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Robert Strauss’s Watergate Secret

By       Message Robert Parry       (Page 6 of 8 pages) Become a premium member to see this article and all articles as one long page.     Permalink

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Oliver was then studying for the bar, supporting three children and working two jobs (for the state chairmen and for the American Council of Young Political Leaders). Plus, his marriage was on the rocks.

Oliver began a search for a new attorney willing to take on the powerful White House. He faced a string of rejections from other lawyers partly because so many Watergate figures had already hired attorneys at major firms that it created conflicts of interests for other law partners. Finally, at a dinner party in Potomac, Maryland, a personal injury lawyer named Joe Koonz offered to take the case on a contingency basis.

"They can't do anything to me," Koonz said, according to Oliver. "I'm a plaintiff's lawyer, a personal injury lawyer. You won't have to pay a thing. If we win, I'll get one-third and you'll get two-thirds, and I guarantee you if I get this thing before a jury, we'll win."

Oliver's success in keeping the civil suit alive represented a direct challenge to Strauss, who continued to seek an end to the DNC's legal challenge to the Republicans over Watergate. While Oliver didn't directly work for Strauss, the national chairman could force Oliver off the payroll.

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"He couldn't fire me as executive director of the state chairmen's association, but he could cut off my pay, which he did after a big, nasty, ugly fight," Oliver said. "The state chairmen then paid my salary out of their own funds."

Strauss also moved the DNC out of Watergate, despite the favorable terms on the rent and the building's usefulness as a reminder of Republican wrongdoing. "Strauss said, 'I don't care what it costs to move. I want to get this Watergate thing behind us,'" Oliver said. "It was ridiculous. They moved the office across the city to a worse location for less space at more cost. Plus, they lost the symbol of Watergate."

A Rising Bush

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While Democratic leaders were debating whether to fold their hand on Watergate, Nixon was reshuffling his personnel deck for a second term. George H.W. Bush's credentials as a Nixon loyalist made him a top candidate for several senior administration jobs.

"A total Nixon man -- first," Nixon said in a discussion of Bush's future. "Doubt if you can do better than Bush." In one denigrating compliment, Nixon told Bush that he was high on the job lists because the administration needed "not brains but loyalty." Nixon concluded that Bush would fit best as chairman of the Republican National Committee, replacing Sen. Bob Dole, whom Nixon considered too independent and acerbic.

"Bush was perfect for the RNC," wrote Bush's biographer Herbert S. Parmet, "whistle-clean, a tonic for the GOP's public image, a nice guy to everyone, but tough. How else could he have built a career in oil and politics? A great combination: respectability and strength, able to firm up the administration's lines of control. He could be handy at the money-raising, too."

With more Watergate troubles looming in federal criminal court (over the five burglars) and in Congress (with Ervin's plans for public hearings), Nixon told Bush, "The place I really need you is over at the National Committee running things." Bush accepted though he was less than thrilled with the new job.

Bush's genial demeanor helped in negotiations with Strauss, a fellow Texan whom Bush also counted as a friend. By mid-April 1973, Strauss appeared on the verge of achieving his goal of putting the Watergate civil lawsuit into the past.

"I'm driving into work one day and I hear that Strauss and George Bush were holding a press conference at the National Press Club to announce that they were settling the Watergate case, putting it behind them," Oliver said. "I said he can't settle that suit without me. The Republicans were holding out $1 million to settle that suit, but they couldn't settle it without me."

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On April 17, 1973, Strauss disclosed that CREEP had offered $525,000 to settle the case. "There has been some serious discussion for many months" between Democratic and CREEP lawyers, Strauss said. "It has become intense in the past several weeks." Strauss explained his interest in a settlement partly because the Democratic Party was saddled with a $3.5 million debt and could not afford to devote enough legal resources to the case.

But two days later, Strauss backed off the settlement talks because Oliver and Common Cause, another organization involved in the civil case, balked. "We haven't the slightest intention of settling short of what we set out to get," said Common Cause chairman John Gardner. "I think that the Democratic National Committee suit and ours are the two that are least susceptible to control."

At a press conference, Oliver declared, "I am appalled at the idea of ending the civil suit in the Watergate case through a secretly negotiated settlement and thereby destroying what may be an important forum through which the truth about those responsible may become known. I do not know what motivated Robert Strauss to even contemplate such a step."

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Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at

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