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It was June 28, 1973, slightly more than a year since the Watergate break-in. Steve, my co-law clerk, and I were writing a research memorandum for the federal judge we clerked for. In the background, a portable television carried the hearings before the US Senate's Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, known to most as the Watergate Committee. Since mid-May that event had become part of our daily conversation, but we froze the moment Senator Howard Baker said, "The central question at this point is simply put: What did the President know, and when did he know it?"
I didn't tell my fellow clerk how frustrated Senator Baker made me feel. Had life followed plan, I wouldn't have been in that judge's chambers with its dull wooden desk, shelves of law books, and musty odor, the latter which persisted no matter how often the General Services Administration cleaned it. I'd be working in the White House, where the Committee to Re-Elect the President had promised I'd ultimately land. That was the vision. Throughout law school it had suffused me with energy as I anticipated the opportunity to help the President and then launch my own political career.
From June through November 1968, I'd interned with, if not all the President's men, at least some of them: John Ehrlichman, Robert Ellsworth, Richard Kleindienst. I also worked with one of the President's women: Patricia Reilly Hitt. I'd written press releases and performed research on voter demographics. I'd attended the Republican National Convention, met Richard Nixon and his family, joined the campaign tour, and been assured a repeat performance in 1972, once I graduated from law school. The Committee kept its word, but they wanted to pair me with a person who reported to Jeb Magruder, a soon-to-be convicted felon. The man I'd be working for—a former judge who'd left the bench for more excitement—would escape indictment but not without bumping up against Watergate and not without enduring a lengthy interview with the FBI. The job description had worried me and my parents to the point that I'd turned it down and, with it, the potential of a powerful future.
As the scandal unraveled, I should have considered myself fortunate. Steve reminded me more than once that several of my former colleagues seemed to be en route to prison. Tall, corn-fed, with a low, gravelly voice, Steve was an All-American football player from the University of Wisconsin. Following our clerkships, he'd return to his native state to practice law in a town of 1,500 residents. But my sense of longing wouldn't go away. It hurt to kill a dream come true.
What did the President know, and when did he know it? There had been two Nixons, reflected in his administration, the same as during his 1968 campaign. Surrounding the President were liberal Republicans: people like Robert Finch (Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare), Patricia Reilly Hitt (Assistant Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, the highest-ranking woman in Nixon's first term), Robert Ellsworth (the United States Permanent Representative to NATO), and Daniel Patrick Moynihan (among other titles, Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy and Executive Secretary of the Council of Urban Affairs). They'd been the ones who'd persuaded Nixon to end the draft, fight cancer, battle poverty, create the Environmental Protection Agency, and open the door to China. Said former White House aide Jeffrey Donfeld, "This is one of the great secrets of the universe—the Nixon administration was really a liberal administration."
Then came the hardliners, the John Mitchells and H.R. Haldemans, the ones who greased the path to the burglary and who now were being hauled in, one by one, before the Watergate Committee. Within two years of Nixon's election, the liberals had been pushed aside with such force that many of them updated their resumes and left. Then, in May 1970, Robert H. Finch, California's Lieutenant Governor who'd become Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare and then Counselor to the President, woke up one morning unable to move his left arm, a nervous condition that would last several days.
What did Nixon's people want with me in 1972? Maybe the hardliners saw me as a kid with good recommendations, including one from John Ehrlichman. Maybe they needed a young Ivy League lawyer to front for their slash-and-burn tactics, a naïf who'd help wrap the attack line in a cloth of respectability.
Reluctant to admit Richard Nixon had broken the law, I hoped Watergate would morph into a political hiccup whose end would coincide with the last day of my clerkship. Perhaps by the fall the "cancer on the presidency," as one witness branded Watergate, would die down, stopping short of the President himself and allowing me to work in the White House without picking up any taint. Throughout the summer of 1973, I refused to fault Nixon. I still saw some saving grace there. I'd worked with one of the alleged conspirators, John Ehrlichman, at the 1968 Republican National Convention. I'd met another alleged conspirator, John Mitchell, once. While I didn't know James W. McCord, one of the Watergate burglars, several of my friends did. They called him a gentleman. He had a child with a disability. In 1969 he chaired an umbrella group called Concerned Citizens for Exceptional Children and, also in 1969, testified on the subject before Congress. McCord had a heart, but that didn't stop me from laughing about him on July 19, 1973.
