Joseph A. Califano Jr., a former White House official during Democratic administrations, acknowledged Friday that he advised Nixon aide Alexander M. Haig Jr. a quarter-century ago that the Watergate tapes should be burned.
Instead they’ve become “the gift that keeps giving,” Washington Post editor and reporter Bob Woodward said during a panel discussion on the scandal.
Woodward also cautioned an American Bar Assn. conference that journalists and politicians are caught in a “culture of mistrust” that followed Watergate.
They must learn to judge how long to pursue investigations like Whitewater or the probe into House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s finances, he said.
“There was kind of a clarity to Watergate, and the scandals since haven’t yielded anything close to it,” Woodward said. “We have not found a way of signaling people where something measures on the Richter scale. Now everyone just piles on, hires an independent counsel. We need to be very careful with this. The power to wound is great.”
Califano was an attorney for the Washington Post and the Democratic Party when he offered the tape-burning advice during an informal phone conversation with Haig, who once was a colleague at the Pentagon.
“I suggested to him that they do burn the tapes,” Califano said. “It was the only chance they had. We could not understand why the tapes were not destroyed. It would have been a terrible 10 days, but then it would have been over.”
But former Nixon Counsel Leonard Garment said he advised the president not to burn the damaging White House tapes.
The tapes of Oval Office conversations were a gold mine for Watergate prosecutors. And revelations have been emerging regularly since more than 200 hours of the tapes were made available for research last November at the National Archives.
The San Francisco Examiner reported Friday that President Nixon ordered “more use of wiretapping” of leading Democrats almost a year before the 1972 Watergate break-in. Woodward said the revelations, while interesting, have a common theme.
“It’s more of the same,” Woodward said. “More subversion of government. It was a series of crimes and lies that went into every corner of government.”
Woodward, Garment and Califano were joined on the panel by former Post Executive Editor Benjamin Bradlee and former White House counsel John W. Dean III.
Once adversaries, the panelists seemed friendly with each other--partners in a piece of American history.
However, Garment grew irritated when Woodward characterized the tapes as providing “a pathetic, not to mention criminal, portrait” of Nixon.
“Nixon was a very complicated character,” Garment said. “So are all of our presidents. The presidential gene . . . is filled with sociopathic qualities--brilliant, erratic, lying, cheating, expert at mendacity, generous, loony, driven by a sense of mission, a very unusual person. Nixon was one of the strangest of this strange group.”