Robert Redford’s Watergate documentary: Will it explain whether Nixon ordered the Watergate break-in?

Rosenbaum: Who Really Ordered the Watergate Break-In? And Why?

Rosenbaum: Who Really Ordered the Watergate Break-In? And Why?

Scrutinizing culture.
April 27 2012 6:06 PM

A Challenge to Robert Redford

Will his new documentary explain whether Nixon ordered the Watergate break-in?

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Ten years later, I did a review of Watergate issues for the New Republic in which I argued —using the newly released White House tapes (there are still more the Nixon Library has been hoarding), newly published memoirs, and other evidence—that in fact Nixon had ordered the break-in, not just the cover up, as most were content to believe.

The best summary of my case appears in this column from 1999: in which I pull together the fragments of the evidence that Nixon was the one who gave the order. Here are the bones of my argument: Nixon is heard on a recording made two days after the news broke of the break-in proclaiming that he was shocked by it and—knowing the tape is rolling—saying it was silly for anyone to break into the Democratic National Committee party headquarters because any savvy pol would know that all the valuable dirt would be found in the (yet to be named) presidential candidate’s headquarters.

And then he delivers one of his most inculpatory statements on tape: “That’s my public line.” In other words, that was how he was going to lie his way out of any connection: By arguing that if he were planning a break-in, he wouldn’t have targeted Watergate, because nothing of value could be found there. When, in fact, as later tapes and witnesses would show, he thought something very, very important to his future might be there.


That we learn definitively mainly from the relentless and diligent work of a reporter who deserves far more credit than he has gotten, perhaps as much credit as Woodward and Bernstein, for getting to the bottom of things: J. Anthony Lukas.

Lukas was the former Timesman and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner who had written a comprehensive history of Watergate called Nightmare, but who wasn’t satisfied he had all the answers. He kept on the case and made an under-appreciated breakthrough in 1987 at a Nixon conference when he got a key Nixon campaign aide, Jeb Magruder, to spell out the motive for the break-in. In describing the moment, Lukas, who has prizes for nonfiction books given in his honor by Columbia Journalism School, wrote about the mystery to him of the press and historians’ indifference to the big question in a Times Op-Ed that ought to be mandatory reading for Redford’s documentary crew.

[T]he strangest aspect of the most devastating political scandal in American history is that despite massive Congressional investigations, lengthy trials, aggressive journalistic inquiries, and scholarly exegesis, nobody has been able to say for sure why the re-election committee’s burglary team entered the Democratic offices twice in May and June 1972. For a decade and a half, it has been a gaping hole in our contemporary chronicle.

Then he describes Magruder—a true Watergate insider, who’d done jail time for his role in the cover-up, after which he became a Presbyterian minister—finally opening up:

“When I had posed my question [at the conference]” Lukas wrote, “Magruder took the pulpit and launched into some cosmic reflections on God and the universe. Just when I began to dismay of getting an answer, he paused. ‘I want to be honest about what happened here,’ he said. ‘It was a planned burglary. ... As far as I know the primary purpose of the break-in was to deal with the information that has been referred to about Howard Hughes and Larry O’Brien and what that meant as far as the cash that had supposedly been given to [Nixon buddy] Bebe Rebozo and spent later by the president possibly.’”

Magruder is referring here to evidence that ace Senate Watergate Committee investigator Terry Lenzner had turned up, evidence that there had been a $100,000 illegal “campaign contribution” (read: bribe) paid to Nixon by Howard Hughes through Rebozo, purportedly to influence government decisions about his business interests. In other words, Nixon feared that O'Brien, as Hughes' minion, might have learned about a Hughes' payofff to Nixon and have evidence of it in his files at his office at the Watergate. In which case, the potential revelation could sink Nixon's re-election campaign.

As Lukas put it, Magruder went on to confirm that “the burglars were also looking for information the president’s men could use against O’Brien to keep the Hughes-Rebozo transaction “under wraps” during the election campaign.