On that day Steve and I sat at our desks, listening to the testimony of Anthony Ulasewicz, a man whose double chin could pass for a tire tube. With his thick New York accent, he sounded like a bagman for the mob, and thanks to that brogue he was lightening the mood in the Senate hearing room as well as mine.
"McCord's a pretty good wire man," said Ulasewicz. "One of the best wire men in the business."
Steve and I hooted loudly enough that I'm sure our judge, sitting on the bench, could hear us.
Actually, McCord was a pretty good wire man. He'd worked for the FBI, then the CIA. He'd been in charge of physical security at the CIA's Langley headquarters and later at the Committee to Re-Elect the President.
The phone rang. It was Ken, another law clerk, calling about lunch. "Tony," he said, "this is Jim McCord."
Ken loved put-ons like that.
"Gordon Liddy wants to join us," I said. Liddy had organized and directed the Watergate burglars. Sometimes, as a joke, Ken identified himself as a special counsel to Nixon. There were days I said I was Gordon Strachan, another White House aide. The Watergate hearings were providing needed levity.
Ken possessed the most sterling credentials of any law clerk in the building. Harvard. Yale Law. Summer job at a top LA law firm. Now working for one of the most brilliant judges in the building. A low-key yet erudite style. Although he was almost snaggle-toothed, Ken had, as one woman said, "a smile like a sunburst."
Steve, Ken, and I walked to the cafeteria in the headquarters of the Los Angeles Police Department, a favorite of ours. You needed a government ID to get in. Riding in the elevator to the top floor, surrounded by uniformed cops, Ken launched into another of our standard exchanges.
"So, how's your uncle?"
"Well," I said, "he's testifying at the Senate hearings tomorrow."
One or two police officers looked our way. Steve, who towered over Ken and me, maintained a stern, impassive look. He could have passed as our bodyguard.
Ken asked, "Has he talked with Haldeman yet?"
"I think so."
Another officer turned toward us. Steve met his glance with a polite don't-mess-with-them look.
"Will he take the Fifth?" Ken's ability to spin impromptu yarns ran in the family, which included some well-known authors.
"Don't know yet," I said.
The three of us fought back laughter until we reached a table. I was grateful for these witty exchanges. They helped prevent me from becoming depressed at having abandoned my long-standing goal of a White House job, the chance to sample the levers of power and bask in "attaboys" from my President. Our badinage fed into the LA ethos at that time, a pleasing alloy of fact and fiction. Like Mark Antony's thoughts on ambition, DC was made of sterner stuff.
Nevertheless, I kept telling myself that I belonged on Pennsylvania Avenue; worse yet, I still longed to be there. I'd been a policy fanatic for years and now felt bitter at being cut off from my calling. My clerkship was cruising toward its prescribed end in September, and without a Washington job I'd probably have to practice law like the rest of the world. Watergate was making me resentful for selfish reasons. I wanted one of those "policy and supporting positions" listed in the General Services Administration's publication popularly known as The Plum Book. I wanted it even though I despised DC's physical environment.
Our nation's capital was a humid wen of broken windows and street congestion. There were muggings among the dead plants of Rock Creek Park. Not far from the White House, trash heaps lined the gutters. Armed with umbrellas to shield them from the afternoon squalls, the bureaucrats minced along like wind-up dolls. Thurston Hall, the block-size dormitory at The George Washington University where I'd lived in 1968, had guards, and one night they'd locked us in because the mayor had declared an emergency curfew caused by a threatened riot. The city brimmed with contradictions and disconnects, like the nearby Peoples Drug Store where the clerks treated people rudely. I'd spend 65 cents to take a cab from the White House to the Capitol but twice that amount to travel a few blocks in the opposite direction. The lies oozed everywhere. Union Station's telephone number led to a nerdy recorded voice that said, "One moment please." Then, ten seconds later, "One moment please." And so on until the caller slammed down the receiver. It cost 27 cents to ride a bus, but the sign read No change given—To speed your ride—Only scrip issued. To speed your ride, hell. DC Transit feared the robberies that had become epidemic, and while they were at it, they made some extra money.
