In October 1972, Oliver wrote a memo to Sen. Sam Ervin, a moderate Democrat from North Carolina, recommending an independent congressional investigation as the only way to get to the bottom of Watergate, a task Ervin couldn't undertake until the next year.
In the meantime, Nixon's Watergate cover-up held. The White House successfully tagged the incident as a "third-rate burglary" that didn't implicate the President or his top aides. On Election Day, Nixon rolled to a record victory over his preferred Democratic opponent, George McGovern, who only won one state, Massachusetts.
Covering Up Watergate
The McGovern debacle had immediate repercussions inside the Democratic National Committee, where the party regulars moved to purge McGovern's people in early December.
"Labor, conservatives, party establishment and others wanted to get rid of the McGovernites and they wanted Jean Westwood to resign," Oliver said. "We had a bruising battle for the chairmanship. It ended up being between George Mitchell [of Maine] and Bob Strauss."
The Strauss candidacy was strange to some Democrats, given his close ties to John Connally, who had led Nixon's drive to get Democrats to cross party lines and vote Republican. Two Texas labor leaders, Roy Evans and Roy Bullock, urged the DNC to reject Strauss because "his most consistent use of his talents has been to advance the political fortune and career of his life-long friend, John B. Connally."
Another Texan, former Senator Ralph Yarborough, said anyone who thinks Strauss could act independently of Connally "ought to be bored for the hollow horn," a farm hand's expression for being crazy.
For his part, Connally offered to do what he could to help his best friend Strauss. Connally said he would "endorse him or denounce him," whichever would help more. Strauss "displays in my judgment the reasonableness that the [Democratic] party has to have," Connally said.
Behind the scenes at the White House, Nixon was already touting Connally as the next President, or as Haldeman noted, "he is the only one that any of us would want to see succeed the P. He's got to run as a Republican and he's got to make the move now" to formally switch parties.
"After a terribly hard-fought battle, Strauss won," Oliver recalled. "Strauss came to the national committee the next week."
Though supposedly on opposite sides of the political fence, Connally and Strauss stayed in touch, with Connally even upbraiding his former protégé for comments that Strauss made in December 1972 about the value of Democratic loyalty. Connally "had called [Strauss] and told him his remarks were ill-advised," Haldeman recounted in his diary. Connally "said he was pretty tough and that Strauss was quite disturbed."
Soon, it became clear that Strauss's chief priority was to give the Democratic Party new direction as it tried to traverse a political landscape reshaped by the Nixon landslide. Strauss's strategy called for putting the Watergate scandal into the past both by moving the DNC out of the Watergate complex and by trying to settle the Watergate civil lawsuit.
"Within a few days of his being there, I was called and told he wanted to see me," Oliver said. "He said, 'Spencer, you know I want to work with the state party chairs, but now that I'm here there's something I want you to do. I want to get rid of this Watergate thing. I want you to drop that lawsuit.'
"I said, 'What?' I didn't think he knew what he was talking about. I said, 'But, Bob, you know that's the only avenue we have for discovery. Why would we want to get out of the lawsuit?'
"He replied, 'I don't want that Watergate stuff anymore. I want you to drop that lawsuit.' I said, 'Bob, without me, there is no lawsuit under the law.' He said, 'I'm the chairman and I want you to do it.' I said, 'Bob, I work for the state chairmen's association and I see no reason to do that.' It was very unpleasant at the end."
Oliver soon found himself cut adrift by the DNC lawyers who said they had to follow Strauss's orders and back off the Watergate case, though privately they expressed hope that Oliver would find another lawyer and continue pursuing the case, Oliver recalled. "I said, 'I can't afford that.'"