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Chief of Nixon’s plumbers reprises Watergate’s unlearned lessons

So far, the 21st Century has spawned a rich repository of scandals and scoundrels, with many more on the way. Starting in 2002 with the popping of the tech stock bubble, we witnessed a proliferation of corporate stumbles. Now, the animal spirits that drove the housing and credit bubbles promise a fresh supply of stained icons. In and around Congress, politicians and assorted fixers keep falling like the leaves of autumn.

So appropriately enough, the University of St. Thomas School of Law and its allies found the time right, on Wednesday, to replay key elements of the mother of all 20th century scandals: Watergate.

The school recruited a star-studded cast to discuss the ethics of the lawyers involved in the Watergate debacle, which cut short the presidency of Richard M. Nixon.

John Dean, Nixon’s counsel and the government’s star witness in a trial of the president’s top aides, was there. So was Egil “Bud” Krogh, who headed the so-called “plumbers’ unit” that Nixon confidant John Ehrlichman set up to plug leaks from the Department of Defense. They were joined by two Watergate prosecutors: Charles Breyer, now a federal appeals court judge in San Francisco, and Jill Wine-Banks, who heads an education nonprofit in Chicago.

For my money, Krogh was the most intriguing panelist. He was the first Nixon adviser caught up in the Watergate culture to do jail time. His new book presents a less-publicized narrative on the run-up to Watergate. And while Dean and others have been pumping out books on Watergate and related topics for decades, Krogh (helped by his son, Matthew) didn’t get out this book, his first, until last year.

Nixon meets Elvis

Oops. I take that back. Krogh did self-publish an offbeat gem in 1994, one that he admits had absolutely “no redeeming literary or scholarly value, but was fun to write.” Titled “The Day Elvis Met Nixon,” this is the inside story of how Elvis Presley got an audience with President Nixon one day in 1970, hours after the King of Rock’s unexpected knock on Krogh’s door.

His new book, “Integrity: Good People, Bad Choices and Life Lessons from the White House,” 
is brimming over with redeeming value. It seeks to help readers develop moral compasses to guide them through ethical quandaries.

Krogh’s father was an executive at Marshall Field’s in Chicago. When Field’s transferred him to its Seattle department store in 1950, the family moved there. In Seattle, the Krogh family forged close ties with Ehrlichman, then a successful attorney there.

Krogh did a stint as a Navy officer. Then, with Ehrlichman’s help, he got admitted to the University of Washington’s law school. Later, he clerked for Ehrlichman’s law firm. When he got his law degree in 1968, ranking near the top of his class, Ehrlichman was heading for the Nixon White House. He invited Krogh to join him.

“I’m on my way,” said an excited Bud Krogh.

“I wanted to be John Ehrlichman,” Krogh recalled in an interview. “He was bright, extremely eloquent. John was like a member of my family.”

In June of 1971, The New York Times began publishing the Pentagon Papers, the Defense Department’s secret history of the Vietnam War. Former defense analyst Daniel Ellsberg had leaked the documents to the newspaper. Nixon was enraged. He ordered Ehrlichman to gin up a “special investigations unit” to go after Ellsberg.

Krogh, then 31, was awestruck by the power of the presidency and totally loyal to the Nixon administration. He felt a “huge sense of responsibility” to further the cause of national security by helping to nail Ellsberg. Two of the unit’s members, E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, broke into the office of Lewis Fielding, Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, in a fruitless attempt to uncover information that would discredit Ellsberg.

Only later did Krogh learn the worst about the culture that finally brought down the Nixon White House. In a meeting with Ehrlichman and top advisers H.R. Haldeman and Charles Colson called to discuss the Pentagon Papers leak, Nixon had declared: “…we’re up against an enemy, a conspiracy. They’re using any means. We are going to use any means.”

Making amends
Eventually, Krogh recognized he had gone too far. Late in 1973, he pleaded guilty to violating Fielding’s civil rights. He was sentenced to two to six years of jail. He served six months, and remained on unsupervised probation for another two years. After he got out of jail, he sought out Fielding and apologized to him. Ellsberg wrote the foreword to his book.

Krogh lost his law license but was reinstated to the Washington bar in 1980. Today, he operates a one-man law practice in Seattle.

“The jail experience was very good for me,” he says. But it was also unsettling. Once, one of his fellow prisoners asked him: “Would you like to work with me when you get out or are you going to go straight?”

The St. Thomas forum featured a display of memorabilia collected by Mankato attorney and Watergate aficionado Doug Peterson. A banner headline in the Pioneer Press, “Nixon Resigns,” sat beside a stack of Newsweek magazines with cover stories on Watergate, a raft of Nixon campaign buttons and a “Watergate scandal” card game.

What is it about Watergate that still stirs such interest?

Integrity counts
In large part it’s people like Egil Krogh, who see today’s scandals as proof that the country still hasn’t come close to absorbing the implications of Watergate.

“I’m disappointed that so many people in business and government haven’t learned the lessons that were there to be learned 30 years ago,” he says. “Wherever you go to work — a law firm, a business, a government agency — you can’t check your integrity at the door when you go in.”

Krogh also argues that another message from Watergate is the need to curb growing legal moves to penalize journalists who use anonymous sources. He notes that Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were able to pursue successfully the Watergate story largely by tapping such sources.

And he suggests that the President Bush and his aides, by condoning illegal wire-tapping and embracing torture in the name of national security, have been repeating the mistakes made by the Nixon White House.

Krogh wound up the interview with a warning from Spanish philosopher George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

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