Listening to Nixon Fall
A Watergate Summer
As many commenters compare contemporary politics to the series of events that finally caused Ricahrd M. Nixon to resign the presidency on August 9, 1974, two years into his second term, memories of the Watergate Hearings are being shared regularly. Public Seminar has been given permission to publish an excerpt from art historian and queer studies scholar Douglas Crimp’s new book, Before Pictures (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), an autobiographical and cultural history of New York in the 1960s and `70s.
In the spring 1973, I learned that I had been awarded a three-thousand-dollar Art Critics Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. It was only the second round of NEA fellowships for individuals and my third year of writing criticism, so I considered myself incredibly lucky. Three thousand dollars was a lot of money in 1973; my entire annual salary when I started at the Guggenheim Museum in 1968 was forty-two-hundred dollars, and I wasn’t making much more than that five years later. So I decided to splurge on the summer share, move to Water Island for the first two months of the summer, and then visit Christian in Europe. I sublet my apartment in Greenwich Village and transferred my unemployment benefits to the Patchogue office, which meant that I had to take a ferry across the bay from Davis Park once every two weeks to declare officially that I’d been unable to find work; needless to say, art-history teaching jobs were scarce at the beach.
Water Island was quite unlike other towns on Fire Island. Since there was no electricity, only the soft glow of kerosene lamps emanated from the houses at night; no electricity also meant there were neither televisions nor stereos blaring dance music. Refrigerators ran on propane, which also fueled bright lights to cook by. There were no stores or restaurants; groceries were ordered from a supermarket in Patchogue and sent by ferry and beach taxi directly to the house. I felt like we had the best of both worlds: sufficient convenience and comfort, together with a genuine sense of getting away from it all. Water Island wasn’t a gay destination like the Pines or, further west, Cherry Grove, but it was gay enough. Kenneth, the hairdresser famous for creating Jacqueline Kennedy’s bouffant hairstyle, had a house there, and so did fashion designer Perry Ellis, who flew by seaplane to and from the city to work each weekday. Though I had heard a rumor that Water Island was where the Zoli Agency’s male models summered, the truth, in my experience, was that a lone aging blond, recognizable from Van Heusen shirt ads, could often be seen there. In any case, the little community did include a small gay population in 1973, and, moreover, the Pines wasn’t far away. We often walked the hour or so down the beach to the Pines harbor for tea dance at the Boatel and, after watching the sun set over the bay and picking up whatever last-minute groceries we might need at the Pines Pantry, headed back to Water Island to make dinner. Despite our ambitious intention to return later at night to dance at the Ice Palace in the Grove, we never did. It was just too pleasant to stay in our cozy little community and turn in early.
My time in Water Island that summer coincided almost to the day with the nationally televised Senate Watergate hearings, which opened May 17 and concluded the first and most important round on August 7. The break-in at the Democratic National Headquarters in Washington’s Watergate complex had taken place the previous June, and information tying the “third-rate burglary attempt” to the Nixon White House and its pattern of dirty tricks was revealed piecemeal throughout the ensuing year, even as Nixon was re-elected in the largest landslide in the history of the American presidency. I became something of a Watergate junkie, savoring every sordid, bizarre revelation (E. Howard Hunt disguised in a cheap red wig to interview Dita Beard, Martha Mitchell held “political prisoner” in her hotel room at the Newporter Inn) and was overjoyed when, in mid-March, convicted burglar James McCord broke ranks and sent a letter to the Watergate trial judge exposing the White House cover-up. In quick succession acting F.B.I. Director L. Patrick Gray, III, himself culpable, told the Senate committee considering his nomination to be permanent Director that the President’s counsel, John W. Dean, III (so many WASPy guys with their grandfather’s names!) lied during the investigation of the burglary; unwilling to be made the scapegoat Dean promised to divulge the whole story; and Jeb Stuart Magruder, second in command at the Committee to Re-Elect the President (whose wonderfully apposite acronym was CREEP), confessed to lying to the Grand Jury. On April 17 Nixon held a press conference to announce that he had begun “intensive new inquiries into this whole matter” and that “real progress has been made in finding the truth.” His press secretary, Ron Ziegler, having either unequivocally or equivocally denied every Watergate revelation that appeared in the media for the better part of a year, then uttered one of scandal’s many memorable lines: “This is the operative statement. The others are inoperative.” The new statement didn’t stay operative for long. Within two weeks, former Attorney General and Nixon campaign manager John Mitchell and campaign finance chairman Maurice Stans were indicted for obstructing a federal investigation into illegal campaign donations by Nixon pal and fugitive from justice Robert Vesco, Dean was fired, and Nixon announced the resignations of White House Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman and Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs John Ehrlichman, known variously as the Prussians, Hans and Fritz, the brush and the brows, the German Shepherds, and the Berlin wall.
