The Words Of Watergate

Admitting “mistakes” has become a mantra for politicians seeking to distance themselves from unsavory and unethical, if not downright unlawful, activities.

DEAN : You have to wash the money. You can get one hundred thousand dollars out of a bank and it all comes in serialized bills.

NIXON : I understand.

DEAN : 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 for the next time around.

HALDEMAN : [Expletive deleted.]

Let him twist slowly, slowly in the wind

To allow someone to undergo a long, public ordeal .

A coiner of vivid phrases (like the big enchilada ), John Ehrlichman produced this one in the course of a telephone conversation with John Dean on March 6, 1973. The subject was L. Patrick Gray, the FBI’s acting director.

The Senate hearings on Gray’s nomination to become permanent director had begun on February 28. For Gray, it had been a rough week. This was the first chance anyone had had to grill a member of the administration under oath.

Questions by members of the Judiciary Committee soon elicited disturbing information. Gray had allowed John Dean and Creep lawyers to monitor the FBI investigation of the Watergate break-in. He had not objected when the Justice Department placed restraints on the FBI that limited its inquiries insofar as possible to the burglary itself.

The longer Gray testified, the worse became the chances for his nomination. By March 6 Dean suspected that the committee would not vote on the nomination until it had had a chance to question himself and other White House staffers whose names Gray had mentioned. Yet the President had decided to claim executive privilege to keep his aides from testifying. In that case, Dean told Ehrlichman, the nomination might be left hanging until the courts ruled on the President’s claim. Thereupon Ehrlichman produced his immortal reply, saying, in full, “Well, I think we ought to let him hang there. Let him twist slowly, slowly in the wind.”

And twist he did—for another month. The White House did not formally withdraw Gray’s nomination until April 5.

mistakes and misjudgments

Crimes .

Former President Richard M. Nixon made no admission of guilt when accepting the pardon that President Gerald R. Ford offered him on September 8, 1974, for any federal crimes he “committed or may have committed.” Instead Nixon spoke in this vein: “No words can described the depths of my regret and pain at the anguish my mistakes have caused the nation and the Presidency. … I know that many fair-minded people believe that my motivation and actions … were intentionally self-serving and illegal. I now understand how my own mistakes and misjudgments have contributed to that belief and seem to support it. …”

The admission of “mistakes” has since become a mantra for politicians seeking to distance themselves from unsavory and unethical, if not downright unlawful, activities. Thus, questioned at a news conference on January 29, 1997, about Democratic fund-raising practices, President Bill Clinton noted: “It costs so much money to pay for these campaigns that mistakes were made here by people who did it deliberately or inadvertently.”


Nickname of the Special Investigations Unit that President Nixon created to plug leaks and, as he described it in a statement to the press on May 22, 1973, “investigate other sensitive security matters.”

Formation of the unit, in June 1971, was inspired by one of the greatest leaks of all time—the Pentagon Papers , a multivolume documentary study of how the United States became involved in the Vietnam War. The unit was supervised by John D. Ehrlichman, who named as its director his chief assistant, Egil Krogh, Jr. Members included David R. Young, Jr., an aide to National Security Adviser Henry A. Kissinger; G. Gordon Liddy; and E. Howard Hunt, Jr., a former CIA agent. Their most famous operation was a break-in at the offices of Dr. Lewis B. Fielding, a psychiatrist in Los Angeles, one of whose patients had been Daniel Ellsberg, the man who had leaked the Pentagon Papers . The motive for the break-in was to obtain personal information about Ellsberg that could be used to smear him publicly.

The Fielding break-in, carried out over the Labor Day weekend of 1971, foreshadowed the Watergate break-in of the following June. The operation was planned and supervised by Hunt and Liddy, who hired three Cuban-Americans to do the actual dirty work. The burglars ransacked Fielding’s desk and files, making quite a mess, but found nothing relating to Ellsberg.