Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Watergate and Me

“As President Nixon says, presidents can do almost anything, and President Nixon has done many things that nobody would have thought of doing.”
- Golda Meir

Forty years ago last Friday, July 1, 1971, White House staffers David Young and Egil Krogh wrote a memo suggesting the establishment of a secret White House investigations unit in response to Daniel Ellsberg’s leak of the Pentagon Papers. This organization was first named ODESSA, for “Organization Directed to Eliminate the Subversion of the Secrets of the Administration,” by G. Gordon Liddy, but it eventually became better known as the White House Plumbers, from their office location in the basement.

The great obsession of my adult life has been figuring out how people and organizations work. I write business books and military novels because nothing fascinates me more than people struggling with impossible situations, especially when of their own making. Believe me, I know what it's like to screw up, and so when I look at the Watergate cast of characters, I don't see the politics, I see the people, and I feel their pain.

July 1 begins the 40th anniversary of the Watergate scandal, and from time to time I’ll be offering a little commentary along the timeline. I’m a big fan. I followed every minute of the Watergate hearings, and devoured every book by a Watergate player, no matter how obscure. No, I didn't figure out who Deep Throat really was, but I wasn't interested in the detective story that much.

Oh, I admire Woodward and Bernstein and all that, but my heart goes out to John Dean, looking down on the waters of the Potomac with his trunk packed with boxes of potentially incriminating evidence, realizing in his heart that he had become a criminal.

I marvel at G. Gordon Liddy, the closest thing to a real-life James Bond imaginable, presenting, in those pre-PowerPoint days, a complete project management plan on poster board for schemes worthy of Dr. Evil himself. His plan would cost -- finger on pursed lip and a drumroll – two million dollars! (They bargained him down to a mere half-million – as long as Jeb McGruder could check out the houseboat full of hookers personally.)

And, of course, I am enthralled by the man himself -- Richard Milhouse Nixon, forever typecast as King John to JFK's Richard Lionheart, the dark heart of the American soul.

In the movie You've Got Mail, Tom Hanks memorably observed to Meg Ryan that all the lessons of life for contained in the Godfather movies. I had been using a similar line for years, and with no disrespect intended to the great saga, for me the touchstone remains the richly and densely textured the Watergate scandal. In it you can find echoes of any life lesson you choose, for Watergate is the very stuff of life.

I was so into Watergate that when I auditioned for a job as a comic book writer at Marvel in the late 1970s, I submitted a Spider-Man story titled "J. Jonah Jameson goes to Washington," a very thinly disguised story of the scandal with an even more thinly disguised G. Gordon Liddy as a first-rate super villain, if I do say so myself.

Marvel rejected it, saying, “It doesn’t seem aimed at our target demographic.”

More to come...


  1. I like the way you stated your sidewise thinking purpose statement, as being fascinated by the way people and organizations think, especially when entangled in problems of their own making. I hope you don't mind if I use some of your own ideas in my own writing.

  2. . . . Always giving you credit, of course.

  3. Yoda - Thank you very much for the kind words. Yes, by all means feel free to quote what you like — the wider it's distributed, the better.