How We Got Here: The Berlin Wall

Part four in a series: see parts one, two and three

Fred LaRue was perhaps the shadiest of Richard Nixon’s men, which was no small accomplishment. The Mississippi oil heir first gained notoriety in 1957 by killing his father in a hunting accident. LaRue sublimated his grief, and plunged his newfound fortune, into unsuccessful business ventures and Republican politics. At a time when the GOP was still verboten in the South, he played a major role organizing regional support for Barry Goldwater, then joined Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign. Along with former Strom Thurmond aide Harry Dent, LaRue crafted the “Southern Strategy” that caused a seismic shift of American politics, showing Southern whites that the “Party of Lincoln” had abandoned its racial idealism for a hard line “law and order” platform.

LaRue remained on Nixon’s payroll for years, though no one knew exactly what he did; he wasn’t listed on any formal directory of White House employees, and spent more time wooing Southern Democrats to the President’s side than engaging in policy discussions. John Mitchell tapped him for a major role in CRP, giving him a front-row seat to Plumber shenanigans and the cover-up’s early stages. It put him in the disreputable position of overseeing payoffs to the burglars and even more melodramatic forms of damage control. It was LaRue who tore Martha Mitchell away from her telephone and ordered her forcibly sedated as she tried spilling the beans to Helen Thomas.

Fred LaRue, shady southron 

When LaRue testified before the Ervin Committee on July 18, 1973, he had already pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice before a grand jury. Yet while personally repentant, he offered few fresh avenues of investigation for the Senate. He confirmed Jeb Magruder’s testimony about the anxious, amoral atmosphere at CRP, yet tried to shield Mitchell and President Nixon from blame. Not even Samuel Dash’s intensive, insistent questioning, nor that of his Senate colleagues, moved LaRue towards any shocking revelations.

Dash admitted to constructing the hearings as a “detective story,” moving from small, insignificant witnesses to high-level aides to build drama and maintaining audience interest. Yet the sensational revelations of John Dean and especially Alexander Butterfield scooped Dash’s strategy. After the nation learned that Richard Nixon taped his own conversations, that subject, and the ongoing legal battles over presidential recordings, would inevitably dominate future discussions. Campaign flacks like LaRue, however colorful or mysterious, no longer aroused much excitement.

During the July 23rd testimony of Gordon Strachan, Sam Ervin read into the record a personal letter from Richard Nixon, who responded to requests for the tape from his hospital bed (he had suffered from pneumonia). “I know of no useful purpose that would be served by our having a meeting at this time,” Nixon insisted. Ervin quipped, “At long last, I have got something on which I agree with the President on in connection with this matter.” Then he read a second, more damning letter from Nixon in response to a formal subpoena: “The tapes, which have been under my sole personal control, will remain so. None have been transcribed or made public and none will be.”

Ervin tapes
Sam Ervin

Ervin waxed indignant about this “rather remarkable letter.” “The President says that [the tapes] are susceptible of…two different interpretations, one favorable to his aides and one not favorable to his aides.” Ervin continued that “I have very different ideas of separation of powers from those expressed by the President.” At length, he attacked the President’s defense of executive privilege, then proclaimed: “I used to think that the Civil War was our country’s greatest tragedy, but I do remember that there was some redeeming features in the Civil War in that there was some spirit of sacrifice and heroism displayed on both sides. I see no redeeming feature in Watergate.”

Thus Chairman Sam defined Richard Nixon and his aides as an indelible, incomparable stain on America’s Body Politic. Judging from the applause Ervin received from his audience, the subdued response from Howard Baker (“I am unhappy that it is necessary for us to come to the brink of a constitutional confrontation”) and other committee Republicans, judging from the ongoing public interest in the hearings and the President’s plummeting approval ratings (32 percent by the end of July), most Americans agreed with him.

Thus, anticipation mounted as the Committee summoned its two highest-placed officials: H.R. Haldeman, former White House Chief of Staff, and John Ehrlichman, ex-domestic policy adviser. Dubbed the “Berlin Wall” for their Teutonic surnames, brusque demeanor and unflinching loyalty to President Nixon, they served as the White House Palace Guard, controlling all access to the President. If anyone knew how early the President knew about the break-in and cover-up, it would be them. The trouble lie in persuading them to talk.

