The Times Bungles Watergate

On the front page of Sunday’s New York Times on February 1, I was greeted with the headline: “John Dean’s Watergate Role at Issue in Nixon Tapes Feud.” When the Times reporter writing this story, Patricia Cohen, contacted me a few days earlier, I told her I could not believe the Times was reporting on this non-story. It is a claim of a self-professed “independent historian,” Peter Klingman, who has no credentials whatsoever to talk about Watergate, yet he is attacking one of America’s most eminent historians, Stanley Kutler of the University of Wisconsin, regarding his work on Watergate. When I found the story on the front page of the nation’s paper of record, I was sure I could hear a desperation death rattle of dead-tree journalism.

“It appears the Times has been hoodwinked by historical hucksters and Nixon apologists…. This front-page Times story could not have made the comics pages of The Washington Post…”

The Times story is about a “submission” to the American Historical Review of the American Historical Association, not a peer-reviewed article published in the journal of the prestigious organization of professional historians. Most journalists would consider an unpublished submission even less credible than a complaint filed in a lawsuit (since lawyers can be disbarred for false and frivolous complaints), and scrupulous journalists only report on legal complaints after they have been litigated and tested. To say the Klingman’s submission is untested is an understatement, and the Times fails to mention—a fact I quickly learned—that this submission has been rejected by other professional journals. This is not surprising.

It appears the Times has been hoodwinked by historical hucksters and Nixon apologists whose goal is to find a beachhead within the mainstream media to gain legitimacy for their crackpot revisionism. They desperately want to be taken seriously by organizations like the AHA. The Times has given them their biggest victory in more than two decades of seeking legitimacy. There is nothing inherently wrong with revisionism when it is called for and based on solid new information. But these Watergate revisionists elevated by the Times seek to create a false history.

This front-page Times story could not have made the comics pages of the Washington Post, for the reporters who led them to their Watergate Pulitzer, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, are well aware of the work of these Watergate revisionists. Like me, Woodward has for years been under false and vicious attack from these revisionists. Maybe this explains why this was news for the New York Times, which is still, after all these decades, smarting from its remarkable failure to cover Watergate as it occurred, finding itself scooped by the Washington Post on the biggest story of the last half of the 20th century. Or maybe the Times editors hope these revisionists are on to the real Watergate story, and they still want to embarrass the Post. If that is the thinking at the Times, they should brace for their own coming and further historical humiliation, for there is simply too much hard information establishing the fact that the Times has published a bogus story.

Times reporter Patricia Cohen did not ask me for my comments about the substance of her story, only for my reaction to Klingman’s submission charging that Stanley Kutler had been shilling for me for years, distorting his historical writings and his transcripts of the Nixon White House tapes to somehow protect me. When I asked her why the New York Times would cover this ridiculous charge from a Watergate revisionist, her response was vague. Because there was something of a chuckle in her voice, I had the impression she did not take the charges very seriously. I was not even sure she was going to publish anything, and she certainly never said a word suggesting I was the centerpiece of her story and Klingman’s charges. The last reporter to do that to me was from the National Enquirer.

I know almost nothing about Klingman, aside from the fact that he has embraced the evolving and often-changing screwball claims of bogus Watergate revisionists. The first time I saw his name was after my wife and I sued St. Martin’s Press, following their publication of an earlier revisionism effort, which claimed she too was involved in Watergate. It was a vicious, hurtful story, and after St. Martin’s spent nine years and $15 million fighting our lawsuit, they realized we were not going away, and the case was settled out of court. The key source of that revisionist account was typical of their standards, a man who had been in and out of mental institutions his entire adult life. Regrettably, I am precluded from discussing the settlement—other than to say that we were satisfied. (Editor's Note: Silent Coup: The Removal of a President, by Leonard Colodny and Robert Gettlin, published in 1991, claimed that Nixon was an innocent victim in Watergate of a US military cabal involving John Dean and Alexander Haig with Bob Woodward as its agent.)

