THE WATERGATE SCANDAL was triggered by the burglary at the Watergate complex in June 1972. As we commemorate the 20th anniversary of the most serious case of corruption in American presidential history, a word should be said about Richard Nixon's most famous tape-recorded conversation.
Some people would think that was the "smoking gun" tape, because it proved Nixon used the CIA to stop the FBI from pursuing Watergate leads, making him unquestionably guilty of obstruction of justice, an impeachable offense.But the tape getting the most publicity as well as the most misunderstanding was the "hush money" tape from March 21, 1973. This was the conversation in which Nixon and his two aides, H.R. Haldeman and John Dean III, discussed raising $1 million to meet blackmail threats of several Watergate defendants. Allegedly, Nixon's response was, "It would be wrong."
Most aspects of Watergate were discussed at length last week on television and in the newspapers, but I noticed that this fascinating tape is still misunderstood. Even the respected Washington Post, the paper most responsible for breaking the Watergate story, carried a staff-written piece in which Nixon was given more credit for the statement than he deserves.
The "It would be wrong" statement was used by H.R. Haldeman, White House chief of staff, during the Senate Watergate hearings to demonstrate Nixon's purity and essential morality during the infamous cover-up.
Questioned at length on July 30, 1973, about the "hush money" conversation, Haldeman said Dean reported on a blackmail threat from Watergate burglar Howard Hunt for $120,000, and Nixon questioned Dean about it, "trying to smoke him out."
Dean said it would take $1 million, an amount that would be hard to raise. According to Haldeman, Nixon said, "There is no problem in raising a million dollars - we can do that - but it would be wrong." Haldeman said he was sure about his account because he joggged his memory by listening to the tape before testifying,.
The following month, the president was asked about it at a news conference. He said Haldeman's account was correct, and then added that he (Nixon) was concerned that the defendants would want clemency. "I said, `John, it's wrong, it won't work, we can't give clemency.' "
The actual conversation revealed something quite different. When Dean related the blackmail threat, Nixon followed up on it in great detail, sounding like a gangster in earnest.
"You could get a million dollars," the president said, "You could get it in cash. I know where it could be gotten. It is not easy, but it could be done. But the question is who the hell would handle it? Any ideas on that?"
Then Nixon and Dean continued to discuss the raising of hush money, consisting of eight pages in the transcript, with Nixon never saying there was anything wrong about it.
Finally, Dean said if the money were raised and given to the defendants, they would still want clemency, which would be "politically impossible. I'm not sure that you will ever be able to deliver on the clemency. It may be just too hot."
Nixon said, "You can't do it politically until after the '74 elections, that's for sure. Your point is that even then you couldn't do it." Dean said, "That's right. It may further involve you in a way you should not be involved in this." Nixon said, "No, it's wrong, that's for sure."
Nixon was not referring to raising a million dollars - and he was certainly not identifying `wrong' with morality.
He was talking only about self-serving politics.