Novak lauded Thompson's "cool reaction to crises" as Watergate counsel -- but he was Nixon mole

››› ››› MATT GERTZ

In the August 2 edition of his syndicated column, discussing "a little joke about Jeri Thompson" that former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-TN) recently told when he introduced her as "my campaign manager" before quickly adding, "oh, I mean my wife," Robert Novak asserted: "That Thompson made light of this at his fundraiser reflects the cool reaction to crises he has displayed as GOP counsel for the Watergate investigation." Novak did not note that, during his tenure in that position, Thompson leaked key information to the office of then-President Richard Nixon, informing the White House counsel for Watergate matters that the Watergate investigating committee was aware that White House conversations were taped. Thompson admitted to the leak in his 1975 memoir.

In his 1975 book, At That Point in Time: The Inside Story of the Senate Watergate Committee (Quadrangle/The New York Times Book Co.), Thompson wrote that after he learned that Nixon aide Alexander Butterfield had revealed to Watergate investigators the existence of a taping system that recorded Oval Office conversations, "[e]ven though I had no authority to act for the committee, I decided to call [White House counsel for Whitewater matters] Fred Buzhardt at home," to ensure that "the White House was fully aware of what was to be disclosed so that it could take appropriate action."

From At That Point in Time (Pages 86-87):

After sleeping late on Sunday, I was back at my desk that afternoon. I had two prime considerations. First, I wanted to be certain that the tapes were not a trap for the committee or that there was a significant bit of missing information that we lacked; experience had taught me that matters of this importance do not usually fall into your lap without more complications that are immediately apparent. Second, if our information was legitimate, I wanted to be sure that the White House was fully aware of what was to be disclosed so that it could take appropriate action. Legalisms aside, it was inconceivable to me that the White House could withhold the tapes once their existence was made known. I believed it would be in everyone's interest if the White House realized, before making any public statements, the probable position of both the majority and minority of the Watergate committee. Even though I had no authority to act for the committee, I decided to call Fred Buzhardt at home. Buzhardt was the only White House staff member with whom I had had any substantial contact. He had been unassuming and straightforward in his dealings with me. He never tried to enlist me in any White House strategy, to suggest that I relay confidential information to him, or to do any of the things that were probably assumed by many of the so-called sophisticates in Washington.

"Fred," I said, "I hate to bother you on a Sunday."

"Oh, that's all right," he replied. "I'm getting used to it."

"Fred, the committee is aware of the fact that every conversation in the White House is on tape. I know you realize the significance of this. It's not my place to give you advice, but I think that if I were you I'd start making plans immediately to get those tapes together and get them up here as soon as possible."

There was a short pause. Then Buzhardt said, "Well, I think that is significant, if it is true. We'll get on it tomorrow."

Thompson further wrote that at the time he believed that the tapes contained "nothing incriminating," but rather, that Nixon "was orchestrating the whole affair, and had intended that the tapes be discovered." From At That Point in Time (Pages 84-85):

On Friday night, after hearing [Watergate Committee deputy minority counsel Don] Sanders' story, I noted in my journal that the discovery of the tapes could either prove Nixon's innocence or lead to his impeachment. I voiced this opinion to [Sen. Howard] Baker [R-TN], and it led to a lengthy, speculative discussion of the significance of the tapes. Baker thought it inconceivable that Nixon would have taped his conversations if they contained anything incriminating. I agreed. I subscribed to the general theory about Nixon -- whether you agreed or disagreed with his policies or his motives, he was above all a consummate politician who would never put himself in an inextricable position. The more I thought about what had occurred, the more I considered the possibility that Butterfield had been sent to us as part of a strategy: the president was orchestrating the whole affair and had intended that the tapes be discovered. Then he would produce the tapes, or perhaps play them publicly; there would be nothing incriminating, and [former White House counsel] John Dean's testimony would be utterly discredited. It was some time before my theory -- and I was not alone in holding it -- proved totally wrong.

In retrospect it is apparent that I was subconsciously looking for a way to justify my faith in the leader of my country and my party, a man who was undergoing a violent attack from the news media, which I thought had never given him fair treatment in the past. I was looking for a reason to believe that Richard M. Nixon, President of the United States, was not a crook.

While Thompson claims that Buzhardt never attempted "to suggest that I relay confidential information to him," Boston Globe staff writer Michael Kranish reported in a July 4 article that Thompson's July 15, 1973, conversation with Buzhardt was "one of many Thompson leaks to the Nixon team, according to a former investigator for Democrats on the committee, Scott Armstrong, who remains upset at Thompson's actions." As Media Matters for America has documented, in an interview with Kranish, Armstrong asserted that "Thompson was a mole for the White House," who was "working hammer and tong to defeat the investigation of finding out what happened to authorize Watergate and find out what the role of the president was." The Globe further reported that, when the paper asked about him "being a Nixon mole," Thompson did not deny the charge, but asserted, "I'm glad all of this has finally caused someone to read my Watergate book, even though it's taken them over thirty years."

The website for Thompson's presidential exploratory committee, like Novak's column, does not mention Thompson's leak to Nixon, asserting only, "He gained national attention for leading the line of inquiry that revealed the audio-taping system in the White House Oval Office."

From Novak's August 2 column:

Speaking at his $1,000-a-ticket fundraiser at the J.W. Marriott Hotel in downtown Washington on Monday night, Fred Thompson began by introducing "my campaign manager -- oh, I mean my wife." That little joke about Jeri Thompson reveals how the prospective Republican presidential candidate regards the attack on his intelligent, beautiful wife.

As the actor-lawyer-politician nears his long-awaited official announcement, Mrs. Thompson is slurred as a "trophy wife" -- privately by her husband's opponents for the Republican nomination and publicly by the media. Even Thompson supporters grumble that Jeri, 40, is too alluring, that she should modify the way she dresses and that, even then, she should not practice her skills as a professional political operative on behalf of her 64-year-old husband.

That Thompson made light of this at his fundraiser reflects the cool reaction to crises he has displayed as GOP counsel for the Watergate investigation, as U.S. senator from Tennessee and in many dramatic roles (most recently, district attorney of Manhattan). That he is in a commanding position for the nomination may explain the extraordinary attention paid to his wife.

Posted In
Government, Ethics
Robert Novak
2008 Elections
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