As the lawsuit was coming to an end, one of the defendants, Leonard Colodny, a retired liquor salesman turned Watergate buff, dumped all his Watergate materials at the University of South Florida in Tampa. According to the Tampa Tribune, Peter Klingman emerged as “curator of USF’s Mildred and Doyle Carlton Jr. Resource Center for Florida History and Politics,” which housed these papers. According to a member of the USF faculty: “Colodny conned a former director” of the library “into signing an agreement that treated the collection as a historical treasure and Colodny as a celebrity. Colodny, my colleagues in Tampa tell me, is a rather shadowy and paranoid figure… The present director … has come to question the wisdom of the agreement and the value of the collection, but to date has not shown Colodny the door.” As for Klingman, this member of the USF faculty described him as a “former junior-college administrator and adjunct history professor,” with the Colodny collection becoming his “source of employment.” By August 2001, USF had removed the papers from its campus, and Colodny placed his material at Mountain State University in Beckley, West Virginia, where Klingman emerged as one of several directors of the self-styled “Nixon Era Center”—a new home for bogus Watergate revisionism—a member of Mountain State’s extended-learning faculty.

The Times’ inquiry piqued my curiosity about Klingman, so I Googled him and found an undated essay (which the Google cache indicates was posted December 8, 2008) setting forth his analysis of my role in Watergate and his charges against Kutler. Not surprisingly it surfaced on the Nixon Era Center site. Reading Klingman’s work is something of a jaw-dropping experience given the fact the man has a PhD. It was not merely sloppy scholarship, but little more than pure speculation based on fumes of falsehood. (See Harry G. Frankfurt, On Bullshit, Princeton University Press, 2005.) If this essay is the basis of Klingman’s submission—and based on the Times piece, that appears to be the case—it is little wonder the American Historical Association has not published it. While defaming Kutler and me, it seeks to turn history upside down based on a distorted reading of one week in March 1973. The Times gives Klingman respect that would bring a smile to Jason Blair.

As is the norm with Watergate revisionism, misinformation is piled on top of misinformation, mixed with fantasy offered as fact, in paragraph after paragraph, so it takes considerable space to pull it apart to show the games played and the sheer gall of intellectual dishonesty. I found errors in almost every paragraph that Klingman had written in the material attacking Kutler and yours truly. Rather burden anyone with his endless and bogus minutia, allow me to simply drive a stake in the heart of his contention. Klingman claims Kutler—“one of American’s premier historians”—failed to recognize the “inner conspiracy between Nixon and Dean” that purportedly occurred during the week of March 13 to March 21, 1973. The inner conspiracy, if I understand Klingman’s work, involved White House Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman’s aide, Gordon Strachan, and the failure to talk to others about him.

To explain Klingman’s charges (which the Times suggested was credible), it is necessary to dip into a bit of the details, for this is where Watergate revisionism lives and operates. This, in fact, probably explains why no one has paid much attention to it. In fact, at one point, Ms. Cohen writes, “To anyone besides Watergate buffs, the dispute may seem trivial.” She certainly got that right, notwithstanding her effort to draw on another Watergate revisionist, Joan Hoff, to claim this is really, really important information.

The gist of Klingman’s charge is that when writing his book Abuse of Power: New Nixon Tapes (Free Press, 1997) “Kutler deliberately chose to withhold republishing the March 13 tape[d]” conversation between Nixon and yours truly, and that he “deliberately cut and pasted two tapes of March 16.” Kutler allegedly undertook this scholarly misfeasance to protect me because we had become friends, and to remain consistent with his earlier account in The Wars of Watergate: The Last Crisis of Richard Nixon (Knopf, 1990). This is as absurd as it is dishonest.

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Apparently Klingman did not notice Kutler’s subtitle: “New Nixon Tapes.” There were literally hundreds of conversations he did not republish in his book. I know from conversations with Kutler’s Free Press editor, Bruce Nichols, who later edited my book The Rehnquist Choice, which was based on Nixon White House tapes, that Kutler had to push his editor to find space for three prior published taped conversations to give continuity to his account. Abuse of Power is not a complete narrative of events, but rather the transcripts of the taped conversations that were surfaced as a result of Kutler’s hard-fought lawsuit to force Nixon and the National Archives to release them to the public. To assert that Kutler selected taped conversation in some way to protect me, as his friend, fails to recognize that our relationship did not develop until after he published Abuse of Power.

I have no idea if Kutler conflated two transcripts. In any case, this is nitpicking, and, ironically, Klingman does the same thing in his essay. He cites and quotes from a telephone conversation I had with Nixon on the evening of March 16, 1973, yet at the end has Richard Moore, another White House aide, also talking with Nixon and me. It never happened. Moore was not on the phone. To accuse Kutler of deliberately conflating two conversations when Klingman made a similar error shows how over-the-top these revisionists are.

