How We Got Here: The White House Horrors

Part Three in a series; see parts one and two.

Once upon a time, John Mitchell had been Washington’s second-most powerful man. As Attorney General, his jowly, pipe-smoking visage embodied Richard Nixon’s version of “law and order,” a ruthless crackdown on radicals and demonstrators, murderers and drug users by means fair or foul, legal or illegal (including wiretaps, no-knock, warrant-less entries and agents provocateur). He once told a reporter “This country is going so far to the Right you’re not going to recognize it”; his response to environmentalism was “rounding up every birdwatcher in the country”; he claimed the Black Panthers and the antiwar movement were foreign puppet. A perfect hero for the Silent Majority, an ideal hate figure to liberals and leftists – in short, the quintessential Nixon official.

In marked contrast was his wife Martha, an eccentric Southern belle with a big mouth and strange habits that embarrassed her husband. When not badmouthing Nixon’s enemies, she caused scenes by drinking publicly and called reporters at night to air various grievances. Mitchell loyally defended his wife, saying that “She loves me and I love her and that’s all that matters.” Reporter Mark Goodman, in recounting Watergate, admitted that “We did not listen to Martha Mitchell, and we paid for it.”

Martha Julie
Martha Mitchell (right) with Julie Nixon Eisenhower

It was Mrs. Mitchell who, in June 1972, called Helen Thomas insisting that “I’m going to leave [John] unless he gets out of the campaign” and dropping hints about White House complicity in Watergate. Then Thomas heard Martha scream “You just get away!” before the phone went dead. When Thomas called back, an operator simply told her that “Mrs. Mitchell is indisposed.” Thomas later learned that a Secret Service agent had ripped Martha’s phone out of the wall and sedated her on the orders of CRP official Fred LaRue.

Now Mrs. Mitchell called herself “a political prisoner” and claimed that Nixon was framing her husband. She was absolutely right; Nixon and his aides wanted to pass blame onto Mitchell, whom John Ehrlichman called “the big enchilada.” Knowing Mitchell was loyal to a fault, they didn’t expect any resistance. And when Mitchell finally appeared before the Ervin Committee, on July 10th, he proved their most contentious witness so far.

Mitchell Color
John Mitchell, outlaw Attorney General

Throughout his three-day testimony, Mitchell displayed naked contempt for his interrogators. Daniel Inouye, for instance, asked him about Gordon Liddy’s proposed Gemstone operation. “Your office…had pursued the indictment of American citizens who had discussed the kidnapping of Dr. Kissinger,” the Senator from Hawaii noted, referencing Mitchell’s prosecution of antiwar priest Philip Berrigan. “Is there any difference between the discussion of kidnapping and a discussion of these criminal activities in your office?”

“Senator, I think you have stopped very far short in connection with the activities in the indictment that you referred to,” Mitchell groused. “There were overt actions in connection with that as well as discussions” (though the case was thrown out as Berrigan’s plans, whether serious or speculative, never advanced beyond vague hints in letters exchanged with comrades).

“Why did you not, as the Attorney General of the United States, advise the President of these meetings?” Inouye pressed.

Mitchell responded: “For the very simple reason that I assumed, and had every reason to believe, that these matters were over and done with…and that was the end of them.”

Mitchell Testify

Then Inouye drove to the heart of the matter: “Mr. Mitchell, if the reelection of President Nixon was so important that you were willing to engage in activities which have been well-described as being irregular to ensure his reelection, I think a question lies in many minds at this time. To what length are you now willing to go to deceive in an effort to avoid further implication that of the President in the activities under investigation by this panel? More specifically, are you willing to lie to protect the President?”

Mitchell evaded the question. “I do not have to make that choice because, to my knowledge, the President was not knowledgeable, certainly about the Watergate, or certainly knowledgeable about anything to do with the cover-up, if that’s the phrase that we are using.” While he continually referred to illicit activities he termed “the White House horrors,” Mitchell insisted that the President knew nothing about them.

