The Fred Thompson Watergate Myth

In addition to his former role on NBC's "Law & Order" as tough-talking, gruff-but-lovable and fair District Attorney Arthur Branch, pending presidential candidate and former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee has benefited from a reputation for having served as an aggressive prosecutor while serving as minority counsel for the Senate Watergate Committee, officially known as the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, chaired by Sen. Sam Ervin, D-N.C. Thompson's own exploratory committee Web site,, even lauds this bit of his history.

"He gained national attention for leading the line of inquiry that revealed the audio-taping system in the White House Oval Office," his official bio says (LINK).

But the reality is far more complicated than conventional wisdom and campaign puffery would have it.

While some Democrats on the committee to this day profess respect and admiration for Thompson, he was seen as others as a "spy" for the Nixon White House -- an accusation buttressed, at least in part, by Thompson's own writings, which confirm that he tipped off the Nixon White House about internal happenings on the committee.

Moreover, new transcripts from the Nixon White House tapes reveal that the Nixon administration regarded Thompson as a useful idiot -- "dumb as hell," in President Nixon's words, but "friendly." At one point, the White House counsel told Nixon that Thompson insisted he wanted to help the president more than his patron and boss on the committee, Sen. Howard Baker, R-Tenn, would let him.

Neither Thompson nor anyone from his potential campaign were available for comment.

The Question

It was July 16, 1973, and the committee was hearing from Alexander Butterfield, a deputy assistant to President Nixon.

"Mr. Butterfield," Thompson asked, "are you aware of the installation of any listening devices in the Oval Office of the president?"

"I was aware of listening devices," Butterfield said, "yes, sir."

That question led to Nixon's unraveling and ultimately his resignation, as various crimes and cover-ups were captured on those tapes -- tapes the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately ruled the White House had to turn over to Congress. As Thompson hagiography would have it, it was this question -- from a conservative but independent-minded 30-year-old Tennessee prosecutor -- that led to the downfall of a corrupt president.

The Reality

Except it wasn't so simple. First of all, Thompson already knew the answer to the question, Butterfield having been interviewed by committee staff three days before, in closed-door testimony July 13, 1973.

"Somebody from the [Lyndon] Johnson administration told us that Johnson had a taping system," said Terry Lenzner, then assistant chief counsel for the Democrats on the committee. "So we as a matter of course we're asking every witness, 'Do you have any information about that?'"

Thompson's deputy, Donald Sanders, a Republican, asked the question of Butterfield July 13, 1973.

"What that reflects is we were sharing information," said Lenzner. "The overall tone [on the committee] was pretty bipartisan particularly compared to what's going on now."

When it came time for the public hearing, the Democrats' chief counsel, Samuel Dash, wanted to ask the question, but Thompson's patron -- Sen. Howard Baker, R-Tenn. -- insisted that a Republican gets to make the inquiry since it had been a Republican to make the discovery.

In his book "Chief Counsel: Inside the Ervin Committee -- the untold story of Watergate," Dash wrote that he "personally resented it and felt cheated" for a Democrat not to have been permitted to ask the question in the nationally televised hearings. But Dash felt given the circumstances he had "no choice but to let Fred Thompson develop the Butterfield material."

Thompson did and a star was born.

The Tip-off

Dash's decision was especially generous considering what Thompson was doing behind the scenes to help the Nixon White House prepare for the question.

In Thompson's 1975 book, "At That Point in Time: The Inside Story of the Senate Watergate Committee" he writes that after learning of the existence of the tapes he "wanted to be sure that the White House was fully aware of what was to be disclosed so that it could take appropriate action. ... I believed it would be in everyone's interest if the White House realized, before making any public statements, the probable position of both the majority and minority of the Watergate committee."

Thompson wrote that "[e]ven though I had no authority to act for the committee," he called Fred Buzhardt, the White House counsel on Watergate matters.

"'Fred,' Thompson recalls saying, 'the committee is aware of the fact that every conversation in the White House is on tape. 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.'

"There was a short pause. Then Buzhardt said, 'Well, I think that is significant, if it is true. We'll get on it tomorrow.'"

Scott Armstrong, the senior investigator for Democrats on the Watergate Committee, said he didn't know until Thompson's book was published that Thompson had tipped off Buzhardt about Butterfield's pending testimony, but it didn't surprise him, since Thompson had tipped off the White House about the explosive testimony of former Watergate conspirator John Dean.

A staffer on the committee, Armstrong said, provided him with a copy of a document Thompson had written to Republicans on the committee with Buzhardt's instructions as to what to ask Dean about. "This was after Thompson told them what Dean was going to testify to," Armstrong told ABC News. During his closed-door interview with Butterfield, Armstrong asked the White House counsel about the document, "and my assumption was over the weekend we were going to see the resignation of Fred Thompson, since he was subverting the Watergate Committee."