But now I was home in LA, land of my birth, where golden bodies covered the beaches, actors called waitresses "Darling," and marine layers cooled the nights. Where instead of waiting forever for a bus, I tooled around in my 1973 Pontiac Le Mans Sport Coupe, reached any destination in 20 minutes, and took my dates to dinner at The Source, one of those organic vegetarian havens serving dishes like "magic mushrooms." The sunshine was reliable. On occasion invitations to movie premieres came in the mail. Sunset Boulevard's Preview House invited everyone to watch TV pilots and rate them on handheld meters as the films ran. Many were refreshing, nothing like the vanilla series of the '50s and '60s. Ken and I lazed around the swimming pools at Mariners Village, an apartment complex full of fit singles in the newly developed Marina del Rey. We visited a movie set, where Ken played chess with football-star-turned-actor Jim Brown. One Saturday night, with two other friends, we rented a gorilla suit that I wore around Westwood Village. The Pasadena debutante I'd met at the bar exam spent her weekends playing volleyball at her boyfriend's beach house. Ken and I and at least 20 others gathered there on Sundays, unless the couple was skiing in Mammoth. We roasted hot dogs and hamburgers, listened to the Doobie Brothers blasting from the outside speakers, bodysurfed if the ocean wasn't too cold, and watched the sun slip away. Nobody said the word "Watergate." We talked about the Byrds at the Troubadour and George Lucas's American Graffiti, a just-released cornucopia of nostalgia and fun. Buoyed by amusements like these, I began to let go of my Washington dream.
One August night Ken and I, along with Kate, a classmate from school, visited Art Laboe's discotheque on the Sunset Strip. Installed in a glass booth above the dance floor, Art Laboe, the man who'd been credited with coining the phrase "oldies but goodies," faced two turntables. Behind him rose a shelf full of 33 1/3 RPM record albums and 45s. He was on the air, KRTH 101, LA's oldies station.
The three of us climbed the stairs to the booth. I can't recall how we got inside—either the door wasn't locked or we knocked. My dim memory is emblematic of LA in those days, when security had yet to become a feature of the landscape. Art Laboe leaned back in his chair, his round face and long nose trained on us, especially on Kate, who was petite with a vivacious personality. He nodded for us to come closer.
Ken spoke first. Although raised in New York, he spoke with no trace of an accent, and he was polite. "We were wondering if our friend could make a dedication." As Ken spoke, Kate smiled and ran a hand through her curly red hair.
Laboe turned to his microphone.
"We have a young lady who'd like to make a dedication."
Kate leaned into the mic and spoke with a singsong voice. "I want to dedicate this song," she said, "to Gordon Liddy." Like Ken and me, Kate enjoyed the lighter side of Watergate.
No change on Laboe's face as he asked, in his pleasant tenor, "Why?"
"Because," she said happily, "he bugged me."
His lips parted slightly. I don't think he understood the pun. "He bugged you?"
Kate said it again. "He bugged me."
"Okay, Kate," he said in a carefree deejay manner. "Going out to Gordon. Gordon, we hope you don't bug Kate anymore."
Laboe picked a loud and driving song. Below us the crowd danced and flailed their arms while Ken, Kate, and I slapped each other five. I'll never know for sure, but I'll wager that nobody on that dance floor devoted a nubbin of thought to Watergate, even if they knew who G. Gordon Liddy was. On this corner of the continent, the scandal carried no more weight than a cupcake falling on a carpet. Southern California was waiting for the movie version, starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. And I was easing into the lifestyle, reducing the scandal to a source of jokes and antics with Ken. In 1973 you couldn't escape frivolity in Southern California. As one of my junior high school teachers said, "You kids make a joke out of everything."
The letter arrived in late July from R. Gordon Hoxie, the head of the Center for the Study of the Presidency, a conservative Washington think tank that, among other things, sponsored yearly student symposia and other conferences on the subject. I'd attended their events during my third year of law school. Mr. Hoxie asked me to call E. Pendleton James of Russell Reynolds Associates. I didn't know the firm or the man. I figured Mr. Hoxie wanted me to meet one of his friends. Out of curiosity, I telephoned. Mr. James invited me to visit.