He wasn’t any more forthright with Lowell Weicker, who asked Mitchell whether “in hindsight you should have thrown [Liddy] out of your office.” “Out of the window,” Mitchell corrected. While the Attorney General admitted that entertaining Liddy’s plan was a “grievous error,” he squirmed and evaded when asked why he had invited Liddy back to his office for follow-up meetings.

Lowell Weicker

“I find it inconceivable, unless there seems to be at least some willingness to share a portion of the mentality, that you didn’t go ahead and have the fellow arrested for even suggesting this to the Attorney General of the United States,” Weicker huffed. When Mitchell again evaded his question, Weicker posed that “For suggesting illegal acts to the Attorney General of the United States, I think that is probably grounds for arrest.”

“Do you really, Senator?” Mitchell retorted with bitter sarcasm. “I do,” Weicker insisted. “I would have some doubts,” Mitchell responded, again defending his inaction. “It never occurred to me that anybody would carry out such activities, particularly without any authorization to do so.”

After further such exchanges, Weicker asked “is there anything else in this country, besides the President of the United States, that puts you in awe, Mr. Mitchell?” “There are many, many things,” Mitchell affirmed. “Does your oath as an attorney put you into awe?” “Very much so.”

Mitchell Reporters

“Do you feel as an officer of the court you did the right thing” in not notifying prosecutors about the Plumbers raiding the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, Weicker demanded. Mitchell growled back, “I think in retrospect, it would have been the right thing to do.”

Weicker thus concluded his questioning, leaving the Attorney General admitting to, at best, moral dereliction as the day’s coverage ended. Just before the cameras and microphones cut out, Mitchell stood up and barked, “This is a very great trial that’s being conducted here, isn’t it?”

Ervin Microphone
Sam Ervin gets tough

It was Sam Ervin, on the third day of testimony, who finally cut through Mitchell’s defiance. “Aren’t you convinced, or rather haven’t you testified that if you had acquainted the President at the time you acquired such knowledge of those matters with what you call the White House horrors, the President would have undertaken to see that the laws relating to those matters were faithfully executed?” Ervin asked.

“I feel quite certain that would have been the case,” Mitchell responded.

“So,” the Chairman continued, “isn’t it an inescapable conclusion that you exalted the political fortunes of the President before the President’s responsibility to perform his constitutional duties to see that the laws were faithfully executed?”

Mitchell hesitated before responding, as if the gravity of the situation had finally, after three days of spitting fire at the Committee, hit him. Emotionally he answered: “I think that is a reasonable interpretation of the subject matter and, of course, upon reflection it is a very serious one.”

Richard A. Moore, who couldn’t recall

Mitchell’s testimony offered dramatic sparks but few revelations, aside from confirming that Nixon’s former Attorney General was himself a crook. Nor did the next witness, Richard A. Moore, a white-haired, jovial associate counsel whom Aaron Latham called “so deadeningly verbose that he made one long for the silence of a Gordon Liddy.” Moore spent most of his testimony insisting to aggressive Dash aide Terry Lenzner that he couldn’t recall much anything about his time in the White House.

Then, in a twist worthy of Perry Mason, the Committee revealed that they were presenting a surprise witness on Monday, July 16th: Alexander Butterfield, a former career Air Force officer, aide to Bob Haldeman, now director of the Federal Aviation Administration, who possessed knowledge of a “White House horror” unknown even to John Mitchell. After he took the stand, Richard Nixon’s downfall became a matter of time.

Alexander Butterfield, who knew

On July 13th, Alexander Butterfield arrived for a “routine interview” with Senate staff about Watergate. Though Butterfield played no role in the scandal, he had been Nixon’s appointments secretary for three years and had an intimate access to the President matched only by Haldeman and Nixon’s personal secretary, Rosemary Woods. Butterfield told his wife Charlotte, “If tapes are brought up, I think the best thing for me to do is wing it…if it’s a direct question, I think I’m going to have to say, ‘yes there are tapes.”

