Last night’s CNN film Our Nixon was a unique look back in time at Richard Nixon and the Watergate era, mostly through the eyes of H.R. Haldeman’s and John Ehrlichman’s Super 8 cameras. Haldeman especially was addicted to taking movies, and shot thousands of feet of film during his years working in the Nixon White House, all confiscated by the FBI during the Watergate investigation. It was particularly interesting for me to watch this newly released footage intercut with the actual voices of Nixon, Haldeman, and others recorded by the infamous White House taping system. I knew or met a quite a few of the people involved in Watergate.
If you haven’t read Playing the Field or some of the other writing I’ve done on my relationship to Nixon, here’s the short version. I was one of a number of celebrities who volunteered to make appearances at fund raisers around the country for CREEP, the Committee to Re-elect the President to a second term. Later I was invited to the White House for a State dinner honoring Germany’s Chancellor Willy Brandt and to the San Clemente White House to meet Soviet First Secretary Leonid Brezhnev. Here’s an excerpt from Playing the Field.
In mid-June I received an invitation to a celebrity breakfast with John and Martha Mitchell in Pacific Palisades at the home of a prominent L.A. Republican. I accepted.
Saturday morning, June 17, 1972, in the big house overlooking the Pacific, a group of us gathered to meet with John Mitchell, chat with Martha, and in general be stroked by the hierarchy of CREEP for our good works thus far, and encouraged to do more between then and the election in November. Among those gathered were Terry Moore, Chad Everett, Pat Boone with two daughters in tow, Maureen Reagan, and me. I recall there was a lot of lofty talk about the Nixon reelection and some scoffing at the opposition.
Oddly enough, Martha Mitchell and I hit it off. She was nursing a hangover with a little hair of the dog, and gabbing away a mile a minute about how much she enjoyed herself in Southern California and how about if we got together for lunch in a day or two?
As the breakfast got under way in our host’s large sunny living room, John Mitchell began to speak to us about the progress the campaign was making and what a grand mandate the President would get in November from a voting public grateful for the way he was handling the country.
At some point, one of Mitchell’s aides bustled into the room and whispered in the attorney general’s ear. The color drained out of Mitchell’s face and he asked, “Are you sure?” In a few moments, he unceremoniously dragged Martha out of her seat and hurried out of the room with his entourage in his wake.
Without knowing it, we had witnessed Mitchell being told of the arrest of the Watergate burglars. It was the beginning of the Watergate scandal.
Watergate surely changed the face of American politics, ushering in an era of investigative journalism and forever eclipsing whatever good works Richard Nixon may have done. Without making excuses for them, for all their sins the Nixon people were invariably nice to me.
Looking back, the Watergate affair was a clear cut us-or-them kind of battle, conservatives against liberals, the press against the administration. Watergate seems quaint now compared to the massive crimes committed today by so many government officials who are sworn to protect our constitutional rights. Wars started with lies, torture legalized, CIA kidnappings, secret courts, indefinite imprisonment, murder by drones, and press freedom in jeopardy—the list grows daily. In the forty years since Watergate, a giant, secret government has been quietly put into place beyond elections and above its own laws. The fiction is that this secret government has been created to protect us. The fact is that it was created to control us, the world.