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Finally, we have answers to the most important remaining questions about Watergate: What were the burglars after and why Nixon was willing to risk his presidency to get it? Watergate: The Hidden History: Nixon, The Mafia, and The CIA by Lamar Waldron lays it all out in extraordinary detail.
Perhaps equally important, it also shows how today's poisonous political climate and questionable campaign tactics originated with Nixon, yielding ominous lessons for the 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
Last week was the 40th anniversary of Watergate, when the arrest of White House operatives at the Watergate offices of the Democratic National Committee triggered a scandal that eventually led to President Richard Nixon's resignation. And perfectly timed, Waldron's new book is filled with bombshell revelations about Nixon's many crimes, that puts Nixon and the scandal in a whole new light.
While much of the recent Watergate anniversary news coverage rehashed decades-old information or Nixon's own spin, Watergate: the Hidden History contains a surprising amount of new information, most of it from the National Archives, some released as recently as April 2012. Some is completely new, while other information has been known for years to historians and investigative journalists who focused on the Mafia or the CIA, but the information never made it into conventional Watergate histories.
Waldron's book shatters the common myths of Watergate, which many on the right are trotting out as a way to smear President Obama over the politically-manipulated "Fast and Furious" matter. (The book shows that Nixon was a master at spreading political smears, including those he knew were false.)
Conservatives leaders still like to call Watergate a "third rate burglary," the term Nixon's spokesman used soon after the arrests. As the book documents, there wasn't one burglary, there were actually four attempts to burglarize the DNC offices at the Watergate. In addition, the same crew burglarized the Chilean Embassy in Washington two weeks before the first Watergate burglary attempt, something Nixon admitted in a White House tape that wasn't released until 1999. As one of the burglars later admitted, they were looking for the same document at the Chilean Embassy they were hunting for at the Watergate.
Another Watergate myth is that "the cover-up was worse than the crime," which overlooks the massive amount of criminal activity on the part of the Nixon White House of which the Watergate break-ins were only a small part. The book quotes historian Stanley Kutler as saying "more than seventy persons were convicted or offered guilty plea as a consequence of the Age of Watergate."
Waldron also demolishes the myth that two intrepid Washington Post reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein "brought down" President Richard Nixon. As Woodward and Bernstein themselves admitted in their recent Post editorial, it was the president's many crimes that "brought down" Nixon, and their reporting -- summarized in All the President's Men -- covered only a small faction of those crimes.
However, journalist Ron Rosenbaum pointed out on June 18, 2012, in a piece entitled "Woodward and Bernstein Don't Know Who Ordered Watergate" that the Post reporters have never answered crucial questions about the scandal, ranging from the "real purpose" of the break in to "how much was the CIA involved?" The latter question is important since, as Waldron's book documents, all of the Watergate burglars, and their supervisor E. Howard Hunt, were current or former CIA agents or officials. Even The New York Times's Tim Weiner recently wrote that "no one knows...precisely what the burglars wanted" at the Watergate.
Many people assume that Watergate was only about bugging, but planting or fixing a few bugs could have been done with a two or three-man crew, not the five people arrested at the Watergate with enough film to photograph 1,400 pages of documents. What files did they want to photograph? And why were all of the burglars CIA veterans of the agency's secret war against Fidel Castro that began back in 1960, when Richard Nixon was vice president?
All of those questions are answered in Watergate: The Hidden History, which not only documents what the burglars were looking from, but actually prints the entire file that the burglars and Nixon wanted so badly. The book also includes the first Watergate memos to ever officially link the Mafia to Watergate, which help to show how Nixon's past ties to the Mafia triggered the Watergate break-ins.
As one of the Watergate burglars admitted, and Senate Watergate Committee investigators indicated in their secret questioning of Mafia don Johnny Rosselli, Nixon was worried about a Cuban Dossier of CIA attempts to kill Fidel Castro. Those attempts began in earnest in September 1960, when Nixon was seeking an edge in his close presidential race against Senator John F. Kennedy. A Nixon associate involved in the attempts said that in 1960 "the CIA had been in touch with Nixon [and] it was Nixon who had him to a deal with the Mafia in Florida to kill Castro."
CIA attempts to assassinate Fidel continued until a December 1971 attempt in Chile, when Nixon was president and had ordered a huge covert war against Chile's socialist government. Remarkably, at those same key times -- September 1960 and December 1971 -- Nixon accepted $500,000 bribes from Mafia leaders, including some involved in his CIA-Mafia attempts to kill Fidel. Those Nixon-Mafia bribes were extensively documented by the FBI, Time magazine, and author Dan Moldea. Those Mafia bribes and Nixon's efforts to have the CIA work with the Mafia to kill Fidel Castro were the secrets that Nixon could not afford to have come out during the 1972 campaign.
I won't attempt to explain everything the book documents in this brief review. Though Waldron's book is over eight hundred pages, he summarizes everything in an excellent photo section and in the book's Chapter One. The rest of the book unfolds in clear chronological order, and is backed by over two thousand endnotes. The book uses the epic sweep of Nixon's political career to show that everything he did in Watergate was simply doing on a larger scale what Nixon had been doing for years, sometimes decades. Waldron's book builds on the work of PBS and others to firmly establish Nixon's culpability for Watergate.
All of these revelations about Nixon have important ramifications for politics today, since this -- like 1972 -- is a presidential election year, with control of Congress also hanging in the balance. Knowing what's in Watergate: The Hidden History, it's not hard to see Nixon's legacy in the current political situation, from the "win at any cost" tactics he developed to the current involvement of some he worked with in his victorious campaigns, like Roger Ailes.