What if they gave a Republican sex scandal and nobody came?
"(expletive deleted) Of course, I am not dumb and I will never forget when I heard about this (adjective deleted) forced entry and bugging. I thought, what in the hell is this? What is the matter with these people? Are they crazy? I thought they were nuts! A prank! But it wasn't! It wasn't very funny."

-- Richard Nixon

Times have changed since the early 1970s. Despite the reputation of that period for wild hedonism and philandering, both major parties were officially downright prudish. Sex scandals were considered shameful in a way that's hard to imagine in today's zero-privacy world of online instant access to even the most innocuous details of lives which were once led privately.

Privacy was once exciting, even titillating, and the idea of illicit sex as something secret and forbidden was what made it alluring.

Xaviera Hollander, author of The Happy Hooker (and once deported for her role in a DC prostitution ring which still supplies fuel for conspiracy theories like this) echoes this sentiment:

Mostly, men want what they cannot get at home. And women in this business are prepared to listen to their stories.

Nowadays, of course, with the Internet, choosing your sexual fantasy is like ordering a pizza. There is so much permissiveness. It doesn't make it exciting.

When your mother forbids you to go out with little Timmy and then he has to scale the wall to your bedroom window, that's very exciting. There's a scene like that in many movies. Now people say to their kids, "Here's birth control, Timmy can spend the night if he wants." And the girls must say, "Look, Mom, I'll decide for myself." It's too permissive.

Maybe that's what makes buying these so-called fantasies so appealing. The taste of forbidden fruit is always much sweeter.

Not that everything has changed. Americans are still so prudish. But the more prudish you are, the more books like mine sell. For a long time, as my signature at the bottom of my e-mail, I had this quote: "In America you can get away with murder, but not with sex."

That's sort of an odd way to put it, but even now, sex can still has a certain peculiar and irrational stigma not associated with ordinary crime. (See my previous post comparing the hue and cry over restroom signaling to the ho-hum response to assault and battery.) Times have changed, though. While Nixon's "I am not a crook!" is legendary, it's hard to imagine him ever saying "I did not have sex with that woman!" -- for the simple reason that in the old days, Nixon wouldn't have said that. Nor would Kennedy or anyone else -- not even if caught in flagrante delicto with an intern.

Today, we would call this "hypocrisy." However, while the shame associated with publicly discovered sex was a much bigger deal, the fact is, people had as much illicit sex as now (minus the fear of AIDS, investigative journalists, and bloggers), but they all recognized a certain code of silence borne out of mutually agreed necessity. Politicians in both parties and the news media all shared a certain gentlemen's agreement that the less said the better, because we all know that we can all be immoral from time to time. In practice, the fact that there was more hypocrisy meant there was a lot less hypocrisy.

I know. Words fail. It's a paradox.

The Xaviera Hollander ring never became a major political scandal in Washington, mainly because her clients came from both parties, and there was no particular advantage to either side. In the days when sex was private, neither of the parties were interested in exploring the sordid details involving the personal sex lives of the other unless there was an ironclad guarantee that there'd be no spillover effect. The usual thing was that whoever was caught would resign in disgrace, and the less said the better. (Two good examples were the Walter Jenkins scandal, which was quickly and simply hushed up, and the Bobby Baker affair, which was much more complicated, but because it involved both parties, the sexual coverup forces ultimately prevailed.)

There was lots of sex in both parties, but as in the case of JFK's fooling around, the public didn't know about it, and it was in neither party's interest for them to know about it.

It is my opinion after many years of studying and restudying that the Watergate burglary involved an ordinary sex scandal. That it led to the resignation of the very prudish Richard Nixon is one of American history's supreme ironies, because, while he did his level best to cover it up, he had no idea what it was he was covering up. In fact, almost no one knew the actual purpose of the burglary, and they remain desperate to suppress it, because it makes them look sloppy.

But regardless of the reasons for the burglary, what mattered was that Nixon was guilty of a coverup, and an out of control bugging and surveillance team was caught red-handed in the DNC. What more did anyone need to know? The precious narrative was a done deal, and the underlying facts behind the burglary itself were of no interest.

In retrospect, however, the Watergate investigation looks incredibly bad, because the hearings went on and on, and the president resigned, and in the interest of preserving the narrative of a thorough investigation of the underlying burglary, they cling to facts which are laughably wrong.

Writer Jim Hougan was the one to figure it out first. It turns out that the target of the break-in was not DNC Chairman Larry O'Brien or his office, but a desk drawer of a low level secretary, Ida Maxie Wells:

