Watergate and the Future: News for 2009
In this guest column, award-winning investigative reporter Russ Baker gives some background on his new book which, in part, explores former President George H.W. Bush's CIA ties and his little known connections to the Watergate scandal.
One of the fastest ways to raise eyebrows in politically savvy company is to suggest that Richard Nixon was not the villain of Watergate. Everyone knows that Nixon himself set loose the Watergate burglars and then oversaw the attempted cover-up that followed. We know this because the most famous journalists of the last fifty years – Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein – made their careers on that story. I thought I knew it too.
Then I began the research that led to my new book, Family of Secrets: The Bush Dynasty, The Powerful Forces That Put it in the White House, and What Their Influence Means for America. I had no intention, when I started, of re-opening the Watergate inquiries. But the trail led there, as I sought to answer a question that somehow has escaped careful attention. Why did Richard Nixon repeatedly promote George H.W. Bush (Bush Sr., or Poppy, as he is known) for important political posts despite both his apparent lack of qualifications and Nixon's own privately-expressed doubts about Bush's mettle? Why, even when Nixon became so wary of so many of his appointees that he fired cabinet members en masse, did he continue to be solicitous of Bush Sr.?
Nixon named the obscure Poppy to be UN ambassador in 1970 and then chairman of the national Republican Party in 1972. Even earlier, in 1968, Nixon actually put Bush Sr. on his list of vice presidential running mate prospects – this not long after Poppy was first elected to the House of Representatives. Similarly, Nixon's replacement, Gerald Ford, sent Poppy off as envoy to China and later made him CIA director, though by most accounts he was an odd choice for both of these sensitive jobs.
In short, in the Nixon era, Poppy Bush was the man who always seemed to be around, yet also managed to stay out of the main story. Digging way back, I came upon evidence that Nixon felt beholden to the Bush family and to the interests it represented. The reason: Bush Sr.'s father, Senator Prescott Bush, grandfather of George W. Bush, apparently helped launch Nixon's political career in 1946 as a way of destroying his first opponent, liberal congressman Jerry Voorhis, an outspoken critic of the excesses of bankers and financiers. Given the current Wall Street disasters, and the role of Prescott's grandson in enabling them, this revelation has obvious contemporary relevance.
Once I understood this special Nixon-Bush relationship, which is basically missing from all major Nixon biographies, I began to ask what exactly Poppy had been doing during the Watergate years. This led to the discovery that the Watergate break-in was almost certainly just one of a series of illegal acts that were engineered by people around Nixon, but not by Nixon himself. Far from defending Nixon's interests, these people had been privately frustrated with him on a variety of fronts and were now looking to take him down.
Simply put, once Nixon attained the presidency, he struggled for his independence, and began doing things that displeased his former sponsors.
I explored in particular a little-known matter called the Townhouse Affair. It turns out to be an important precursor to Watergate. Townhouse and Watergate both had earmarks of involvement by CIA figures.
And I looked at something that has barely emerged in public, but which was discussed by Nixon and his advisers: his ongoing struggle with the CIA. Combined with other evidence I developed of Poppy Bush's longstanding involvement with the CIA (back to the 1950s), it becomes apparent that there was more to Watergate than Richard Nixon's paranoia. There is not space here for all the particulars I lay out in Family of Secrets. But a few highlights:
In sum, I found that the very people who created Nixon and used him to advance their own political interests ended up destroying him. Nixon's famous paranoia, in other words, had a basis in reality.
- Townhouse appears in retrospect to be an elaborate effort to frame Nixon for financial wrongdoing, by orchestrating a ridiculously shady-looking fundraising operation (and purported political blackmail scheme) headquartered in a basement office in a D.C. townhouse. The people who conjured up and ran Townhouse were tied to Poppy Bush.
- Wealthy independent oilmen who backed Bush felt anger and distrust toward Nixon, who proved to be less than entirely reliable on their key issues, such as a tax giveaway called the Oil Depletion Allowance.
- Many figures in Nixon's White House had CIA ties, and appear to have been keeping an eye on him, even as they worked for him. (The role of the security services raises suggestive questions as a new president prepares to take office – namely, how free is any president to pursue the agenda he promised the voters? The ghosts of the Bushes and what they represent will hang over a new President Obama in ways we have never imagined.)
- Poppy Bush had extensive secret ties to the intelligence apparatus before he became CIA director in 1976. This connection has not previously been reported, and it provides an answer to a question that puzzled observers at the time – namely, what had Poppy Bush ever done to prepare him to lead the nation's premier spy agency?
- After being named Republican national chairman, Poppy Bush used that position to monitor and help shape the unfolding Watergate affair.
- John Dean was much more than a whistleblower. It appears that he was aware of or even a key figure in the White House covert activities that brought Nixon down, yet encouraged Nixon to take the blame for them.
- There is evidence suggesting a connection between Poppy Bush and Dean. Records show that Bush actually called the then-obscure Dean from his UN office in New York during the earliest days of these events. Why would the UN ambassador be speaking to a White House counsel?
- The rookie reporter Bob Woodward began working at the Washington Post, and on Watergate in particular, with job recommendations from high officials in the White House who knew him from his days in Naval intelligence work.
- A handful of famous Watergate tape excerpts were misconstrued – or in some cases, misleadingly edited – by some in academic, media, legislative and judicial arenas to convey a false impression of what Richard Nixon actually knew – and of how culpable he was.
- Watergate special prosecutor Leon Jaworski, a key figure in the ousting of Nixon, was a close Texas friend of Poppy Bush – and steered clear of evidence that pointed to Poppy's involvement.
- Even the notion of "Deep Throat," purportedly Woodward's main source (identified as the recently-deceased FBI man W. Mark Felt), may have been part of a CIA-style "psyops" scheme to create the impression of Nixon's culpability. Some key figures claim that there was in fact no "Deep Throat" at all.
- Nixon suspected the CIA of surrounding him and then setting him up. From his own days supervising covert operations as vice president, he recognized that the Watergate burglars and their bosses were seasoned CIA hardliners with ties to the Bay of Pigs invasion and events linked to the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Nixon battled the CIA for files on what he called the "Bay of Pigs thing," but never could get access to them.
All of this, and much more, arose directly from my research, which is carefully documented in Family of Secrets and in more than 1000 source notes.
Copyright © 2008 Russ Baker
Russ Baker is the author of Family of Secrets: The Bush Dynasty, The Powerful Forces That Put it in the White House, and What Their Influence Means for America (Published by Bloomsbury Press; 978-1596915572). For more information on his book and the research behind it, please visit www.familyofsecrets.com. As an award-winning investigative reporter, Baker has a track record for making sense of complex and little understood matters. He has written for the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, the Nation, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Village Voice and Esquire. He has also served as a contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. Baker received a 2005 Deadline Club award for his exclusive reporting on George W. Bush's military record. He is the founder of WhoWhatWhy/the Real News Project, a nonpartisan, nonprofit investigative news organization, operating at whowhatwhy.com.