Russell Reynolds Associates was an executive search firm, four years old in 1973, but the Chippendale furniture in their reception area would have convinced anyone that the company had existed since the California Gold Rush. Mr. James had parked there until an appropriate Republican President moved into the White House. (That, it turned out, would be Ronald Reagan, for whom he'd worked when Reagan was governor of California.) Pen James, as his friends called him, had a weak chin and a reserved but friendly voice. Through brown horn-rimmed glasses, he regarded me while I answered questions about my work during the 1968 campaign and my clerkship experience. I tried to maintain eye contact, which was hard because I wanted to look at his capacious office, at the artwork on the far wall, at his scrolls and certificates, and at the elegant table and chairs in one of the corners.
I answered honestly that the 1968 campaign had been a thrill and that working for a judge had not been as exciting. Six months in a national presidential campaign had spoiled me.
We talked quietly, circling Watergate, the elephant in the room. I tried to relax in the soft leather chair while Mr. James, at ease in his high back, listened from across a massive wooden desk. The details of our 30 minutes are lost to me except for the end. "Okay, Tony," he said. "Get your clerkship in order."
I knew what he meant. E. Pendleton James wanted to ease me into the White House, or what was left of it. He was inviting me to board a sinking ship, possibly because he viewed me as the "type of young man" the gasping Nixon administration needed. I surmised then, and am sure now, that the Nixon administration was desperate. I figured that the White House had reached out to an ally, the head of the Center for the Study of the Presidency, who, in turn, had reached out to me. Did Pen James know the job the Committee to Re-Elect the President had picked for me the year before? Did he know that, after a wrenching weekend, I'd turned them down?
This was my second chance to walk into the White House through the employees' entrance. No need to spend years answering interrogatories, sitting through dreary depositions, and indexing documents. I returned to my desk with renewed spirit, which would fade like a balloon losing air as I reviewed the crimes that were being paraded before the Senate committee. Though still in denial with respect to Nixon, I hesitated to rejoin the remnants of his team. Then, a day or so later, Gordon Strachan, H.R. Haldeman's liaison to the Committee to Re-Elect the President, took the stand. Asked if he had any advice for young people who wanted to work in Washington, he answered, "Well, it may sound—it may not be the type of advice that you could look back and want to give, but my advice would be to stay away."
"You see," my mother said over dinner that night, a stern expression on her normally loving face, "you made the right choice not to work in Washington."
I bit into my corn on the cob, juicy even without any butter on it, before saying weakly, "Maybe."
Although Pen James rekindled my hunger for the White House, Watergate had changed me. It made me afraid to go there. Watergate had layered suspicion into my persona. I answered Pen James's tacit invitation the easy way—by failing to call him again. Instead, following Labor Day, I started doing what I'd never intended: interviewing with law firms, following the prudent, cautious path and hating myself for doing so. The process made me feel like a failure in search of a consolation prize. Several firms invited me to meet with them, which didn't make me feel the slightest bit important or proud. Each one resembled the next—rows of secretarial bays, offices, and a couple of conference rooms. Everyone made sure to show me their library, a foreshadowing of where they expected me to spend my days. As someone from the firm's hiring committee moved me from the young associates' offices to those of more senior associates, I felt as if I were traveling across a timeline of desperate little lives, starting with new fathers, moving to the more portly senior associates, and then to the partners, men (almost no women back then) with pot bellies and double chins, men in various stages of male pattern baldness, nurturing each remaining strand, letting those precious hairs grow long and then oh-so-carefully combing each from one side of their scalp to the other.
The partners talked with me in between purring into their squawk boxes each time a call interrupted. "That's fine, I'll send you the licensing agreement." "Of course you can have another 30 days to plead." "You know my client wants money, but I'm sure we can reach an accommodation." Everything so civilized and quiet, not a raised voice to be heard. So that was what life was like in tony firms.
At the law office that appealed the most to me, the timeline stopped at the end of the hall with the two emeriti, grandfathers whose corner offices contained private bathrooms and who admitted that "we're not working as hard as we used to." Toward the end of my interview there, the more avuncular of the two rose and said, "Let's round up some of the group and go to lunch." He was a stout man with an open, cherubic face.
