The origins of the Watergate scandal trace back to President Richard Nixon's frantic pursuit of a secret file containing evidence that his 1968 election campaign team sabotaged Lyndon Johnson's peace negotiations on the Vietnam War, a search that led Nixon to create his infamous "plumbers" unit and to order a pre-Watergate break-in at the Brookings Institution.
Indeed, the first transcript in Stanley I. Kutler's Abuse of Power, a book of Nixon's recorded White House conversations relating to Watergate, is of an Oval Office conversation on June 17, 1971, in which Nixon orders his subordinates to break into Brookings because he believes the 1968 file might be in a safe at the centrist Washington think tank.
Unknown to Nixon, however, President Lyndon Johnson had ordered his national security adviser, Walt Rostow, to take the file out of the White House before Nixon was sworn in on Jan. 20, 1969. Rostow labeled it "The 'X' Envelope" and kept it until after Johnson's death in 1973 when Rostow turned it over to the LBJ Library in Austin, Texas, with instructions to keep it secret for decades.
Yet, this connection between Nixon's 1968 gambit and the Watergate scandal four years later has been largely overlooked by journalists and scholars. They mostly have downplayed evidence of the Nixon campaign's derailing of the 1968 peace negotiations while glorifying the media's role in uncovering Nixon's cover-up of his re-election campaign's spying on Democrats in 1972.
Indeed, one of the Washington press corps' most misguided "truisms" -- "the cover-up is worse than the crime" -- derived from the failure to understand the full scope of Nixon's crimes of state.
Similarly, there has been a tendency to shy away from a thorough recounting of a series of Republican scandals, beginning with the peace talk sabotage in 1968 and extending through similar scandals implicating Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush -- in the 1980 interference of President Jimmy Carter's hostage negotiations with Iran, drug trafficking by Reagan's beloved Nicaraguan Contra rebels, and the Iran-Contra Affair -- and reaching into the era of George W. Bush, including his Florida election theft in 2000, his use of torture in the "war on terror" and his aggressive war (under false pretenses) against Iraq.
In all these cases, Official Washington has chosen to look forward, not backward. The one major exception to that rule was Watergate, which is again drawing major attention around the 40th anniversary of the botched break-in at the Democratic National Committee on June 17, 1972.
As part of the commemoration, the Washington Post's star reporters on Watergate -- Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward -- penned a reflection on the scandal, which puts it in a broader context than simply a one-off example of Nixon's political paranoia.
In their first joint byline in 36 years, Woodward and Bernstein write that the Watergate scandal was much worse than they had understood in the 1970s. They depict Watergate as essentially five intersecting "wars" that Nixon was waging against his perceived enemies and the democratic process, taking on the anti-war movement, the news media, the Democrats, justice and history.
"At its most virulent, Watergate was a brazen and daring assault, led by Nixon himself, against the heart of American democracy: the Constitution, our system of free elections, the rule of law," they wrote in the Post's Outlook section on June 10, 2012.
In the article, Woodward and Bernstein take note of the Oval Office discussion on June 17, 1971, regarding Nixon's eagerness to break into Brookings in search of the elusive file, but they miss its significance referring to it as a file about Johnson's "handling of the 1968 bombing halt in Vietnam."
That bombing halt -- ordered by Johnson on Oct. 31, 1968 -- was part of a larger initiative to achieve a breakthrough with North Vietnam to end the war, which had already claimed more than 30,000 American lives and countless Vietnamese.
The evidence is now overwhelming that Nixon's campaign went behind Johnson's back to convince the South Vietnamese government to boycott those talks and thus deny Democrat Hubert Humphrey a last-minute surge in support, which likely would have cost Nixon the election.
Rostow's "The 'X' Envelope," which was finally opened in 1994 and is now largely declassified, reveals that Johnson had come to know a great deal about Nixon's peace-talk sabotage from FBI wiretaps. In addition, tapes of presidential phone conversations, which were released in 2008, show Johnson complaining to key Republicans about the gambit and even confronting Nixon personally.
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