By Hugh Rawson
President Richard M. Nixon and his men – and all his aides were men back in the benighted 1970s – leaned heavily on harmless-sounding, euphemistic language in order to obscure, if not conceal completely, the criminal activities that formed the Watergate scandal. Examples include caper, house cleaning, plumber, and others noted in last month’s post.
Some of Mr. Nixon’s aides could turn vivid phrases, however. The most talented of these was John D. Ehrlichman, the president’s chief domestic affairs adviser, who blossomed as a novelist after being sentenced to jail for his role in Watergate. It was Ehrlichman who suggested to John W. Dean III, the president’s counsel, that he deep-six the phone-tapping equipment that had been found in the office safe of E. Howard Hunt, Jr., a White House plumber (officially a “consultant”) implicated in the Watergate break-in. Deep-six is sailor’s slang for tossing something overboard into water at least six fathoms (thirty-six feet) deep. Dean wasn’t familiar with the expression, however. As he testified to the Senate committee that investigated Watergate:
“I asked him what he meant by ‘deep six.’ He leaned back in his chair and said: ‘You drive across the [Potomac] river at night, don’t you? Well, when you cross over the river on your way home, just toss the briefcase into the river.’”
Ehrlichman also came up with the memorable characterization of John N. Mitchell, director of the president’s re-election committee and former U. S. attorney general, as the big enchilada. This was while discussing with the president and H. R. Haldeman, his chief of staff, the possibility that Mitchell could be made to take the blame for the Watergate break-in – “to come forward,” as Ehrlichman put it. The hope was prosecutors would be so pleased at snaring the big enchilada that they would not pursue their investigation any further.
More chilling was Ehrlichman’s advice to Dean about L. Patrick Gray III, whose nomination as director of the FBI was stalled because members of the Senate Judiciary Committee weren’t getting satisfactory answers from him to their questions about Watergate. “Well, I think we ought to let him hang there,” Ehrlichman told Dean. “Let him twist slowly, twist slowly in the wind.” (Gray twisted for more than a month before his nomination was withdrawn.)
Messrs. Haldeman and Mitchell also produced some oft-quoted remarks. On the evidence of The White House Transcripts, Haldeman, formerly an advertising executive, leaned on clichés associated with his old profession. (He and Ehrlichman were known as the Berlin Wall because anyone who wanted to talk to the president had to go through them.) “We have to keep the cap on the bottle,” Haldeman said in one of his conversations with Dean and the president about the cover-up. Another time he told Dean: “Just remember that once the toothpaste is out of the tube, it is going to be very tough to get it back in.”
When it appeared that the cover-up was beginning to unravel, Dean compared the conspiracy to a cancer on the presidency, telling Nixon on March 21, 1973, that “We have a cancer within, close to the presidency, that is growing. It is growing daily.” At a meeting the next day Ehrlichman worried about what would happen “if a corner of this thing becomes unstuck,” while Haldeman and Dean suggested a new policy, which they termed a “limited hang-out (as opposed to letting it all hang out in an open and honest manner or hanging tough, meaning to remain resolute and not admit anything). Ehrlichman recommended an intermediate “modified limited hang-out.”
Mitchell, meanwhile, vividly characterized the many criminal activities of the plumbers as “the White House horrors” when testifying to the Senate Watergate committee. He also gave new life to “When the going gets tough, the tough get going,” a saying that had been used earlier by, among others, John F. Kennedy’s father, Joseph P. Kennedy. And Mitchell drew on another folk expression when Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein called him to check a story about Mitchell’s controlling a secret fund that financed political espionage, or dirty tricks. Referring to the Post’s publisher, Mitchell exclaimed: “Katie Graham’s going to get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that’s published.” Nevertheless, the Post published the story, albeit minus the anatomical reference.
Mr. Bernstein and his fellow reporter, Bob Woodward (the two were sometimes referred to as Woodstein), had gotten this far through extremely diligent legwork plus guidance from Deep Throat, the long-anonymous source (now known to have been W. Mark Felt, associate FBI director). Deep Throat, who met Woodward periodically in an underground parking garage, was so-called after the title of a popular pornographic movie – and because he agreed to talk only on a deep background basis, meaning that he couldn’t be quoted and that he would only confirm what the two reporters had learned elsewhere.
Deep Throat’s most famous bit of advice, “Follow the money,” comes from All the President’s Men, the 1976 film based on the 1974 book with the same title by Bernstein and Woodward. The line does not appear in the book, however. Asked about it, William Goldman, who wrote the script for the film, said “I can’t believe I made it up. I was in constant contact with Woodward while writing the screenplay.” William Safire suggested in his Political Dictionary, on the basis of a letter from a former Newsweek correspondent, that the source may have been Henry Peterson, an assistant U.S. Attorney General, who apparently used “follow the money” when speaking to reporters, though Woodward did not make a note of this at the time.
Perhaps the single-most famous Watergate word is inoperative, uttered by White House press secretary Ronald L. Ziegler on April 17, 1973, following an announcement by the president that “real progress” had been made “in finding the truth” about the Watergate break-in. Pressed by reporters to reconcile this announcement with earlier denials that anyone in the White House had been involved, Ziegler kept repeating “This is the operative statement.” At last, R. W. Apple, Jr., of The New York Times, asked if it would be fair to infer that the previous statement “is now inoperative.” Ziegler too hastily agreed. “The others are now inoperative,” he said, thus taking back in a one gulp everything he had been saying about Watergate for the preceding ten months. This left the press secretary’s credibility – and the president’s – in tatters.
The end was in sight, though there were many exciting twists and turns along the way. A senate committee held hearings on Nixon’s campaign activities (producing a question from Senator Howard Baker that has been reused many times in other contexts: “What did the president know and when did he know it”); a special prosecutor was appointed to find out, then fired when he demanded transcripts of secretly recorded White House conversations that Nixon did not wish to be made public (the attorney general and his deputy resigned rather than carry out the order to fire him, leading this event to be labeled the Saturday night massacre); the House judiciary committee began impeachment proceedings; a second special prosecutor was named, and the U.S. Supreme Court finally ruled that the president had to hand over the transcripts of the White House conversations. Three of these, all of which took place on June 23, 1972, constituted the smoking gun (a phrase used by Rep. Barber Conable) that proved the president had lied to the nation: He had been in on the plot to conceal White House involvement in the Watergate break-in six days after the event if not before.
The president resigned on August 9, 1974, four days after releasing the June 23 transcripts. He never admitted to telling a lie, however. A euphemist to the end, he conceded only that portions of the June 23 transcripts were “at variance with certain of my previous statements.”
Echoes of Watergate continue to reverberate around the world as the –gate suffix is attached as a pejorative marker to other scandals. To name just a few: climategate (hacking of emails from a climate research institute in the U.K.); Irangate, also called armsgate and Contragate (undercover sale of weapons to Iran in order to obtain funds to aid Contra rebels in Nicaragua); Koreagate (payments by a South Korean lobbyist to members of the U.S. congress); Mountygate (illegal searches and bugging by Royal Canadian Mounted Police); pearlygate (unseemly doings of prominent American television evangelists); rubygate (from Italian P.M. Silvio Berlusconi’s involvement with a nightclub dancer nicknamed Ruby Heartstealer); tunagate (sales of spoiled fish in Canada); and Waterkantgate (a political scandal in Germany, from waterkant, seaside). Many terms of this sort are ephemeral, fading from use as particular events recede in time, but -gate itself promises to live on for many years to come.
For more discussion of the Words of Watergate and Hugh Rawson’s post on WNYC radio, listen here