Haldeman Ehrlichman
John Ehrlichman (left) and Bob Haldeman on Air Force One

Ehrlichman, Nixon’s former White House counsel and domestic policy adviser, worked as an attorney in Seattle before joining Nixon’s inner circle in 1960. He was a friend and UCLA classmate of Bob Haldeman, both teetotaling Christian Scientists. Most observers considered Ehrlichman among the President’s more personable advisers. When reporters needed background interviews or White House sources, they often went to Ehrlichman. He also met regularly with antiwar protesters and other liberal groups, and occasionally prodded Nixon towards more progressive policies (especially on the environment). Yet Ehrlichman also reflected his boss’s faults, from bureaucratic pettiness and grudge-holding to reactionary views on race, drug control and other issues.

Throughout his four days on the stand, Ehrlichman displayed sneering, bulldog tenacity. “I responded as I would have in a tough lawsuit,” Ehrlichman recalled, “cramming the facts down their throats and not letting Ervin get away with his phony country lawyer act.” Summoning the alliterative acuity of Spiro Agnew, Ehrlichman described the Senators as “a shabby collection of posturers and politicians, winding themselves in swaddles of self-righteousness.” He didn’t seem to notice, or care, that most Americans thought he came off as a dishonest jerk.

In his opening statement, Ehrlichman blasted the Committee for its “leaks to the press, falsehoods and misunderstandings. I am here to refute every charge of illegal conduct on my part which has been made during the course of the hearings, including material leaked to the news media. What I say here will not be new, but it may be different from what you have been reading the papers.”

John Ehrlichman, angry advocate

Ehrlichman attacked Dean’s depiction of a “White House madness” which nurtured unreasoning paranoia. Predictably, he framed Nixon’s actions in the context of foreign policy, whether ending Vietnam or detente with Russia and China, in the face of radical terrorism, liberal activism, media criticism and congressional obstruction. He insisted that “street violence and civil rights and relations with Russia and their effect on China and the Cambodian military situation and one thousand other factors and events are brought together on the surface of one desk and must be resolved.” The grandness of the Presidency therefore justified myriad crimes.

Besides asserting Nixon’s authority to break the law in furtherance of statesmanship, Ehrlichman spent much of his testimony impugning John Dean. He called the White House Counsel “the conscience of the White House,” a role he claimed Dean failed to fulfill (Ehrlichman did not explain how well he, while Dean’s predecessor as Counsel, played such a role). He pushed the President’s line that Dean managed the cover-up without Nixon’s knowledge, then shifted blame to others. “I did not cover up anything to do with Watergate,” Ehrlichman insisted.

As questioning began, Ehrlichman quickly grew defense and testy, his quips turning to bitter jabs. Once, when Sam Ervin invoked the parable of the Good Samaritan, Ehrlichman snapped “I read the Bible, I don’t quote it!” Later he exchanged barbs with Daniel Inouye, who muttered “What a liar” into a microphone – an utterance Ehrlichman, and the television audience, overheard. (Ehrlichman’s attorney, John Wilson, responded by calling Inouye a “Jap” to a reporter the next day.)

Daniel Ellsberg

The most memorable exchanges came on the second day. Here, Ervin and his colleagues zeroed in on the 1971 burglary against Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, carried out on Ehrlichman’s orders. Ehrlichman invoked national security, leading Ervin to comment that “foreign intelligence activities had nothing to do with the opinion of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist about his intellectual or emotional or psychological state.”

“How do you know that, Mr. Chairman?” Ehrlichman inquired.

“Because I can understand the English language!” Ervin roared. “It is my mother tongue!” This comment drew laughter and applause from everyone in the hearing room, even Ehrlichman.

But Herman Talmadge, who vanished from public sight for long stretches of the hearings, struck the strongest blow. “If the President could authorize a covert break-in, and you do not know exactly what that power would be limited, you do not think it could include murder or other crimes beyond covert break-ins, do you?”

“I do not know where the line is, Senator,” Ehrlichman muttered.

Herman Talmadge

“You are a lawyer,” Talmadge pressed, “and I understand you are a good one.”

