Memo To: Rep. Charlie Rangel
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Watergate Anniversary
I'd completely forgotten that you were on the Judiciary Committee when it voted to impeach President Nixon in 1974. Next time we get together, we should discuss the Watergate affair, as I think I might be able to persuade you that Nixon was not guilty of managing the "cover-up" of the burglary and obstructing justice. We did not know each other 25 years ago, but we were both deeply involved in the Watergate inquiry. At the WSJournal editorial page, I had been assigned by Editor Robert L. Bartley to serve as Nixon's advocate on the editorial board — as I was the only member who volunteered in January 1974 that I did not have enough information to conclude that Nixon was guilty of direct involvement. In other words, just as Sen. Howard Baker Jr. was asking "What did the President know, and when did he know it?" from his position on Senate Judiciary, I was reading and re-reading the transcripts of the Oval Office tapes, trying to get myself into Nixon's head. As a result of this effort, I came to believe beyond any reasonable doubt that Nixon did not lie or direct a cover-up, and that if he had gone to trial in the Senate, he would have survived.
Why did he then resign? Because he knew a Senate trial would take a year of the nation's energy at a time when our economy was falling apart underneath him and we were at a point in the Cold War in which the Soviet Union seemed to be winning. Nixon resigned to spare the country this ordeal, prepared to allow history to judge him fairly instead of risking the fate of the nation in order to save his immediate skin. This is why he never "apologized" for the cover-up, as his prosecutors demanded. He knew in his heart he was not guilty.
What triggered his resignation was the so-called "smoking gun" tape, which supposedly proved that from the beginning he was covering-up his administration's plot to burgle Watergate for political intelligence. The tape surfaced against a background of almost total certainty that he was guilty, a certainty similar to that which OJ. Simpson faced as the prosecution rested its case against him in his criminal trial. As far as I was concerned, the "smoking gun" tape had the opposite effect on me that it had on the political climate. It revealed to me that from the very beginning, Nixon was operating under a false assumption of what Watergate was about, and that it took him a long time to realize what his political team had really been up to in the burglary. That is, the tape told me Nixon believed the burglary involved President Kennedy's role in directing an assassination attempt against Fidel Castro. The "Cuban thing," as Nixon called it. I believe Nixon at first thought he was helping to keep secret that stain on the JFK administration, which had not yet surfaced in 1974, but which Nixon knew about. In the transcripts of Oval Office tapes that followed relating to the matter, it became clear to me that Nixon could not have known he was covering up his own people's sins at the time assumed. That is, the logical pattern of his remarks months and months later could only have confirmed his guilt if we could prove he consciously made them in order to sow confusion into the tapes that were recording at his desk.
What I mean, in other words, is that Nixon could not have logically said XXX in July of 1973 if he knew YYY in June of 1973. It was only after I had read the transcripts over for the tenth or 15th time that I picked up the logic of his thought processes. It did not matter one bit to me that John Dean thought Nixon knew things long before he, Dean himself knew them. Dean was simply mistaken in his assumptions. He had to be, if Nixon's train of thought as it appeared to travel in sequence over the months from June 17, 1972 was genuine, not contrived word by word to confuse the tape record. Indeed, there were Nixon haters at the time who spotted the same illogic that I had, and argued that Nixon must have been saying things into the tape recorder at his desk, knowing he was lying all the time. This was preposterous.
Why didn't Nixon burn the tapes? Because he thought they would vindicate him, and they will, as historians plough through the record as I did and find the flaws in conventional reasoning. The more interesting question is why would Nixon, the lawyer who cracked the Alger Hiss case, knowingly speak felonious remarks into a tape recorder he knew to be at his elbow, a tape recorder that was being administered by civil servants, and therefore not under his personal control?
In fact, Charlie, history will vindicate Nixon of the ugly charges contained in the impeachment articles. I'm not saying Nixon wasn't guilty of this, that or the other thing, for which history will hold him accountable. He did say a lot of curse words while he strolled the Oval Office, and he did make anti-Semitic remarks from time to time — although we know some of his closest friends and advisors were Jewish [Leonard Garment for one].
Years after he resigned, Nixon invited me to his office at the Federal building in Foley Square in downtown Manhattan. We talked for three hours about politics, the world, and Watergate. It was the first time we had done so, because at the time I was his "devil's advocate" we were not in contact. At one point I asked him if he ever considered the possibility that if he had not abandoned the gold standard in 1971 he would not have been impeached. What I had in mind was my assumption that he resigned only because the economy was cratering in 1974 at the time of his resignation, which I believed was due to his closing of the gold window in 1971. Nixon replied precisely: "It is true, Jude, that it is rare in history to find a political leader who is touched by scandal and is brought down during an expanding economy." Nixon was touched by scandal during a collapsing economy and had, as the Chinese say, "lost the mandate of Heaven." He knew he had to resign, guilty or not.
I'm not alone in my view, by the way. You remember Rep. Charles Wiggins of California, who served with you on the Judiciary Committee. He was Nixon's chief defender in the House, as I was in the press corps. A few years later, we compared notes and agreed that Nixon was not guilty of the things he was thought to be guilty of at the time, but there came a point at which it was quite hopeless to defend him.