Remembering Watergate

Even after 20 years, the turning points of Watergate--the Saturday Night Massacre, the "smoking gun" tape--retain a chilling resonance. NEWSWEEK'S Evan Thomas, John Schwartz, Anne Underwood, Clara Bingham and Shirlee Hoffman asked some key players for their most vivid recollections from that discordant time. Excerpts: VIRGILIO GONZALEZ One of the five Watergate burglars, now a retired lock and safe mechanic living in Miami

The most vivid thing I remember was when the policeman caught us. We never expected nobody would find us. We were supposed to have two or three men watching the building across the street in the Howard Johnson's. What happened to all the security we were supposed to be having.? We were looking for information about Mr. McGovern's relationship with Mr. Castro. When we opened the door, we left the tape on the latch. The last person in was supposed to remove the tape. It never happened.

FRANK WILLS Watergate security guard who discovered the burglar; now lives in South Carolina

The thing that stands out the most in my memory, really, is the piece of tape on the door, and later discovering that just finding that one particular piece of tape caused so much political change. I was shocked when I found out that that little piece of tape led all the way to the White House ... I was just doing a job. You know, black people are supposed to be in a corner sleeping, or something like that; there are a lot of negative images. I think I was just destined to be there.

JUDY HOBACK The Bookkeeper in Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's book "All the President's Men", now lives in Florida

Rob Odle [an administrator at the Committee for the Re-election of the President, CRP] called me at home the day after the break-in asking if Jim McCord was on our payroll. He knew very well that McCord was on the payroll. "Well, I need to get those records," he said. I called Hugh Sloan, and he said, " Don't give anybody anything." A day or two after that I walked in on Gordon Liddy in the office while he was shredding some documents and he said, " I don't think you want to be here." I agreed with him and left.

The first time Bernstein came to see me was at night, after dark. My sister-in-law was over and we heard a knock at the door. He introduced himself. I immediately froze and asked him to go away. I tried to close the door, but he literally had his foot in it. Then he saw my sister-in-law's cigarettes on the table and asked if he could have one. He pushed his way in and stayed through several cups of coffee. In the beginning I just nodded or shook my head because I was too nervous to speak. I was so nervous about talking to the press, but I was frustrated that the truth wasn't coming out.

HUGH SLOAN Treasurer of CRP's finance committee; now an auto-parts executive in Ontario, Canada

It became clear to me within a day or two of the break-in that the committee was involved. Gordon Liddy passed me in the hall and said, "My boys got caught." Shortly after that, it was in the papers that Jim McCord had been apprehended, and another day or two later stories came out about funds found on the burglars. I asked [finance committee chairman Maurice] Stans if the money had been properly authorized. He went to talk to [CRP chairman John] Mitchell. He came back and said, " I don't want to know, and you don't want to know."

Maurice Stans is a Hall of Fame accountant. The problem was that the political side asked us to transfer large amounts of money to them and then used it for dubious purposes. I had paid out $83,000 to Gordon Liddy, reportedly for campaign security. [In late June or early July 1972] I was approached by Jeb Magruder and [Mitchell aide] Fred LaRue to testify that it was a lower figure. They wanted me to say it was only $40,000. I guess they thought that $40,000 sounded more reasonable for campaign security. [Sloan refused.]

TONY ULASEWICZ Nixon's private investigator made payments to the Watergate burglars; author of "The President's Private Eye"; now living in Day, New York

The day after the break-in, [White House counsel] John Dean and Herbert Kalmbach, the president's attorney, met on a park bench opposite the White House. Dean wanted someone to distribute funds for humanitarian purposes to the burglars who were involved in this bungled affair. It wasn't hush money at the time. I was given the first $75,000 in a room at the Statler Hilton hotel in Washington. Mr. Kalmbach brought it up in an attache case. I had nothing to put it in, but in hotel rooms they have laundry bags, so I put it in one of those. Kalmbach told me that the phone calls I made to him should not be traceable. I ended up making a lot of long-distance telephone calls by cash from pay phones. Carrying around that many quarters and dimes would kind of pull your pants down, so when I saw a busman's money changer in a stationery store, I bought it to carry the change around.

