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Interviews With Jeb Magruder, Carl Bernstein

Aired July 28, 2003 - 20:27   ET


RICHARD NIXON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I have never profited, never profited, from public service. I have earned every cent. I'm not a crook. I have earned everything I've got.


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Well, it all began with a bungled burglary. It ended with the resignation of a president. Did the order for the 1972 break-in of the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate Hotel come all the way from the top?

Nixon's former campaign aide, Jeb Magruder says yes. And he joins us tonight from New York.

Thanks so much for being with us, sir.


ZAHN: First of all, Mr. Magruder, take us back to 30 years ago, when you claimed you overheard a conversation where President Nixon directly ordered the break-in of the Democratic headquarters. Where were you? How did you hear this conversation?

MAGRUDER: Well, I was down in Key Biscayne.

John Mitchell was trying to take a few days off at one of the houses in Key Biscayne that Bebe Rebozo owned. So, I was over at the house on March 30 with about 25 to 30 decision papers. The last one was the Liddy plan to break in to the Watergate. We finally got to it in the afternoon sometime. And Mitchell said: We really don't need this.

By this time, Muskie was out. We knew that McGovern was probably in. And we thought that the election would be won handily, which, of course, we were correct. So he said: Well, call Haldeman and see if we really need to do the Liddy plan. So I called Haldeman. Haldeman said: The president wants it done. Let me talk to John, to John Mitchell. He got on the phone with John. And then, in a few seconds after he talked to Mitchell, the president got on the line and talked to him.

And I could hear his voice distinctly indicating that he wanted the Liddy plan to go ahead. And Mitchell got off the phone and said to me: Jeb, tell Maurice Stans to give $250,000 to Gordon Liddy and let's see what happens.

ZAHN: All right, let me get this straight.


ZAHN: Or are you saying you heard this bleeding through the earpiece of the telephone that Mr. Mitchell was holding?


He and I were -- this was, I think, before the days of the speakerphone. And -- but I was right next to him at a typical patio table outside by the pool. And when the president came on, his voice is very distinct. So it was clear. It was -- I have kidded. It's not like Saddam Hussein who had seven doubles.

ZAHN: Well, let me ask you this, surely you have to understand why many people are skeptical about your story and they find it suspicious that you withhold -- or would withhold this information or these allegations to a point where all four principles involved in this are dead.

MAGRUDER: Well ...

ZAHN: Why did you wait?

MAGRUDER: Well, number one, by the way, Sam Dash, who was a Democratic counsel for the Watergate Committee, agrees completely with me. There were other incidents where the president ordered break-ins to the Daniel Elsworth's psychiatrist office, to the Brookings Institute. He talked about breaking in there.

So this was not an unusual situation. John Dean has agreed that this was a pattern in the White House. So it doesn't bother me that some people who have no idea what happened might say something about it negatively. But that's simply not true.

Now, why did I say it 30 years later? Only because after Watergate, in the beginning, I had -- I was concerned about my future, obviously. We had to worry about prison, and we all hoped that we would get executive clemency or some kind of pardon. That did not occur.

And then I changed careers. I decided I would go into the ministry, and went to Princeton Seminary, and had 16 years as a minister, and then four years as a consultant to churches. And I called it quits after December, and this came up through a PBS documentary that is going to be playing on Wednesday. And they happened to ask the right questions. I had...

ZAHN: All right, let me ask you this, there is no audiotape or no phone log to document this phone call you claimed to have heard. And I have a quote now from a historian, Richard Reeves. And here is what he has to say about your announcement. "It's entirely believable that Nixon ordered the break-in, but I'm not sure I believe the story or the source. Magruder has had so many cuts at the ball. It's astounding to me that each time up to now, he lied about it." Your response?

MAGRUDER: Well, I don't even know Richard Reeves. And he doesn't know me. And, you know, that's kind of what I could call a cheap shot. I depend on people like John Dean, Sam Dash, who really understood what was going on and knew the facts, and this happens to be a fact. It is true. I wouldn't have said it if it wasn't.

ZAHN: In that respect...

MAGRUDER: And by the way, I was never really asked -- I was in my -- in the trial, I was never asked about it. And in the Senate Watergate testimony, I need to go back and look at that, but it was certainly not a major issue then.

ZAHN: We only have just about 20 seconds left. And you talked a little bit about the ministry work you are doing. And I'm just wondering in retrospect now that if you felt that you did have the moral obligation to have come forward with this charge earlier than now?

