Remembering a Big Scandal with Nostalgia

Article excerpt

AH, THOSE were the days. A real presidential scandal. Lies. Bugging. Tapes. Jail. And, ultimately, the toppling of the nation's leader.

In some ways, Watergate was kind of like that awful first job you may have had: Tense and seemingly never-ending, with heated political debate and eventual resignation. Terrible at the time, it was a formative influence that you now look back on with nostalgia.

That was the mood that prevailed this week in the ballroom of the National Press Club, where Watergate foes and allies gathered to reminisce, rehash and recognize the impact the scandal has had on today's politics and government. The reunion was occasioned by an upcoming television series to mark the 20th anniversary of the resignation of the late President Richard M. Nixon.

Those present included James McCord, one of the burglars whose break-in at Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate Hotel, ordered by Nixon's men, started the cover-up that brought down the administration.

McCord and his four fellow burglars were caught in the act by three police officers, one of whom, John Barrett, happened to be in the audience.

"It's been 24 years, I guess," Barrett told McCord, although he was two years off. "Hi."

McCord replied: "It's much better to see you today than before."

Daniel Ellsberg was there, too. His leak of Pentagon documents prompted White House operatives to burgle his psychiatrist's office. Ellsberg noted that the biggest question surrounding Nixon - what did he know and when did he know it? - has never been answered, mostly because Nixon and his estate have fought the release of early tape recordings Nixon made in the Oval Office.

John Dean, the White House counsel whose testimony nailed the administration, described the burglary as a "fishing expedition. They didn't have anything specific in mind." As evidence, he recalled McCord's explanation that he had placed one of the bugs more or less randomly, because he had one left over.

That rankled McCord, who never much liked Dean anyway.

"You have an interesting memory," McCord said. "It's very slippery."

Dean said he decided to blow the whistle on the cover-up after he realized Nixon was going to make him a scapegoat for the scandal. …