Source: Consortium News
The Watergate complex in Washington, D.C., where the Democratic National Committee had its headquarters in 1972.
(image by Consortium News)
Longtime Washington powerbroker Robert Strauss, who died Wednesday at the age of 95, took to the grave the answer to one of the most provocative Watergate mysteries, whether he was, in effect, a Republican mole serving in the highest ranks of the Democratic Party.
In his later years, Strauss rebuffed my requests for an interview on this topic, but it never seemed likely that he would tell the full truth anyway, answering questions about whether his close collaboration with senior Republicans in the early 1970s was just personal or whether he was privately helping them undermine Democratic election prospects in 1972 and then trying to shut down the Watergate investigation in 1973-74.
There is even suspicion that Strauss may have played an active role in the Watergate scandal by, perhaps unwittingly, helping the Republicans make use of secrets gleaned from a wiretap that the Watergate burglars had placed on the phone of Democratic operative R. Spencer Oliver in late May 1972.
It has never been fully explained exactly what the Republicans got from their wiretap on Oliver's phone, but Oliver told me in an interview in 2004 that he and other Democrats were using that phone to keep track of the delegate count as the Democratic presidential race reached its conclusion in June 1972.
Oliver and other mainstream Democrats operating out of his Watergate office were looking for ways to block the nomination of Sen. George McGovern for fear that the staunchly anti-war candidate would lead the party to catastrophe in November, just the result that President Nixon was hoping for.
So, while Oliver and his allies were strategizing about a possible compromise candidate who would fare better against Nixon, the Republicans were listening in on those plans, which involved the necessity of shutting McGovern out of delegates in the Texas convention in June.
Though the details of the so-called Gemstone wiretaps have never been revealed, one of the Nixon operatives, Alfred Baldwin, said he transcribed about 200 calls, including some dealing with "political strategy," and passed the transcripts on to James McCord, a former CIA officer and security chief for the Committee to Reelect the President (CREEP). McCord gave the transcripts to G. Gordon Liddy, a former FBI agent who had devised the spying plan.
The intercepts then went to Jeb Stuart Magruder, CREEP's deputy chairman who said he gave the material to former Attorney General John Mitchell, who had left the Justice Department to run CREEP.
Oliver, who was working for the Democratic state chairmen, told me that they commissioned a hard count of delegates to see whether McGovern's nomination could be stopped.
Though knocked from contention in the early primaries, Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine still had a bloc of delegates in early June as did former Vice President Hubert Humphrey and Washington Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson, Oliver said. Scores of other delegates were uncommitted or tied to favorite sons. Oliver hoped that his personal favorite, Duke University President Terry Sanford, might emerge from a deadlocked convention as a unity candidate.
"McGovern was having a hard time getting a majority," Oliver said. "The state chairmen wanted to know whether or not, if he won the California primary, he would have the nomination wrapped up or whether there was still a chance he could be stopped. "
"We called every state chairman or party executive director to find out where their uncommitted delegates would go. We were doing a real hard count. We knew better than anybody else how many delegates could be influenced, who were really anti-McGovern. We had the best count in the country and it was all coordinated through my telephone."
So, while Nixon's political espionage team listened in from their room at the Howard Johnson's hotel across from the Watergate, Oliver and his little team canvassed state party leaders to figure out how the Democratic delegates planned to vote. "We determined on that phone that McGovern could still be stopped even if he won the California primary," Oliver said. "It would be very close whether he could ever get a majority."
The Texas Showdown
After McGovern did win the California primary, the stop-McGovern battle focused on Texas and its Democratic convention, scheduled for June 13, 1972. "The one place he could be stopped was at the Texas State Democratic Convention," Oliver said.
A Texan himself, Oliver knew the Democratic Party there to be a bitterly divided organization, with many conservative Democrats sympathetic to Nixon and hostile to McGovern and his anti-Vietnam War positions. One of the best known Texas Democrats, former Gov. John Connally, had joined the Nixon administration in 1970 as Treasury Secretary and was helping the Nixon campaign in 1972.