MAGRUDER: No, I didn't, because I knew it would affect my ministry. And that was a new career. And the president was gone. So I -- I only talked about it a few months ago to the PBS people with that special that's going to air tomorrow night.

ZAHN: Well, we appreciate you joining us tonight, and telling your side of the story. Jeb Magruder, thank you for your time.

MAGRUDER: Thank you.

ZAHN: The two-hour documentary "Watergate Plus 30: Shadow of History" premieres, as Mr. Magruder just said, Wednesday on PBS. It also includes interviews with co-conspirators John Dean and our guest, Mr. Magruder.

"Shadow of History" also features interviews with the reporters who helped bring the Watergate scandal to light, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Carl Bernstein now joins us from our studios in New York. Carl, thanks for being with us.


ZAHN: First of all, no one ever asked Mr. Magruder that question specifically?

BERNSTEIN: That's certainly possible. You know, during the Watergate trial, the prosecutors failed to ask so many important questions, they obviously had botched Watergate from the beginning.

I think that there is something very compelling about Mr. Magruder's account. Obviously, I too would say why the hell didn't you come up with this 30 years earlier and you would have saved a lot of people a lot of trouble? But when Magruder says that President Nixon ordered break-ins, he is certainly telling the truth. You know, Nixon ordered the firebombing of the Brookings Institution. Watergate, the break-in at Watergate was just part of a vast conspiracy directed by the president of the United States, a criminal president, to undermine the electoral process. So it's certainly plausible.

At the same time, you do have to say why in the world would you wait 30 years to reveal this?

ZAHN: Well, you say it is plausible. Do you believe that Richard Nixon directly ordered the break-in of the Democratic headquarters, Carl? You probably spent more hours than anybody else investigating this case.

BERNSTEIN: Again, I find what Mr. Magruder says believable. I find it compelling. I find it more than plausible. And at the same time, I don't know the facts. I mean, I wasn't there.

I think that it's important not to overestimate what this representation means, because the break-in at Watergate was just a small part of a vast conspiracy that the president undertook to really undermine the Constitution of the United States. It was not about a break-in, a single break-in. It was about a pattern of illegal activities involving beating up members of the political opposition physically, stealing their memos, wiretapping political opponents, breaking into offices of psychiatrists, firebombing think tanks.

It is an appalling event in our history. It was directed by the president of the United States, the cover-up was directed by the president of the United States. So it's not too important, but it is a very interesting footnote that Mr. Magruder adds to this. And as I say, I think it is pretty plausible. But why in the world he would wait is utterly beyond me.

ZAHN: Well, as a reporter, I mean, I think that's a pretty good question to ask. And I guess I wonder what you think the answer to that question is, and why there haven't been any leaks over the last 30 years?

BERNSTEIN: Well, I don't think, first of all, that it is about leaks. I think that if Mr. Magruder was the only other person that heard this, aside from Mitchell...

ZAHN: And Sam Dash, he said.

BERNSTEIN: Well, the Sam Dash part is very -- no, that's not what he said. I think he said that Sam Dash is inclined to believe what he said. I don't think...

ZAHN: Exactly. Yes, he said he agreed with his account.

BERNSTEIN: No, I don't think that Sam Dash ever heard this before. You can bet if the counsel to the Watergate committee had heard this, there would have been a different focus of the Urban Committee (ph) hearings.

You know, one of the things about Watergate and one of the things about the Nixon presidency is that it just keeps going. It never ends. There are tapes from the grave, from the president of the United States, far worse than anything we ever heard, anti-Semitic remarks, more break-ins. It's absolutely sui generis in our history, including these continuing revelations. It's one of the reasons that the country is constantly as fascinated by Nixon and by Nixonia, of which Watergate is a huge part.

ZAHN: Carl Bernstein, we always appreciate your perspective. Thanks for spending a little time with us this evening.

BERNSTEIN: Good to be here.

ZAHN: Got to put in a little plug for your book, Carl.


ZAHN: There is a new one coming out, a biography of Hillary Clinton. It will be out next spring. Do you think it will be similar to what she's written in her new book, Carl?

BERNSTEIN: No, I think it will focus to some extent on the omissions and will be a little bit fuller picture and I hope a more rounded picture of a remarkable person.

ZAHN: We'll look forward to that read. Thanks so much, Carl, again.


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