This weekend marked the anniversary of the burglary that toppled U.S. President Richard Nixon. Yet, forty years on, many still think the central mystery remains.
Thorough analysis, though, leaves no doubt that the orders came from the President himself, and that a key part of the motive was – sex. Nixon’s men hoped to gather politically useful dirt on the Democrats’ sex lives. In the words of one young secretary, there was “pretty wild stuff” going on at the Democrats’ headquarters in the Watergate. The “wild stuff”, research reveals, includes an apparent link between high-ranking Democratic officials and a call-girl ring being run out of a nearby apartment complex.
The break-in occurred on the night of June 16, 1972 – an election year – when a five-man team got into the offices of the Democratic National Committee, ransacked files, and searched the office of DNC Chairman Lawrence O’Brien.
At 2:10am that night, plainclothes police responded to a call from a guard in the building and caught the burglars in the act – carrying electronic equipment, cameras and dozens of rolls of film. One was James McCord, security director of CREEP, Nixon’s re-election committee. Police work also turned up the White House phone number of E. Howard Hunt, a former CIA officer employed by one of Nixon’s closest aides.
The President declared formally that the White House “had no involvement whatever in this particular incident”. It was a lie. The evidence, including the President’s own comments on a secret recording system, was to show that Nixon orchestrated attempts to obstruct the FBI’s investigation, and the payment of hush money to those arrested. He finally resigned in August 1974, as impeachment loomed.
On his first known recorded Oval Office conversation after the break-in, the President is heard to exclaim, “My God! The Committee isn’t worth bugging… That’s my public line”. A “public line” it was, for it contradicts everything that is now known about White House plotting.
What has not emerged is clear, incontrovertible evidence that Nixon explicitly authorised or knew in advance about the break-in itself. A year earlier, though, he repeatedly ordered staff to “break in” to Washington’s Brookings Institute to steal a possibly incriminating file. The President can actually be heard saying that what he wanted was “thievery”. Then, for the third time: “I really meant it … crack that safe”. Months later, Nixon discussed the best way to purloin documents from the National Archives. Weeks after Watergate, he plotted a burglary of his own party headquarters – to make the Democrats look as guilty as the Republicans.
Nixon pushed for dirt on his political enemies even after the Watergate arrests. “Get everything you possibly can,” he demanded in autumn 1972. “Any little crumb… I don’t care. O’Brien, another senator. Anything that involves a Democrat… Goddamn it.” It was Nixon who set his White House team on their criminal course.
In the past forty years, alternative histories have flourished – many of which let the President himself off the hook. One theory suggested the CIA orchestrated the burglary to cover up one of the Agency’s surveillance operations. Another contended that a junior staffer ordered the burglary in search of evidence linking his fiancée to the prostitution outfit close by – so as to cover it up.
The far reaches of Watergate conspiracy theory include an allegation that a famous journalist spun his reporting to avoid exposure of his own involvement in the Washington “swingers” scene. The bizarre twists and turns of the story include corrupt military brass, a bent police officer, a homosexual informant, and the circulation of supposed lewd photographs of the President himself.
As one of the President’s biographers, I spent five years probing the motive behind Watergate. Most of the “facts” that supposedly supported the more tawdry conspiracy theories evaporated on examination. The madam who ran the prostitution operation near the Watergate, and who supposedly employed the White House staffer’s fiancée, appeared not even to know the woman in question. The homosexual informant kept embroidering his story. The high-ranking Republican official supposedly implicated in the dissemination of a “nude Nixon” photo, credibly denied the story.
Intensive research shows there was no single motive for Watergate. “We were really after anything,” said Jeb Magruder, the campaign official who was the burglars’ liaison at creep. “We were looking for everything,” one of the burglars said. A skein of evidence indicates, though, that the President himself had pushed for derogatory information on DNC chairman O’Brien, and – as important – whatever O’Brien might have on Nixon. “We knew the Democrats had a file of damaging rumours about Republican leaders,” burglar Frank Sturgis later told a journalist. “We dug for that everywhere.”
“One of the things we were looking for,” Sturgis recalled, “was a thick secret memorandum from the Castro government…” The elusive document, Sturgis said, was thought to cover plans for a deal between Castro and the Democrats that – were the Democrats to win the election – would normalise relations between the U.S. and Cuba. It supposedly also contained details of the various past U.S. attempts “to assassinate the Castro brothers”.
Three of the Watergate burglars were prominent anti-Castro exiles, and team leader Hunt had during his CIA career been involved in the Eisenhower-era plots to assassinate the Cuban leader, plots in which then Vice President Nixon was implicated. The Senate Watergate Committee’s chief investigator Terry Lenzner speculated that the Cuban angle was the key to Watergate.
There was, too, a matter that made both O’Brien and Nixon vulnerable – the links they both had to Howard Hughes. O’Brien, who had worked for Hughes as a consultant, knew Hughes’ aide Robert Maheu. Maheu in turn had been the CIA’s go-between to the mafiosi used in the plots to kill Castro . He had, moreover, been privy to details of illegal donations Hughes had made to Nixon during his 1968 run for the presidency.
Time and again, in the months before Watergate, it had seemed that Hughes’ donations were about to be exposed. “As far as I know,” CREEP’s Jeb Magruder said years later, “the primary purpose of the break-in was to deal with information… about Howard Hughes and Larry O’Brien, and what that meant as far as the cash that had supposedly been given to [Nixon’s friend] Bebe Rebozo and spent later by the President…”
Then there is sex – the wild card in the pack of possible motives.
Though mostly neglected by researchers, there had been an earlier break-in at the Watergate, weeks before the one that triggered the scandal. On May 28, 1972, the same burglary team had successfully photographed papers on O’Brien’s desk and planted bugs on two telephones – one used by O’Brien’s secretary, another by a party official. Over the weeks that followed, logs of calls on the official’s phone had been passed up the chain of command at Nixon campaign headquarters. The bug on the secretary’s phone had been faulty, however – and that led to the fateful decision to go back to the office to fix it.
It is clear now that there was a sexual element to the plot. From the start of the Nixon presidency, one operative testified, there was a concentration on getting information on the sex lives of their Democratic opponents. The man who monitored the bugged Watergate calls, Alfred Baldwin, told prosecutors his orders were to give that category of information special attention. Many of the calls the bug on the official’s phone picked up, were “explicitly intimate”.
Another creep operative, former FBI agent Lou Russell, said the hidden microphone intercepted conversations in which two prominent Democratic leaders “made dates with women over the phone… for sexual liaison purposes”. O’Brien had been one of those prominent Democrats, Russell claimed, and he identified a prostitute O’Brien allegedly frequented by name. Russell had worked for Nixon personally, long before Watergate.
If the Democrats were vulnerable to sexual exposure, so were their Republican counterparts. One long-time Nixon aide, interviewed by us on condition of anonymity, recalled in detail that the deputy chief of the White House protocol office “was always using those call-girls at the place next to the DNC”.
In a rundown house in North Florida, Barbara Ralabate, the former madam named by Russell – and identified in police records – as having managed call-girls at the Columbia Plaza apartments near the Watergate. Her professional credo, she said, did not allow her ever to divulge clients’ names. She confirmed, however, that in 1972 they included both Republicans and Democrats. “There was a lot of business won at that place,” she said, referring to the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate.
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