Ben Bradlee did not think he would be best remembered for presiding over The Washington Post during Watergate.
The legendary executive editor of The Post always thought, “My time will be remembered for the Style section ahead of anything else.” Certainly, the creation of a section dedicated to covering the arts, books, and simply the way people live and think contributed to the newspaper’s future success.
But it was Watergate that defined Bradlee and The Post, which he fashioned into a major newspaper during his tenure. As President Obama recalled in a tribute after Bradlee died Tuesday at the age of 93: “For Benjamin Bradlee, journalism was more than a profession — it was a public good vital to our democracy. A true newspaperman, he transformed The Washington Post into one of the country’s finest newspapers, and with him at the helm, a growing army of reporters published the Pentagon Papers, exposed Watergate, and told stories that needed to be told — stories that helped us understand our world and one another a little bit better.”
Bradlee’s genius was to “hire people smarter” than he and then allow them to do their job. He was willing to take a chance on two young, intrepid reporters, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, as they pursued the Watergate story, trusting them but always cajoling them to verify their sources and insure they had all the facts.
The Post’s reporting of the Watergate break-in and the subsequent coverup by the Nixon administration led to the first and only resignation of a sitting president in American history. Yet no one at the time — not Bradlee, not Woodstein, as Bradlee’s “boys” came to be known — realized the depth of the Nixon White House’s perfidy nor the lengths to which the president was willing to go to hide his illegal actions.
That realization has come only by plumbing the White House tapes — a project that has taken years, given the sheer volume of tapes and the slowness of the government in releasing them. In 1996 University of Wisconsin Professor Stanley Kutler succeeded in forcing the government to release 3,700 hours of tapes; Kutler reprinted many transcripts in his landmark book, Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes.
Kim Hughes of the University of Virginia’s Miller Center Presidential Recordings Program has listened to more tapes as they have become available. This year he published Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, The Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate, a valuable study which demolishes the hoary cliché that the president’s cover-up was worse than his crimes. “If Nixon had allowed the FBI to fully investigate [the crimes of others],” he writes, “they would have led back to his own…. The notion that Nixon could have simply cut loose the guilty parties in the Watergate break-in and walked away scot-free himself is mistaken.”
Nixon had much to hide, but the one episode that catches Hughes’ attention is the “Chennault Affair.” During the 1968 presidential campaign, Lyndon Johnson considered halting the bombing of North Vietnam to reinvigorate the Paris peace talks. Johnson was not a candidate for reelection, but Nixon feared his decision would help Vice President Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic candidate who trailed in the polls. Nixon instructed his law partner, John Mitchell, the future attorney general, to speak to the Chinese-born and well-connected Anna Chennault, asking her to contact the South Vietnamese ambassador, who passed along to President Nguyen Van Thieu Nixon’s assurances that South Vietnam would get a better deal from him than from Humphrey. This piece of backroom deal-making arguably violated the Logan Act, a 1799 statute barring private citizens — which Nixon was — from negotiating with foreign governments.
Nixon entered the presidency with a big secret to hide, a secret that contributed to Watergate. Believing that a good offense was the best defense, the new president instructed his aides to gather evidence showing that Johnson had acted to help Humphrey by suggesting a bombing halt (reminiscent of the Cold War mutual assured destruction scenario — if the past Democratic administration and the current Republican one had played politics with the peace talks, then mutual knowledge of these peccadilloes would prevent disclosure).
Nixon believed — erroneously — that staffers at the Defense Department had drafted a report, stored at the Brookings Institution, on the bombing halt which might reveal his role in sabotaging the Vietnam peace talks. Nixon repeatedly ordered aides to break into Brookings to get the report which did not exist (Nixon seems to have conflated the Pentagon Papers with the supposed Brookings documents). Nixon, who may not have known in advance of the Watergate burglary, was willing to authorize “thievery,” the term he uses on one tape.
Watergate had nothing to do directly with the Chennault Affair. But Hughes shows Nixon feared that investigations into Watergate would reveal his perhaps treasonous manipulation of the Paris peace talks. Nixon, after all, had created the Special Investigations Unit (“Plumbers”) to prevent leaks like the Pentagon Papers and to protect his illegal actions; members of this unit led the Watergate break-in, so any investigation of Watergate might lead directly back to him.
All this is on the tapes, along with Nixon’s paranoia, his resentments, his anti-Semitism, and his racism. We will never know for sure, but it’s a fair supposition that none of this would have been learned if Ben Bradlee had not had the courage to trust his “boys” as they probed Watergate.