Reading: The Plot to Get Nixon | Essay | Chicago Reader

Reading: The Plot to Get Nixon 

In Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin's revisionist history of Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein are not heroes but collaborators in a sinister military conspiracy.

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I can't figure out how Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin managed to convince St. Martin's Press that anyone would buy another book about Watergate. The bungled break-in, which toppled a president, has also toppled an awful lot of trees. According to the bibliography to Colodny and Gettlin's Silent Coup: The Removal of a President, there have been no fewer than 28 previous books on the subject.

Watergate is an irresistible story for journalists because it confirms everything we want to believe about ourselves and our profession. Writing is nice work, since it requires no heavy lifting, but the pay is often lousy. Most of us stay motivated, to one degree or another, by the dream that our precious words can somehow make a difference in the world.

No writers ever had that dream come true in a more glorious fashion than Watergate chroniclers Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post. The story of two young reporters, armed with nothing but typewriters, taking on and defeating a powerful president remains etched in the minds of journalists everywhere. It is an alluring image, one that allows the mild-mannered Clark Kents of the world to dream that as we labor for metropolitan dailies, great or small, we too can become true Supermen--crusading for truth, justice, and the American way.

If Woodward and Bernstein are Supermen, then Silent Coup is a huge chunk of Kryptonite. According to private investigator Colodny and investigative journalist Gettlin, the commonly accepted version of Watergate is about as real as a DC comic book. In their revisionist history, the two reporters are no heroes. Instead, they are coconspirators in a sinister military plot designed to overthrow the duly elected government of the United States.

To uncover what they believe is the true Watergate conspiracy, Colodny and Gettlin reexamine a forgotten scandal from the early part of the Nixon administration. In 1971, a Navy yeoman named Charles Radford was discovered swiping top secret papers from Henry Kissinger's briefcase, and passing them on to Admiral Thomas Moorer, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The Joint Chiefs set up a spy ring inside the White House, say Colodny and Gettlin, because they were deeply disturbed by Richard Nixon's foreign policy. In the eyes of the military, the man who rose to fame as a Communist-fighting congressman was a flop as commander-in-chief of the cold war. With Kissinger whispering in his ear, Nixon was getting too close to China and the Soviets and pulling away from a U.S. combat role in Vietnam. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, say Colodny and Gettlin, viewed the Nixon-Kissinger Vietnam policy as "tantamount to treason." From the Pentagon's point of view, they write, "the president of the United States was out of control."

To rein in Nixon, say Colodny and Gettlin, top Pentagon officers told Radford--assigned as an aide to the National Security Council--to keep on eye on the White House. Twenty years later, when Colodny and Gettlin asked Radford about the real purpose of his spy mission, he gave an astounding answer. "Well, bringing Nixon down," he said. "Really, getting rid of Kissinger--Kissinger was a real monkey wrench in things."

Building on this startling admission, Colodny and Gettlin go on to suggest that shadowy forces--never identified by name--used the Watergate affair as a convenient opportunity to accomplish Radford's aborted mission: the destruction of the Nixon administration.

To penetrate the secrets of the "silent coup," Colodny and Gettlin argue that we must reevaluate three key Watergate figures: John Dean, Alexander Haig, and Bob Woodward. In the conventional interpretation of Watergate, Dean was the Nixon insider who exposed the truth about Watergate with his dramatic Senate testimony; Haig was the career military officer who steadied a shaky ship of state as White House chief of staff in 1973 and 1974; and Woodward was half of the reporting team that revealed the full story to a grateful nation.

Colodny and Gettlin believe this conventional interpretation is an outrageous fiction. The real story, they say, goes something like this: John Dean, not Nixon or any of his top aides, was the primary author of the Watergate break-in and the subsequent cover-up. Dean's real motive, they argue, had nothing to do with dirty tricks against Democrats. Instead, they uncover evidence that suggests that Dean was trying to protect his then-girlfriend, Maureen Biner (later to become Maureen Dean), who was linked to a prostitution ring that serviced members of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). Biner's name was in a phone book inside DNC headquarters--and Dean was apparently trying to make sure the Democrats didn't uncover and exploit her connection to him.

According to Colodny and Gettlin, John Dean is a self-serving perjurer, with a wife who is probably an ex-prostitute--but their charges against him stop there. He wasn't part of the military coup against Nixon, merely the unwitting agent who provided the plotters with valuable ammunition. The witting agent, they say, was Al Haig, who betrayed his boss on behalf of a sinister military cabal. The authors say that while serving as White House chief of staff, Haig intentionally gave Nixon misleading information and bad advice, in order to force the president into crucial political errors.

For example, Colodny and Gettlin contend that during the events leading up to the Saturday Night Massacre in October 1973, Haig never told Nixon that Attorney General Elliot Richardson had promised to resign if Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox was fired. When Nixon went ahead and fired Cox, Richardson did resign--and within a week more than 20 impeachment bills were introduced in the House of Representatives.

In addition, Colodny and Gettlin think that Haig was probably Deep Throat, the undercover source who fed Bob Woodward damaging information about the Nixon White House. In this version of events, Woodward was no investigative reporter, but merely a conduit for the dirt on Nixon that Haig and his unknown sponsors wanted passed to an unsuspecting public.

