How Neo-Conservatives Helped Bring Down Richard Nixon





Ms. Hoff, Research Professor of History, Montana State University, Bozeman, is the author of: Nixon Reconsidered (Basic Books). This article was deivered as a paper at the recent Watergate seminar held at the opening of the papers of Woodward and Bernstein at the University of Texas.

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To talk about Watergate and the Nixon presidency over 30 years after the break-ins, cover-up, resignation, and pardon, one has to ask a completely different set of questions than was asked in the last half of the 1970s because there is so much more information available about those events. Because we know more, we must question the mainstream interpretation about the importance of Watergate in relation to the overall significance of the foreign and domestic policies of Richard Nixon.

I initiated this reinterpretation a decade ago with my book, Nixon Reconsidered, which was not well received by reviewers because it praised Nixon’s liberal domestic policies (which I had been surprised to find out about) and his innovative attempt to diplomatically engage both the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. At same time, I criticized other aspects of his foreign and domestic policy, but concluded that Nixon’s administration was about much more than Watergate. As a result, both liberals and conservatives criticized the book for quite different reasons.

More recently Iwan Morgan and David Greenberg have made a similar case, that Nixon achieved more than he is usually given credit for, but they both conclude that Watergate will remain the negative scrim through which those achievements must be viewed because it so tarnished his image and reputation. As long as Watergate continues to be considered a greater constitutional transgression and abuse of power than Iran/Contra, then the standard version among scholars and journalists that Watergate is the single worst violation of executive power in American history and, thus, the only way to view the Nixon presidency will continue to prevail. I find this somewhat perplexing since there is a now a large body of information from tapes and memoirs and documents declassified under the FOIA that casts serious doubt on this interpretation. Some of it makes Nixon look worse; some of it makes him look better. Let me start with an example of the bad news about Nixon and Watergate.

I call it the “Nixon/Dean Conspiracy Nobody Knows About.” It is based on previously ignored tapes showing that both John Dean and Richard Nixon were intensely involved in a cover-up earlier than the initial congressional hearings or Watergate Special Prosecution Force (WSPF) revealed. In particular, tapes for March 13, 14, 16, 17, and 20, 1973, show Dean and Nixon working together preparing a general version of Watergate to cover-up the involvement of top White House personnel. It was on March 13 that Nixon found out from Dean that Haldeman might be involved in Watergate because Haldeman’s assistant Gordon Strachan was. We hear the president saying: “Well then he probably told Bob [Haldeman].” Then several sentences later Nixon exclaims: “I will be damned! Well that is the problem in Bob’s case.” At this point, to avoid obstructing justice, the president had a couple of choices. He could have said, Well I am going to ask Haldeman about this to find out the truth or he might have assumed the worst and said: OK, that’s it. Heads are going to roll beginning with Haldeman. But he did neither. Instead, he made a conscious decision to commit the crime of obstruction of justice by beginning to lead this stage of the Watergate cover-up–a full week before Leon Jaworski, head of the WSPF, thought he did–all because of Dean’s famous March 21 conversation with the president in which he said: “We have a cancer–within–close to the presidency, that’s growing.”

Dean simply mislead Congress by testifying that Nixon knew of the cover-up as early as September 1972. Subsequently, no evidence was found on the tapes by the WSPF or on later tape releases to prove this. In truth, we now know that for seven days after March 13 Dean and Nixon were co-conspirators in devising a cover-up story with the president initiating this action and Dean following along contributing ideas of his own. Dean, of course, who prepared the original bare-bones list of 49 tapes subpoenaed by the Ervin committee did not include the March 14, 16, 17, 20 tapes which incriminated him along with the president. He only chose those tapes, like the March 13 and March 21 ones, which showed him in the most favorable light.

Remember, Dean had been working on a cover-up story for seven days with the president, assuring him at one point that “we will win.” Then suddenly on March 21 there is a “cancer on the presidency.” Among other things Dean had never spoken in such colorful metaphors before so to open his conversation about Watergate this way on that day sounds, in retrospect, rehearsed and self-serving. Indeed, we now know that the “cancer” Dean was referring was to the cover-up that had been going since June 17, 1972–the cover-up that he had mislead the president about for nine months. Remember also that he was asking Nixon for a million dollars to take care of this “cancer,” and certainly this was one way to get the president’s attention. Finally, Dean may have suspected by this time that Nixon was taping conversations and he was creating his own best legal defense on March 21.

