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Reconstructing the Dark Period Of Nixon and Watergate

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FEW citizens of the world, living anywhere within reach of a radio or television set, can forget the momentous events of the summer of 1974, just 20 years ago.

In Washington, the House Judiciary Committee, which this reporter was then covering for the Monitor, was edging closer to a formal vote recommending impeachment of President Richard Nixon for the coverup of the break-in at the Watergate offices of the Democratic National Committee. On Aug. 9, Nixon, accompanied by Vice President Gerald Ford took his final walk out to a helicopter that was to transport the 37th president away from Washington and almost certain impeachment.

Nixon's flight from high office was to have major repercussions throughout the American political system. Congressional inquiries into Watergate led the way to investigations into abuses by United States spy agencies, and spurred enactment of laws tightening covert and US military operations abroad.

The subsequent pardoning of Nixon by President Ford helped lead to the election of Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1976 and the shifting of the Republican Party away from its moderate wing, the branch that had elected most Republican presidents in this century, including Nixon. Instead of a politically moderate successor to Nixon, the GOP instead turned to its conservative faction and tapped Ronald Reagan in 1980, ushering in an era of economic laissez faire at home and foreign intervention (in the Caribbean, Latin America, and Middle East) abroad.

Joan Hoff, in ``Nixon Reconsidered,'' and Fred Emery, in ``Watergate: The Corruption of American Politics and the Fall of Richard Nixon,'' have performed yeomen work in reconstructing the dark Watergate period of the early 1970s, as well as attempting to put both Nixon and Watergate into clearer focus. Neither book can be called revisionist, since both authors accept the Watergate burglary as an attack on American political liberties and values. But both books add valuable insights into the legacy of Richard Nixon and the meaning of Watergate.

While no definitive evidence has yet surfaced proving that Nixon knew of the Watergate burglary before it happened, there is, writes Emery, a former executive editor of the Times of London, circumstantial evidence. A White House ``talking paper'' dated April 4, 1972, 2-1/2 months before the burglary, describes a meeting between H.R. Haldeman, Nixon's chief of staff, and Attorney General John Mitchell, Nixon's political manager in the 1972 presidential campaign. The paper discusses approval of an intelligence operation that might have involved the Watergate burglary. According to Emery, John Dean, the president's legal counsel, says that if Haldeman knew about the burglary, then Nixon knew. Haldeman was Nixon's administrative alter ego.

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