Chuck colson
Chuck Colson was a senior official in the administration of President Nixon.

Jan. 6 was far worse than Watergate

Very early on Saturday morning, June 17, 1972, security guard Frank Wills found that a piece of duct tape had been placed over the latch bolt of a stairwell door to the garage of the Watergate building complex.

He removed it. On his rounds 30 minutes later, he saw the same latch bolt had been taped again. Wills, 24, went to the lobby to call the police. Washington DC plainclothes cops arrived, searched through the building with the security guard’s assistance and at 2:30 a.m. arrested five men who were there to install listening devices in the telephones of the sixth-floor offices of Democratic National Committee chairman Lawrence O’Brien. The early morning incident would lead to the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon 26 months later. 

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Reporting was soon to reveal that the five men had links to an obscure freelancer in the White House and the Campaign to Reelect the President named E. Howard Hunt, an author of spy novels and a retired CIA officer.

Jeff Himmelman suggests in “Yours in Truth,” a 2012 biography of Ben Bradlee, that it’s possible to piece together the basic outline of the Watergate scandal from the very early stories by the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, which were written some weeks before their executive editor Bradlee took a close interest in the subject. For instance, Hunt was somehow connected to the director of the White House’s Office of Public Liaison, Chuck Colson, and if Colson knew something about all of this, so surely did Nixon.

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But Woodward, for one, had no idea who Colson was. When he asked a Post colleague who he thought might, he was told, “Nixon’s hatchet man.” 

Slush fund

One dramatic Post story linked legitimately-raised campaign money to a “slush fund” that was used for possibly illicit activities. This led to the General Accounting Office, an investigative arm of Congress, announcing an audit of the CRP. But, overall, it would prove to be a slow-burning story that only really took off two months after the president’s second inauguration.

“At the time, Nixon was far ahead in the polls,” Himmelman writes of the late summer and fall of 1972, “and he and the men around him were seen as reputable, competent people who couldn’t possibly have been involved in such an inept and low-yield operation.”

In the end, 48 people were convicted of Watergate-related charges, with the former attorney general of the United States and CRP head at the time of the break-in John Mitchell, former Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman, former Domestic Affairs Advisor John Ehrlichman and Colson among those later serving time in prison. The disgraced president was given, controversially,  a pardon by his successor, Gerald Ford. 

Out of the Watergate scandal came the cliche that the cover-up is usually worse than what they’re covering up. Was it in this instance? Well, legally yes, as it often led to obstruction of justice charges. But they were covering up for very good reasons.

The famous source on deep background known as Deep Throat told Woodward, “You can safely say that 50 people worked for the White House and CRP to play games and spy and sabotage and gather intelligence. Some of it is beyond belief, kicking at the opposition in every imaginable way.”

Deep Throat was in 2005 revealed to be Mark Felt, a very senior FBI official who was no boy scout when it came to the dark arts, but who was shocked at the shenanigans of those to whom he was answerable in the executive branch. In their book “All the President’s Men,” it’s revealed Deep Throat nodded confirmation to Woodward on a “list of items that he and Bernstein had heard were used against the political opposition: bugging, following people, false press leaks, fake letters, canceling campaign rallies, investigating campaign workers’ private lives, planting spies, stealing documents, planting provocateurs in political demonstrations.”

Deep Throat said, “It’s all in the files. Justice and the Bureau know about it, but it wasn’t followed up.”

Leap forward

As an individual event, the failure of the outgoing president of the United States to intervene earlier in the Jan. 6, 2021, mob attack on the United States Capitol Complex is clearly worse than anything involved with Watergate. But the real issues with the tragic day of a year ago run much deeper.

Peter Quinn, when discussing some years ago his espionage thriller “Hour of the Cat” (reissued recently by Fordham University Press), said that events like the Holocaust and other calamities of the 20th century weren’t simply the result of a couple of ideological wrong turns; the machinery of death was also facilitated by technological developments.

Technological change always brings with it the potential for both good and harm; and leaning too much in the direction of either optimism or pessimism can rarely provide the correct approaches to it. An example of the former came from a journalist I heard on the radio commenting on the controversy around social media’s negative psychological impact upon young people: “Oh, young girls have always had body image problems,” she said. But, you can’t just extol the wonders of a technological leap forward and then dismiss how it might make a given problem or subset of problems exponentially much worse. With new technology, things improve or they regress; they never stay the same.