In fact, the March 21 tape actually shows an almost passive Nixon listening to Dean divulging details in almost stream of conscious fashion about the Watergate break-in and cover-up that began back in June 1972. In this sense the tapes of the week before contradict the position Dean took with the president on March 21, 1973. When testifying before the Ervin committee, Dean conveniently forgot to mention these earlier March conversations and he played down the importance of the news about Strachan’s involvement and whether he might have informed Haldeman. To reveal what they had been doing for the seven previous days would have incriminated Dean as well.

Perhaps the best indication that Nixon feared the criminal implications of these March tapes can be found in his own memoir where he says he reviewed his conversations with Dean for February and March and reached the same conclusion as the WSPF; namely, that Dean did not tell him about his own role or that of others in the cover-up until March 21, 1973. He concluded all he and Dean had talked about was “Watergate, the Ervin Committee, executive privilege, and political retaliation against the Democrats as political problems,” and that Dean had assured him “that he himself had had nothing to do with campaign activities.” He called Haig and Ziegler in to tell them he “felt enormously relieved” because “tapes proved Dean was lying [about what the president knew and when],” and so he told them: “Really, the goddamn record is not bad, is it?”

Nixon was right, except he also chose to ignore his own role in the five incriminating conversations from March 13th to the 20th. As a lawyer, Nixon recognized that he could be indicted for them. This explains why he was insistent upon obtaining a “full, free, and absolute pardon” from Ford on September 8, 1974, and was even willing to trade his tapes and papers in order not to be subject to prosecution for obstructing justice once this information came out.

What mainstream historians and journalists have assiduously ignored, however, is that Nixon discerned the incriminating evidence on these four March tapes. Unlike the “smoking gun” tape of June 23, 1972, which a number of historians, including Stephen Ambrose, have argued he could have avoided indictment over, these he could not. The question that cries out to be answered is why scholars and journalists, especially those who have long disliked Nixon, have ignored these damning tapes and clung to the pro-Dean March 21 tape and why they have not systematically pointed out the other contradictions (and actual lies) that exist in his testimony to Congress, in his many self-vindicating books, and the new tape releases. Because this has not happened Dean has been able to pollute history as a consultant on all media productions about Watergate and to capitalize on perpetuating his reputation as the hero of the Ervin committee.

Another and more positive view of Nixon coming out of asking new questions based on new information is this: the search for the identity of Deep Throat has for too long proved a diversion from rethinking the meaning of Watergate and the Nixon presidency. Here again, Dean has greatly helped in the perpetuation of that search with several books and online postings naming different individuals as possible candidates for the honor of being Deep Throat. One way to ease people’s minds about whether Deep Throat was one source or a composite and why he knew what he did, I would like to ask Bob Woodward today to agree to video or audio tape Deep Throat or Deep Throats confirming his or their role so that when he or they die we will have more than a Washington Post obit to authenticate his or their identity.

More important, however, instead of continuing to ask WHO leaked the information, we should ask WHY one or more individuals within the executive branch would leak such information. The answer lies with those who strongly disagreed with Nixon’s major diplomatic initiatives involving Russia and China, and his failed pursuit of victory in Vietnam. A group of both civilian and military anti-Communist extremists (those Norman Podhoretz referred to as subscribing to “hard anti-Communism") could not tolerate Nixon’s attempt to go beyond containment and try to bring both nations into the international community. Nor could these Cold War hawks support his policy of Vietnamization designed to turn the war over the South Vietnamese.

New research has shown that their dissatisfaction set in motion the formation or birth of a radical conservatism inside and outside the Nixon administration. Détente and rapprochement (and ultimately defeat in Vietnam) prompted these early neo-conservative Republicans to organize against Nixon’s foreign policy (and to a lesser degree his liberal domestic reforms). These were the men (initially Richard Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Nitze, Richard Perle, James Schlesinger, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, and Admiral Thomas Moorer) who wanted Nixon weakened and who ultimately supported his resignation. Watergate thus facilitated their opposition to the most enlightened aspects of his foreign policy. From this nucleus emerged the full-blown neo-con movement within the Republican party that dominated Reagan’s foreign policy in his first term and completely took over George W. Bush’s after September 11.

