Nixon: "That's right"
Colson: "And done through the FBI. My God, if we ever did anything like that you'd have the ..."
Nixon: "Yes. For example, why didn't we bug [the Democrats' 1972 presidential nominee George] McGovern, because after all he's affecting the peace negotiations?"
Nixon: "That would be exactly the same thing."
By early November 1972, as Nixon was cruising to an easy victory over McGovern but was worried about future problems with the Watergate scandal, the tale of Johnson's supposed wiretaps of Nixon's campaign was picked up by the Washington Star, Nixon's favorite newspaper for planting stories damaging to his opponents.
Washington Star reporters contacted Rostow on Nov. 2, 1972, and, according to a Rostow memo, asked whether "President Johnson instructed the FBI to investigate action by members of the Nixon camp to slow down the peace negotiations in Paris before the 1968 election. After the election [FBI Director] J. Edgar Hoover informed President Nixon of what he had been instructed to do by President Johnson. President Nixon is alleged to have been outraged." But Rostow still was unwilling to help on the story.
Hoover apparently had given Nixon a garbled version of what had happened, leading him to believe that the FBI bugging was more extensive than it was. According to Nixon's White House tapes, he pressed Haldeman on Jan. 8, 1973, to get the story about the 1968 bugging into the Washington Star.
"You don't really have to have hard evidence, Bob," Nixon told Haldeman. "You're not trying to take this to court. All you have to do is to have it out, just put it out as authority, and the press will write the Goddamn story, and the Star will run it now."
Haldeman, however, insisted on checking the facts. In The Haldeman Diaries,
published in 1994, Haldeman included an entry dated Jan. 12, 1973,
which contains his book's only deletion for national security reasons. Haldean wrote...
"I talked to [former Attorney General John] Mitchell on the phone, and he said [FBI official Cartha] DeLoach had told him he was up to date on the thing. ... A Star reporter was making an inquiry in the last week or so, and LBJ got very hot and called Deke [DeLoach's nickname], and said to him that if the Nixon people are going to play with this, that he would release [deleted material -- national security], saying that our side was asking that certain things be done. ...
"DeLoach took this as a direct threat from Johnson. As he [DeLoach] recalls it, bugging was requested on the [Nixon campaign] planes, but was turned down, and all they did was check the phone calls, and put a tap on the Dragon Lady [Anna Chennault]."
In other words, Nixon's threat to raise the 1968 bugging was countered by Johnson, who threatened to finally reveal that Nixon's campaign had sabotaged the Vietnam peace talks. The stakes were suddenly raised. However, events went in a different direction.
On Jan. 22, 1973, 10 days after Haldeman's diary entry and two days after Nixon began his second term, Johnson died of a heart attack. Haldeman also apparently thought better of publicizing Nixon's 1968 bugging complaint.
Several months later -- with Johnson dead and Nixon sinking deeper into the Watergate swamp -- Rostow, the keeper of "The 'X' Envelope," mused about whether history might have gone in a very different direction if he and other Johnson officials had spoken out in real time about what Johnson called Nixon's "treason." Still, Rostow chose to keep the facts from the American people.
And the silence had consequences. Though Nixon was forced to resign over the Watergate scandal on Aug. 9, 1974, the failure of the U.S. government and the American press to explain the full scope of Nixon's dirty politics left Americans divided over the disgraced president's legacy and the seriousness of Watergate.
Many Republicans viewed Watergate as a Democratic plot to reverse the landslide results of the 1972 election. Other observers saw the scandal as an isolated event provoked by Nixon's personal paranoia. But almost no one made the connection that Rostow did, that Nixon's high-handed political espionage had involved an earlier scheme that dragged out the Vietnam War for four bloody years.