Over enchiladas and fajitas at Señor Pico's, a freestanding building with bright colors and a Spanish tiled roof across Constellation Boulevard from the rising Century Towers, the managing partner said, "You know, we just interviewed another person who worked in the White House—right under Egil Krogh." Krogh had ended up in federal prison. Among other White House activities, he'd authorized the burglary of the office of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist. (Ellsberg had leaked the Pentagon Papers.)
I knew Krogh's assistant. Jeff Donfeld had been student body president at UCLA the same year I'd co-edited my high school paper. I'd interviewed him for an article. "Student government from grade school up," Jeff said, "helps to build the foundation for a democratic system." While it has its limits, Jeff had gone on to observe that the only unlimited government is a dictatorship. In the Nixon administration Jeff had drafted a drug abuse prevention act, a bill that emphasized treatment of addicts instead of jail. The bill passed. Jeff impressed me as honest, and he was. He'd emerged from the Nixon administration unscathed—no involvement with Watergate.
"Will Jeff be joining you?" I asked the partner in a hopeful tone of voice.
"No," said the partner. "He was too close to Watergate."
I said that as far as I knew, Jeff had had nothing to do with the scandal.
The managing partner said, "Be that as it may, he worked in the White House. He's used to being a big shot."
That's the moment I realized that my campaign experience constituted a black mark, which this law firm didn't hold against me. They must have caucused and decided that since I was four years younger than Jeff, had been nothing more than an intern, and had never worked in the Nixon administration, they would consider me an acceptable risk. And although almost every lawyer in the firm was a Democrat, they were civil enough to tolerate a colleague with a different point of view. Not every potential employer or client would be as forgiving. I began to understand how, for the balance of my life, my Nixon days would affect the way others viewed me.
Coffee arrived, along with the flan one of the partners had ordered for dessert. Señor Pico's was the best of the very few restaurants Century City had in 1973, apart from the Playboy Club, and that place was off-limits. The firm was on the verge of settling, quite favorably, a class action brought on behalf of their head litigator against the club.
We devoted part of our dessert to politics, a calm discussion because, back then, most people I knew could talk peacefully with those across the aisle. But during our exchange I rolled my mind around what the managing partner had said. I had to admit that despite my status as a college intern, the Nixon campaign had made me feel like at least a junior big shot, flush with excitement about, as somebody put it, "this business of electing the President of the United States." Now, went the managing partner's message, it was time to humble myself—get into the library, research precedents, and write turgid memoranda of law.
Back in the office after lunch, the thin emeritus raised his silver eyebrows and said in a deep voice, "Well, Tony, we'd like to have you with us," the firm's official offer of employment.
With a brown bag in hand, Keith, a second-year associate, dropped in, flopped onto the partner's couch, and cleared his throat. As he opened the bag, he said, "Do you mind if I eat my lunch?" It was almost 4:00 PM. After wolfing down a sandwich, he excused himself. "I have a deadline," he said, adjusting his wire-rim glasses and clearing his throat again. The man was perspiring.
Another associate, Les, came by. He grinned as he read my resume. "I want to hear about your Nixon experience," he said. "I have a meeting in a few minutes, but just quickly, what did you do in the campaign?"
I gave him the abbreviated version.
"Fabulous," he said. "I'm into politics, too. Let's have lunch after you start." With that he zipped out of the office.
"We think you're going to be a lot like Les," said the thin emeritus, a smile materializing on his droopy face. That flash session with Les convinced me that if I couldn't work in the West Wing, this firm might provide, in the lingo of the day, "a viable alternative."
I took the job, took a trip, and started two months later, in November 1973. On my first day one of the partners said that Les had left the firm for a more "politically connected" office.
In the conference room each Monday, the firm's 17 lawyers gathered for lunch. Lox, turkey, roast beef, corned beef. Bins of potato salad and cole slaw. Chips and dip, pickles and Cokes. I piled it on.
I turned to the lawyer on my right and asked what he thought about Watergate.
"How was your weekend?" the lawyer from across the table asked him at the same moment.
"We took the kids to Kiddieland," the lawyer to my right replied. Kiddieland—the one-acre amusement park at the corner of Beverly Boulevard and La Cienega Boulevard, which featured pony rides, cotton candy, and a mini-Ferris wheel. Maybe the historian in me would have paid more attention had I known that a year later, Kiddieland would close down.