Viewed in this light, Watergate and the Nixon presidency has a contemporary importance that has been largely ignored. This new interpretation also finally confirms the obvious about Richard Nixon’s political career: he had never been an arch conservative on either domestic or foreign policy. Instead of his conservatism being the cause of his downfall, as so many have claimed, his more liberal or enlightened policies so alienated radical conservatives (many of whom urged him to resign) that they contributed to his downfall and vowed to reverse and/or discredit both his foreign and domestic policies.

In essence, Watergate killed Republican centrism and opened the door for the take-over of the Republican party by neo-conservatives. This is the most important contemporary significance of the Nixon presidency in relation to Watergate, regardless of the fact he should of been indicted and convicted for obstructing justice. His downfall represented the beginning of a conservative coup and this is much more important than concentrating on the nonproductive pursuit of the identity of Deep Throat.


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Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

There can be little doubt about the popular vote. Bottom Line for the 2004 presidential election remains the London newspaper headline of the day after: "How could 60 million Americans be so dumb ?" Not applicable to 2000. (American voters may not have been much smarter 4 years ago, but ignorance, apathy and low IQs were not the most decisive factors then.)


Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

None of us can change our genes (yet - see Bill McKibben's "Enough" for some unsettling future scenarios), but we can all do more with the brain cells we have. It is noteworthy, if not entirely unprecedented, that we now have a top executive in Washington who (a) spend much of his youth frying much of his gray matter with intoxicants, (b) is proud of his lousy scholastic record, and (c) engineered (through Karl Goebbels Rove) one of the most deliberate, hard-hitting, corrupt, blatantly hypocritical and yet precision-targeted appeals to the dumbest 51% of America's electorate ever seen.

My approach to the voting procedure mess is crude, but would be effective, I think, if massively followed: I always request an absentee ballot. They are available in most jurisdictions, to my knowledge, and the voter has complete control over what is punched, marked, or x'd on them. The idea of installing unauditable electronic voting machines into an 18th century patchwork of local balloting procedures (that would be condemned by the Carter Center if found in a third world country) makes about as much sense as replacing whole grain bakery bread with wonder bread.


Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

After stonewalling for two years, Nixon was forced to release his tapes in the summer of 1974 after special prosecutor Jaworski got a unanimous Supreme Court to reject the defense of executive privilege. When Senate Republicans found out that the tapes showed Nixon knew about Watergate all along and had been trying to cover it up from the start, they told him he would have to resign or be impeached and removed from office. Amidst a great complexity of other details, that it is the gist of how Nixon fell from power.

Like Clinton, it was less than the Nixon’s original offense than the subsequent lying that outraged the public, but the gravity of that initial crime was also decisive. Clinton covered up his adultery. Nixon covered up trying to wiretap the opposition so he could smear them in the election. Hence the Republicans ultimately turning on Nixon, while much less steadfast Democrats stood by Clinton 25 years later, who was more vain and reckless but not more adulterous than many others in Washington.

Even if Ms. Hoff's neo-con conspiracy theory holds up, therefore, it hardly seems to alter the basic dynamics of how Nixon lost the support of his party in Congress.

It is also debatable whether "Watergate killed Republican centrism and opened the door for the take-over of the Republican party by neo-conservatives". Neo-cons are a strange and hypocritical bunch, but to the extent that they have a coherent agenda at all, it is based in large measure on a post-Cold War advocacy of pro-active American power projection abroad. This mentality could not realistically be associated with politicians in the Reagan administration when the Soviet bloc was still quite alive (if not very well, especially by about 1988), and a reckless cockamamie program of unilateral regime change and foreign adventurism can hardly been considered a cornerstone of either George Bush senior's or Bob Dole's views on foreign policy. The "neo-cons", by all credible accounts, rose up through the think tanks in the 1990s, took advantage of an inexperienced president in 2000, and more especially of his willingness to exploit the 9-11-2001 attacks in order to radically reshape his weak and barely legitimate presidency. The cover-up of the neo-con's crimes after 9-11, in Guantanamo, and re Iraq, continues in full force today. It would be as though Nixon had made McCord his chief of staff, Liddy his attorney general, and Haldeman Vice President in his second term, while Sam Ervin pledged his full support of the president's "war on leaks", and anti-Vietnam War organizers imploded into a bemoaning of the loss of the solidarity exhibited during the days of the 1930s Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Gerald Ford, the immediate beneficiary of Nixon’s demise, has never been considered a neo-con in any account I’ve ever seen.


Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007


Voting for W in 2000 was unwise, given his inexperience and lack of a program (e.g. vs McCain), but it is forgivable. It was a vote that risked a potential problem later. Voting for Cheney and Bush in 2004 was something quite different. It was a reward for bad behavior. It would have been like massive landslides in November 1974 for Congressmen who refused to even discuss the possibility of impeachment.


Robert F. Koehler - 2/23/2005

Can't deny that down here in the mud my fellows of the industrial working classes have an intellectual capacity that's somewhere between a virus and a uni-cellular life form. For a lot of them there ain't too much going on upstairs. Nor am I an intellectual marvel myself, not by a long shot. From the day I realized I was a product of a dumbed down education I have tried to self correct it, but slaving for a living when a lot of good jobs have gone elsewhere leaves little time or money to attend to it as I would like.

Won't gainsay you on that one, but all the same I am watching this issue because I wouldn't put anything pass the vermin at the top. I discovered some interesting sites dealing with this issue and not from a partisan bent either, which sparks my interest and a desire to learn more. If your interested you can check them out.

http://www.verifiedvoting.org/

http://www.blackboxvoting.org/


Robert F. Koehler - 2/23/2005

Nearly 30% of voting machines used in the 2004 election were these new digital electronic recording (DRE's) machines with no voter verified paper ballots to verify the machines electronic totals. I wouldn't be a bit surprised if 2004 turned out to be Part II of 2000.


Nathaniel Brian Bates - 2/23/2005

Right. I agree. However, remember that there are serious questions as to who exactly won Ohio. We have voting machines that do not have paper trails. We have changing "Exit Poll" results, as evidenced by the middle of the night change on CNN.

Freedom is not on the move. Dictatorship is arising everywhere, including America.

National ID cards are one more step.


Robert F. Koehler - 2/22/2005

Your dead right Mr. Nagarya

When the US Supreme Court stuck its nose into the Florida fiasco overruling the Florida Supremes was my first clue that I screwed up big time voting for the bum. I was actually through with Bush after campaign finance reform because that bill was not going anywhere until he opened his mouth and said he would sign it if it got to his desk. I was already an anybody but Bush in 2004 before 11 September.


Nathaniel Brian Bates - 2/21/2005

B"H

I believe that Nixon was ultimately brought down for having sided with Israel in the '73 War. I cannot prove it. It is just one of those nuances that I get that are rarely wrong.

Bates


Nathaniel Brian Bates - 2/21/2005

B"H

12 I Adar, 5765.

Rockefeller and Kissinger were key in manipulating foreign policy, then and now. Nixon was *not* brought down for following their leads in terms of creating a "Holy Alliance" with the Soviets against the Third World. That is where he was rewarded with power. Rather, he was brought down for having sided with Israel over the years of his Presidency, culminating in his Yom Kippur 5733 decision to support Israel, a "no no" in this world system for thousands of years. If a world leaders messes up like that, he is brought down.

Watergate would not have been grounds for Impeachment without this fatal error. It would have been forgiven. I cannot prove it. However, it is the best "fit" with what I have been shown as to how the world really works.
Bates


Nathaniel Brian Bates - 2/21/2005

B"H

12 I Adar, 5765.

Rockefeller and Kissinger were key in manipulating foreign policy, then and now. Nixon was *not* brought down for following their leads in terms of creating a "Holy Alliance" with the Soviets against the Third World. That is where he was rewarded with power. Rather, he was brought down for having sided with Israel over the years of his Presidency, culminating in his Yom Kippur 5733 decision to support Israel, a "no no" in this world system for thousands of years. If a world leaders messes up like that, he is brought down.

