The Fred Thompson Watergate Myth

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.

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