“Well I am certainly not a constitutional lawyer,” Ehrlichman admitted.

Then Talmadge twisted the knife. “Do you remember when we were in law school, we studied a famous principle of law that came from England and also is well-known in this country, that no matter how humble a man’s cottage is, that even the King of England cannot enter without his consent?”

“I am afraid that has been considerably eroded over the years, has it not?” Ehrlichman pleaded. His tone remained even, but his words showed his uncertainty.

“Down in my country,” Talmadge insisted, “we still think it is a pretty legitimate principle of law.” The applause was so thunderous that Ehrlichman visibly recoiled in shock. Point to the Senator from Georgia.

Ehrlichman Hot

Eventually, Nixon trumped Ehrlichman’s attempt at a defense by publicly defying the Committee’s subpoenas. Sam Ervin, angry and loudly righteous as ever, proposed citing the President with contempt. “This litigation is essential if we are to determine whether the President is above the law and whether the President is is immune from all of the duties and responsibilities in matters of this kind which devolve upon all the other mortals who dwell in this land.” The Committee voted unanimously in Ervin’s favor, further tightening the screws against an embattled President.

No one expected Harry Robbins (“Bob”) Haldeman,to be any more forthcoming. Nixon’s humorless, crew cut former chief of staff, who called himself “the President’s son of a bitch,” had been an advertising executive for J. Walter Thompson before entering politics. Brilliant and ruthless, he kept meticulous records of the President’s activities, discussed everything from major policies to minor grudges with Nixon, reflected his boss’s worst sentiments (one entry from his diary: “There was considerable discussion of the terrible problem arising from the total Jewish domination of the media and agreement that this is something that would have to be dealt with”). Despite his closeness and loyalty, Haldeman understood Nixon the Man little better than anyone else.

Haldeman Nixon
Nixon and Haldeman in the Oval Office

Despite his resignation on April 30th, Haldeman remained in close contact with the President and advised on managing the hearings. He met regularly with Nixon to discuss his upcoming testimony (the President advised him not to recall anything on the stand) and even helped prepare a rebuttal to Dean’s testimony by listening to Nixon’s White House tapes – a gambit which backfired by triggering suspicions about the taping system.

If nothing else, Haldeman was nicer than Ehrlichman. Viewers expecting the snarling stormtrooper caricatured in political cartoons found a surprisingly soft-spoken, modest, even friendly man who seemed happy to clear the air and exonerate his boss. Only in still photos did Haldeman’s flattop hair and piercing blue eyes evoke the fabled Prussian image. Despite such outward politesse, Haldeman’s testimony struck the same defiant note, skirting responsibility, blaming others and insisting Nixon did nothing wrong.

Haldeman Read
Bob Haldeman, pluperfect Prussian

Haldeman’s opening statement on July 30th framed the President’s actions in the context of national security, much as Ehrlichman had done, and took pains to paint dirty tricks as Politics as Usual. He dismissed CRP’s activities against George McGovern, Edmund Muskie and other Democrats as “pranksterism,” while blaming them for “violent demonstrations and disruption, heckling or shouting down speakers, bombing and destruction of campaign headquarters” and other crimes, real and imagined, against Nixon and the GOP. Maurice Stans made a similar plea in his testimony, only to be ridiculed by Sam Ervin. Haldeman’s arguments weren’t much more convincing.

He also pleaded ignorance of the break-in, like every pro-Nixon witness, not to mention the President himself, had done. After blaming John Dean for the cover-up, he asserted “I committed no such acts and I was aware of no such acts until March of this year…I am convinced that the President had no awareness of any such acts until March of this year.” He even claimed that “I would welcome the opportunity” to admit the White House tapes because “they would confirm what I’ve told you.”

In examination, Samuel Dash labeled Haldeman “the boss of the White House,” which stuck despite Haldeman’s protests that he played no role in shaping policy.  “I tried to run a tight ship, and I think successfully most of the time,” Haldeman boasted, rendering his argument that aides acted without his knowledge suspect. Similarly, Dash pinned down Haldeman’s awareness of the Plumbers and their activities, undermining his opening statement. Even Edward Gurney, usually a staunch Nixon defender, forced Haldeman to admit he discussed Watergate with John Dean earlier than he initially claimed.