[After July 11] my contact was Mrs. Hunt [wife of " Plumber" E. Howard Hunt]. When I first got on the phone to Mrs. Hunt, she was very nice. But lo and behold, when I delivered the first $40,000, she started escalating her demands. The money demands went up so fast, it became apparent to me that this was going beyond humanitarian purposes; they wanted a payoff. It was not long before I went to Mr. Kalmbach and said something here was not kosher. I was getting out of it, and I advised him to do the same. Those who pursued it went to prison for it.

RICHARD HELMS Former CIA director, now president of an international consulting firm

I was dumbfounded. The White House wanted us to contact the FBI and call off the investigation by saying the FBI would stumble into a CIA operation in Mexico. I said it was out of the question. It didn't matter who was asking for it.

RICHARD KLEINDIENST Attorney general before Elliot Richardson; today an Arizona lawyer

Presidents are under tremendous pressure day in and day out. It's not uncommon for them to say, "Let's get that son of a bitch!" A cool counselor will say, " You've got a great idea there, but let's look at it, let's expand on it." You don't do it, but you don't tell him he's a dumb s-t. If you get a [aides like Charles] Colson, a [Jeb Stuart] Magruder or a Dean, and a Nixon who had so many frustrations over so many years ... the first thing you know the three of them are running out the door to see who can be the first to do it.

KATHARINE GRAHAM Chairman of The Washington Post Company

The pressure mounted as it went along. It didn't start that way. We thought the break-in was a farce, with men with surgical gloves. But the story gathered steam as it went along, and there were several moments of intense pressure. Our TV licenses were challenged in Florida by some people connected with Nixon and the Committee to Re-Elect. The White House people had orders not to answer our phone calls or to communicate with us in any way. We were attacked every day by [mite House Press Secretary Ronald] Ziegler.

I was once told, by a friend of mine who was talking to the Nixon people, that I must not be alone. I didn't take it seriously, but he said, " No, no, I'm very serious." The hardest thing of all was being alone [on the story] for such a long time. Because you thought if it was such a wonderful story, where is everyone else? You'd see people from other papers at public functions, and they'd say, " What are you doing.?" I used to go to [editor Benjamin Bradlee] and say, "How do we know we're right? Are we being fair? Are we being led down the garden path?" Ben was wonderful, very rational; he said our sources were Republicans as well as Democrats and that the boys [Woodward and Bernstein] were being very careful. I said I wanted to see the reporters at one point. I asked, "Who is Deep Throat?" And then I said, " Oh, I'm just kidding. I don't want to know." Watergate really changed the paper's image. It raised our profile when it turned out the story was true. But I always say that the allegation that we brought down a president is not true. The democratic process-the courts, the grand jury, the congressional committees brought him down. What we really did was to keep the story alive when they wanted to hush it up.

BOB WOODWARD Watergate reporter with Carl Bernstein; now assistant managing editor at The Washington Post

It was a difficult story to cover because so many people weren't talking to us. We had to confirm information obliquely. The information was good--we always had at least two sources--but we had to go home, as Bradlee said, with a lump in our tummy every night because we didn't have that document, tape recording or face-to-face interview to back it up ... Deep Throat was important, but didn't determine the outcome. He gave me some very important clues and confirmations, as did other sources, such as Hugh Sloan and the Bookkeeper. But he also gave us some misinformation, for example, saying our lives were in danger. In retrospect, I think it was as much my paranoia as what he literally mid. But it's a question of authority. He gave a context to our reporting. Besides providing information, clues and confirmations, he could say, "This is serious," or "Pay attention to that."

Carl and I agreed to write ["All the President's Men"] on Oct. 25, 1972. We finished most of the writing in September 1973, almost a year before Nixon resigned. The book ends with Nixon's declaration that he would never resign, and I believed him. The book has taken on a kind of mythology--albeit a true mythology--because of the way Watergate turned out in the end. If it were like Iran-contra, where it looked like the government was shaking but didn't fall, people wouldn't look at the book the same way. No one's going to have a 20-year anniversary of Iran-contra because it didn't have the Shakespearean ending Watergate did.

