Lately, my readings of Jonathan Aitken’s Nixon: A Life have focused on Watergate. I have two items.
1. Aitken seems to be open to the argument of Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin in Silent Coup that White House Counsel John Dean ordered the Watergate break-in to uncover information about a call-girl ring. Aitken said that he thought that the thesis was pretty far-fetched, until he talked with Gordon Liddy about it. Liddy would come to accept Silent Coup‘s thesis. When I first read that in another book, I was puzzled. Was not Liddy a major participant in the Watergate scandal? Wouldn’t he know at the outset that the Watergate break-in was ordered by Dean and was intended to uncover information about a call-girl ring, if that were indeed the truth? How could Liddy come to accept a new theory about Watergate, as if he were some dispassionate observer, rather than an actual participant?
It turns out that Liddy accepted Silent Coup‘s thesis because that made sense to him in retrospect. Liddy acknowledges that, while he was participating in Watergate, he did not know everything that was going on. On page 471, Aitken quotes Liddy as saying:
“Without doubt the man who commanded and conceived the Watergate operation was John Dean. Nixon and [Attorney General John] Mitchell had nothing whatever to do with it. I didn’t realize that at the time. Like most other people I was fooled by Dean’s facile lies. ‘Oh you don’t understand Mitchell’s ways’, he told me when I was assuming from everything Mitchell said to me that he wanted Gemstone aborted…[H]e didn’t tell anyone except Howard Hunt that what he was really after was the call-girl address book and a bug on the phones that were used to book the call girls. He duped Magruder on that one and he duped me. I remember Magruder saying to me, ‘what we want is what they’ve got right here’, pointing at the middle drawer of his own desk. Now he didn’t mean Larry O’Brien’s desk. When the Cubans went in they didn’t go near O’Brien’s office in the DNC. Hunt gave them their orders and on the second break-in they went straight to the office and the desk of a secretary called Maxie Wells. Our look-out post from the hotel over the road was angled to that office not to O’Brien’s…I thought I was involved in an operation that was politically important to the President. I now know it was an operation that was personally important to John Dean. Period.”
On the secretary, Maxie Wells, Aitken states: “According to Silent Coup, the FBI was able to establish that Wells’s desk was the burglars’ target, because when the burglars were being arrested, one had tried to conceal a key that fitted Wells’s desk. For some mysterious reason, this fact was ignored throughout the investigation of the break-in.”
Liddy’s claim that the Watergate burglars “didn’t go near O’Brien’s office in the DNC” stood out to me, for it recalled to my mind Joan Hoff’s claim in Nixon Reconsidered that “the Watergate burglars did not initially bug, nor were they subsequently caught in, O’Brien’s office” (page 305). That puzzles me because I have read in more than one biography of Nixon that the burglars indeed did break into Lawrence O’Brien’s office. Who’s right on this?
2. I’d like to turn my attention now to the topic of Deep Throat, the alleged inside source that was feeding Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein information about Watergate. Mark Felt claimed to be Deep Throat, and Woodward confirmed Felt’s claim. When Jonathan Aitken wrote Nixon: A Life, however, the identity of Deep Throat was still unknown. Aitken notes that Deep Throat told Woodward and Bernstein that material had been deliberately erased from the tapes, and this was before knowledge of the missing 18 and 1/2 minutes was widespread. For Aitken, that should narrow down the candidates for Deep Throat, for not many people were aware of the missing 18 and 1/2 minutes. Those who were aware included Nixon, Rose Mary Woods, Al Haig, Fred Buzhardt, Steve Bull, and Major General John C. Bennett (deputy to Haig). Aitken excludes Nixon and Woods from being Deep Throat because he doubts that they would leak stories about themselves. Aitken also believes that Deep Throat was probably the person who deliberately erased the 18 and 1/2 minutes, since “none of the remaining four should have had knowledge, at the time of the Deep Throat-Woodward conversation, that the gap had been caused by deliberate erasures” (page 512).
How can what Aitken says be reconciled with Mark Felt being Deep Throat? Incidentally, it’s on account of these sorts of issues (among other things) that Ann Coulter doubts that Mark Felt even was Deep Throat, notwithstanding what Felt and Woodward said. In this column, she states: ” The fictional Deep Throat knew things Felt could not possibly have known, such as the 18 1/2-minute gap on one of the White House tapes. Only six people knew about the gap when Woodward reported it. All of them worked at the White House. Felt not only didn’t work at the White House, but when the story broke, he also didn’t even work at the FBI anymore.”
This article puzzles over how Felt could have known about the missing 18 and 1/2 minutes and raises a possible solution: “How did Mark Felt know about the deliberate erasures on the tape when Rose Mary Woods herself did not discover the added soft-buzz erasures until November 6, 1973? Did the theorized White House lawyer somehow tip off Felt after making the soft-buzz erasures?” In this scenario, Deep Throat was not the one who made the erasures, but a White House lawyer who allegedly made some of the erasures may have tipped Felt off about them.