The machinery of misinformation has taken huge leaps forward in recent times; misinformation, though, is just one factor in slowing down our response times to crises. Consider this:  Fox News has imposed a vaccine mandate on its own employees, yet, according to Media Matters for America, founded by conservative writer turned liberal advocate David Brock, “Fox News has relentlessly undermined the effort to get Americans vaccinated against the COVID-19 disease. From June 28 through July 11, 57 percent of segments about coronavirus vaccines on the network included claims that undermined vaccination efforts.” 

Trump speaking at the "Stop the Steal" rally on Jan. 6, 2021.  [Photo: Voice of America]

The study of that two-week period in early summer found that: “Forty-five percent of segments included claims suggesting that the vaccination drive is coercive or that it represents government overreach: Thirty-seven percent of segments included claims suggesting that vaccines are unnecessary or dangerous. ‘Fox & Friends,’ including its early morning and weekend iterations, aired the most vaccine segments during this period, with more than half (52 percent) featuring claims undermining or downplaying immunization.”

Media Matters continued: “The Salt Lake City Tribune reported that Gov. Spencer Cox (R-UT) blamed right-wing media anti-vaccination ‘propaganda’ for the state's low immunization rates. The paper quoted Cox as describing the ‘recent push by Fox News, Newsmax, and other right-wing media against the vaccine’ as ‘reckless.’”

Last week, Media Matters reported that “From the inauguration [Jan. 20, 2021] through Nov. 30, ‘Tucker Carlson Tonight’ aired “at least one claim undermining vaccines nearly every day it covered them.”

Stealing pennies

Of course, hardcore disinformation was at the heart of the Jan. 6 debacle and remains so. The issue here is that, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, some people are really stupid. To be charitable, he was perhaps referring to their grasp of political realities, although the middle part of a famous line attributed to him — “you can fool some of the people all of the time” — is beginning to sound very scary indeed. 

Almost everyone who has worked in or studies the political process would agree that stealing votes on any significant scale would be extremely difficult in an open and free society; one commentator has said it was about as pointless as planning an armed robbery of a haul that was entirely comprised of pennies. And yet, a part of the Republican voting base appears to have been fooled into believing that the 2020 presidential election was stolen as a result of a conspiracy involving some of their fellow Americans. This has potentially dire consequences for the legitimacy of our democratic institutions. And when legitimacy is undermined, violence can soon follow.

Dayton, Ohio-born historian Timothy Snyder has been one of those sounding the alarm for a few years now. The Yale professor, who has written well-regarded books on the Holocaust and Eastern and Central Europe in the 20th century, including the bestseller “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin,” penned the short volume “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century” in response to the rise of Trump and authoritarian populism.

Last year, immediately after the Jan. 6 insurrection, Snyder in a New York Times essay said that some Republican politicians who went along with Trump’s antics around refusing to concede the “stolen” election thought it would merely delay the inevitable.

“Yet for Congress to traduce its basic functions had a price. An elected institution that opposes elections is inviting its own overthrow,” he wrote, “Members of Congress who sustained the president’s lie, despite the available and unambiguous evidence, betrayed their constitutional mission. Making his fictions the basis of congressional action gave them flesh. Now Trump could demand that senators and congressmen bow to his will. He could place personal responsibility upon Mike Pence, in charge of the formal proceedings, to pervert them. And on Jan. 6, he directed his followers to exert pressure on these elected representatives, which they proceeded to do: storming the Capitol building, searching for people to punish, ransacking the place.”

Snyder suggested that the GOP is a “coalition of two types of people: those who would game the system (most of the politicians, some of the voters) and those who dream of breaking it (a few of the politicians, many of the voters).” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is a “gamer” in his view, while Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri is a “breaker.”

“For some Republicans, the invasion of the Capitol must have been a shock, or even a lesson,” he said. “For the breakers, however, it may have been a taste of the future. Afterward, eight senators and more than 100 representatives voted for the lie that had forced them to flee their chambers.”

Snyder wrote a year ahead of similar warnings from Liz Cheney, a daughter of the last Republican to serve two terms as U.S. vice-president, “Post-truth is pre-fascism, and Trump has been our post-truth president. When we give up on truth, we concede power to those with the wealth and charisma to create spectacle in its place.”