....as for the bug in Larry O'Brien's office, well, it was never found---despite repeated and rather desperate searches by the FBI and the telephone company.
Not that the bug would have worked, in any case. O'Brien's office was part of an interior suite at the DNC and, as such, it was shielded from McCord's "listening post" in the motel across the street. Moreover, and as Liddy himself pointed out, the subject of the surveillance wasn't even in Washington. Nor was he expected to return anytime soon. More than a month before the break-in, the DNC's chairman had moved to Florida, where the Democratic Convention was to be held.
Not that anyone cared. In 1973, the burglars' motives weren't of much interest to anyone. Their trial was over, and the story had moved on. The Watergate Committee was a political institution. It sought to establish responsibility for the break-ins, and to deconstruct the cover-up. Accordingly, the Committee's attention was focused on higher-ups in the Nixon White House and, in particular, in the Oval Office. Everything else was just a detail.
Things might have been different, of course, had Maxie Wells been more candid in her executive session testimony before the Watergate committee. Instead, she neglected to mention that the FBI had questioned her about the key to her desk, and the circumstances under which the key had been found. According to Howard Liebengood, who served as the committee's minority counsel, the Committee's investigation might have taken a dramatic turn if he had he learned of the key's existence, and of Wells's interview with the FBI.
But he did not. [4]
The issue of the burglary's purpose was even raised in Blind Ambition, the John Dean memoir ghost-written by the well-regarded historian, Taylor Branch. In that book, we're told that Dean raised the issue with Charles Colson in 1974, when both of them were doing time in federal prison.
"'Chuck, why do you figure Liddy bugged the DNC instead of the Democratic candidates? It doesn't make much sense. I sat in (Atty. Gen. John) Mitchell's office when Liddy gave us his show, and he only mentioned Larry O'Brien in passing as a target...'

"'It looks suspicious to me,'" Dean continues. "'(I)t's incredible. Millions of dollars have been spent investigating Watergate. A President has been forced out of office. Dozens of lives have been ruined. We're sitting in the can. And still nobody can explain why they bugged the place to begin with.'" [5]

Though Dean subsequently repudiated his own memoir, [6] the anecdote makes a good point. The Watergate affair can only remain a mystery so long as its purpose remains hidden.
Fortunately, we know today what the Senate Watergate Committee did not: that Detective Shoffler wrested a key from one of the burglars. (According to Shoffler, Eugenio Martinez was so determined that the key should not be found, he attempted to swallow it.) As much as a confession, that key is prima facie evidence of the break-in's purpose. Clearly, the burglars were after the contents of whatever it was that the key unlocked.
The FBI seems to have understood this because the Bureau's agents went from office to office after the arrests, trying the key on every desk until they found the one that it fit. This was Maxie Wells's desk, and Shoffler, for one, wasn't surprised. When he took the key from Martinez, Shoffler said, photographic equipment was clamped to the top of that same desk.
But what was in it? What did the burglars hope to find?
It was precisely this question that was so embarrassing to Wells. In her suit against Liddy, she sought to suppress discussion of the key because, she insisted, it unfairly implicated her in allegations about a call-girl ring.
A call-girl ring?
Well, yes. Although the Post prefers to ignore any and all evidence on the matter, links between call-girls and the DNC---and, therefore, between call-girls and the Watergate affair---have been rumored or alleged for years.
Hougan has a lot more, and that's only a short excerpt. The point is, the reasons for the burglary were concealed by the burglars who knew, and by John "Wiki-wash" Dean, who had a direct interest in the case, because he sent them in on his personal business.

Had the sexual dimensions been known at the time, the Watergate burglary would have been another sex scandal swept under the rug. None of this exonerates Nixon in any way, for he was guilty of the coverup. It just so happens that he didn't know what he was covering up.

So why is this history so hotly contested? (There have been lawsuits for years over these allegations, but no one has ever disproven that the burglary was the desk of Ida Maxie Wells.) I think it's because Watergate was a huge national scandal which had the nation riveted to their TV sets. Watergate (the "Big Bang") gave rise to several important memes. That this was a new country, with new, improved moral standards. That modern investigative journalism will fearlessly safeguard the country against abuses of power. The idea of the saviour media hero, helping bring to public attention fearless whistleblowers who expose corruption in high places. If Watergate was a sex scandal, the whole thing looks sloppy, and these memes are tarnished. Careers that rose and fell in Watergate's wake might be reexamined. Even (gasp!) Vietnam. For many reasons, Watergate is seen as an important part of to the national mythology. In today's PoMo language, it is a leading cultural, social, and political narrative.

Anyway, a fascinating documentary was made back in 1992 which explored Watergate as a sex scandal. It is called "The Key To Watergate," (because the producers were quite naturally shocked to discover that the key to the Wells desk had been ignored for so many years) and while it's in six parts, I highly recommend watching them all.

You can start right here by watching Part 1:

If you think "The Key" is interesting, simply follow these links to the rest:

  • Part 1
  • Part 2
  • Part 3
  • Part 4
  • Part 5
  • Part 6
  • Of course, this touches on the whole idea of redrafting rough drafts of history (a favorite subject here).

    Conventional Watergate history is a very rough draft (and IMO a very poor one), but so much "honor" is at stake that the drafters will fight to the death to prevent a redraft.

    Unfortunately, they didn't have bloggers in those days, so no one bothered to ask questions about a little key to an insignificant desk.

    NOTE: Please bear in mind that the title to this post -- "What if they gave a Republican sex scandal and nobody came?" -- is a bit tongue in cheek. Because had the call girl ring aspects of Watergate been known, both parties would have been implicated.

    And Watergate would have been the sex scandal that dared not speak its name.

    MORE: Via Glenn Reynolds, David Bernstein has a great post about the Larry Craig scandal, and the concluding observation touches on the political paradox I discussed above:

    Compared to the every day malfeasance by Senators, accepted as business as usual, I'll take a misdemeanor sex scandal any time.
    In many ways, the old hypocrisy looks better all the time. (I say this despite the fact that it might have caused a sex scandal to be overlooked.)

    UPDATE: My thanks to Clayton Cramer for the link.

    posted by Eric on 09.05.07 at 09:47 AM


    Thanks for posting the clips, great post.

    Pax   ·  September 6, 2007 2:31 AM

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