These were the events that immediately preceded the hearings presided over by the folksy, contradictory old Southern Senator Sam Ervin, opponent of racial desegregation, supporter of civil liberties, who famously declared that the Watergate burglars “were in effect breaking into the home of every citizen in the United States,” seeking to steal “the right to vote in a free election.” In the two weeks of hearings leading up to Memorial Day, convicted burglars McCord and Bernard Barker and a few other minor characters testified. The real fireworks began on the third week, the week I moved to the beach. No longer did Water Island’s lack of electricity, and thus television, seem like such an advantage, but I made do with a transistor radio. Day after day throughout June I could be found more or less alone on the beach with my ear glued to a little box broadcasting the historic events. Damning facts came out in the testimonies of the disarmingly decent CREEP treasurer Hugh Sloan and his far less honorable or forthcoming boss, Nixon fundraiser Stans. Most had to do with large amounts of cash that CREEP collected and then used to pay the Watergate burglars, first for their services, then for their silence. A new law regulating campaign financing, the Federal Election Campaign Act, had taken effect in the middle of the election season in April 1972; because it required disclosure of contributions to candidates for federal office, there was a mad rush at CREEP to collect contributions before that date in order to keep them secret. Stans vociferously defended the secrecy and the destruction of CREEP fundraising records immediately following the Watergate break-in, which led to a priceless exchange between Ervin and the one resolute Nixonite committee member, Edward Gurney, Republican of Florida. When Stans justified the use of CREEP money for a relatively minor deceptive purpose by saying, “I am not sure this is the first time this has happened in American politics,” Ervin responded, “You know, there has been murder and larceny in every generation, but that hasn’t made murder meritorious or larceny legal.” Gurney protested “the harassment of this witness,” which elicited from Ervin: “I am sorry that my friend from Florida does not approve of my method of examining the witness. I am an old country lawyer and I don’t know the finer ways to do it.”
Magruder followed Stans on the witness stand. He admitted that he had wrongly justified the wiretaps, the enemies list, and the rest of the sinister shenanigans of the White House “Plumber’s Unit” — so-called because its main mission was to plug leaks — by equating them to the anti-war movement’s acts of civil disobedience. Magruder studied ethics at Williams College with none other than William Sloane Coffin, whom he claimed to admire. If Coffin could support the illegal act of burning draft cards, why, he reasoned, shouldn’t the White House employ illegal means to stamp out dissent. Ervin appeared sympathetic: “You were disturbed at the demonstrations, weren’t you, the people at the White House?” “Yes, sir, we were,” Magruder replied. Ervin’s reply:
I am familiar with that kind of atmosphere. I came up here during the Joe McCarthy days when Joe McCarthy saw a communist hiding under every rose bush and I have been fighting the no-knock laws and preventive detention laws and indiscriminate bugging by people who’ve found subversives hiding under every bed. In this nation, we have had a very unfortunate fear. And this fear went to the extent of deploring the exercise of personal rights for those who wanted to assemble and petition the Government for redress of grievances.
