BOOK REVIEW : Some Bugs Remain in Theories About the Watergate Break-In : THE WARS OF WATERGATE The Last Crisis of Richard Nixon by Stanley I. Kutler Alfred A. Knopf $24.95, 687 pages

Hoff-Wilson is a professor of history at Indiana University and author of a forthcoming book re-evaluating the Nixon presidency, to be published by Basic Books.

For Stanley Kutler, the first historian to contribute to the deluge of books about Watergate, the scandal was not merely an isolated political act, but the product of "the tumultuous events of the 1960s." Thus, the first third of "The Wars of Watergate" profiles the decade's social tensions and briefly traces how Richard M. Nixon's career inevitably led to Watergate.

The remainder of the book details conversations and decisions by Nixon and his closest advisers after five men were arrested for breaking into the Democratic Party national headquarters at the Watergate complex on June 17, 1972. Using recently released Nixon presidential papers and more than 60 interviews, Kutler thoroughly documents the cover-up by members of the Nixon Administration, including the President.

Despite the fact the break-in did not occur until the last year of the first Nixon Administration, Kutler believes that, in the most generic sense, "Watergate dominated Richard Nixon's presidency." Consequently, there is no new information or interpretation about the event or the man in this work that does not fit the thesis that "corrosive hatred . . . decisively shaped Nixon's own behavior, his career, and eventually his historical standing." For Kutler, Nixon is Watergate.

Curiously, despite the publisher's claim that this is "the first truly comprehensive history" of Watergate, it does not answer the most basic longstanding question about this event: why the break-in took place. Instead of indicating which of the various theories about the burglars' mission now seems most plausible, Kutler simply describes a half-dozen of them.

One theory focuses on Charles Colson, a close Nixon aide, and Howard Hunt, one of the original members of the infamous "Plumbers" group established by John Ehrlichman to carry out black-bag jobs when the White House decided the FBI was not pursuing its investigation of the Pentagon Papers aggressively enough.

This theory holds that Colson and Hunt wanted to instigate violence at the Republican Convention and then blame it on radical groups with connections to the Democratic Party. Thus, they concocted a plan to bug Democratic headquarters for any and all information that might be obtained, specifically to "find or plant evidence linking the Democrats to left-wing radicals and to install phone taps."

Kutler's second theory is much simpler. The White House had inside information that the Supreme Court was about to hand down a ruling against broad administrative powers to issue wiretaps, so the June 17, 1972 break-in took place to remove those planted earlier in May.

A third theory is based on Nixon's animosity toward the CIA, which dates to his unsuccessful presidential campaign in 1960, when he became convinced the agency had provided John Kennedy with misinformation about the so-called missile gap between the United States and the Soviet Union. This theory claims that Hunt and McCord, acting as CIA operatives, deliberately botched the second break-in at the Watergate complex because the agency feared that if reelected, Nixon intended to weaken its power and to discredit a longtime CIA supporter, Howard Hughes.

A fourth reason offered for the break-in maintains that the CIA was running a call-girl operation in Washington, and that the Democratic headquarters office might contain information about prominent Republicans (and Democrats) who used the illicit service.

Most striking of all, however, is Kutler's more complicated final theory. Kutler calls it the "Greek Connection" because it focuses on Elias P. Demetracopoulous, a newspaperman exiled by the Greek dictatorship that had come into power in 1967 after a military coup. This hypothesis alleges that Democratic Party head Larry O'Brien might have known that a CIA intelligence front group, the Greek KYP, had transferred money to the 1972 Republican campaign through businessman Thomas Pappas, who supported the new military junta and had connections with both the CIA and the KYP. Demetracopoulous' opposition to Pappas threatened to embarrass the administration, and so, according to this theory, the Nixon Administration wanted to find out how much O'Brien knew about Pappas' contributions to CREEP.

Because Kutler does not assign priorities to these intriguing but unequally documented theories about the origins of the Watergate break-in, his study leaves unanswered the very basic question about why it took place. Kutler also vacillates on how much Nixon knew about the original break-in and other illegal acts undertaken by private investigators hired either by John Ehrlichman or CREEP. His history also ignores the positive achievements of the first Nixon Administration in both foreign and domestic policy, which are now being documented by other scholars.

"The Wars of Watergate" nevertheless features an excellent summary of the congressional investigations that threatened to impeach Nixon, especially an early probe into the affair by populist Rep. Wright Pateman's (D-Texas) Banking and Currency Committee, which the White House effectively thwarted with the help of House Minority Leader Gerald Ford.

But Kutler also argues persuasively that there "is little evidence of a conspiracy leading to the pardon" by Ford of his predecessor. Instead, he argues that the pardon stemmed from Ford's own compassionate belief that "the former President had suffered enough" and from the "quiet, informal pressures" to which Ford was subjected by Nixon holdovers after he entered the White House.

Kutler's book confirms in spades the already-held belief of Nixon haters that "Richard Nixon cannot be separated from Watergate," but this claim may appear more histrionic than strictly historical when read by students in the next century, who will not have had the emotionally searing experience of witnessing Watergate firsthand. The inevitable dimming of Watergate memories is already evident in the current rehabilitation of Richard Nixon and by the much more serious constitutional transgressions represented by the Iran-Contra affair.

Next: Jonathan Kirsch reviews "Shared Minds: The New Technologies of Collaboration" by Michael Schrage (Random House).

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
61°