Nixon, Watergate, and Covert Politics
In their account of Watergate in their book, Silent Coup, Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin emphasize that Richard Nixon reacted in similar ways to, first, the revelation in December 1971 that there was a spy ring operating out of the Department of Defense that was spying on the White House and especially on Nixon and Henry Kissinger and, second, to the revelation that “the magnitude of Watergate” went well beyond “out-of-control employees at the CRP” [Committee to Re-elect the President]. In both cases, “without full cognizance of the facts . . . the president [sprung] into action . . . “ in order “to limit the investigations and prevent political damage.” And as Colodny and Gettlin point out, “There seems to have been no hesitancy on the part of Haldeman, either, to embrace this line of action.” [200, 202]
It is worthwhile to speculate about these apparent coincidences and to do so, not from a psychological point of view but from a political point of view. That is, Nixon, twice being confronted with apparent “crises,” opted to act, to “spring into action” by acting covertly and apparently doing so without a second thought. It would seem as if Nixon was controlled by what might be called a politics of covert action; that there were forces that led Nixon to readily succumb to the temptation of acting covertly, and this without even knowing whether such covert actions were actually necessary or desirable. And insofar as there is a politics of covert action, what made it so “seductive” that Richard Nixon embraced it almost unthinkingly?
Certainly there are practical reasons for acting covertly, e.g., limiting the political damage exposure would bring. But is that the whole story, so to speak? Or is there more to be said about the appeal of acting covertly, which may account for the fact that Nixon made a choice to cover up Watergate despite knowing the dangers such a cover up posed to himself and his presidency? That Haldeman did not hesitate to embrace a cover up, and readily agreed to act covertly, contributes to the thought that there is something seductive about a politics of covert action.
To start, it is worthwhile to point out that covert action seems especially useful and appropriate when confronting crises. Crises need to be resolved quickly, with “secrecy and dispatch,” as Alexander Hamilton put it. And acting covertly is well adapted to such expeditious actions. This illuminates one of the attractive aspects of covert action: It gives at least the illusion of control, of the ability to act with secrecy and dispatch. When acting covertly, a politician need not seek the consent of the governed, so to speak. Necessity governs a politician’s action in crises, making deliberations or debates seem undesirable. In a crisis, a politician acting covertly is wielding power; as Colodny and Gettlin put it regarding Nixon, “the president was springing into action.” By acting covertly, Nixon was acting powerfully, thereby proving he deserved to have power. By acting covertly, Nixon was confirming his fitness to be president. And that kind of confirmation would be hard to resist.
A political of covert action and a politics of crisis are then intertwined, which helps explain why Nixon never really stopped to wonder if in fact the burglary at the Watergate, even if it did involve some White House personnel, was a crisis or needed to be treated as a crisis. But that covert action and crises are intertwined is also borne out by the fact that Nixon’s “enemies,” his political opponents, also saw before them a crisis, the Nixon administration itself, and one to which they responded covertly. Just as Nixon saw the Watergate burglary as a crisis requiring covert action to resolve, so too his opponents saw the Watergate burglary and the Nixon administration generally as crises that would be best resolved by covert action, ala’ by secret liaisons between journalists and “leakers“ like “Deep Throat,” and by spy rings. Nixon’s opponents also found the appeal of covert political action irresistible.
Another appealing characteristic of a politics of covert action is that those acting covertly need not seek consent to justify their actions. To put this differently, a politics of covert action is not a republican politics because republican politics requires the consent of the governed. Republican politics involves, essentially, reciprocity between the government and the governed, whereas covert action allows the government to bypass the requirement of consent, to bypass the governed. As a result, what might be called republican reciprocity is short-circuited, thereby freeing the powerful to use their power as they see fit. This is a temptation, as we know or should know all-too-well, that is neither often resisted nor used to advance the public good.
So beyond any particularities of Nixon’s psychological make-up, such as his all too obvious insecurities and suspiciousness, there were political forces at work that help explain why Nixon – and so many others by the way – acted as he did during Watergate. And these political forces help to explain why John Dean was able to successfully initiate and implement a cover-up that tricked Nixon and others in the White House to buy into it and that led, ultimately, to Nixon’s downfall. Because after all, Dean’s actions appeared “normal” to those who had succumbed to the temptations of acting covertly and so no one, until it was too late, questioned Dean’s activities, which should have set off alarms from very early on.
And those same political forces, those same temptations, affected how Nixon’s opponents behaved. Both Nixon and his opponents saw crises and assumed that these were best handled covertly, that is, without appeals to the people. Although both sides appealed to republican values to justify their actions, neither side practiced republican politics. So, to see Watergate and its resolution as a triumph of democracy or republicanism is to mythologize it. Or as one commentator wrote regarding Watergate: “Our recent history is a forgery, the by-product of secret agents acting on secret agendas of their own.” [Hougan, Secret Agenda. xvii]