Words of Watergate

top secretBy Hugh Rawson

The fortieth anniversary of the Watergate scandal is well worth observing not only for its political results – an American president, Richard M. Nixon, was forced to resign and a number of his top aides went to jail – but for the way it enriched our political vocabulary. The scandal popularized such words and phrases as cover up, deep six, deep throat, dirty tricks, follow the money, inoperative, smoking gun, and stonewall. And it also offers lessons about the dangers of using deceptive language that remain relevant today.

The words of Watergate tended to be highly euphemistic. The president and his men tried at every step along the way to sugar coat criminal actions through the artful use of language. Thus, the incident that brought the scandal to life, the break-in on June 17, 1972, at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate  complex in Washington, D.C., was initially downplayed by Ron Ziegler, the president’s press secretary, as “a third-rate burglary attempt.” (Actually, this was the second third-rate burglary at the DNC office. The purpose of the June 17 break-in was to fix a telephone bug that had been installed there at the end of May.)

Hardly two weeks after Ziegler’s statement, the White House chief of staff, H. R. “Bob” Haldeman, referred to “the Watergate-caper type of thing” in one of the many conversations with the president that were preserved for posterity in The White House Transcripts. The president himself was heard on the tapes to refer to illegal activity as hanky-panky.

The many euphemisms were intended to fool the public, but they also helped the president and his men fool themselves. The psychological effect of the round-about language on those who used it was explained by John W. Dean III, the president’s chief White House lawyer, or counsel, in a 1975 New York Times article:

“If Bob Haldeman or John Ehrlichman [the president’s chief domestic affairs adviser] or even Richard Nixon had said to me, ‘John, I want you to do a little crime for me. I want you to obstruct justice,’ I would have told him he was crazy and disappeared from sight. No one thought about the Watergate cover-up in those terms – at first, anyway. Rather it was ‘containing’ Watergate or keeping the defendants ‘on the reservation’ or coming up with the right public relations ‘scenario’ and the like. No one was motivated to get involved in a criminal conspiracy to obstruct justice – but under the law that is what occurred.”

To obstruct justice by saying little or nothing to investigators became to stonewall in White House lingo. For example, the president said in a meeting with his top aides on March 22, 1973: “I want you all to stonewall it, let them plead the Fifth Amendment, cover up, or anything else, if it’ll save it – save the whole plan.” Stonewall had been used earlier in politics in Australia and New Zealand in reference to parliamentary stalling tactics. This usage probably derives from cricket, where a batsman who plays purely defensively may be said to stonewall. The White House stonewall almost certainly has an American origin, however, deriving from the resolute defense of Confederate General Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson at the first Battle of Bull Run in 1861.

The conspirators drew on the language of the underworld as well as the netherworld of the so-called intelligence community. For example, the shredding of evidence at the offices of the Committee to Re-elect the President (with its memorably felicitous acronym, CREEP) in the days after the Watergate burglary was passed off as house cleaning, and the transfer of money through bank accounts in order to hide its origin was called laundering. (Dean did not pick up on the correct terminology right away, telling the president at one point that “You have to wash the money. You can get one hundred thousand dollars out of a bank and it all comes in serialized bills. . . . And that means you have to go to Vegas with it or a bookmaker in New York City. I have learned all these things after the fact. I will be in great shape the next time around.”

Undercover efforts to disrupt the campaigns of Nixon’s political opponents were classed as dirty tricks or, still more euphemistically, as negative campaigning. (The Department of Dirty Tricks was the in-house nickname for the Central Intelligence Agency’s Directorate of Operations.) The president’s men also used CIA-speak when referring to burglaries as covert operations.

Again, the element of double-think – of making it easier to engage in criminal acts by not naming them – was strong. Testifying at Ehrlichman’s trial in 1974 for having authorized a break-in at a psychiatrist’s office on the West Coast, Egil “Bud” Krogh, Jr., said “I don’t recall using the term ‘entry’ or ‘enter.’ However, we used the terms ‘operations,’ ‘effort,’ ‘covert,’ which embraced what took place.” As Ehrlichman’s top aide, Krogh had organized the undercover crew that accomplished the break-in. They were called the plumbers because one of their main missions was to plug leaks of government information.