When Dean began his five days of testimony on June 25 with a 245-page statement, his very first words confirmed Ervin’s assessment: “The Watergate matter was an inevitable outgrowth of a climate of excessive concern over the political impact of demonstrations, excessive concern over leaks, an insatiable appetite for political intelligence, all coupled with a do-it-yourself White House staff, regardless of the law.” His detailed narrative of his own and others’ involvement in the Watergate cover-up unfolded methodically, building ultimately to the description of his March 21 meeting with Nixon in which, he reported, “I began by telling the President that there was a cancer growing on the Presidency and that if the cancer was not removed the President himself would likely be killed by it.” Nixon’s response was “that he was very impressed with [Dean’s] knowledge of the circumstances but he did not seem particularly concerned with their implications.” It’s hard to understand why Dean was surprised at Nixon’s heedlessness, since he had already reported that when he told Nixon that the convicted Watergate burglars were demanding more and more money to keep quiet, as much as a million dollars or more, Nixon replied that “that was no problem.” Senate committee member Lowell Weicker summarized the criminal acts engaged in by the White House to which Dean testified:
conspiracy to obstruct justice, conspiracy to intercept wire or oral communications, subornation of perjury, conspiracy to obstruct a criminal investigation, conspiracy to destroy evidence, conspiracy to file false sworn statements, conspiracy to commit breaking and entering, burglary, interception of wire and oral communications, obstruction of criminal investigation, attempted interference with administration of the internal revenue laws and attempted unauthorized use of internal revenue information.
Although the ultimate significance of Dean’s testimony was its thoroughgoing indictment of Nixon and his two closest aides, Haldeman and Erlichman, it was the occasional revelation of pathetic degrees of paranoia and harebrained schemes that made listening to the young lawyer’s droning voice addictively entertaining, if also chilling. Right off the bat Dean told the story of the President seeing a lone antiwar demonstrator across the street in Lafayette Park and ordering him removed. Nixon’s appointments secretary Dwight Chapin told Dean he would get some thugs to take care of it. More ominously, following the New York Times publication of the Pentagon Papers, Charles Colson, Special Council to the President, ordered that the Brookings Institution be firebombed so that in the ensuing chaos it would be possible to retrieve other leaked documents presumed to be there. Then came the story of Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy’s first in a series of proposals that eventuated in the Watergate break in.
Plans called for mugging squads, kidnapping teams, prostitutes to compromise the opposition, and electronic surveillance. He explained that the mugging squad could, for example, rough up demonstrators that were causing problems. The kidnapping teams could remove demonstration leaders and take them below the Mexican border. The prostitutes could be used at the Democratic convention to get information as well as compromise the person involved.
Liddy turned up next in Dean’s testimony posing for a photograph in front of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office before breaking into it. The Plumber’s Unit was hoping to dig up dirt in Ellsberg’s psychiatric records, but the burglars failed to locate Ellsberg’s file. In the event, just before the Watergate hearings began, espionage charges against Ellsberg and Anthony Russo for leaking the Pentagon Papers were thrown out of court because of the government’s illegal evidence gathering. News of the psychiatrist’s office break-in surfaced during the Ellsberg/Russo trial, but Dean’s testimony made clear that Erlichman ordered it. It was, in fact, the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 that led to the creation of the Plumber’s Unit, but Nixon’s siege mentality and the cockamamie schemes hatched by his cronies were well established by the time Dean was invited to become a member of the White House staff in mid-l970.
