By Gary S. Goldman:
If you want to believe in the truth-telling power of the Washington Post’s Watergate journalism, you should not read a new book by John O’Connor, The Mysteries of Watergate: What Really Happened.
In today’s deeply riven society, battles over accusations of fake news, conspiracy theories, disinformation, content moderation and information suppression, fires rage constantly. O’Connor’s stunningly original narrative, focused on Watergate’s true nature and the corresponding suppression of sensational, probative facts, is sure to pour gasoline on some of these conflagrations while dousing others with showers of cold water.
For today’s mainstream journalism, the received Watergate narrative is its founding story, sanctifying the aggressive reporting that was hailed as a necessary check on the rich and powerful. For skeptics, Watergate journalism was like the proverbial blind squirrel which sometimes finds an acorn. In either case, there is no substantial sector of society which believes that the Nixon Administration received undeserved obloquy in Watergate.
Under the grudging view of Nixon supporters, Watergate was the lucky product of an FBI official’s confidential assistance, artificially magnified by sensational journalism. But to the mainstream media, this journalism success story only encouraged aggressively partisan, generally anti-conservative, narratives in search of Watergate-like fame and fortune for the narrating journalist. For opponents of today’s ideologically-driven journalism, Watergate appears to have been based, luckily or otherwise, on proven fact, while its progeny are usually not.
O’Connor disagrees with both assessments, credibly and engagingly showing that Watergate was not an exception to our world of false, largely manufactured scandal, but rather its original sin. “Worse than Watergate” will take on new meaning as a result of this eye-popping, deeply researched take on a tableau reported conventionally for fifty years.
The author, an experienced trial lawyer and once the attorney of Deep Throat himself, immediately engages the curiosity of his jury of readers with his opening chapter, “Big Questions from a Small Burglary.” It is well known, for example, that the Watergate burglars were discovered because security guard Frank Wells saw tape on the locking mechanism of a basement garage door, and that tape allowed entrance to the building from the garage. However, the burglars’ leader, former CIA agent James McCord was the last burglar to enter, and knew that removing the tape would not have prevented exit, only entrance. Why, then, was the tape left in place by this experienced agent? Was this a simple error, or something else?
As O’Connor explains, the phone the burglars tapped was of a nobody, one Spencer Oliver, Jr., not even employed by the DNC, but by a related, non-campaign Democratic organization, the Association of State Democratic Chairmen. Another shocker was that DNC Chairman Larry O’Brien’s office was not breached, a failure not explained by the hypothesized incompetence of the burglars.
A fierce wrestling match with an arresting officer over an object held by a burglar, an imbroglio never reported, is shown by O’Connor to be profoundly meaningful. Cameras were being placed at the time of the arrest, but where? The public was not told. During the post-arrest pandemonium, a casually dressed man (the burglars all wore suits) emerged from the stairway, calmly escaping into the night before police were informed. And there are many more mysteries, just from the burglary and its aftermath, as well as many arising from the next two years of the scandal.
Burglary team leader James McCord and supervisor and White House aide Howard Hunt were both “retired” CIA agents who had both worked for the highly secretive Office of Security, the only department inside the agency reporting directly to CIA Director Richard Helms. O’Connor sweeps us through the opposing approaches of these two CIA veterans after arrest. Hunt’s trial strategy, before White House counsel John Dean convinced him to plead guilty, is as fascinating as the counter-narrative planned by the prosecution, which, after Hunt pled guilty, the Court of Appeals kept out of evidence.
A host of characters, and revelations of their particular roles, unfolds, that are followed, one upon the other, until the world of this rabbit hole suddenly makes bracingly rational sense. Each chapter is designed to reveal a new mini-narrative, previously unknown or depicted falsely to the public for decades.
O’Connor had previously written a densely-footnoted and damning analysis of Washington Post journalism entitled, Postgate. His present work, in contrast, is a brisk but highly accessible narrative intended for a wider audience, in which the author’s main purpose is simply to tell the interesting story of what really happened in Watergate.
If you want to know how controversial modern journalism got its start, read this book, but only if you are open to desanctifying Watergate’s journalistic saints.
Gary S. Goldman is the nationally recognized host of “Business, Politics, & Lifestyles” a weekly talk show airing on WPRO in Providence RI. Learn more at garyonbpl.com.