The president and his men also liked to think of their actions in sporting terms. William Safire, a White House speechwriter at the time, noted in his Political Dictionary that Mr. Nixon, a football fan, frequently used game plan, usually as a verb: “We have to game-plan this.” But the president easily switched sports, referring in one taped conversation to a plan for a strong defense of White House actions as a full-court press, while his aides often described aggressive tactics as hardball (as distinguished from the theoretically gentler game of softball). Testifying to the senate committee investigating Watergate, Patrick J. Buchanan, another White House speechwriter, made some fine tactical distinctions: “My own view is that there are four gradations. There are things that are certainly utterly outrageous . . .  Then, there is dirty tricks. Then there is political hardball. Then there is pranks.”

The senate Watergate hearings featured lots of similarly creative language. Dean, a star witness at these hearings, which transfixed the nation, used the stock phrases at this point in time and at that point in time, meaning now and then, so often that they summed up the tenor of his testimony in the public mind. Laughable as the circumlocutions may seem at first sight, they serve a purpose: They allow the speaker to fill the air with words while his (or her) mind races ahead to frame the answer to a question.

Another testimony tactic is to have a convenient lapse of memory. This approach was recommended to Haldeman and Dean in a meeting on March 21, 1973, by the president himself as a way of testifying without actually lying:

HALDEMAN: You can say you forgot, too, can’t you?

PRESIDENT: That’s right.

DEAN: But you can’t . . . you’re in a very high risk perjury situation.

PRESIDENT: That’s right. Just be damned sure you say I don’t remember. I can’t recall. I can’t give any honest . . . an answer that I can recall. But that’s it.

Mr. Buchanan, meanwhile, made artful use of what George Orwell called the not-un formation. In his 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language, Orwell pointed out that “It is easier – even quicker, once you have the habit – to say In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption that than to say I think.” Mr. Buchanan hid behind a screen of negatives in exchanges that went like this:

Q. Do you think it’s ethical?

A. I don’t think it’s unethical.

Q. Do you think it’s proper?

A. I don’t think it’s improper.

Not all Watergate words were quite so bland and subtly misleading. The more vivid ones deserve a column to themselves. See next month’s post.

4 thoughts on “Words of Watergate

  1. The Chairman of the Senate Watergate committee was a white-haired, grand-fatherly gentleman from North Carolina named Sam Erwin. He had a distinctive way of reacting to all the euphemisms and indirection. Exaggerating his Southern accent, he would remark, “I’m just a poor country lawyer, so I may not understand.” He would then reveal his true colors as a shrewd lawyer and skilled investigator by offering a blunt paraphrase of the witness’s evasive testimony and asking, “Is that what you mean to say?” Most witnesses simply replied “Yes, Senator Erwin.”

    1. The chairman of the Senate Watergate committee was Sam Ervin, not Erwin, but you are right about his folksy way of saying he was just a country lawyer without bothering to mention that he was a product of Harvard Law School. Ervin also had a dark side. He was a leading opponent of civil rights legislation, who encouraged Southerners to defy the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education to desegregate schools. Still, he is rightly remembered for his exemplary conduct of the Watergate hearings. Meanwhile, on the House side, Peter Rodino, a lightly regarded representative from New Jersey, who had recently and unexpectedly become chairman of the Judiciary Committee, also rose to the occasion. He presided over the hearings on the articles to impeach President Nixon with such fairness that even the most partisan Republicans could find little fault with him. In the end, the committee voted unanimously to impeach the president on three counts. Facts trumped faction. The American system worked. Would it work as well today, given the poisonous atmosphere that prevails in Washington? I wish that I could say that I thought it would.

  2. Delfin

    Very well written, as usual. However you have made me feel old, once again, recalling events and terminology that I thought took place yesterday, or at most the day before yesterday. Alas, tempus does fugit! Thank you for a fascinating read.

    1. Glad you liked the column and hope that you will approve Part II when it is posted next month. But I can’t help wondering if you are as old as me. Can you remember the Army-McCarthy hearings and “Point of order!”? Alas , I recall McCarthy, Cohn, and G. Dave Shine all too well. On the plus side, there are happy memories of Joseph Nye Welch! But tempus certainly does fugit, and it seems to fugit faster as one grows older. Ugh!

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