Frank Gannon: An Addition to the Watergate Bookshelf

There’s a piece by David Stout in today’s New York Times about In Nixon’s Web: A Year in the Crosshairs of Watergate — a book by Pat Gray, published posthumously last week by Times books. L. Patrick Gray III died in 2005 at the age of eighty-eight. His manuscript was completed by his son Ed.

I will withhold extended comment and analysis until I have had a chance to read the book, but Mr. Stout’s article provokes a few thoughts.

I only had the privilege of meeting Pat Gray a couple of times in passing —essentially shaking hands with him— in 1971 and 1972. But he was so widely viewed with a mixture of respect, admiration, and affection that he was pre-sold in terms of making an impression on a young White House staffer.

An Annapolis graduate, he had served in World War Two and Korea; and between times he had received a law degree from George Washington University where he was editor of the Law Review and a member of the Order of the Coif.

In 1970 RN appointed him Assistant AG for the Civil Division, and his nomination as Deputy AG was pending when J. Edgar Hoover finally shuffled off this mortal coil at the beginning of May 1972. RN had a major surprise up his sleeve when he decided to replace the bitterly controversial Hoover with someone universally respected for his decency, honesty, and ability. Everyone considered Pat Gray’s appointment as the FBI’s new Director (indeed, only its second Director after Hoover’s forty-eight year tenure/stranglehold on the position) as little short of a stroke of genius.

Well, perhaps not everyone. One serious dissenter was W. Mark Felt (what was it at the FBI with the up front initials? J. Edgar Hoover; L. Patrick Gray; W. Mark Felt? Was Edgar’s influence that pervasive?) Felt had been biding his time for some time, expecting to be rewarded for his long service by being chosen as Director when Hoover was finally removed by human or, as was finally required, divine agency.

As Acting FBI Director (after the scandals broke the nomination was withdrawn before the Senate could refuse to confirm him), Pat Gray was done in by two men he trusted and depended on to do their duty but who sold him out for reasons of their own.

The first was Mark Felt. While still working for Mr. Gray as the number two man in the FBI, Mr. Felt morphed into Deep Throat, leaking privileged information to reporters in order to exact revenge for being passed over for promotion he felt he deserved. And the other was his White House contact, John W. Dean, who mislead and entrapped him because of his own pivotal involvement in both the planning and cover-up of the Watergate break-in.

Mr. Dean’s still ongoing upward career seems to support the notion that no bad deed goes unrewarded. Today, frequently honored —and published— as the man whose conscience finally kicked in and helped save the Republic from the depredations of the Nixon administration, he was, in fact, present at the creation of the problem and then proceeded to spend his time coaching perjury and destroying evidence and withholding information until it was clear that his efforts were unavailing and he was about to be brought to justice. That was when —not to put too fine a point on it— he decided to sell everyone else out to save his own sorry ass. The fact that he isn’t even mentioned in Mr. Stout’s article, indicates that, at least as far as Mr. Dean is concerned, the cover-up continues successfully in March 2008.

The scoop in Mr. Stout’s article involves the revelation that Mr. Gray had actually been warned about the viper in his bosom by a most unlikely source. John Mitchell, RN’s friend, campaign manager, and first Attorney General, received a phone call from L. Roswell Gilpatric, warning him that Mark Felt was leaking to reporters.

At the time, Mr. Gilpatric was a partner in Cravath Swaine, the whitest of white shoe New York law firms; he had been deputy defense secretary in the Kennedy administration and was a longtime Kennedy family friend (and, later, an intimate of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis). He had been alerted to Mr. Felt’s activities by a reporter, and he disapproved of such disloyalty. Mr. Mitchell passed the information on to his successor as AG, Richard Kleindienst, who passed it on to Mr. Gray along with the recommendation that he fire Mr. Felt. Mr. Gray failed to act on that recommendation. By that time, a lot of the damage had already been done.
Roswell Gilpatric died in 1996, so Mr. Stout checked this story with his son who said he was unaware of his father’s acquaintance with Mr. Mitchell and found it generally unlikely. In fact, I think it sounds just about right; even in Washington people sometimes do honorable things for honorable motives.

Although Pat Gray’s best qualities of loyalty and trust were badly abused, and even on the understanding that he was more sinned against than sinning, it’s difficult to explain, much less defend, some of the things he did. It’s hard even to imagine what he was thinking when, based on John Dean’s reassurances, he burned, in his fireplace at home, some of the contents of Howard Hunt’s White House safe. Perhaps a reading of his book will supply some answers.

Based on this article, which presumably reflects the book, Pat Gray had come, in his last years, to a very bitter reassessment of events that differed, at least in some ways, from his feelings expressed at the time and after. Perhaps its publication will raise the interesting and pertinent question of the relative weight history ought to give to the differing recollections at different points of time of participants in particular events.

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