Excerpt: Elizabeth Drew’s ‘Washington Journal’

It was from this conversation between Nixon and Haldeman that the famous 18 ½ minute erasure was made. Though the “18 ½ minute gap” remained a mystery during Watergate and for a long time after—White House aides had tried to place the blame on Nixon’s secretary Rose Mary Woods—the evidence is compelling that Nixon had sat at Camp David working the keys to delete a large portion of this dangerous conversation. But what remained was incriminating enough—the cover-up was being planned right then and there. The disclosure of these conversations three days after the discovered break-in put the lie to the countless statements Nixon made to the public as to when he learned of any White House role in the break-in, or any attempt to cover it up.

The plumbers botched the job of the breaking into Dr. Fielding’s office, too. Though their two leaders, Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, cased Dr. Fielding’s office beforehand, when the plumbers, using CIA-supplied wigs and other disguises, including voice-altering devices, broke in they found no files at all, not to mention one on Ellsberg. Even so, the break-in still ma aged to defeat its purpose. In the course of Ellsberg’s trial on federal charges, the Justice Department, over Nixon’s strenuous objections, disclosed the raid on Dr. Fielding’s office. After that disclosure, the district judge presiding over the case ruled that the administration’s efforts to interfere in the trial “offend a sense of justice,” and he dismissed the case. The raid on Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s file was the single most damning—and alarming—act of the entire Watergate period.

The craziest idea of all: to firebomb the Brookings Institution in order to find material about Vietnam that Nixon was convinced was squirreled away there. The strategem, cooked up by Colson, whom even his White House colleagues considered unrestrained, resulted from insistence by the president: “Goddamn it, get in and get those files. Blow the safe and get them.” It’s been speculated that the material Nixon was after was, variously, two unreleased chapters of the Pentagon Papers, information about the bombing halt just before the 1968 election, or perhaps a document that would disclose Nixon’s role in interfering with the peace talks—the collapse of which may have decided the election. (When an election is that close, any number of things can have caused the outcome.) Colson’s scheme was that the White House’s private goon squad start a fire in the building on Massachusetts Avenue and in the confusion when a fire truck that they themselves mocked up was arriving, the plumbers would blow open a safe in the office of Leslie Gelb or Morton Halperin, two former Pentagon employees who had worked on the Pengagon Papers, and seize the contents. But as it happened, neither Gelb nor Halperin had any such papers—they didn’t even have a safe. Some presidential aides realized the recklessness of the Brookings plan and called it off.

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