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The Watergate, a hotel, office and apartment complex. photo: NARA

Beginning in 1972, Richard Nixon's White House slowly drowned in the rising tide of scandal known as Watergate. Journalists had discovered that a botched attempt to bug the Democratic Party headquarters in June was tied to Nixon's reelection campaign. Nixon's secretly recorded conversations about covering up the break-in, and other abuses of presidential power, would eventually lead to his resignation.

In the fall and winter of 1972-73, evidence of a cover-up and other political wrong-doing led closer and closer to the Oval Office, including Nixon's top aides, Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman. By spring of 1973, Nixon decided he had to fire them to save his presidency. Retired University of Wisconsin historian Stanley Kutler, author of Abuse of Power, The New Nixon Tapes and The Wars of Watergate, says Nixon hated personal confrontations and struggled to tell his aides about his decision. "He is not a good butcher," Kutler says. "Yet Haldeman and Ehrlichman insist upon seeing him because they know his weakness on this score, and maybe they're hoping that he's going to back off, particularly Ehrlichman."

Ehrlichman knew all kinds of secrets that could damage his boss. In a call between the president and his aide on April 28,1973, Nixon tried to establish his ignorance of the Watergate cover-up and of dirty political tricks being run by Ehrlichman and a group of White House henchmen known as "The Plumbers." In one scheme, Nixon operatives made up fake diplomatic cables between President John F. Kennedy and South Vietnamese President Ngo Diem to discredit the late president. The scheme was allegedly aimed at thwarting the presidential ambitions of Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, JFK's younger brother.

Listen to excerpt

John Ehrlichman: No. It's a cable.

President Nixon: But a fake letter?

JE: Yeah.

RMN: From John F. Kennedy?

JE: Well, that is what it is alleged to be.

RMN: Oh, my God. I just can't believe that. I just can't believe that. The whole-you remember, you were conducting for me, you and Young, were conducting a whole study of the whole Diem thing and the Bay of Pigs thing.

JE: That's right. That's correct.

RMN: But, John, you will-if my recollection is correct, I just said get the facts.... I should have been told about that, shouldn't I?

JE: Well, I'm not so sure but what you weren't.

RMN: By whom?

JE: I don't know. I don't know...

JE: ...Well, I'd have to go back and check my notes. But my recollection is that this was discussed with you...

RMN: If I'm in that kind of position, it's a position I just didn't know about, believe me. I have, throughout this thing. I must say, I have not known, I didn't know about the Watergate and I didn't know about the other thing. But I knew that we were checking all this. But my God, I didn't know they were faking stuff involving that on Kennedy....

Later in the same conversation, Nixon told Ehrlichman he must resign. "I just feel it's the right thing to do," Nixon said.


Next: part 2