‘Condor’ Author Looks Back on Watergate's Surreal Days
James Grady reminisces about being in Washington while dark, high level crimes unraveled drop-by-drop, starting 50 years ago this month
Watergate filled the windshield of my nine years old, second-hand blue Dodge as I drove up to the U.S. Capitol for a Senate staff job that cold January, 1974. I was 24.
This was my second gig in the Senate, the first being a 1971 undergraduate national investigative reporting fellowship for journalism students before Americans knew about the criminal maneuvers leading to Watergate.
Back then, walking to work with my Beatles hair shorn by a gleeful barber, took me past the townhouse headquarters for the American Historical Association. The sight of the prestigious research org had triggered my wanna-be author's mind and cosmic luck into my first novel, Six Days Of The Condor, which, as I drove into D.C. three years later, was on its way to bookstores even as the Robert Redford movie was rushing toward your big screens.
I'd been assured that the check was in the mail.
Nothing about checks or balances for Watergate was assured then.
The assault on democracy that became Watergate had coalesced in Vietnam.
As he fought to win 1968's presidential race, Richard "Tricky Dick" Nixon, aided and abetted by the Dr. Strangelovean Henry Kissinger, used Anna Chennault, AKA "Dragon Lady," AKA “Steel Butterfly”—and the head of Republican Women For Nixon, no less—to persuade the Saigon government to thwart then-Democrat President Lyndon Johnson's efforts to reach a truce in a war that was killing 112.3 Americans daily, all so Nixon's opponent, LBJ's Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, couldn't claim any political victory.
Let's call that homicidal treason.
Nixon won the White House with key figures in the CIA and FBI aware of that duplicity.
Obsessed reporters started to break stories of Vietnam War secrets that rattled the Nixon White House, triggering efforts to plug those leaks of truth telling—first using the CIA and FBI to do so, then supplementing the official sleuths with Nixon's own "off the books" crime crew, "the plumbers."
Reading the hold-it-in-your-hands Washington Post and other print newspapers and magazines became a combat necessity for Washington’s Watergate warriors, not a way to while away the time over your morning coffee.
Crucial coverage of Watergate’s “third rate burglary” and its origins and aftermath came from reporters like Woodward and Bernstein, The Boston’s Globe’s William Beecher, The Times’s Seymour Hersh and Neil Sheehan, and of course Jack Anderson, the syndicated investigative columnist. After Watergate and my second Senate gig, I became one of Anderson's handful of muckrakers.
Ex-FBI agent and “plumber” G. Gordon Liddy once personally explained to me how he'd been given "White House orders" to murder my boss Anderson, a plot later called off by two squeamish presidential staffers during a famous "walk in the park."
Liddy's intense, boastful smile rocked me to my bones.
Money—dirty money— was crucial to the criminality of Watergate. Millionaires courting Nixon (or vice-versa) and Washington power elite poured cash into slush funds for illegal campaign activities and the plumbers, roping in such diverse characters for "bagmen" as a former Republican governor of Montana, Tim Babcock, who teenage-me had campaigned for.
What we came to call Watergate took more than a year to unfold, from the puzzling June 17,1972 break-in to a scandal that most Americans didn’t even realize existed a year later. The Senate’s Watergate hearings would change all that.
Still, the following November, Nixon won re-election despite mostly Washington Post exposés about illegal activities beyond the burglary that were also linked to the Committee for the Re-Election of the President—aka CREEP, a villainous Hollywood name as-yet unmatched for irony.
One savvy response to Nixon's organized crime crew came from a modest pipe-smoking man who, along with Marilyn Monroe, is a hero of mine.
Versed in both Chinese political theory—he’d first visited Shanghai as a U.S. Marine in 1922—and an understanding of American street politics that included murder, then-Democratic Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (from my Montana) made a strategic decision not to allow any known Nixon haters to serve on the special Watergate committee, a move that kept Nixon from claiming that the panel led by the folksy North Carolina Democratic Sen. Sam Ervin was rigged.
Then came the televised hearings—one of the finer and increasingly fewer moments of screen sensations since then promoting democracy. White House lawyer John Dean and "the cancer on the Presidency." Burglaries of psychiatrists' offices. A plan to set fire to the Brookings Institution. The Saturday Night Massacre. The secret taping system in the Oval Office. The 18 & ½- minute gap.
The first days of '74's pre-cellphones August, I stood outside the office of my Senator boss and -- literarily -- watched rumors run down the halls as aides scurried from doorway to doorway to share information. I saw the press aide for a Republican Senator stumbling and sobbing after her boss ignored her to announce his continuing support for Nixon.
On August 9, 1974, Nixon resigned and skipped town in a Marine Corps helicopter with a farewell grin and a double-V wave of his raised high hands.
He left behind real, unsolved mysteries I can only write about in my fictions: The call girl prostitution ring headquartered across from the Watergate complex. The ultra-secret White House military spy ring run by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs targeting Nixon and Kissinger. The D.C. police officer with CIA connections who just happened to spearhead the arrest of the burglars.
And Nixon left behind a Washington—"a sleepy Southern town" complete with structural racism—that would soon, thanks to Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, become cool: Reporters bragging about "my sources." Heartland street geek political dreamers sidelined by Ivy League "policy wonks."
For a brief moment, reforms flourished. New laws and regulations constrained the power of money in elections and politics. Government agencies were ordered to disclose more of what they did with your tax dollars.
For a brief moment.
Now, the shady tycoons and secretly owned corporations, endowed with the same rights as humans—but not the same go-to-jail peril— spend their buried billions to control your "free elections."
Watergate, oh Watergate, whose checks are in the mail now?
SpyTalk Contributing Editor James Grady's new novel is This Train.