The White House Plumbers: The Seven Weeks That Led to Watergate and Doomed Nixon's Presidency
“Krogh had no idea at the start of how far he would fall. Perhaps if he’d had some inkling of the ethical and moral deficiencies in two of his first team members, G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt, he might have been able to foresee what was to come.”
The movie tagline for Jaws 2 warned viewers: “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water . . .” Perhaps we need a similar warning about Watergate books. Now, slightly more than a half-century past that infamous break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Office Building, comes the latest of the scandal’s memoirs: The White House Plumbers: The Seven Weeks That Led to Watergate and Doomed Nixon’s Presidency, by the father-son team of Egil “Bud” Krogh and Matthew Krogh.
Though it may be the latest memoir in time, it nevertheless ties in to perhaps the earliest event setting things in motion that culminated with the actual break-in and the downfall of the Nixon presidency: the September 1971 burglary of the office in Beverly Hills of Dr. Lewis Fielding, psychiatrist to Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg.
In The White House Plumbers, Egil “Bud” Krogh and his son tell the story of the White House Special Investigations Unit (the “SIU”), better known as the White House plumbers, that was tasked with finding and plugging leaks in the Nixon administration. The SIU was originally formed to look into ramifications of Ellsberg leaking the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times, but its mandate was expanded to include leaks regarding the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks with Russia. Later, the mandate was further expanded to investigate whether the Kennedy administration had been involved in the 1963 assassination of South Vietnam’s President Diem.
Bud Krogh is one of the lesser known malefactors from the Nixon administration’s corruption, though he owns up to his own culpability for Nixon’s ultimate downfall. Krogh had followed his mentor and father figure John Ehrlichman from law practice in Seattle to Washington, D.C., to serve as assistant to Ehrlichman as counsel to the president. Not long after his arrival, Ehrlichman assigned him the role of leading the SIU.
Krogh had no idea at the start of how far he would fall. Perhaps if he’d had some inkling of the ethical and moral deficiencies in two of his first team members, G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt, he might have been able to foresee what was to come. With the addition of those two, though, the die was cast. From there it a quick slide down a slippery slope of abysmally bad decisions to disgrace and, ultimately, disbarment and prison.
As the authors explain: “A combination of youthful naivete, ambition, loyalty, and a military sense of duty—each a virtue in the right proportion—was his [Egil’s] undoing when mixed with the rarer elements of a career in the White House against the fever-pitched backdrop of the Vietnam War.”
Though the elder Krogh passed away in 2020, this book stands as his mea culpa for what he considered to be his role in an event that inevitably led to the Watergate affair. The authors write that “the burglary of Dr. Fielding’s office constituted the most extreme and unconstitutional covert action taken to that date, setting the stage for the downfall of the Nixon presidency.”
This is an interesting read, though a basic knowledge of the Watergate affair is helpful in fully understanding the events portrayed and how they fit into the bigger picture. There is one glaring gap in the narrative, however. Upon leaving the White House and being sworn in as undersecretary of the Department of Transportation, the authors leap forward to Bud’s resignation, indictment, and decision to plead guilty.
The extent of explanation for what happened during that period of months is to say that “the ice cracked open and I fell through.” How the ice cracked open and what caused him to fall through remains a mystery, at least in this book.
A prior version of this book was originally published in 2007 under the title Integrity: Good People, Bad Choices, and Life Lessons from the White House, a somewhat on-the-nose encapsulation of its theme. Matthew Krogh asserts that, while the theme of the prior version focused on personal atonement for his father, it shifted with the current version to the question of “why one might end up searching for atonement. . . .” (emphasis in original). The answer, he says, is “a loss of integrity.”
The remainder of the book, then, is a study on how integrity can be lost one small step at a time until it’s too late to realize they add up to a giant step. And “if you compromise your integrity, you allow a little piece of your soul to slip through your hands. Integrity, like trust, is all to easy to lose, all too difficult to restore.”