"There was nothing more secret than what Dean was going to testify to," Armstrong said. "Ervin said, 'Don't share anything with Baker and Thompson, because they're not trustworthy."

But instead, Armstrong said, "Ervin very generously gave Baker the nod to go ahead and do the Butterfield question. And rather than ending Thompson's career for all time, it seems to be something Thompson now feels he can brag about." But in reality, Armstrong insisted Thompson "was a spy for Richard Nixon on the Watergate Committee."

But Lenzner is more charitable, saying Democrats would have likely done the same thing for a Democratic president had the circumstances been the same.

"If it was an attempt to subvert the inquiry or to affect people's testimony, obviously that would have been wrong," he said. But he does not think that's what Thompson was doing, and he is reassured by Thompson's account that he told Buzhardt to "get those tapes together and get them up here as soon as possible."

"If that's in fact what was said, that's a pretty positive thing for Fred to have done," Lenzner said. "He's basically saying, 'We'll want them and you should produce them.' I'm not troubled by anything I knew then" about Thompson's conduct, "and I'm not troubled by anything I heard today."

Thompson admitted in "At That Point in Time" that he didn't think the tapes would hurt Nixon. After learning of the tapes from Sanders, Thompson began subscribing to the theory that "Butterfield had been sent to us as part of a strategy: The president was orchestrating the whole affair and had intended that the tapes be discovered. Then he would produce the tapes, or perhaps play them publicly; there would be nothing incriminating, and [former White House counsel] John Dean's testimony would be utterly discredited. It was some time before my theory -- and I was not alone in holding it -- proved totally wrong.

"In retrospect it is apparent that I was subconsciously looking for a way to justify my faith in the leader of my country and my party," Thompson wrote, "a man who was undergoing a violent attack from the news media, which I thought had never given him fair treatment in the past. I was looking for a reason to believe that Richard M. Nixon, President of the United States, was not a crook."

Said Lenzner after those passages were read to him: "I find that all very understandable. If the shoe had been on the other foot we would have felt many of the same things."

'He isn't very smart, is he?'

Lenzner speaks highly of Thompson's intelligence. But the Nixon White House had long been suspicious of Thompson -- because they thought ill of his intellect, at least according to transcripts of Nixon's White House tapes from "Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes," by Stanley Kutler.

On May 14, 1973, then White House chief of staff Alexander Haig tells President Nixon that he pulled then-Acting White House Counsel Leonard Garment off a phone call with Thompson.

"Oh shit," Nixon said of Thompson, fearing he would be out-skilled by Democrats on the committee. "He's dumb as hell."

Upon hearing Baker had chosen Thompson to be minority counsel in February, Nixon said, "Oh shit, that kid…They are going to lose them all."

"Well, we're stuck with him," replied H.R. Haldeman, the White House chief of staff who would resign on April 30.

Later that month, in a conversation with Nixon, Baker assured the president that Thompson was "tough. He's six feet five inches. He's a big mean fella."

"Smart?" asked Nixon.

"He's terribly smart," Baker replied.

But Nixon was not convinced. On March 16, 1973, he told Dean that "Dash is too smart for that kid," meaning Thompson, then 30 years old.

On June 6, 1973, Buzhardt -- the White House lawyer Thompson later tipped off about Butterfield's pending testimony about the tapes -- told Nixon that "we've got pretty good rapport with Fred Thompson."

"He isn't very smart, is he?" Nixon asked.

"He squeezed Gurney," Buzhardt said, referring to Sen. Edward Gurney, R-Fla. "Not extremely so, but --"

"But he's friendly," Nixon said.

"But he's friendly," Buzhardt agreed.

"Good," said Nixon.

"We're going to work with him over the weekend," Buzhardt said. "We are hoping, though, to work with Thompson and prepare him if Dean does appear next week, to do a very thorough cross-examination."

On June 11, 1973, Buzhardt told Nixon that the preparation had gone well.

"I found, uh, uh, Thompson most cooperative, feeling more Republican every day," Buzhardt said.

"Really?" asked Nixon.

"So he tells me," Buzhardt said, calling Thompson "perfectly prepared to assist in really doing a cross-examination." He called him "far more cooperative really than I expected him to be. He's willing to go, you know, pretty much the distance now. And he said he realized his responsibility was going to have be as a Republican increasingly."

"He realizes that Ervin, et al., and Dash are being totally political, does he?"

"Right," said Buzhardt, who then said that Thompson said he wanted to more aggressively defend the president but was being restrained by Baker. "[H]e says Baker's aware of it" -- how "political" things were getting -- "but he was quite candid with us; he thinks Baker will move much more slowly than he will let Thompson move."

"Right," said Nixon.

A few days after that conversation, Thompson's public question about Nixon's tapes -- regardless of his motivation -- helped bring about the end of the Nixon presidency, inadvertently or not.

"It's one of life's ironies that history gets twisted to show the vulgar is the noble," said Armstrong.