Monday, June 06, 2005

Deep Throat

The coverage of the unveiling of Deep Throat would lead you to believe that it was his disclosures to Bob Woodward and the stories based on the leaks in the Washington Post that were the only key ingredients in the ouster of Richard Nixon as a consequence of the Watergate scandal.

I think this is a little misleading and overestimates the importance of the media in unravelling the cover-up. This analysis overlooks the fact that during the trial of those caught during the break-in the presiding judge, John J. Sirica expressed annoyance and skepticism at the stories the defendants told and put off sentencing of James McCord and G. Gordon Liddy in part to pressure them into revealing more of the story. On March 19, 1973 McCord, seeking to avoid jail time, sent Sirica a letter, which, among other things, named John Dean and John Mitchell as participants in a cover-up of the original crime and its ties to the Committee to Re-elect the President and the White House. As this chronology confirms, this was the moment that effectively brought the cover-up to an end, blowing the scandal wide open.

The Woodward/Bernstein articles did matter - my guess is that they influenced the thinking of Sirica - but it is important not to lose sight of the actual sequence of events.

The testimony of Alexander Butterfield at the Watergate Senate Committee hearings on July 16, 1973 that there was a White House taping system is what led to the disclosure of the contents of the tapes and hence Nixon’s resignation. Without the tapes, it seems unlikely there would have been sufficient votes to ensure Nixon’s impeachment and their disclosure resulted from the Senate investigation. I did see one of the Committee’s lawyers (on ABC News Nightline) arguing that without Deep Throat there would have been no Senate investigation. I doubt that. There was enough leakage on this story apart from Deep Throat and the Washington Post - a couple of times the New York Times scooped the Post - to lead me to believe that the Senate Democrats would have pursued this issue after the initial trials were over even if the issue had assumed a lower profile until that point.

I commented recently on the fact that Watergate was likely the worst of all government scandals in the past half century, far worse than the Sponsorship affair here.

What is amazing has been some of the collective amnesia today about how bad it was. This post by Obsidian Wings helps correct the record - note the contemplation of murder and fire-bombing.

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