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Working It Out

Nixon Watch

In late September and early October, when the President and his principal associates appeared to have persuaded themselves that he was going to survive the scandals that continued to beset him and Vice President Agnew was saying that he would never resign and that the charges against him were "damned lies," the atmosphere at the Nixon White House was a strange mix of confidence and of a quantity that was close to but not quite despair. The confidence arose in part from signs that the Senate Watergate committee's investigation was petering out and that the country in any event was bored with Watergate and all that it connoted; in part from a realization that a President, no matter how beleaguered, who was as determined as Mr. Nixon clearly was to hold onto his office and to make a show of power and impregnability had enormous advantages that were likely to be proof against worse troubles than any that this President had yet experienced or been threatened with. Sadness, frustration, helplessness were among the words that I heard used at the White House to describe a countervailing sense that recovery from the depths to which the President and his staff establishment were reduced last April and May could never be complete. It was a sense, a fear, that the prolonged process of rumor, suspicion, allegation and evidence of wrongdoing would never end. It seemed to the assistants whose accounts and impressions are reflected here, and it must have seemed to the President, that there was always something new in print or in the air that had to be denied, ignored or minimized.

The something new when Spiro Agnew succumbed and quit was a report, derived originally from testimony in civil suits against and involving Howard Hughes, the billionaire recluse, that the President's wealthy friend and occasional benefactor, C. G. (Bebe) Rebozo, accepted $100,000 in two cash payments from hirelings of Hughes in 1969 and 1970. Although the money was supposed to have been contributed for political campaign purposes, the report had it that Rebozo kept the $100,000 in cash in safety deposit boxes until he decided to return it to Hughes this year. Investigators for the Senate Watergate committee, the Internal Revenue Service and special Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox looked into the matter. Deputy Press Secretary Gerald Warren was constrained to say for Mr. Nixon at the White House that "the President personally did not receive any such money." Warren declined to answer when he was asked whether the President was sufficiently interested in the report to ask his friend Bebe about it and about sworn testimony in the civil suits that Hughes regarded the payments as contributions to Mr. Nixon for his political benefit. It was at the President's personal insistence and orders that White House accounts of the purchase of his California estate at San Clemente omitted for more than three years any reference to the important parts that Rebozo and a much wealthier Nixon friend, Robert Abplanalp, played in financing an acquisition that the President, according to his own account, could not have managed without their help. The Rebozo-Hughes transaction was particularly embarrassing because the disclosure of it coincided with official reference to a characteristic that Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew have in common. In a brutally detailed summary of the evidence of bribery, extortion and income tax evasion that federal prosecutors in Maryland were ready to bring against Agnew, the Department of Justice said that some of the government witnesses attributed his readiness to accept cash payoffs when he was a county executive and governor of Maryland to his belief "that his public position required him to adopt a standard of living beyond his means."

There was understandable reluctance at the White House to acknowledge the President's debt to the Senate Watergate committee and its staff. It was pleasanter and more heartening to put the apparent waning of the Watergate investigation down to weakness of the case against the President and his administration than it was to blame the committee's ineptitude. But one of the occasions for the revival of confidence around the President was in fact a demonstration of that ineptitude. The President personally congratulated and thanked Patrick Buchanan, a special consultant and one of the few true believers and (conservative) ideologues left on the Nixon staff of pragmatic doers and bumblers, upon his televised performance before the committee. Buchanan routed his interrogators with a hitherto unmatched display of bravado and cynicism. He also provided an opportunity, which the committee and its staff characteristically over- looked, to examine and challenge Mr. Nixon's basic assertion last April 30 that he could be as ignorant as he claimed to be of the outrages that were perpetrated in his behalf during his 1972 campaign for reelection because he had "to the maximum extent possible . . . sought to delegate campaign operations, to remove the day-to-day campaign decisions from the President's office and from the White House." When Buchanan was asked why campaign memoranda that he had written had been withheld from the committee on the ground that they were privileged presidential documents, he answered: " . . . I think that's not unreasonable in light of the fact that many of the memoranda are to the President of the United States. Many of the memoranda deal with recommendations for presidential action. Many of the memoranda were prepared at the direction of the President." Buchanan said later that his memos generally dealt with overall campaign strategy and didn't contradict the President's claim of detachment from campaign tactics. I continue to believe, however, though I cannot prove, that the persisting strain of unease and uncertainty at the White House arises in some part from unacknowledged awareness that the President's protective version of his campaign role is false and subject to exposure and disproof that would be disastrous for him.

IT WAS IN this atmosphere of mingled confidence and apprehension around the President that Spiro Agnew approached, fought off, backed away from and finally accepted a deal with his prospective prosecutors and, certainly in an ultimate and probably in a literal sense, with his President. At a press conference in Washington the day after Agnew resigned and, without pleading guilty, admitted his guilt in one in- stance of income tax evasion. Attorney General Elliot Richardson removed any cause for doubt that the President concluded last summer, after he learned that serious charges against his Vice President were in the making, that his—Mr. Nixon's—best interests would be served if he got rid of his Vice President. Richardson did this when he said that Fred Buzhardt, one of the President's White House lawyers, first asked the attorney general whether he was willing to work out a deal with the Vice President's lawyers and that, throughout the subsequent negotiations, Mr. Nixon approved "the general direction and the fundamental basis on which the matter was being handled." The President said on August 22 that he believed Agnew to be innocent of any wrongdoing after he became Vice President and on October 3 that "the charges . . . do not relate in any way to his activities as Vice President." This was true of the formal charges but not of the evidence that the Justice Department summarized and published on October 10. According to that evidence Vice President Agnew sought and accepted substantial cash sums from Maryland contractors after he was inaugurated in 1969. It was desperately important to the President, one gathers, that his Vice President be formally accused and convicted only of offenses that were committed before he became Richard Nixon's man.

Spiro Agnew, that valiant exponent of the work ethic and of Nixonian law and order, is in disgrace, gone from the administration, on probation for three years and liable to federal imprisonment during that period if he misbehaves. He has, as the attorney general said in justifying the negotiated deal, saved the Nixon presidency and the country from a rending time of prosecution and trial. The crushing record of extortion and welcomed bribes that the Justice Department summary of the evidence sets forth makes sorrow for Agnew impossible and the compassion that the attorney general recommends difficult. There will be cries—there were some at the attorney general's explanatory press conference—that the lenient treatment of Agnew demonstrates once again that the law is kinder to the powerful than it is to the weak. A fair judgment is that the country is well rid of a crooked Vice President and fortunate in being spared the agony of a criminal trial or impeachment proceeding. In the wake of Agnew's going a proper prayer is that the President who so dismally failed in 1968 and 1972 to offer the electorate a fit and qualified vice-presidential nominee comes up now with a successor who is fit to be President and who deserves the necessary approval of the House and Senate. For the choice, after all, we are dependent upon a President who until quite recently was asking some of his assistants how they rated the chances that he might be impeached and removed from office.