50 Years Later, the Motive Behind Watergate Remains Clouded

“One strange thing about Watergate, the scandal that led Richard Nixon to resign as president, is that 50 years later we still don’t know who ordered the core crime or why.
This was the crime: On June 17, 1972, a squad of five bagmen, all with at least past connections to the CIA, broke into the offices of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in the Watergate office building. They were supervised by James McCord, director of security for Nixon’s reelection committee.”

“The most obvious and common speculation is that the burglars were trying to steal political intelligence from DNC chair Larry O’Brien for the Nixon campaign’s benefit. But anyone knowledgeable about how presidential campaigns work would know that any political intelligence worth stealing had already moved to the headquarters of Democratic nominee George McGovern. The party’s national headquarters doesn’t have much to do at that point except to put on the convention, and O’Brien had already moved to Miami to take charge of that. His office in the Watergate was vacant and ghostly.

Besides, the burglars were caught bugging the telephone not of O’Brien but of a minor party official named Spencer Oliver, a man whose duties kept him out on the road most of the time and away from his phone—a fact that has engendered some fascinatingly strange speculation”

“Five decades later, despite 30,000 pages of declassified FBI investigative reports, 16,091 pages of Senate hearing transcripts, 740 pages of White House tape transcriptions, and scores of histories of the scandal and memoirs by its participants, we still know more about the cover-up than we do about the break-in.”

“The most interesting information to emerge from the Watergate investigation, and certainly the most legally actionable, came not from journalists via Felt-like leaks but from other parts of the FBI and, indirectly, from the Senate’s investigation, which stumbled onto the fact that Nixon had a secret taping system that picked up most of his conversations with his most intimate advisers.

While the media gabbled about what kind of paranoid loon would do such a thing, every president going back to Franklin Roosevelt had taped at least some of his conversations. Nixon had actually disconnected the White House recording equipment when he entered office. He relented in 1971, evidently thinking tapes would help him write memoirs of what he expected to be an epic presidency. Instead, he sealed his own doom, creating 3,432 hours of tape that turned what otherwise would have been uncorroborated he-said/he-said conversations into smoking guns.

The tapes also yielded no end of fascinating insights into the president’s positions on everything from Catholicism (“You know what happened to the popes? They were layin’ the nuns”) to Northern California sociology (“The upper class in San Francisco…is the most faggy goddamned thing you could ever imagine….I can’t shake hands with anybody from San Francisco”).”

“Reconsidering those events and the mysteries still surrounding them can help us see government for what it really is: not a holy calling besmirched by a uniquely sinister Richard Nixon, but a generally lowly site of struggle for personal and institutional power. The bad guys may not always get away with their crimes, but the government is so thick with secrecy and omerta that we can’t always be sure we know what they are up to—not at the time, and not even 50 years later.”