It's almost 25 years since the Watergate break-in, and the fascination with President Nixon continues, fueled by releases of Oval Office tape. No matter how bad some tapes sound, there are still loyal guardians of the Nixon flame ready to give them the best possible spin.
Take, for example, Nixon's order on June 30, 1971, to chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, to arrange to break into the Brookings Institution. Nixon said: "The way I want this handled, Bob, is just break in and take it out, you understand?"
Take out what? On the PBS NewsHour, former Nixon aide John Ehrlichman said Nixon wanted to retrieve from Brookings several sets of the secret Pentagon Papers about the Vietnam War. Mr. Ehrlichman: "Daniel Ellsberg had stolen several sets, and had turned them over to the newspapers and foreign embassies and what-not. And the president was extremely upset about the breach of security."
But Mr. Ellsberg says he knew of only two sets of the papers, to which he had access at the Rand Corporation. He photocopied one of these to be given to Congress and newspapers. "I never stole any of the Pentagon Papers," he says, "and I never gave a copy of the Pentagon Papers to any foreign embassy. I would have been charged with espionage if I had."
If anybody knows whether there were copies of the papers at Brookings, it would be Morton Halperin, whose fifth-floor office was the target of the planned break-in. Mr. Halperin, a Kissinger aide in the National Security Council, had been wiretapped, resigned in protest against the Vietnam War, and was working at Brookings. He had seen the Pentagon Papers while working at Rand but says he had no copy at Brookings: "There never was a copy stored at Brookings. None of us would have stored classified material at a place that did not have the authorized facilities for such materials."
Was the Nixon order to break into Brookings acted on? No, says Ehrlichman, "It wasn't ever carried out because I shot it down. I got wind of this. I tracked down who had followed up, who was proposing to do this thing, and I told him to stop. It sounded ridiculous to me. So that was the end of it."
How did Ehrlichman dare to countermand Nixon's orders? He says the president often spouted off in anger without intending to be taken literally. Monica Crowley, a young researcher who worked with Nixon in his last four years, had this explanation on NPR's Morning Edition:
"In fact, there was no further discussion of them, beyond Nixon's original rants. This is because they were not orders at all. All presidents say things in the heat of anger, frustration, disappointment and fatigue, that are never meant to be acted upon."
The trouble with that story is what happened on that very evening of June 30, 1971. Nixon had said to go into Brookings at 8 or 9 o'clock. Rodrick Warrick, night security guard at Brookings, recalls that, shortly before 8, two men entered the lobby and said they wanted to go to the fifth floor to see Morton Halperin. They said the guard needn't bother calling Halperin, because they were expected. But Mr. Warrick wouldn't let them go up, and they left.
So, not a break-in, but coming on the day and almost the hour when Nixon ordered one, it looked very much like a reconnaissance for a break-in by Nixon's agents, who would go on to ineffectual break-ins on Ellsberg's psychiatrist and Democratic headquarters in the Watergate.
* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.