In re-examining the role played by the Washington Post in the downfall of Richard Nixon, Colodny and Gettlin take a harsh new look at the remarkable career of Bob Woodward. (Carl Bernstein is barely mentioned in the book. Colodny and Gettlin's reinterpretation of events rests entirely on the role of Deep Throat--and Deep Throat was Woodward's contact, not Bernstein's.) Woodward had been at the Washington Post for only nine months when he began covering Watergate at age 29. His previous journalistic experience consisted of a year at a suburban weekly. But somehow, this rookie reporter established a firm relationship with Deep Throat, the most well-placed anonymous source in the history of American journalism.

Woodward, it turns out, was no ordinary rookie reporter. Before becoming a journalist, Woodward spent five years in the Navy, starting in 1965. His service included a stint on a floating naval command post, where he obtained "top-secret crypto" security clearance--and in 1969 he was assigned to the communications office in the basement of the White House. Woodward has told previous interviewers that his job there was "awful and boring . . . scut work." It involved nothing more, he said, than carrying "some documents or a folder. . . . Strictly nuts and bolts."

According to Colodny and Gettlin, however, Woodward was not a low-level message carrier but a "specially selected briefing officer" assigned to gather and summarize strategic information for top-level senior officers--including Admiral Thomas Moorer, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Haig.

When Colodny and Gettlin interviewed Woodward for Silent Coup, he hotly denied ever having served as a Pentagon briefer. "Never," Woodward told them. "Have you got somebody who says I did a briefing? It never happened. . . . You have got bad sources."

There are no fewer than five sources--including Admiral Moorer and former secretary of defense Melvin Laird--for Colodny and Gettlin's assertion that Woodward was a Pentagon briefer. Each of the sources is identified by name. (In welcome contrast to books written by Bob Woodward, which dispense with such details as footnotes and lists of interviewees, Colodny and Gettlin have painstakingly detailed the source of every factual statement they make.)

Colodny and Gettlin don't place much value on Woodward's denials. The reporter's version of his Navy career, they write, "has all the hallmarks of a disinformation campaign designed to hide, rather than illuminate the essential points. . . . Woodward seems to cover his past associations with shadows in order to conceal strong, ongoing connections to the military hierarchy, and to protect people in that hierarchy who are or have been his journalistic sources." Hiding behind the shadows of Woodward's past, say Colodny and Gettlin, is none other than Alexander Haig.

When I first saw the title Silent Coup: the Removal of a President in a bookstore window, I figured the book was a rehash of a theory that has long been peddled by Nixon and his defenders: that he was driven from office by a left-wing conspiracy. The participants usually named in this plot include devious liberals in Congress, the media, and the Watergate special prosecutor's office (typically portrayed as a scheming den of Nixon-hating Kennedy lovers).

I didn't become interested in reading Silent Coup until I read a review of it in The Nation by Robert Sherrill, a veteran investigative reporter, that describes how hard the journalistic establishment has worked to bury the book. Sherrill suggests that for both ideological and financial reasons (Bob Woodward is now a megabucks book writer), major media corporations have a vested interest in making sure the story of Watergate as we know it stays intact, and that the myth of Woodward and Bernstein as all-conquering truth tellers remains an enduring one. Based on his account of Silent Coup reviews that appeared--and failed to appear--in places like the New York Times, the Washington Post, Time, and 60 Minutes, Sherrill convinced me that a lot of important people didn't want me to read Silent Coup. This got me excited enough to run out and buy the book in hardback, something I almost never do.

Unfortunately, Sherrill's review promises more than Colodny and Gettlin actually deliver. Silent Coup is exhaustively researched, thoroughly documented, and full of delicious new facts about Watergate. But the authors never successfully stitch their facts into a coherent theory. It took me forever to write the summary of the Silent Coup plot line that you read a few paragraphs ago; that's because no such summary exists within the book itself. Silent Coup is a detective story, and it badly needs a final chapter in which the detective smokes a cigarette and explains where all the bodies are buried and who buried them.

Without a good fix on the big picture, Silent Coup becomes more provocative than persuasive--but what a provocation! If Colodny and Gettlin are anywhere close to right, conspiracy theorists can now point to three "silent coups" during the past 20 years, each of which may have been carried out by shadowy military forces with sinister right-wing connections. First there was the Kennedy assassination, then the so-called silent coup of Watergate, and most recently the 1980 "October surprise," intended to prevent the reelection of Jimmy Carter.

There's one small problem with the silent coup theory suggested by Colodny and Gettlin: the coup--if there was one--was a total failure. If you believe, as many people do, that the CIA murdered John F. Kennedy because they didn't think he was tough enough on Vietnam, you can point to Lyndon Johnson's rapid escalation of the war as proof that the coup plotters succeeded. And if you believe, as many people do, that Ronald Reagan's campaign aides persuaded the Iranians to hold on to the American hostages until after the 1980 election, you can point to the hostage release on the day of Reagan's inauguration to prove that the "October surprise" was a stunning success.