Butterfield sat down for question with Donald G. Sanders, the deputy Republican counsel, and Scott Armstrong, one of Dash’s investigators. After Armstrong asked Butterfield several indirect questions, Sanders decided to be blunt. “Was there ever any other kind of taping system in the president’s office?” Butterfield paused, then sighed, “I was hoping you all wouldn’t ask me that question.” Further prodding by Sanders forced Butterfield to concede that “There was a taping system at the White House.”

Ever since John Dean’s testimony a few weeks earlier, when he hinted that Nixon recorded several of their conversations, the committee wondered if this could be true. Their suspicions were enhanced when the White House submitted long, seemingly-verbatim transcripts of meetings between Dean and the President, which they assumed could only be reproduced with recourse to a recording. And Terry Lenzner recalled that “someone from the Johnson Administration told us that Johnson had a taping system.”

Donald G. Sanders, who asked

It’s true that Nixon’s predecessors – Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson – recorded many of their Oval Office conversations, often capturing off-color language or devious strategizing. The difference is that while Kennedy and Johnson recorded phone conversations and occasionally live meetings, they did not maintain constant self-surveillance. Nixon did, using a voice-activated device provided by the Army Signal Corps to capture every conversation from the banal to the high-minded to the vulgar and criminal. Only Butterfield, Bob Haldeman and a handful of others even knew this system existed.

Butterfield was fully aware of the importance of such a disclosure – he later said that “I’d lit the fuse that would be the end of the Nixon presidency” – and now it remained for the committee to act on it. Sam Dash demanded that the information be brought out in public testimony as soon as possible, preferably the following Monday, before the White House could act on it. Unfortunately, Fred Thompson scotched that idea almost instantly.

Donald Sanders immediately sought out Thompson, who was enjoying a beer at the Carroll Arms Hotel. Thompson, realizing the importance of Butterfield’s disclosure, returned to his office and phoned White House attorney Fred Buzhardt. “The committee is aware of the fact that every conversation in the White House is on tape,” Thompson said. “I know you realize the significance of this. It’s not my place to give you advice, but I think that if I were you I’d start making plans immediately to get those tapes together and get them up here as soon as possible.”

Fred Buzhardt

Buzhardt, as stunned as anyone by the news, hesitated before responding. “Well, I think that is significant, if true,” Buzhardt replied. “We’ll get on it tomorrow.” Buzhardt and White House counsel Leonard Garment (who shouted “Jesus Christ!” into the phone upon hearing the news) asked Nixon for permission to review the tapes themselves. “No, never!” the President snapped, keeping his own lawyers in the dark at a crucial moment (perhaps the crucial moment) in the hearings.

Despite Thompson’s history of funneling information to presidential aides, despite Howard Baker’s telling Nixon “I am your friend and I’m going to see that your interests are protected,” their Democratic colleagues nonetheless felt shocked and betrayed. “My assumption was over the weekend we were going to see the resignation of Fred Thompson, since he was subverting the Watergate Committee,” said Scott Armstrong, who feared the White House would take advantage of Thompson’s tip to destroy the tapes. (Fortunately, due to Nixon’s hubris, they did not.)

Sam Dash
Samuel Dash

Insult compounded injury when Baker insisted that he and Thompson, rather than Dash, ask Butterfield about the tapes in public. All sides recognized the importance of Butterfield’s comments, all wanted the glory of springing the question in public, and Dash and Thompson violently butted heads over this. Dash later complained that “I personally resented it and felt cheated” that a Republican should pose this plumb question.

Ultimately Sam Ervin (who privately felt that Baker and Thompson “were not trustworthy”) decided that since a Republican investigator had asked Butterfield about the tapes, Thompson should lead the questioning. “That’s right generous of you,” Thompson told the Chairman.

