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?

President Richard Nixon.
President Richard Nixon, Dec. 24, 1971.

NARA National Archives and Records Administration via Wikimedia Commons.

Nixon is back. Back from the dead to haunt us once again with his lies. With his one Big Lie. The one he got away with. The one all too many historians and journalists still complacently accept.

When I say Nixon’s back, I’m not just speaking about the publication of four new Watergate-related books, two of them novels (Thomas Mallon’s Watergate and Ann Beattie’s Mrs. Nixon), plus two nonfiction books (Leak by Max Holland—about “Deep Throat”—and Nixon’s Darkest Secrets by Don Fulsom). Nor about the front-page attention that the death of Chuck Colson, Nixon’s Nixon, received last week.

This burst of interest is not really a surprise since—like him or not—Richard Nixon remains one of the great American characters, a Rorschach blot upon which we project our conceptions of American politics and history. But the most salient evidence of the Trickster’s return was Robert Redford’s announcement earlier this month that he is making a documentary about Watergate. He made the announcement in the presence of Watergate sleuth Bob Woodward (whom Redford played in the film All the President’s Men) and Woodward’s co-writer Carl Bernstein. The documentary will be made with their cooperation, which left me wondering: Will the documentary interrogate the Woodward and Bernstein narrative of the break-in? Will Woodward and Bernstein, gods and guardians of the myth of journalism’s mighty mission, finally do what they have never done—at least in print—for the past 40 years: Offer proof about who ordered the Watergate break-in and why? Was it Nixon campaign officials and their hirelings—or Nixon himself?

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Will they give us a definitive answer to the famous question they failed to answer in their original admirable but incomplete Washington Post investigations and subsequent best-sellers): What did Nixon know and when did he know it?

The scandalous truth is that two key mysteries of Watergate, the episode in American history that has become an iconic bedtime story about heroic journalists uncovering the sinister cover-up, about how the truth shall set us free etc., have never fully been revealed. Just this past week, the Times obituary for Colson put it plainly: "To this day, no one knows whether Nixon authorized the break-in or precisely what the burglars wanted."

Woodward and Bernstein never proved who ordered the original break-in. They only showed us who sought to cover it up, allowing the media and journalists and even historians thereafter to complacently celebrate a hollow victory.

It remains a puzzle to me why Nixon historians for the most part have been strangely reluctant to challenge—or even probe—Nixon’s claim that he was shocked—shocked!—by the news of the June 17, 1972 break-in to Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex, and that he sacrificed his presidency out of loyalty to over-zealous aides who were certainly not acting on his orders in committing that original crime.

Yes, that’s the consensus wisdom; Nixon knew about the cover-up but had no part in ordering the original crime itself. Which has allowed Richard Nixon to get away with enshrining what may well be his final defining lie in the history books as truth.

The president of the Discovery Channel, which is financing Redford’s documentary, made a statement at the press conference that was symptomatic of the confusion that still clouds Watergate: “To be able to pull the fabricated and the real together, for the first time, is a kind of juicy opportunity for us.”

Does anyone know what this means? Why do we need the fabricated “pulled together” with the “real”? The problem is that we haven’t determined the real, that we need to separate out the fabricated.

I hereby issue a challenge to Redford, Discovery, and Woodstein: Solve the original crime this time. Tell us what was not established in any of the dynamic duo’s published work: Who ordered the Watergate break-in. Not who ordered it covered up. Who ordered it in the first place. I don’t mean, by issuing this challenge, to diminish Woodward and Bernstein’s courageous and groundbreaking reporting on the case, without which the cover-up might well have succeeded. But they never dismantled Nixon’s final line of defense.

Woodward and Bernstein were not alone: Neither the Senate Watergate Committee’s nor the House Impeachment Committee’s final reports determined who ordered the break-in, or—just as importantly—why, what it was for.

For those not up on the details, the Watergate scandal began in the early hours of June 17, 1972, just as the forthcoming presidential election campaign was beginning to heat up. The police caught five burglars inside Democratic National Headquarters in the business annex of Washington's Watergate hotel. Who sent them and why?

Before long Woodward and Bernstein were uncovering layer after layer of their connection to Richard Nixon's re-election campaign, including one of the burglars’ immediate bosses, Howard Hunt, who had an office in the White House itself.

The burglars and their immediate superiors were indicted before the election, but not enough damning details emerged connecting them to Nixon to dampen his landslide re-election that November. But in the months that followed, Woodward, Bernstein, Sy Hersh and other reporters—along with Congressional investigations—ultimately uncovered an elaborate scheme to pay hush money to Hunt and the burglars, to bribe them into silence about their Nixon connections.

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