Watergate would not have been grounds for Impeachment without this fatal error. It would have been forgiven. I cannot prove it. However, it is the best "fit" with what I have been shown as to how the world really works.
Bates


Nathaniel Brian Bates - 2/21/2005

B"H

I believe that Nixon was ultimately brought down for having sided with Israel in the '73 War. I cannot prove it. It is just one of those nuances that I get that are rarely wrong.

Bates


Joseph Nagarya - 2/21/2005

Rumsfeld was a moderate then. And you are correct that Schlesinger was also.

I think the turn for Rumsfeld came with Poppy Bush and Iran-Contra. Perhaps it was the lucrative deals with Saddam Hussein that convinced Rumsfeld that being an extreme militarist would be a brainy thing to do.


Joseph Nagarya - 2/21/2005

Interesting hypothesis. And it is interesting -- and disturbing -- to learn that Dean wasn't the "hero" he appeared to be. And it is true that the neo-con[artists] got their intitial entry into gov't with the Nixon administration. But I have yet to see any credible conspiracy "theory" which convinces that extremist right wingers brought down Nixon, rather than he bringing himself down. (Which was an up for those of us who recognized him as being a gangster when he announced his candidacy for president in 1968.)

As for Bush's presidency being "barely legitimate": for those who are hoodwinked by _Bush v. Gore_, it is arguable that his "presidency" has some degree of legitimacy. However, if one reads the Constitution itself (and has knowledge of the Framers' debates as to how a president should be selected), one knows that the SC, by intervening in the election, at first uninvited, violated separation of powers, thus undermined the Constitution, in order to unprecedentedly stop the counting of votes while Bush had his insignificant lead in order to ensure the appearance that he actually won in Florida.

Bush's "presidency" is about as legitimate as his blatant and transparent lying of the US into illegally invading and occupying Iraq, and having no problem with the anti-Constitutional -- and treasonous -- "theory" that "it is inherent in the power of the president to set aside the law". The latter is refuted by the fact that the Constitution includes provision for impeaching and removing a president who adopts exactly that position. Which Nixon also attempted.


Gregory E Brougham - 2/21/2005

I had also forgot to mention that a book written by one of Kissinger's biographers, a well-regarded writer whose name escapes me, wrote a book where he places the Watergate scandal onto the shoulders of the military and right-wing elements. I think is is difficult to blame this on Neo-Cons, they were too busy being Trotskyites at the time.


Gregory E Brougham - 2/21/2005

Everyone is looking for Neo-conservative conspiracy. Actually, the notion that Nixon was prey to right -wing elements is not new. Leftists and John Birchers at the time were constantly pointing the finger at Rockefeller and Kissinger. In actuality, Nixon indeed was a statist who brought to fruition a great deal of the liberal agenda at the time. Also, remember wage and price controls? But the Ford administration had many of the same elements. Also, his V.P and Sec. of State were Rockefeller and Kissinger. This is also the adminstration that really gave Rumsfeld and Cheney their political boost. Still there is some merit to Hoff's argument in that there is certainly a need to dig deeper into the Watergate issue.


Ed Schmitt - 2/20/2005

I'm not familiar enough with the arc of Donald Rumsfeld's career in these intervening years, but he had early on been regarded as a moderate, and his career had been given a great boost by Nixon, as a young congressman elevated to the head of OEO to oversee its dismantling, and included as a presidential advisor on a range of issues. I'm curious what Prof. Hoff sees as the turning point in his loyalty. I thought Schlesinger was a moderate too, but I'm not well enough versed in this to be sure.


Michael Green - 2/20/2005

The danger of Professor Hoff's argument is its mirror image. She is correct that Watergate obscures what else Nixon did. But as the book title said, it didn't all start with Watergate. The next step will be the argument that Nixon had to engage in Watergate to protect the country from the neo-conservatives, making his trampling of the Constitution and violations of the law somehow seem heroic. If that seems crazy, it's no crazier than some of the rhetoric the neo-conservatives (and, to be fair, some on the left) have spewed.