Edward Gurney

Unsurprisingly, the ever-indignant Lowell Weicker delivered the most ferocious interrogation the next day. Weicker dismissed Haldeman’s “both sides” arguments about dirty tricks, demanding that he “tell me which of these illegal acts [named in Haldeman’s opening statement] you ascribe to Senator George McGovern and/or the Democratic Party.” Growing agitated and impatient, Haldeman admitted that “I am not able to do so at this time,” though he speculated, based on news reports, that McGovern officials had organized anti-Nixon demonstrations in California and elsewhere.

Weicker next presented a memorandum between Haldeman and adman Ronald Walker before an October 1971 visit to Charlotte, North Carolina. The memo warned of protests: “‘They will be violent’ – with a penciled underlining of ‘violent,'” Weicker noted. “‘They will have extremely obscene signs’ – underlining obscene and next to ‘obscene’ penciled in writing which to me…appears to be yours…saying ‘Good.’ Is that your writing where it says ‘good’?”

“I believe it is; yes, sir,” Haldeman confirmed.

Weicker continued reading: “‘As has been indicated by [the protesters’] handbills, it will not only be directed towards the President, but also toward [evangelist] Billy Graham.’ Underlining ‘also toward Billy Graham’ where you penciled in ‘great.'”

Lowell Weicker

The audience burst into laughter at this, leading attorney John Wilson to protest: “I thought that silence was to be enforced at this hearing.” Ervin deflated his complaint: “Mr. Wilson, I wish you would tell me some way I could keep people from laughing.” Then he commented on Weicker’s revelation that “I hate to hear about things like this supposed to be happening happening in the Garden of Eden, North Carolina,” drawing yet more laughter. To the consternation of Haldeman, Wilson and other Nixon supporters, Chairman Sam yet again played to the gallery.

As did Lowell Weicker, whose complaints grew louder, his questioning more pointed as he progressed. “My question specifically relates to what mentality it is in the White House that goes ahead and indicates ‘good’ when the word ‘violence’ is mentioned, when ‘obscene’ is mentioned, at which violence and which obscenity is to be directed against the President of the United States. How can that in any way be good?”

Haldeman claimed that “the indication that they would be violent and obscene and directed towards Billy Graham as good was that if, in fact, they were going to do it in this way it would be seen that they were doing so clearly…They did a better job of disguising their true intents and their true method of operation.” Nonetheless, Haldeman was forced to admit that the rally in question was peaceful and easily contained by local police, with Sam Ervin chiming in that “it was one of most orderly meetings I have ever attended.”

Haldeman Face

Through his grandstanding, Weicker confirmed another disturbing truth about the Nixon White House, which the “Enemies List,” the Plumbers and other subterfuge pointed towards. That the President’s men viewed other Americans as enemies rather than mere opponents; that they considered violence, hatred and division useful tools in cementing their power. The President who used the slogan “Bring Us Together” to chime in his Administration, who intoned “To lower our voices would be a simple thing” in his inaugural address, not only accepted but celebrated division.

Nixon critics wouldn’t have been shocked: not with Spiro Agnew’s alliterative tirades and push for “positive polarization,” Nixon’s proclamations of a “Silent Majority” and the constant “othering” of anyone remotely opposed to his policies. Nor was Nixon remotely subtle; during a campaign stop in San Jose in 1970, he leaped out of his car to provoke hecklers into throwing eggs and garbage at him, gloating “This is what they hate to see!” to his aides. All part of his strategy to carve out a “New Majority” of conservative Republicans and George Wallace Democrats, rendering all liberals, radicals and minorities the Enemy.

Despite everything they’d discovered through the hearings so far, most Americans still found the idea that a President might consider them enemies, might provoke violence against himself to make his enemies look bad, appalling. If Haldeman’s testimony lacked the explosiveness of John Dean or Alexander Butterfield, it revealed that the sickness went to the very core of the Nixon Administration. This insight, however, would be the Committee’s last public hurrah.

Part Five will deal with the Committee’s concluding witnesses and the impact of the hearings on popular and political culture.