DAN RATHER His CBS reports helped corroborate Post stories; now news anchor

The facts were few and very hard to come by. The word was out you start to mess with this and you're going to end up paying the price. The White House was working very hard on publishers, editors, bureau chiefs--your bosses. They would invite them to lunch, and in passing say, "Your man Rather is off track on this." That was potent stuff in 1972. They desperately did not want anybody but the Post to go after the story. If it began to spread to television, it could be trouble. One high-ranking person at CBS said, "Rather's too far out on this story, and he's going to take us down with him." [The CBS report says even founder William Paley was pressured.] ELLIOT RICHARD Nixon attorney general; quit rather than fire Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox; now practices law in Washington, D.C.

When I went in to the Oval Office to resign on Oct. 20, 1973, the Yom Kippur war had reached a very dicey stage. U.S. forces were on nuclear alert. It was in that context that the president said, "Do you realize if you resign, and others in the Department of Justice go with you, all in the face of Cox's insubordination, Brezhnev may get the impression that I have lost control of my administration?" Was I intimidated? I was shaken. There was a moment there where I began to see mushroom clouds, a blackened sky, but I told the president I felt I had no choice. That I was committed to the independence of the independent prosecutor, and he had no basis to justify firing him. Nixon said, "I'm sorry you chose to put your purely personal obligations I felt blood going to my head, but I kept my voice as steady as I could. "Mr. President, it would appear that we have a different perception of the national interest."

The day he fired Haldeman and Ehrlichman [April 30, 1973] was the day he asked me to be attorney general. One of the first things he said to me was firing them was "the toughest thing I've ever done my life." He paused, and said introspectively, "But you know, it's not as if we were really all that close. I don't think I had lunch with either one of them alone more than once or twice in the last four years."

RICHARD BEN-VENISTE A lawyer on the Watergate Special Prosecution Force; now practicing law in Washington, D.C.

I was at home in Georgetown when I heard [NBC's] Carl Stern's very emotional and shocking report from the White House lawn [of the Saturday Night Massacre, when Robert Bork, acting attorney general after the resignation of Richardson and his deputy, William Ruckelshaus, fired Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox). I went down to the office. FBI agents were already there, putting tape around the file cabinets and the equivalent of Do NOT DISTURB signs on our work spaces. Some of the agents who were doing this were the very agents who moments before were working for us and running the investigation. [The office's own security guards] were engaging in a good bit of in-your-face verbal discussion with the FBI.

Soon most of the other lawyers on the special prosecutor's staff assembled. Our offices were occupied by the FBI, so we went upstairs to the library and discussed what had occurred. We had anticipated that the president might fire Archie Cox as tensions mounted over the preceding weeks, and we had taken the precaution of storing sensitive material outside the office-in safe-deposit boxes, in George Frampton's grandmother's house in Virginia and other places.

VLADIMIR PREGELJ Watergate grand jury foreman; international trade expert at the Congressional Research Service

When talk of indicting the president came up, it was just a job to be done--simply a question of what did he know, when did he know it, what did he order. But there was a feeling that we were in uncharted waters. I felt and others felt that we should have pressed further, but Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski indicated he wouldn't sign an indictment. He took the position that a sitting president had to be impeached before he could be indicted. I thought his interpretation was incorrect ... if the president does something wrong, he is indictable. But Jaworski thought it would create too much dissension in the country. I found it strange, coming from a lawyer, that he should have the attitude that we have to overlook the law because it was not convenient.

MAURICE STANS CRP finance chairman, now heads the Nixon Library. In April 1974, he and Mitchell were acquitted of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and perjury in connection with an SEC investigation of contributor Robert Vesco; Stans later pleaded guilty to five election improprieties and paid a $5,000 fine.