But if you believe, as Colodny and Gettlin do, that military plotters used Watergate to remove Richard Nixon in order to derail detente--then what can you point to? The goal of the coup, according to Colodny and Gettlin, was not just to get rid of Nixon but to change the policies that Nixon and Kissinger were pursuing. Those policies didn't change at all once Gerald Ford became president. Detente with the Soviets continued on course, and the U.S. finished its withdrawal from Vietnam. It was while Ford was president that U.S. helicopters made their precarious final escape from the roof of the American embassy in Saigon, leaving behind an everlasting image of military defeat. That, supposedly, is exactly what the plotters of the silent coup were trying to avoid.

Another primary goal of the alleged conspirators, according to Navy yeoman Charles Radford, was "getting rid of Kissinger," who was "a real monkey wrench in things." The real monkey wrench in the silent coup theory is that none of the complicated maneuvering described by Colodny and Gettlin did any damage to Kissinger, who was the primary architect of the policies that the plotters supposedly viewed as "tantamount to treason." One of Gerald Ford's very first acts as president was to announce that Kissinger would remain as secretary of state, a position he held for the remainder of the Ford administration.

If the silent coup plotters were smart enough to construct an elaborate scheme in which an overblown scandal grew large enough to cause the downfall of a president, couldn't they have managed to throw a little mud on the secretary of state in the process? If Haig was leaking damaging information about Nixon to the Washington Post, why didn't he throw in a few tips about the skeletons in Kissinger's closet? Colodny and Gettlin go on at length about various things Haig did to ensure the downfall of Nixon. But they don't have any evidence to suggest that he ever attempted to remove Kissinger, which makes it hard to believe that Haig was at the center of a plot designed in large part to "get rid" of Kissinger and his prodetente policies.

In the end, Colodny and Gettlin's silent coup theory collapses of its own weight--because the scenario they present doesn't make very much sense. Still, there's no doubt that they have uncovered a wealth of previously undisclosed information. Their most significant contribution is their detailed investigation of Bob Woodward.

I'm not sure it matters that much whether Woodward was a high-level briefer or a low-level messenger during the year he worked at the White House. But it does matter whether or not he has lied about his past. Woodward has written a series of best-selling books--All the President's Men, The Final Days, The Brethren, Wired, Veil, and The Commanders--which rely on unnamed and unverifiable sources. If he's not telling the truth about himself, can we trust what he's told us about anyone else?

The real value of Silent Coup, however, is not that it questions the credibility of a single journalist. Far more important is that by presenting a devastating critique of the most influential piece of journalism in recent memory, Colodny and Gettlin encourage us to approach all journalism with a heightened degree of skepticism.

Such skepticism is invaluable, since a passive acceptance of a daily news diet can only lead to informational malnutrition. The problem is not so much that journalists are "biased" (although we all are, unless we are brain dead) as that reporters are never really the "source" of news. In one way or another, we are merely passing along what other people want you to know. The process of passing information along, however, tends to give it an undeserved aura of authenticity.

If you met George Bush on the street, and he told you he had a new plan to save the economy, you would probably be a little skeptical, since you know that Bush wants you to like him so he can get reelected. But when you see Tom Brokaw on TV, and he tells you that Bush has announced a new plan to save the economy, the information becomes "news," something that Brokaw appears to have discovered all by himself. Since Brokaw is an "impartial, disinterested" newsman--who is not running for anything--there's no reason to be skeptical about what he's saying.

Brokaw is only telling you what Bush wants him to tell you--but the magic of the process makes it look as if Brokaw, not Bush, is the "source" of the news. In fact, most of what passes for journalism in the United States is nothing more than glorified stenography. A person with predetermined social status (such as a politician, business executive, or movie star) makes it known that he or she has something to say, so we scriveners show up, record the newsmaker's precious words, and dutifully pass them on to our readers and viewers.

This steady flow of scripted verbiage, in the form of press releases and news conferences, generates most of the news you see and read each day. A much smaller chunk of the news hole is filled by a small elite who proudly describe themselves as "investigative reporters." This group disdains self-serving public statements, and sets out to discover what happens behind the closed doors of business, government, and society, where real decisions are made. But how can a reporter find out what happens behind closed doors? Only if someone who was there decides to talk--and very few people inside the real corridors of power ever talk to the press without a very definite purpose in mind.

That's not to say that everything you read in the paper is the equivalent of a rewritten press release. Serious journalists will gather multiple sources on a single subject, learn enough to weigh and evaluate what each source is saying, and create a final news product that depends on the judgment of a thoughtful observer, rather than on the unconfirmed testimony of interested parties. But there have rarely been any journalists more serious than the immortal Woodward and Bernstein of the Washington Post. Colodny and Gettlin's withering analysis of their work is a useful reminder that no journalist's work can ever be any better than his or her sources.

That's why, nearly 20 years after the fact, it was worth knocking down a few trees to publish the latest speculation on the true origins of the Watergate story. Who was Deep Throat and why did he want to tell the Washington Post terrible things about Richard Nixon? I don't think Colodny and Gettlin have all the right answers--but they certainly asked the right questions.

Silent Coup: The Removal of a President by Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin, St. Martin's Press, $24.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.

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