In my latest reading of Nixon: The Triumph of a Politician, 1962-1972, Stephen Ambrose begins his discussion of the Watergate scandal. He tells us at the outset that so much has been written about the Watergate scandal, and that his aim is not to try to go into every nook-and-cranny of it. Rather, Ambrose will focus on the effects of the scandal on Nixon, the man.
In my post here about volume 2 of Richard Nixon’s memoirs, I referred to Nixon’s narration that he was baffled that anyone would break into the headquarters for the Democratic National Committee, for “Anyone who knew anything about politics would know that a national committee headquarters was a useless place to go for inside information on a presidential campaign” (page 113). Ambrose does not buy this, though, for Ambrose notes that Nixon was often interested in the activities of DNC chairman Larry O’Brien. Does that mean that Nixon ordered the break-in? Ambrose acknowledges that there is no evidence that Nixon ordered it, and Ambrose says that his own view is that Attorney General John Mitchell was the person behind it. But Ambrose does not appear to let Nixon off the hook, for his argument seems to be that Nixon contributed to the atmosphere that was conducive to the Watergate break-in. Mitchell, after all, was aware that Nixon wanted information about O’Brien.
One of my high school history teachers said that, had Nixon simply come clean at the outset and acknowledged that some of his aides were behind the break-in, Watergate would not have degenerated into a major scandal. Ambrose disagrees with this point-of-view, however. Ambrose says on page 563:
“Why did not Nixon just admit that his people had attempted to bug the DNC and got caught? Could he not have accepted the responsibility, defending himself by pointing out that Kennedy and Johnson regularly bugged their political opponents, apologized, and with that be done with Watergate? Despite the persistence with which that question is asked, that option did not exist. In such a political charged atmosphere, no judge was going to accept the claim that this was just a boys-will-be-boys prank, and even the most cursory examination into the break-in would have led to the whole Liddy-Hunt operation, thus to the Plumbers, thus to the break-in at Dr. Fielding’s office in the Ellsberg affair, thus to all the other black-bag operations. The cover-up had to cover not only the Watergate break-in, but all the other illegal activities. To admit to one could lead to all.”
In short, uncover Watergate, and you uncover more junk inside of the Nixon Administration!