On the other side of the table, Keith cleared his throat. "We need to do that, too, now that Jennifer's getting old enough," he said.
Watching my colleagues feeding, I concluded that they'd relegated Watergate to part of the background noise, less audible than the rain, which barely fell that season. Congress wasn't governing, the country faced a constitutional crisis, but the business of billing hours continued without a hitch. I wished my colleagues had discussed the scandal. Even hearing a roomful of Democrats hold forth would have lifted the isolation I was experiencing, like an old man alone with his memories. Nobody asked about Nixon. They weren't trying to marginalize me. They just didn't care.
In December the Los Angeles County Bar Association decided to make Watergate the theme of its annual Christmas "Hi-Jinks" show, and because I was active with the Young Attorneys Section, the organizers asked me to participate.
The Watergate Follies opened with a parody of Cabaret, each song lifted from the musical. "Life is like Watergate, old chum." The spotlights made the audience invisible to the 30 of us on stage, but I could hear them clap along, with laughter building—"Need a good lawyer? They're all in the clink, so come have another drink"—and applauding as we belted out, "Right this way, your jail cell's waiting." While we rollicked along, I wondered if, during the dinner hour that preceded the show, anybody in the ballroom had talked seriously about the subject. Nobody at my table had.
Early in 1974, a partner asked me to submit a research memorandum on the effect of the law of equitable indemnity on the ability of a bank's right of setoff with respect to an insurance claim. I looked out the window, gulped a cup of coffee loaded with cream and sugar, and daydreamed back to one of Robert Ellsworth's early June 1968 memos, "Notes on Strategy and Tactics Through November 5." Rapt, I'd devoured Ellsworth's 35 pages in minutes, every paragraph loaded with insightful, trenchant factoids.
A month or two later, while trying to stay awake summarizing the deposition of some doctor, I recalled the rush while reading another campaign strategy memorandum in which the author had analyzed Pennsylvania's delegates to the Republican National Convention. "Businessman, controlled by Delaware County machine." "Realtor, Shafer's biggest contributor... millionaire—can be persuaded possibly by prestige or status offers." "Controlled by Meehan, would be Nixonish, but can't be." "Administrator, controlled by Meehan, patronage job." "Engineer... is leaning to Rockefeller but is willing to listen." "Phone call from Nixon might help."
A litigation partner dispatched me to a warehouse for a document production, and while sitting in that dusty space with no windows and fusty air, indexing one bill of lading after another, I reflected on the day the Nixon tour had come to DC. In connection with handling the press facilities for the event, I sat near the candidate and rode the bus with the reporters.
A senior associate ordered me to obtain a witness statement from the junior loan officer of a bank. During that boring hour, I thought about a reception I'd attended at the Republican National Convention. Kleindienst and Ellsworth were there and acted as thoroughly drunk as the delegates they wooed. But once it was over, Kleindienst said to Ellsworth, his tone sober, "Whew. That was good. Now let's go get a drink."
One hears clichés like "the Washington bug" and how so many are "bitten" by it. I can see why. In presidential campaigns you try to sway the behavior of millions. However minuscule the role, in a presidential administration you're formulating policy on a national level. Politics can make even low-level drudges swell with pride and self-importance. The duller the tasks the attorneys were giving me, the more I yearned for the capital.
I never returned. Not just because Nixon betrayed me by lying or that I got used to answering interrogatories, sitting through dreary depositions, and indexing documents. It was inertia brought on by—the Southland, the moniker greater Los Angeles adopted for itself. I tucked into the comfort this piece of geography offered. A year later, I left to start my own practice and remained there until 1994, when, tired of answering interrogatories, sitting through dreary depositions, and indexing documents, I persuaded the Governor to make me a judge. The bench didn't offer the razzle-dazzle of a political campaign, but its other qualities made up for it. I could enjoy sitting through trials. I could help resolve disputes. I could uphold the law.
In January 2019, Donald Segretti, who'd pleaded guilty to three Watergate-related misdemeanors, appeared in my courtroom to argue a pre-trial motion. The California State Bar had restored his license, meaning he was rehabilitated. He looked somber. His hair and his moustache had gone grey. He presented his case like a gentleman. It was easy to treat this counselor with respect, something I'm sure I wouldn't do had Richard Nixon been standing there instead.