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All the President’s Dogs

What Does Watergate Have to Do with Current Campaign-Finance Corruption?


DIRTY TRICKS: Poor Richard Nixon; he never got the breaks. Had Nixon operated under today’s anything-goes rules governing campaign contributions and corporate slush funds, his reelection team would never have needed to break into the Democratic National Committee headquarters located in the now infamous Watergate office complex overlooking a river so polluted that people who fell in were given ptomaine-poisoning shots. I mention Nixon because last Sunday marked the 40th anniversary of the much mythologized Watergate break-in. While there’s no conclusive evidence Nixon ordered the burglary, there’s no question he directed the cover-up ​— ​ordering hush-money payments to the arrested burglars and dispatching the CIA to interfere with the FBI’s surprisingly aggressive investigation. As Nixon’s role came to light ​— ​thanks in large measure to the Washington Post’s Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward ​— ​he was forced to resign (thus far the only president so shamed). Of course, Woodward and Bernstein got considerable help from a disgruntled high-ranking FBI administrator who insisted on going by the pseudonym “Deep Throat,” named after the porn-chic fellatio fantasy then drawing big crowds. Given that Nixon’s favorite epithet was “cocksucker” ​— ​rivaled only by “Jew cocksucker” ​— ​this proved perversely appropriate.

Angry Poodle

Lost in all the noisy “we killed the dragon” celebration has been any clear sense why the break-in ever took place. Nixon, convinced everybody’s soul was as vile as his own, was no doubt clinically paranoid. But in Nixon’s case, they were out to get him. In fact, they’d gotten him before, and with the 1972 election right around the corner, he would not let them do it again. Just weeks before John F. Kennedy successfully stole the 1960 Presidential election from Nixon ​— ​then vice president ​— ​Kennedy’s dirty-tricks team leaked the documents to nationally syndicated columnist Jack Anderson, proving that Nixon had taken a secret, off-the-books gift of $205,000 ​— ​worth $1.6 million now ​— ​from global business tycoon Howard Hughes. Technically, the money was a “loan” made to Nixon’s brother Donald, then encountering financial trouble with his drive-in hamburger business. But according to reporter Mark Feldstein in his book Poisoning the Press ​— ​detailing the truly operatic hatred between Anderson and Nixon ​— ​it was never a loan, it was never to Donald, no interest was charged, and it was never paid off. It was Nixon, not Donald, who approached Hughes, and it was Nixon who used the money as he saw fit. Naturally, there was no explicit quid pro quo. But shortly after Nixon received the Hughes money, the federal government approved certain Hughes mergers about which the feds had previously expressed deep concern. Historically, the impact of the Hughes slush-fund story is hard to assess. But Nixon, according to Feldstein, was convinced it cost him the race.

Fast-forward to 1971. Nixon, facing reelection, went back to Hughes with his hand out. Hughes, according to Feldstein, gave him $100,000 ​— ​in 1,000 $100 bills ​— ​from his Las Vegas casino, the Silver Slipper. Jack Anderson, once again, broke the story. What spooked Nixon about the Hughes exposé was that the head of the Democratic National Committee ​— ​Larry O’Brien ​— ​had also just been hired by Howard Hughes to be his chief lobbyist in D.C. Nixon was panicked; as Hughes’s bag man in the nation’s capital, O’Brien would have direct information about the unsavory relationship between Nixon and Hughes. It was Larry O’Brien’s phone that the Watergate burglars intended to bug during their botched break-in to find out what O’Brien knew. Ironically, Nixon would use some of the $100,000 slush fund to buy silence once the Watergate scandal broke.

If Nixon operated under the post–Citizens United, anything-goes rules ​— ​that’s the 2010 Supreme Court “free speech” decision striking down campaign-finance restrictions and giving corporations and labor unions unfettered permission to spend as much as they want on the candidates of their choice ​— ​the need for such subterfuge would not exist. In our current environment, gazillionaires, like Montecito resident Harold Simmons, can and do give untold millions to what the IRS defines as “social-welfare organizations” ​— ​like Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS ​— ​and never fear that these disclosures will see the light of day. Under existing federal campaign laws, social-welfare organizations are under no obligation to report donor identities. Simmons has dumped roughly $19 million into various hard-to-track Republican Super PACs and social-welfare outfits this election cycle. He also happens to be pushing plans ​— ​for which federal approval is vital ​— ​to build a nuclear dumpsite in Texas that could handle the radioactive waste from 36 states. In addition to Crossroads GPS, Rove also runs the American Crossroads Super PAC. Combined, the two raised $40 million in 2010. The goal for 2012 is a staggering $240 million.

With campaign-spending restrictions out the window, Democrats have sought to enact legislation that would force “social welfare” fictions and Super PACs to disclose the identity of anyone donating $10,000 or more to any campaign. Their first effort failed last year, and now they’re trying again. Voters, they argue, might benefit from knowing the identities of the anonymous outside-the-district donors who gave a combined $6.8 million amassed to defeat Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill, the Democratic incumbent. Before the Supreme Court outlawed campaign-finance restrictions, Republican leaders like Mitch McConnell and John Boehner argued disclosure laws, not spending limits, provided the best protection from campaign corruption. In the aftermath of Citizens United, they now oppose the disclosure bill ​— ​vehemently ​— ​arguing such requirements would subject sensitive billionaires, like Harold Simmons, to public scorn, ridicule, and intimidation. In perhaps the irony of all ironies, McConnell accused Democrats of perpetrating “Nixonian dirty tricks” by demanding passage of the disclosure bill. GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney charged the Dems were resurrecting the “old-school enemies’ list” for which Nixon was so famous.

Like I say, poor Richard Nixon. He could never catch a break.

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