Still, the bombshell nearly didn’t come off. Incredibly, Butterfield hadn’t been asked to testify publicly on July 16th, and was scheduled to visit Moscow the next day. He was receiving a haircut when he received a phone call from James Hamilton, one of Dash’s aides, requesting his presence that afternoon. “I won’t appear,” Butterfield snapped before hanging up. Hamilton relayed the witness’s answer to Sam Ervin, who hit the roof. “If he’s not in my office at 12:30,” the Chairman roared, “I will have law enforcement officers come and get him.”

Fred Thompson

Eventually Butterfield came around, traveling to the Capitol and requesting to meet Senators Ervin and Baker. He apologized for his testiness and agreed to testify in public, despite a lack of preparation and being unrepresented by his personal counsel. Having concluded a second day of meandering, unhelpful testimony by Richard Moore, Ervin and his colleagues enjoyed the opportunity to examine a more substantive witness.

Around 2:00 pm the hearings resumed, with reporters and public having little idea what lie ahead. Then Sam Ervin gavelled the Committee to order, swore Butterfield in, and the hearing began. To all appearances, he was yet another thirty-something bureaucrat with a bad comb-over and a flat, affectless delivery.

“Mr. Chairman,” Sam Dash recited, “at a staff interview with Mr. Butterfield on Friday, some very significant information was elicited and was attended by the majority members of the staff and the minority members.” He swallowed his resentment as he continued. “The information was elicited by the minority staff member. Therefore, I would like to change the usual routine of the questioning and ask minority counsel to begin the questioning of Mr. Butterfield.”

The answer heard round the world

Thompson then took over, after which Butterfield made a brief statement noting his lack of notice and counsel. Thompson asked him routine questions about his background and job functions, then dropped the bombshell everyone was waiting for: “Mr. Butterfield, are you aware of the installation of any listening devices in the Oval Office of the President.”

Butterfield hesitated before answering, looking awkwardly past Thompson, as if feeling the weight of history on his shoulders. Then he answered:

“I was aware…of listening devices…yes, sir.”

Afterwards, Butterfield described the White House taping system. Two tape recorders were installed in both the Oval Office and the Executive Office Building, along with taps in the cabinet room and elsewhere, capturing both phone conversations and in-person discussions. The devices were voice-activated owing to the President’s lack of technical skills; that the Secret Service kept the tapes under lock and key; that only a handful of White House staffers (himself, Haldeman, John Ehrlichman and a few of their assistants) even knew the tapes existed.

Nixon Tape

Sam Dash and various committee members asked a few follow-ups, mostly clarifying Butterfield’s answer and expanding on technical details, such as Butterfield understood them. (For the record, the President used Sony 800B recorders ensconced in various closets and sub-rooms for his self-bugging.) Herman Talmadge offered perhaps the most insightful and pointed ones, wondering “Were the visitors who went into the White House warned that their conversations with the President would be taped?” “No, sir,” came Butterfield’s response. This assured every cabinet members, governor, congressman and diplomat that their conversations with Nixon weren’t as private as they thought.

Butterfield’s testimony lasted only about half-an-hour. The committee spent far more time that day questioning both Richard Moore and Herbert Kalmbach, Nixon’s personal attorney, whose anxious, self-justifying testimony about his role in Watergate payoffs would have been the major story any other day. Next to Butterfield’s revelations, however, their legal stonewalling made little impression on viewers. Squirming and contradiction, self-preservation and denial were all, by this point, commonplace. The tapes would offer actual proof.

It took several months of legal wrangling and Constitutional clashes, culminating in October’s Saturday Night Massacre, before Nixon surrendered the tapes to authorities. Several months further before Nixon released the transcripts to the public, who were arguably more shocked by his foul language and bigoted tirades than their revelation of Presidential misdeeds. Still, after Butterfield’s revelations the President’s downfall only became a matter of time.

Part four will continue with the testimony of H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman and Fred LaRue. I will try and wrap things up in part five.