Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Liddy the True Believer, the Super Stormtrooper, the Mafioso

John Dean's account of the fallout in the Administration directly after the Watergate burglars were arrested is, well, an arresting read. Almost immediately, everyone is paranoid and the circular firing squad gathers in formation. Now some of the culprits were hardcore crooks, some just went along for the ride even when they knew better, and then there was one who was totally selfless -- or rather was so conceited in his self-conscious "good soldier" act, because don't you know the true fascist must be prepared to fall on his sword for the Fuhrer -- that he offered to have everyone in the firing squad train their guns on him. (It's almost irrelevant that it really was Liddy's fault the burglars were caught, the fuck up.) A few excerpts from Blind Ambition:

... Jeb Magruder was calling. He needed to speak with me urgently.

"What's going on, Jeb?"

"We've got a real problem, John. I think we can handle it, but, well, it's a hell of a problem. Mitchell told me to get hold of you. Get your help. We've issued a statement. Mitchell issued it in California yesterday. He's still out there. Did you read the paper this morning? Basically the thing is going to be a tough PR problem. But I think we can handle it." Jeb's sentences came at me in a rapid staccato. He was on a thin edge between bravado and loss of control. His voice jumped up in pitch every now and again as if he had swallowed a gulp of helium. He was flailing, I thought -- throwing Mitchell's name around, looking for my help. Then he hit me.

"Listen, John, this all that dumb fucking Liddy's fault. He blew it. The stupid bastard. He should have never used McCord. He never told us he was using McCord. It was stupid. This mess is all his fault..."

[...]

"...I think you should talk to Liddy, John." He was still going. "I can't talk to him, because he hates my guts. But he'll talk to you. And you can find out what else went wrong. And what else we've got to worry about. Okay?"

[...]

"I've gotta go, Jeb. I'll get back to you. I'll find out what I can."

"Thanks, John. Listen, Liddy's over at 1701 [the Committee headquarters, 1701 Pennsylvania Avenue]. You can get him there."

"Yeah. Okay."

I clicked Magruder off the line... I punched in on the [interoffice phone line]. It was Ehrlichman.

[...]

"I presume you are aware of the little incident that transpired the other night?" Ehrlichman asked me.

"Yeah, I'm afraid I am."

"Well, here's what I'd like you to do. The Secret Service called me on Sunday morning about the arrests, and had some intriguing details. One of the Cubans had a check in his possession made out by Howard Hunt. That made me think of Mr. Colson. So I called Chuck over the weekend to ask about Hunt's well-being, and Chuck sounded like he hardly knew the man. Said he hadn't seen him in months. Said he couldn't imagine how a thing like this could have occurred. Now, I'm not totally satisfied our Mr. Colson is telling all. Why don't you have a little chat with him and find out what you can, and find out what happened with his friendship with Hunt?"

"I'll try, John, but Chuck isn't likely to tell me anything he won't tell you."

[...]

I sat back. Suddenly I felt calmer. I had a report to make, top priority, one stop away from the President. Somehow the assignment drove my anxiety into temporary retreat. I decided I would call Colson first, then Kleindienst, saving Liddy for last...

...I...dialed Colson on the I.O. before anyone else could call.

"Chuck, I just talked to Ehrlichman, and he asked me to look into this incident at the DNC. Howard Hunt's name keeps coming up, and I wanted to ask --"

"For Christ's sake! I talked to Ehrlichman about it over the weekend," Chuck shouted angrily. He spat out words like a machine gun, giving off so much energy I imagined him running sprints around his office. "I told him I had no idea where Hunt was, or what he was doing!" I haven't seen Hunt in months! He's off my payroll. He has been. I can't believe Hunt's involved in that Watergate thing, anyway. That's the craziest goddam thing I ever heard! I can't believe any of it --"

"Well, Chuck," I interrupted as firmly but mildly as I could, "what's the story on Hunt's relationship to you?"

"I hired him as a consultant for Ehrlichman," he said, stressing the name.

"What do you mean?"

"Well, those guys were all out in California, and they wanted me to bring somebody in to work on the Pentagon Papers. So I sent Hunt over to Ehrlichman. Hell, he wasn't even at the top of my list!"

"Chuck, you sent Hunt out to interview Dita Beard a few months ago, didn't you? We worked on that."

"Yeah, yeah," he said, "and he wasn't even around here then. I had to go find him. That's the last time I remember seeing him. Look, I'm going through my files right now to get all the information. I'll put it all together for you, and I'll let you know what's happening. But I don't know what the hell Hunt's doing. This doesn't make any sense to me."

"Okay, Chuck. Let me know."

"Oh, and, John, I'd like to have a talk with you and Ehrlichman." His tone shifted He became almost subdued. "I've got some things I'd like to go over with both of you about Hunt. I think we ought to have a meeting later."

[...]

Now it was time for Liddy, from whom I had learned to expect horrendous surprises. I braced myself and called. He was not in, so I left word. As soon as I hung up, I kicked myself mentally: Real smart, Dean, Liddy's all mixed up in this and you're leaving word for him to call you. How will you explain the call? Wait a minute, I thought. I'm not supposed to know anything about Liddy and this break-in. This can be explained as a perfectly innocent call -- legal work, campaign finance laws. I steadied myself, but the fears had already set in.

