June 17 is a unique and special day

This week’s Friday, June 17, is a red-letter day.

One reason is that it’s my brother Bill’s birthday. Happy B-day ending in a zero, bro. You’ll never catch me.

Another is that it’s Bunker Hill Day. On June 17, 1775, the British stormed American Revolutionary Army fortifications on Bunker Hill (actually on Breed’s Hill) in Boston, defeating the colonial troops in battle costly to both sides. Massachusetts still commemorates Bunker Hill Day.

The third reason is that 50 years ago, on June 17, 1972, security guard Frank Wills noticed masking tape holding a door latch open between the parking garage and a stairwell at the Watergate hotel and office complex in Washington, DC. He removed the tape but a short time later noticed the lock had been taped again. Wills called police, and they arrested five intruders on the sixth floor, inside the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee. 

And “Watergate” became a household word.

A pair of head-scratchers about the break-in continue to perplex many historians and political junkies, like me, half a century after the crime. 

– First, why did the Nixon team do it?

A Gallup Poll in July 1972, a few weeks after the break-in, showed Nixon leading Democratic candidate George McGovern 53 percent to 34 percent. Nixon eventually amassed a popular vote margin of 61 percent to 38 percent in the November election. That’s 23 percentage points. It was the biggest popular vote presidential election landslide in American history. McGovern carried Massachusetts and the District of Columbia; Nixon won everywhere else.

In retrospect, the Committee to Re-elect the President – acronym CREP, pronounced “creep”– could have bought a bunch of quarter-page newspaper ads, made two or three continuous-loop TV spots, sent Nixon surrogates to rallies around the nation the last four months before the November election, and called it good.

But incumbent President Nixon was so obviously going to win by the summer of 1972 that fund-raising was going unbelievably well. The GOP had money to burn. One rationale for the break-in, far-fetched as it may seem, is that campaign leaders and operatives needed something to do to justify their existence.

So they got the band back together again, reactivating the secret White House operatives known as The Plumbers. 

Nine months earlier, in September 1971, The Plumbers had burgled the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist. Ellsberg had broken ranks from a consulting team that had been hired by the Defense Department to analyze the true state of the current American war effort in Vietnam, and what the consultants found wasn’t pretty. Their report showed that the American people were being fed a tale about the war much more optimistic than the true situation.

The White House wanted to stop government leaks like Ellsberg’s – hence the name “The Plumbers.” 

The psychiatrist’s office burglars’ caper failed to turn up anything on Ellsberg. But it seemed like such a good idea that CREP, and its henchmen in the Nixon White House, sent The Plumbers on a similar assignment to Democratic headquarters at The Watergate. 

Like their previous venture, The Plumbers’ summer 1972 operations failed – but with much more consequential results.

The Watergate burglary and resulting cover-up sent 19 Nixon administration and campaign operatives, including those at the very top, to prison, and forced the resignation in August 1974 of President Nixon, the only President ever to step down in that fashion.

The thing was, they didn’t have to do it. They could have won by sitting on their hands. They should have.

Second, why did the White House and the campaign continue their feckless attempt to cover up the crime?

In retrospect once again, had CREP and the Administration fessed up, fired the guilty parties both on the campaign committee and in the White House, and apologized sincerely to America, it’s likely that Nixon would still have won an overwhelming victory. 

But Nixon insisted on trying to keep the truth under wraps, and it didn’t work. Fledgling Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein dug into the story, mesmerized the American public with sensational nugget after nugget as they peeled the layers back, and changed American politics forever. 

To this day the names of the top dogs in the administration and on the campaign committee continue to reside on the American history wall of shame: John Mitchell, Bob Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, G. Gordon Liddy, James McCord, Jeb Stuart Magruder, Donald Segretti, and unindicted coconspirator Richard Nixon himself, together with many more.

It’s hard to argue with the theory that overweening pride undergirded both the cause of the Watergate break-in and the refusal to admit the crime and apologize. The Nixon campaign leadership didn’t want just to defeat McGovern; they wanted utterly to bury his candidacy. That’s what happened anyway – but it took place without whatever information the Watergate burglary might have provided.

Less than two years after Nixon’s huge re-election victory in November 1972 he was on his way out of Washington on a helicopter after resigning the presidency, thanks to the Washington Post, the special Senate committee that investigated the affair, and the Oval Office tape recordings that the Supreme Court prevented Nixon from hiding away.

By then Nixon avoided impeachment and conviction only because he chose to resign. Leading Republican Senators informed him that otherwise he would be tossed out of office by bipartisan votes in the House and Senate. 

Had he cleaned up his act after Watergate became known, it’s likely he would still have won re-election in November 1972 and, although somewhat tarnished, served out his second term as President. He thought instead he could mastermind a successful cover-up. He was wrong.

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