Accuracy in Media

Convicted Watergate felon Jeb Stuart Magruder has recently alleged that President Richard Nixon personally ordered the 1972 burglary of Democratic National Committee Headquarters. Magruder made this new charge in a PBS documentary, Watergate Plus Thirty: Shadow of History. He was asked on PBS’s Newshour why he waited thirty years to level this charge against the former President. His reply: no one had ever asked him the question. He also said that he lied under oath in hopes of receiving executive clemency or a pardon.

Magruder claims that on March 30, 1972, he overheard a telephone conversation between then Attorney General John Mitchell and President Nixon. He says that he heard Nixon tell Mitchell to have G. Gordon Liddy break into the Watergate. Magruder says that Nixon wanted information on Larry O’Brien, then Chairman of the Democratic National Committee. PBS Newshour host Gwen Ifill seemed skeptical about Magruder’s new revelations.

For good reason, as it turns out. Magruder made no such allegation during any of his Senate testimony, in sworn depositions, or in his 1974 memoir. In that book, he wrote that he knew of “nothing to indicate that Nixon was aware in advance” of the burglary plans. Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin, in their 1991 history of the scandal, Silent Coup, write that Magruder admitted to them that he was sure that John Dean had ordered the break-in. Ironically, Magruder’s new allegation against Nixon was challenged by Dean himself. He told the San Francisco Chronicle that, while he would like to believe Magruder, “I can’t find any confirmation (of his allegation). I never heard it at the time.”

Fred Larue, known as the Watergate bagman, also rejected Magruder’s claim and labeled him a “congenital liar.” He also said that there has never been any indication that Nixon authorized the break-in. He was responsible for screening Mitchell’s calls on that date and says, “I don’t recall any phone call. I don’t think there was one.” John Taylor, the director of the Nixon Library, told UPI that the White House Daily Diary and tape recording of the president’s conversations for that date have been reviewed. Taylor said that there is no record of such a telephone call or meeting.

In a New York Post column entitled “What Nixon Knew,” James Rosen demolished Magruder’s allegation. He charged that Magruder’s account of the phone call is riddled with contradictions. He writes that, in 1973, Magruder testified that “the President had no prior knowledge” of the plan. Rosen says the March 30 phone call has never before surfaced in Magruder’s Senate testimony, at Mitchell’s trial, or in any of Magruder’s subsequent public utterances.

Rosen is at a loss to understand Magruder’s motivations. Magruder says that he has retired and wants to do some more writing. He says that he was “thinking about some of these things when PBS called him.” But Rosen thinks the best explanation came thirty years ago from John Haldeman. In April 1973, Haldeman told Nixon, “One of the problems Jeb has is that he’s not sure what is the truth at this point.”

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