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The Words Of Watergate
AN ANNIVERSARY LOOK BACK AT THE BIGGEST PRESIDENTIAL SCANDAL EVER, THROUGH THE CHANGES IT WROUGHT IN THE LANGUAGE
October 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 6
False; perhaps the most famous single Watergate word .
Press secretary Ronald L. Ziegler was badgered into uttering this word on the afternoon of April 17, 1973, in what amounted to a blanket retraction of almost everything the White House had been saying about Watergate for the preceding ten months. This is how it happened:
Late on the afternoon of April 17, President Nixon came to the White House press room to announce that he had begun “intensive new inquiries” into the Watergate “matter” as a result of “serious charges which came to my attention” on March 21 (meaning John Dean’s cancer on the Presidency speech to him). Already, said the President, these charges had produced “major developments” and “real progress … in finding the truth” about the break-in.
Nixon’s statement implied falsely that everything Dean had said on March 21 was news to him, but reporters did not know this at the time. They did realize, though, that this announcement conflicted with one Nixon had made on August 29, 1972. Then, citing a nonexistent report by Dean, he had assured the nation, “I can say categorically that his investigation indicates that no one in the White House staff, no one in the Administration, presently employed, was involved in this very bizarre incident.”
Nixon declined to take questions regarding his new announcement. That job was left to Ziegler, who had consulted in advance with the President about how to reconcile the two statements. From the transcript of their meeting:
“NIXON: You could say that the August 29 statement—that … the facts will determine whether that statement is correct, and now it would be interfering with the judicial process to comment further.
“ZIEGLER: I will just say that this is the operative statement.”
When he met the press, Ziegler repeated perhaps half a dozen times the line “This is the operative statement.” Finally R. W. Apple, of The New York Times , asked if it would be fair to infer from this that the previous statement “is now inoperative.” Ziegler fell into the trap. “The others are inoperative,” he said in agreement. Thus he disavowed all his previous denials of White House involvement in Watergate. His credibility and, by extension, Mr. Nixon’s were left in tatters.
The cover-up was beginning to come apart. The President knew that John Dean had begun talking to federal prosecutors and that he had implicated H. R. Haldeman and John D. Ehrlichman. Two weeks later Nixon would make a dramatic effort to wipe the slate clean, announcing on April 30 the resignations of Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Dean, and Richard Kleindienst.
After Ziegler, you’d think that no one in political life would ever use inoperative again. Yet, in April 1994, when records turned up showing that Hillary Rodham Clinton had traded in commodities for longer than previously stated, a “senior official” (perhaps a young one, with no firsthand memory of Watergate) described the earlier White House account as “inoperative.”
To clean dirty money, removing any trace of its origin; an underworld term popularized by Watergate .
Reporting on the FBI’s investigation of the money found on the Watergate burglars, John Dean told H. R. Haldeman: “They traced one check to a contributor named Ken Dahlberg. And apparently the money was laundered out of a Mexican bank and the FBI has found the bank.”
The burglars had packs of hundred-dollar bills (see at variance with ) that had come from a special fund that Creep had created for financing political espionage. (When Carl Bernstein, of the Washington Post , asked John N. Mitchell for his comments on a story about the secret fund on September 29, 1972, the by then former director of Creep said of the newspaper’s publisher, “Katie Graham’s gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that’s published.” The Post went ahead and published, deleting the anatomical reference. The next morning Mrs. Graham asked Bernstein if he had any more messages for her.)
The FBI learned within days of the break-in that the bills in the burglars’ possession came from contributions to the campaign committee by Kenneth H. Dahlberg, a Minnesota businessman, and Manuel Ogarrio, a Mexican lawyer (who were themselves actually funneling money from other contributors who wanted to keep their identities secret). The checks from Dahlberg and Ogarrio were passed by Creep to Bernard Barker, one of the five men later caught in the Watergate break-in. He deposited them in his account in a Florida bank, withdrew the whole $114,000 in hundred-dollar bills, and then gave the C notes to Creep’s counsel, G. Gordon Liddy, who in turn gave them to the campaign committee’s treasurer, Hugh Sloan. When the time came to pay for the break-in, some of the same bills were returned to Barker and his cohorts. And the FBI, as Dean told Haldeman, was hot on the trail.
As the Watergaters got deeper into the conspiracy and needed hush money for E. Howard Hunt (see cancer on the Presidency ), they discovered that they had a lot to learn about laundering. Thus Dean and Haldeman briefed the President on March 21, 1973: