For me, the puzzle of Watergate is why Richard Nixon, who wasn’t responsible for the Democratic National Committee break-in, decided to lead the cover-up just days after the burglary undertaken by a band of White House–led dirty tricksters known as “the Plumbers.”
What made the president order the CIA to shut down the FBI probe of the scandal—a fateful decision documented on the June 23, 1972, White House recording whose release in 1974 finally ended Nixon’s presidency?
The answer, it turns out, was owing to earlier White House crimes that even Nixon’s tough guy friend, attorney general, and fellow criminal, John Mitchell, would christen the “horrors.”
Chief among those horrors was the 1971 break-in of the office of Lewis Fielding, the Beverly Hills psychiatrist whose patient was Daniel Ellsberg, the man who leaked the famed Pentagon Papers to The New York Times. Nixon believed that Ellsberg wasn’t a misguided or malevolent liberal. The president had no doubt that the Santa Monica, California–based RAND Corporation employee was part of a conspiracy directed by Moscow to sabotage the American war effort in Indochina and the nation’s defenses. (There’s no evidence to that effect whatsoever.) Nixon feared that Daniel Ellsberg’s geyser of leaks wouldn’t stop with the lies and catastrophic decisions in Southeast Asia made by his predecessors, which is what the Pentagon Papers were primarily about. Nixon feared that the lies and catastrophic decisions of his Vietnam policy would be forthcoming.
Anger over Ellsberg’s disclosures, and fear of more to come, led to the creation of the White House Plumbers—a mysterious, and at times comic, cabal of hardball political operators, intelligence and law enforcement veterans, and other oddballs. The name came from one of the members telling his grandmother that his job at the White House was to stop leaks. “Oh, you’re a plumber,” she said naively. The name stuck. The group’s members included a former intelligence operative and author of espionage novels (E. Howard Hunt); a right-wing mustachioed former FBI man (G. Gordon Liddy) who’d go on to be a staple of right-wing talk radio; and a cynical, seasoned political operative (Charles Colson), who later became a widely admired born-again founder of a nationwide prison ministry.
The White House Plumbers tells the story of one plumber—Egil “Bud” Krogh, a most unlikely crook. A 31-year-old attorney, track star, and Navy veteran at the time of the Ellsberg break-in, Krogh came to the White House through John Ehrlichman, a family friend from Seattle and Nixon’s infamous right hand. (Krogh occasionally babysat the Ehrlichman kids.) Ehrlichman was assistant to the president for domestic policy, and Krogh his deputy. While that’s usually a nerd’s job, it was political and criminal under Nixon, and even occasionally fun. Krogh wound up handling Elvis Presley’s famous letter to the president, in which the King requested to become a “federal agent at large” helping prosecute Nixon’s war on drugs. “The drug culture, the hippie elements, the SDS, Black Panthers, etc. do NOT consider me as their enemy or as they call it The Establishment,” Elvis wrote Nixon. “I call it America and I love it. Sir, I can and will be of any service that I can to help The Country out.” Krogh recommended the meeting that Nixon took and would later write a book about it.
But the life-altering moment for Krogh came when he was assigned to direct the Plumbers’ first project, breaking into Fielding’s office. (Others came up with the original idea of going after the psychiatrist to dig up dirt that could discredit Ellsberg, the Pentagon Papers, and the antiwar movement.) A good part of this slim volume—written
by Egil Krogh with a preface by his son Matthew and published two years after Bud’s death in 2020—is devoted to why such a straight arrow became an integral member of one of America’s most famous crime gangs. (A version of this memoir was published in 2007 by Public Affairs under the title Integrity: Good People, Bad Choices, and Life Lessons From the White House.)
“Dad had all kinds of metaphors for integrity,” Matthew writes in the book’s preface, “but he spent years, decades, trying to understand why his own integrity was breached.”
For Bud Krogh, the turn toward darkness was partly about blind loyalty to higher-ups, but he was ultimately swayed by Nixon’s notion of “national security.” Breaking into Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office wasn’t a politically self-serving crime but a battle in the Cold War. As Bud Krogh writes, “We believed then that these leaks constituted a national security crisis and needed to be plugged at all costs. But we were wrong, and the price paid by the country was too high.”
“I really need a son of a bitch,” Nixon told Ehrlichman when he was looking for someone to run the operation, saying, “I’ll direct him myself. I know how to play this game, and we’re going to start playing it. I want somebody as tough as I am for a change.”
Bud Krogh proved a surprising but fitting choice: “Even though I don’t think I fit the dark profile the president wanted for the job,” he writes in White House Plumbers, “perhaps a simpler reason I got it was that it was understood that I would do it to the best of my ability and not ask questions.”
Nixon had Krogh read the chapter in his 1962 memoir, Six Crises, on the Alger Hiss case, a Cold War cause célèbre. Hiss was a State Department official who had been accused of aiding the Soviet Union and was convicted on perjury charges after he squared off at a riveting congressional hearing with Whittaker Chambers, the “red” turned right-winger and zealous anticommunist. Nixon championed Chambers and his accusations, while liberals and even many Republicans took the side of the polished, Ivy League–educated Hiss.
Nixon tried to convey to Krogh that the leaker of the Pentagon Papers was as guilty of Soviet espionage as was Hiss, who was convicted of perjury over his denial that he had passed State Department information to the Soviets. Krogh writes,
Nixon wanted me to understand unequivocally that he viewed the problems with Ellsberg’s release of the Pentagon Papers as a full national security crisis, one comparable to the career-defining—for him—conviction of a traitor in the full glare of publicity in 1948. Nixon was offering me the chance to succeed as he had succeeded and to draw the obvious inference about what such a success might portend for my own future career in government.
Of course, it didn’t turn out that way. None of it did. Unlike the glory that Nixon’s exposure of Hiss brought the 35-year-old California Republican congressman in 1948—a successful Senate bid in 1950, the vice presidential nomination and election in 1952—Krogh was stuck cleaning up Tricky Dick’s malevolent buffoonery without the Cold War intrigue. Nixon had also held out the Ellsberg break-in as a peace mission. More leaks from Ellsberg, the president insisted, might scuttle his embryonic peace overtures to the North Vietnamese.
What’s delightful about White House Plumbers is that Krogh’s story carries the dread of one of the Halloween movies where the hero feels the danger but can’t resist courting it.
“Extreme illegal acts were undertaken to prevent this discovery, including perjury, obstruction of justice, and the payment of hush money to the perpetrators of the 1971 crime to keep them from revealing it during the Watergate investigations,” Krogh writes. “But the burglary of Dr. Fielding’s office constituted the most extreme and unconstitutional covert action taken to that date, setting the stage for the downfall of the Nixon presidency. Once taken, it was an action that could not be undone or explained away.”
Without giving it all away, it is Krogh’s honesty in his account—especially his guilt—that makes the story work. This confessional tone makes comparing Krogh to former White House Counsel John Dean almost irresistible. Like Dean but without the White House counsel’s mesmerizing testimony before the Senate Watergate Committee, Krogh came clean and took his lumps. (Dean’s famed memoir, Blind Ambition, was written with the assistance of Washington Monthly contributing editor Taylor Branch.) Krogh’s story is coming out posthumously and will soon be a five-part HBO series with Mad Men’s Rich Sommer as the naïf Krogh, Woody Harrelson as Hunt, and Justin Theroux as Liddy. The story is cinematic, as ripe for comedy as it is drama.
Liddy has been portrayed in films before and became a popular right-wing radio talk show host. His memoir, Will,includes accounts of his holding an open palm over a flame to test his capacity to withstand pain. At one point, he seemed to hint that lives might be lost in the Ellsberg operation. As Krogh writes,
Liddy was the kind of guy you’d want next to you in a foxhole, where he’d cover your back and take a bullet to save your life. He projected a warrior-type charisma and seemed to possess a great deal of physical courage. He was tough, smart, disciplined, and loyal. During the Watergate investigations Liddy never “squealed” or “snitched” on anyone.
For all of the cloak-and-dagger drama, the Fielding break-in was botched, just like the Watergate break-in. The anti-Castro Cubans whom Hunt got to perform the actual breakup screwed up. A door that was to be left open was not. The culprits chose to cover their tracks by trashing the office, making it appear like a burglar—perhaps an addict looking for drugs—had ransacked the place. The super sleuths couldn’t find any notes on Ellsberg’s therapy session but kept a photograph of Liddy posing in Fielding’s parking place during a “reconnaissance mission,” a snapshot later discovered by the CIA when it was assisting the operation.
The Plumbers trampled Fielding’s constitutional rights, and that’s about all they got.
Egil “Bud” Krogh pled guilty to his role in the Fielding break-in and served six months in prison. “You come in here as a white man, a lawyer, a Nixon dude,” his cell mate admonishes him. “Don’t you never hold yourself out better than anyone else in here.” A contrite Krogh holds that truth closely. As he writes,
While the idea for the Fielding break-in originated with Hunt and Liddy, I fully endorsed their recommendation. In fact, I had pushed them hard for aggressive action without fully understanding what that might entail. Because I could have stopped the operation and didn’t. I was fully responsible.
As for Krogh’s reckoning with his sins, there’s a scene in the memoir I love. It’s on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, where the Watergate special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, interrupts a speech he is giving on “Morality in Government.”
“One of the men who was involved in this case is in our audience tonight,” said the courtly Texan who replaced Archibald Cox, the prosecutor Nixon had had fired. “What is more, he asked for no favors or special privileges, from the prosecutor or the court. He said he found his own conduct indefensible, and he was willing to take the punishment for what he had done.”
Slowly and with some reluctance, a man in the audience took to his feet.
“This is Egil (Bud) Krogh,” Jaworski said.
“I do not know how many political rallies I have attended,” Jaworski wrote later and is quoted by Krogh. “But I have never seen or heard anything quite as genuine as the emotion that crowd gave to Bud Krogh, an ex-lawyer who had just been introduced by the man who sent him to prison.”
For Egil Krogh, “atonement for his impact on America, on the executive branch, on the rest of us,” his son writes in the preface, became “a core theme of his life, since he got out of prison in 1974.” Indeed, Krogh’s penitence helped him get his law license back, and he ran a private practice in Seattle.
A witness to that personal resolution was Jaworski, who added at the lecture: “The enduring question of Watergate is whether we, as a people, will learn from it. Some have.”