Aug 1, 1977
Political Crimes Before Nixon
“At worst, Richard Nixon was just engaging in a time honored and long cherished American tradition: political spying.”
It Didn’t Start With Watergate
By Victor Lasky
Dial Press, 1977
438 pp., $10.00
“The greatest crime of the century,” that was how the Watergate break-in was characterized by the saviors of the Republic—the Democratic members of the Senate Select Committee on Watergate. If it were not for the zealous pursuit of justice and truth by the Democratically controlled Ervin committee, the country would not have been spared the establishment of a police state. And with the resignation of Richard Milhous Nixon, we all breathed a sigh of relief, for the House Judiciary Committee demonstrated that the system works, that the Constitution is intact, and that a corrupt administration was held accountable for its “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
Virtually everyone has accepted the line that the Nixon administration was an embarrassment and a threat to the high ideals of democratic government. Bugging of government officials, wire-tapping of political opponents, performing dirty tricks, granting favors for special interests, were all conceived during the Nixon years.
No so, says Victor Lasky in It Didn’ t Start With Watergate. The articles of impeachment which the House Juci-ciary Committee drew up against Nixon could also have been charged, claims Lasky, against FDR, JFK, and LBJ. Roosevelt did his best to maneuver the United States into World War II. Kennedy sent troops to Vietnam which paved the way for Johnson to escalate the conflict into a major war even after he campaigned as the “peace candidate” in 1964. Furthermore, besides subverting the constitutional process to involve the United States in foreign hostilities, these Democratic presidents engaged in far-reaching and sweeping illegal activities against their political opponents. FDR not only authorized the FBI to engage in electronic surveillance about which John Roosevelt, the President’ s youngest son said, “Hell my father just about invented bugging,” but also helped his two other sons, James and Elliott to reap fortunes in the insurance business during the depression. But probably the most interesting and mysterious episode of FDR’ s tenure in the White House was his ability to diffuse criticism over his third term candidacy among most fellow Democrats, especially Joseph Kennedy. Kennedy had been vehemently against U.S. involvement in a European conflict. What persuaded him to rally behind FDR still remains unknown.
Ironically, the Roosevelt style of governmental wrongdoing was to be surpassed by John Kennedy, a veteran of the war in which his father vainly attempted to prevent U.S. involvement. JFK’ s campaign for the presidency in 1960 outflanked his opponents, first Hubert Humphrey in the Democratic primaries with a series of stinging personal attacks, and then Richard Nixon in one of the most fraudulent elections in U.S. history. In fact, there has been enough evidence gathered to claim that the Kennedy presiedency was “illegitimate” due to the massive voter irregularities in Illinois and Texas.
Not to be undone, the thousand day Kennedy administration made full use of the state apparatus to plot the assassination of Fidel Castro, bug the hotel rooms of Martin Luther King, Jr., and intimidate members of the press who did not write glowingly of Camelot, particularly Victor Lasky after the publication in 1963 of JFK: The Man and the Myth.
After John Kennedy was assassinated in November, 1963, Lyndon Johnson, a protege of FDR, succeeded to the presidency. It was LBJ, according to Lasky, who amassed an intelligence network to gather information on war dissenters. LBJ’s use of the CIA for domestic purposes was a clear violation of the law. The media somehow failed to “uncover” Lyndon Johnson’s massive violation of civil liberties during the sixties. Where were they when we really needed them? The fourth estate, however, redeemed itself by exposing the activities of the Nixon White House.
This brings us to the Watergate caper. Still unresolved is why McCord and Company installed taps and burgled the Democratic National Committee. The Cubans apparently believed Castro was supporting McGovern and therefore wanted hard proof. Lasky, however, sheds some light on the “third-rate burglary.” And as far as the highly efficient operation of the Nixon campaign, consider how Nixon describes the Watergate break-in: “Everything went wrong—as if by design. The walkie-talkies malfunctioned; the lock picker had difficulty picking locks; and the burglars bugged the wrong phones, cut themselves on broken glass, and practically invited discovery. When apprehended, they were found to possess incriminating address books as well as large sums of currency easily traceable to the Nixon reelection effort. It was almost as if they had been deliberately dropping clues.”
All this leads us to the question: Was Nixon set up? G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt played major roles in planning the Watergate operation. Hunt was also working for a public relations firm, the Mullen Company, which had ties with the CIA. After Hunt retired from the CIA (1970), Director Helms “twisted the arm” of Bob Mullen to give Hunt a job. Another crucial development was the association of Robert Bennett with the Mullen Company. Bennett brought with him the important Howard Hughes account which was previously handled by Larry O’ Brien, the Democratic national chairman. O’Brien’s relationship with the Hughes organization was terminated in 1971. This coincided with Robert Maheu’s (Hughes chief operative) leaving the billionaire’s employ. Maheu’s termination ended in an extended court battle with the Hughes empire. The stage was now set for the Watergate break-in. The Hughes people were interested in discovering Maheu’s conversations with O’Brien. The Wajergate break-in then appears to be primarily a CIA operation directed at O’Brien who was probably privy to Hughes’ relationship with the intelligence agency.
At worst, Richard Nixon was just engaging in a time honored and long cherished American tradition: political spying.
Lasky not only argues that Watergate was not a unique event in the annals of the American political process, but that the Democrats, particularly Larry O’Brien, were forewarned of the possibility that the DNC was to be bugged. Lasky suggests that the break-in was welcomed by the Democrats who promptly filed a $1 million damage suit against the Committee to Re-elect the President. Thus the question arises: Was there a double agent amongst the burglars who tipped off the Democrats? The Miamians, in conversations with Senator Lowell Weicker at the federal penitentiary in Danbury, Connecticut, described McCord’s actions during and after the break-in as highly suspect. After all, McCord “blew the whistle” to Judge Sirica, even though he told the other burglars to keep silent. For his “cooperation,” McCord served a short sentence.
Undoubtedly the Watergate participants had to be punished for their illegal acts. But Lasky takes exception to the tactics employed by the Ervin committee in “uncovering” the truth about the break-in and subsequent cover-up. Lasky aims his sharpest barbs at the investigators for the committee who did not hide their anti-Nixon bias, while professing to conduct honest and objective hearings. One could go on with the material Lasky has gathered which clearly exposes the hypocrisy of the liberals who stuck their heads in the sand when previous administrations were guilty of high crime and misdemeanors far worse than the vague charges (according to Lasky) cited against Richard Nixon by the House Judiciary Committee.
Since Woodward and Bernstein have been credited with exposing the criminality of the Nixon administration in “All the President’s Men,” I wonder if the Hollywood types are ready to use Lasky’s material and blast FDR, JFK, and LBJ in celluloid. The least we should get is a television miniseries on the activities of the state apparatus for as Victor Lasky has shown, It Didn’t Start With Watergate.
Murray Sabrin is a Ph D. candidate in the Department of Geography, Rutgers University. Mr. Sabrin was co-editor of the June and September 1976 issues of the Wall Street Review of Books.