So a decade later, in my 1999 summary of the case for a Nixon order, I linked Magruder’s explanation of what Lukas called the “gaping hole” in Watergate histories (the motivation) to the question of who actually gave the go-order for the break-in to Nixon’s lie—in that subsequently released tape—that he was baffled why anyone would want to burglarize O’Brien’s Watergate office. His “public line” was a public lie. He had an explicit reason to believe there was damaging information about him in Larry O'Brien's office and his pooh-poohing of Watergate as a target shows him lying about that to exculpate himself.

This interpretation is supported by Nixon’s exchange with his No. 2, H. R. Haldeman. Who says, on that tape, after Nixon says there would be no reason to go into the Watergate: “Except for the financial thing.” The financial thing! The Hughes-Rebozo $100,000 bribe and the question of whether O’Brien learned of it and planned to go public with it which could have ended Nixon’s presidency right there. (O’Brien later said he didn’t know about the Hughes-Nixon payoff, but Nixon didn’t know he didn’t know and was obsessed with finding out if he did.)

“Yes I suppose,” says Nixon, in reply to Haldeman's suggesting "the financial thing" was a motive.

And then in 2003 Magruder dropped another bombshell.

In 2003, in a PBS documentary that has not been given the attention it deserves, Magruder said that he heard Richard Nixon order the break-in. That he was standing next to Nixon’s campaign chairman, former Attorney General John Mitchell, when Mitchell took a call from Nixon and that he could hear Nixon’s distinctive voice telling Mitchell in regard to the break-in at Larry O’Brien’s office that had been bruited about... Well, here’s how the Washington Post describes it:

Jeb Stuart Magruder—then a “callow” campaign aide, now a retired Presbyterian minister in Ohio—says in a new documentary for PBS that he heard Nixon’s voice on a telephone as the president instructed then-Attorney General John Mitchell to go ahead with the break-in.

“John we need to get the information on Larry O’Brien, and the only way we can do it is through Liddy’s plan. And you need to do that,” Magruder said he heard Nixon say at the end of a phone call in which Mitchell discussed the matter with his boss.

If true, the allegation could significantly sharpen history’s answer to one of the most famous questions of modern America: What did the president know, and when did he know it?

There are skeptics of Magruder’s account. They argue that there should be a tape of this call with Mitchell among the White House tapes. But according to what I’ve read, there is evidence that not all White House calls were recorded. And other skeptics wonder why Magruder waited so long to come forward. He told the PBS documentary he had hoped for a pardon from Nixon back then, and so he kept his mouth shut. He said that he made the 2003 disclosure, the last link in the chain of evidence for a Nixon break-in order, after he’d had a serious heart attack shortly before the documentary makers approached him. Perhaps his Presbyterian conscience told him to tell the whole truth before he died.  

Corroboration came from John Dean, the day-to-day supervisor—and eventual exposer—of the cover-up whose knowledge of the case allowed him to pinpoint a moment where Nixon himself is confronted with Magruder’s potential testimony while still in the White House:

“I found that in March of 1973,” Dean said, “that Bob Haldeman, the White House chief of staff, was told by one of the lawyers over at the re-election committee that Jeb [Magruder] was saying to them that the plan to break in the Watergate had been approved by the president. And it’s very interesting, Nixon has no reaction on the tape that I saw.”

So there is both circumstantial evidence and ear-witness testimony suggesting Nixon’s involvement. And when deciding how to balance Nixon’s denials against Magruder’s account, one can’t ignore Richard Nixon’s lifelong history of lying.

Nonetheless, on the fundamental question—what did the president know and when did he know it?—the vast majority of accounts take Richard Nixon at his unsupported word.

It’s amazing to me that historians of Nixon and Watergate have been so timid on this issue.

It’s not a trivial matter, it goes to the question of the true character of one of the great characters in American history. It goes to the question of whether discovering the whole truth matters, or whether implicit fabrications (Nixon’s innocence of the order) should just be shrugged off. So, Robert Redford, so Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, I reiterate my challenge: Give us your answer to the question in this documentary, prove my theory about Nixon’s guilt wrong, or prove someone else gave the order, or admit you don’t care whether Nixon has, in the end, gotten away with his crime.