan, told me last week. “But he didn’t happen to approve that one. He couldn’t keep his break-ins straight.”

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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