I summoned Fielding into my office and told him to go to the White House personnel office and pull Howard Hunt's employment records. I would need some hard facts if I ended up refereeing a dispute about when, and if, Hunt had worked for Colson. Fred did not question the assignment. He could feel emergency in the air. There might as well have been air raid sirens going off. He sprang to his duty like a military officer in battle. No questions asked. Lives at stake.

Jane buzzed. It was Liddy.

"Gordon," I said, "I'd like to meet with you."

"I'll be right over," he replied instantly, words clicking. I detected relief. "Have me cleared." He signed off in a hurry.

I buzzed Jane and told her to clear Liddy past the guards downstairs... Just as I was heading for the water fountain, I saw Liddy coming toward me.

"Gordon, I think we ought to take a little walk."

He nodded. He knew exactly what was going on, and he could read on my face that this was a very sensitive meeting. We walked briskly and wordlessly out the nearest exit.

"Let's walk down this way," I said, turning south on Seventeenth Street. We walked toward the Ellipse, with the EOB and the White House on our left, the FDIC building across the street on our right.

This was not the crisp Gordon Liddy I had dealt with before. His heavy beard was no longer shaven to the nubs. The black-and-gray stubble was long enough to glisten in the sun. His usual snappy three-piece suit had given way to a rumpled cord summer suit, the kind I associated with fraternity parties at the University of Virginia. He looks almost disheveled, I thought, he seems flustered, no longer the commanding presence. I noticed lines etched in his forehead.

I began with what I thought were calming remarks. "Gordon, I think I have to...I think you can understand why it's important for me, for the White House, to know exactly what's happened. I've spoken with Jeb, and Jeb has told me --"

He interrupted. "This whole goddam thing is because Magruder pushed me. I didn't want to go in there. But it was Magruder who kept pushing. He kept insisting we go back in there --"

"Back?"

"Yes. We made an entry before and placed a transmitter and photographed some documents. But the transmitter was not producing right. I think it was because of the range. The equipment we used was only effective up to an air distance of about five hundred yards. Our pickup was within range, but we got interference from the support girders running up the building. They're steel, and they can deflect a weak signal if they are placed so the transmission passes through their magnetic field. Anyway, it's defective, and the batteries might be weak. So we went in to find out what was the matter. The other thing is Magruder liked the documents we got from the first entry and wanted more of them..."

Liddy was gushing now. We stopped on the corner across the street from the Corcoran Art Gallery. I turned away from the traffic, facing the Ellipse. It was nearly lunchtime. I knew that the buildings would soon emit hundreds of familiar faces, and I didn't want to be seen with Gordon Liddy. I edged over to a park bench and stood there, my back to the sidewalks. Liddy followed me like an awkward dance partner learning a new step. I felt very conspicuous.

"...And, John, I know using McCord was a serious mistake. I accept full responsibility for it. It's my fault, and I don't want to put off responsibility on anybody else. But I do want you to know why I did it. And that's because Magruder cut my budget so much and was pushing me so hard I had to use McCord. I didn't have time to do anything else. Jim's a professional, and I trusted him. He was the only guy I could turn to."

"I understand, Gordon." I had heard enough. "But what about Hunt?"

"Well, Howard Hunt. He was the guy who got me the Cubans."

"You mean the ones who were arrested?"

"That's right. He knew those guys, and he got them for me."

"I see. Well, how about the people in the White House? Is anybody in any way connected with this? I've got to know that, Gordon."

"I don't think so. The only person who might have known about it is Gordon Strachan."

I turned away from Liddy for a moment to absorb Strachan's name. This was the worst blow since Magruder's call. I felt queasy. I really didn't want to know more, because I had to assume that if Strachan knew, Haldeman knew. And if Haldeman knew, the President knew. It made sickening sense. Now I understood why Strachan had called earlier.

Liddy interrupted the silence. "John, I'm worried about the men who were arrested. We've got to get them out of jail. They need bonds and lawyers. We can't let them sit there in the D.C. jail. It's a hellhole."

"Well, look, Gordon," I said, fishing for a clear thought. I wanted to end the conversation. "I can't do anything about that. And I think you can understand why I can't do anything about that."

He stopped for an instant, his eyes narrowing in thought. "Well, that's right. I can understand."

I saw more and more people on the street out of the corner of my eye. "Ah, Gordon, I think I'd better be heading back to my office now, and, ah, I -- I really think this is the last conversation we'll ever have until this whole thing is resolved." I was now more flustered than Liddy, who seemed to feel better after unburdoning himself.

"I understand that perfectly, John," he said, straightening himself up. "I'll walk on the other side of the street. That's probably best. But before I go over there, I want you to know one thing, John. This is my fault. I'm prepared to accept responsibility for it. And if somebody wants to shoot me..." My head shot around. His eyes were fixed and hard, his face full of emotion, his words coming out in bursts. "...on a street corner, I'm prepared to have that done. You just let me know when and where, and I'll be there. He ended with a gesture of finality.

"Well, ah Gordon," I said tightly, flashing back to his burned hand and to Mafia movies, struggling for the strength to calm him again, "I don't think we're really there!"

"Oh, no, no," he said, holding up his hands to hush me. "Look, John, I'm not going to talk about what's gone on. None of these men will talk, you can be assured of that. They're all soldiers. But we know what we're dealing with."

"Okay," I said softly.

We turned and headed back up the street. I was looking at my shoes.

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