The most difficult moment for me was the day we won the acquittal in the Vesco trial. A couple of hours later, my lawyer got a call from the Watergate special prosecutor, who said, "We want Stans down here right now." They wouldn't even give me a few days to celebrate my release. I didn't understand their insistence that I had to come 24 hours after a 28day trial.

The fact of the matter is I had absolutely nothing to do with Watergate. I was outside the track of burglary or cover-up. I raised all of the money. I didn't even know about the slush fund; the first I heard about it was when I read it in the paper.

BARBARA JORDAN On House Judiciary Committee, spoke movingly during the impeachment inquiry. Now at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas.

Lyndon Johnson had deceased at that point only quite recently, and I longed to be able to pick up the telephone and discuss the whole impeachment battle with him. But that could not be. I could not give surface or cavalier attention to what I was to do. Whatever decision I was to reach had to be based in fact, evidence and law-and could not be based on my ideological persuasion. I knew that people would probably expect my natural reaction to be one of, " Yes he's guilty, let's throw the book at him." But the matter was too serious for that. There were some of my colleagues on the committee who had that view, "Why read the facts? You know he's guilty." But I said, "But you don't know that."

The procedure we had followed in the House Judiciary Committee was very carefully behind closed doors to probe the evidence. After concluding that phase of the inquiry, the chairman of the inquiry said we are now ready to go public ... The chairman said each member of the committee would be given a chance to speak. At first I thought, " Well, I am not going to try to cover everything that is important here because it will just be a few minutes, and I will just give a brief view of my impressions. I go onto the floor of the House of Representatives and practically every one of my fellow colleagues in the Congress says, " I am so glad we will now hear what the committee has been thinking-and I know you will focus it and make it right for us."

I retired to my office and said, "I need to compose my thoughts." I had looked at everything that had ever been said or done about the matter of impeachment and I had that file before me. By the time I finished reviewing the file, it was about an hour before I was supposed to participate in the live televised hearing. I asked my secretary if she'd stay over so I could dictate something to her.

The Judiciary Committee room is crowded, standing room only. Everyone is waiting for the verdict. It was theater, is what it was. After having said my part I didn't know whether people took it in or reacted favorably. We left the Rayburn building and there were klieg lights and a crowd of people outside. I got out and they broke into applause, and that's when I knew that they understood.

PETER RODINO Chaired the House Judiciary Committee during the impeachment hearings; now living in New Jersey

I'll never forget when the first vote was taken on the first article of impeachment, and I as chairman was the last vote to be recorded. I recall the hushed voices and the solemn chamber, the whispers as people would record their votes, especially ones voting yea. I voted yea. We knew then that it was overwhelmingly for impeachment on the first article. I banged my gavel and announced the vote, and announced that the session was adjourned. I returned to the Judiciary Committee offices where my administrative assistant Francis O'Brien and special counsel John Doar were. I brushed by media, I wasn't in any mood to talk to anybody. I asked my aides to leave the room and I called my wife, who was in Newark, and I said, "Well I guess you saw, and you heard," and I broke down and cried.

RON ZIEGLER Nixon's former press secretary; now president of the National Association of Chain Drug Stores

The defining moment of Watergate for me was Aug. 9, 1974, when Richard Nixon came down the elevator from the residence, shook hands with Gerry Ford, and walked out of the White House [to the helicopter, Marine One]. I was in the helicopter with Mrs. Nixon, Ed, Tricia and Manolo Sanchez, the president's longtime valet. The helicopter was silent inside, and as we flew over the Washington Monument, Mrs. Nixon, looking out the window, said, "It's so sad, it's so sad."

JEB STUART MAGRUDER Deputy campaign director; now senior minister at the First Presbyterian Church in Lexington, Ky.

For me Watergate--as it was for everyone--was traumatic, and life changing. But the good news about life is that there is always hope. After a series of starts and stops, I have found my life now to be far more rewarding than my career was before Watergate in the White House. You have the opportunity to help people through counseling, preaching, teaching-visiting with people in the hospital and during difficult times in their lives. [Many people facing ethical or legal crises] come to see me because they know I understand.

Remembering Watergate | News