Many of OtherWords columnist Donald Kaul’s most memorable and insightful commentaries skewered the Watergate scandal and its architects.
Kaul, a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, remains on medical leave after writing a weekly column for this editorial service for most of the past 14 years. He spent the bulk of his long career writing syndicated columns for the Des Moines Register. He also had a stint at the Cedar Rapids Gazette.
We’re sharing these excerpts from Kaul’s reflections on President Richard Nixon’s resignation to mark the 40th anniversary of that event. They’re in chronological order and linked to complete columns scattered around the Internet. This is the second installment.
—Emily Schwartz Greco
OtherWords Managing Editor
Watergate Documentaries Funnier Than Any Sitcom (August 2, 1994)
With his hooded eyes glaring out at the world like those of an animal at the back of a cave; his quick, always cynical smile; the herky-jerky body language of a mechanical man at a carnival, he is nothing less than a stock silent comedy villain, lacking only a mustache to twirl.
For those who came in late, this is the story: President Richard Nixon, paranoid anyway, is vexed at press leaks of classified information, not the least of which being the Pentagon Papers, so he has his aides form a “plumbers group” to find the leaks. It specializes in burglary and illegal wiretapping. The plumbers break into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee to plant some telephone bugs. When those bugs prove unproductive, they break into the offices again and…are caught.
One by one he is forced his loyal co-conspirators over the side to slow the pursuing wolves, until only he is left. He makes one last self-pitying speech to his remaining staff, and slips over the side himself.
Laugh? I thought I’d die.
It was the high point of American liberalism in my lifetime. We had confronted Nixon for something like 25 years, hating him all the way. He represented all we found despicable about the Red-baiting right. And then, at long last, he was publicly revealed as the loathsome creature we always claimed him to be. We thought things were going to get better from then on. Silly us.
Remembering Justice’s Fleeting Triumph of Justice (June 20, 1997)
The president of the United States organized a team of burglars to collect information with which he could blackmail and destroy his political opponents. He wiretapped not only his opponents but his own people, and he attempted to subvert the FBI, the CIA and the IRS to his cause. Had it not been for the good sense of his closest lieutenants, he would have firebombed the Brookings Institution, a moderately liberal think tank, to achieve his ends. And when confronted with his crimes, he lied and urged perjury upon his accomplices.
As Mark Twain said, in another context: “It was un-American. It was un-English. It was French.”
So don’t tell me this scandal or that is bigger than Watergate or that every time someone steals from petty cash we should give it a “gate” suffix. Watergate stands alone among the political scandals of our time.
(Its) anniversary this week is perhaps not a cause for celebration, but I must confess that for many of us of the liberal persuasion, it recalls a very sweet time, when the Prince of Darkness got what he deserved and justice was triumphant. Conservatives might feel otherwise. Let them.
Nixon’s ghost hangs over reform hearings (November 10, 1997)
At one point, the tapes have President Nixon asking his chief henchman, Bob Haldeman, whether they have any money in the campaign that nobody knows about. Haldeman answers they have about $300,000 in cash that is unreported. Nixon’s shocked reaction:
“That isn’t a hell of a lot.”
In another tape, Nixon talks about funneling hush money to the Watergate burglars through a Greek American with ties to the right-wing junta in Greece. The money, presumably, is coming from the junta and the businessman is demanding that the ambassador to Greece, whom the right wing likes, be kept on.
“Good, I understand. No problem,” says our president.
I’m glad Nixon left the tapes behind. It takes the sting out of one’s grief at his passing.
OtherWords commentaries are free to re-publish in print and online — all it takes is a simple attribution to OtherWords.org. To get a roundup of our work each Wednesday, sign up for our free weekly newsletter here.