Nonetheless, Klingman insists that Kutler acted deliberately and this is evidence of “a serious professional lapse” by failing to publish all conversations between Nixon and me between March 13 and 21. Kutler, he claims, omitted conversations proving “beyond a shadow of a doubt that before March 21,President Nixon knew very well about Gordon Strachan and so did John Dean.” Wow, that may be the most underwhelming revelation ever about Watergate and it is true. But it is not true for the reasons Klingman cites and it does not have the significance he claims.

Klingman, like other revisionists, believes that Nixon first learned of Strachan’s possible involvement with Watergate when I told Nixon on March 13, 1973. This is not correct. The revisionists have either not bothered to look, or chosen to ignore, the fact that a month before I discussed Strachan with the president, my predecessor as White House counsel, John Ehrlichman, who was Nixon’s domestic-policy adviser, had a conversation with the president about who knew what about the Watergate break-in. In that conversation on the morning of February 23, 1973, Ehrlichman explained that Haldeman had “constructive knowledge” about Watergate “through a fellow named Gordon Strachan.” Ehrlichman said. “Gordon Strachan’s job here was Bob’s liaison with the campaign… [and he] kept the most meticulous attention to the details.” Nixon asked whether Haldeman knew “that information was coming from tapped sources?” Ehrlichman thought not but suspected “Strachan did.”

Klingman claims because of the “inner” Nixon/Dean conspiracy, the president never confronted his Chief of Staff Haldeman about the Strachan connection. This, too, is false. On evening of March 20, 1973, Haldeman spoke with the president about Strachan. Haldeman explained, “You see, the problem with Strachan—they’re worried about Strachan getting, getting [Watergate] into the White House.” Haldeman did not think Strachan had a criminal problem because “he wasn’t directing it, he was simply aware of what was going on.” The chief of staff conceded, however, that Strachan “does have a problem, because I think he knows wh--, what happened over there. That’s where he gets into trouble.” But Haldeman did not feel Strachan was a problem for him. “The danger you got there is that he probably, and I possibly, got reports on some of that stuff.” But not to worry, Haldeman added, because he “never looked at” the material from Strachan.

These overlooked conversations simply eviscerate Klingman’s core claim of an “inner” Nixon and Dean conspiracy, for all the key players in the coverup were aware of the Strachan situation, and dealing with it was all part of the same ongoing effort to protect Nixon. Since it never happened, Kutler could not easily report it. The omitted conversations change nothing, and lead to no other reasonable conclusion, not to mention they were available at the National Archives for anyone interested.

When reading the repetition by the Times of the false attacks on Kutler and me, hyped as new revelations, when, in fact, I found they were published online years ago, it reminds me of the analysis of contemporary journalism by then-Senator Barack Obama, which he set forth in his insightful The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (Crown, 2006). Obama noted how reporters too often thrive on “that old journalistic standby—personal conflict” because “civility is boring.” He added that “the amplification of conflict, the indiscriminate search for scandal” has its impact, which “is to erode any agreed-upon standards for judging the truth.” Accordingly, “the media is splintered into a thousand fragments, each with its own version of reality, each claiming the loyalty of a splintered nation.” He further pointed out that “the truth will be attacked; [and] the media won’t have the patience to sort out all the facts and so the public may not know the difference between truth and falsehood.” This nicely explains the Times piece: It is a story of personal conflict; it has the smell of scandal; it further erodes standards for judging the truth; it fails to sort out the facts, and confuses history by failing to distinguish truth from falsehood.

Given the fact that a publication like the New York Times could not figure out it was being had by the Watergate revisionists, I realize I must do what I have been encouraged to do and reissue Blind Ambition, my autobiographical account of this history, which has been out of print for over two decades, along with a new afterword addressing Watergate revisionism in some detail. The Times piece suggests I should do this as soon as possible: June 17, 2009 strikes me as an appropriate anniversary date, for this was the day the arrests occurred at the Watergate in 1972. If there is anything about my role in Watergate that is not known, I would be truly shocked. Not everyone, however, is happy with the truth, even now. But I had not expected the New York Times to be so easily snookered by the bogus Watergate revisionists, after all these years—unless, of course, they wanted to be.

John W. Dean, former Nixon White House counsel, has written ten books, including Broken Government: How Republican Rule Destroyed the Legislative, Executive and Judicial Branches, and is working on his next.