My favorite among these stories wasn’t included in the testimony Dean gave to the Senate committee; for this one we had to wait for his memoir, Blind Ambition. On Dean’s first day on the job in July of 1970, his friend Egil Krogh, Jr., aide to Erlichman and eventual chief Plumber, took Dean on a tour of the White House. In the basement of the East Wing was what Krogh referred to as the President’s bomb shelter, ideal, he said, for monitoring political demonstrations. Dean found this puzzling. How could you monitor what was going on in the streets of Washington from a basement bunker? Dean returned there only once, he said, “for a secret screening of Tricia’s Wedding, a pornographic movie portraying Tricia Nixon’s wedding to Ed Cox, in drag. Haldeman wanted the movie killed, so a very small group of White House officials watched the cavorting transvestites in order to weigh the case for suppression.”[i] Dean is referring, of course, to the film by the Cockettes, the San Francisco performance collective. To call the Cockettes transvestites is a bit off the mark. The Cockettes’ style was psychedelic gender-fuck — thrift-shop dresses, full beards, and lots of glitter — and in addition to men there were also women and babies in the group. They developed a cult following for their midnight shows at the Palace Theater in North Beach with titles like Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma and Journey to the Center of Uranus. The Cockettes made Tricia’s Wedding as a spoof version, before the fact, of the televised wedding of Nixon’s elder daughter. Like all of the Cockettes’ performances, Tricia’s Wedding is a good-natured, amateurish, irreverent romp. Its cast of characters is long: Tricia Nixon and Edward Cox, Richard and Pat Nixon, of course, Julie Nixon Eisenhower, Mamie Eisenhower, Martha Mitchell, Madame Nu, Billy Graham, Coretta Scott King, Pope Paul…. My favorite is Rose Kennedy as played by Pristine Condition. Passed out drunk in her wheelchair throughout, every time she’s awakened, she looks startled and asks, slurring her words, “Is it a funeral?” Eartha Kitt spikes the punch with LSD, and the whole roster of wedding guests—also including B.B. Rebozo, Phyllis Diller, Indira Gandhi, Jackie Onassis, Queen Elizabeth, Prince Charles, Mahalia Jackson, and Golda Meir — take part in an orgy. Imagine all those buttoned-up Nixonites huddled together in the basement of the East Wing watching the Cockettes’ send-up the White House wedding — and trying to figure out how to put a stop to such dangerously subversive activities!
I don’t remember if I was listening to the hearings when the information that would eventually lead to Nixon’s downfall was revealed, nor am I sure I would have grasped how momentous the information was. It was July 16. Alexander Butterfield explained to the Committee that he was the White House deputy “in charge of the smooth running of the President’s day.” He had several other administrative duties, among which was “supervision of the Office of Presidential Papers and the Office of Special Files.” It was in that capacity that Haldeman enlisted him, at Nixon’s request, to install tape-recording devices in the Oval Office and throughout the White House and in the President’s offices in the Executive Office Building and at Camp David. As Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward put it in All the President’s Men, “Nixon bugged himself.”[ii] “There was no doubt in my mind,” Butterfield testified, “that they were installed to record things for posterity.” Little did he know!
At the end of July — and the end of my stay in Fire Island — Erlichman and Haldeman testified, protesting their innocence and putting the blame on Dean, whose testimony they claimed was self-serving. Buddies from their college days at UCLA, both of them Eagle Scouts and both Christian Scientists, they took the same tack: There was no paranoia, no climate of fear at the White House; there was a healthy concern about matters of national security. Having more important matters of state to deal with, they paid little attention to the Watergate break-in story. What they knew they knew through Dean’s reports to them, and Dean hadn’t told them the truth. Erlichman’s demeanor was contemptuous — and contemptible. He snarled his answers to the committee members. Haldeman was less contemptuous but no less contemptible. I was sure that both were lying, but I wasn’t sure they wouldn’t get away with it, and so it was dispiriting to listen to them. Anyway, as the summer wore on, I became more interested in the boys at the beach than the goings on in Washington. In the meantime I had run through a lot of batteries to keep my transistor radio playing day in and day out for over a month.
[i] John W. Dean, III, Blind Ambition: The White House Years (Newe York: Simon and Schuster, 1976), 29.
[ii] Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, All the President’s Men (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1974), 331.