Symptomatic of the Dysfunction

It is symptomatic of the dysfunction within the White House that a break-in Nixon explicitly ordered was shelved while one that he never authorized became a mortal threat to his presidency. Haldeman was proud of his highly disciplined staffing system and paper trail for implementing presidential instructions. But the system broke down when it came to waging war on Nixon’s political enemies. In these cases, orders were issued verbally or in code. Sometimes his instructions were ignored; at other times they were exaggerated. People down the chain of command interpreted his wishes according to their own priorities or pressure from third parties. This is what appears to have happened with Watergate. Nixon’s push for actionable intelligence on the Democrats was transmitted through Haldeman to Magruder (via Haldeman’s aide Gordon Strachan) and from Magruder to Liddy. Another line of communication ran from Nixon to Colson to Hunt, back up to Colson, and down to Magruder and Liddy. A third ran upward from Liddy to Magruder to Mitchell. The result of these competing channels of authority was that a man described by Nixon as “a little nuts” was able to build his own fantasies around the supposed wishes of his superiors. “I mean he just isn’t well screwed on, is he?” Nixon said of Liddy, after learning of his activities in the Watergate. “No, but he was under pressure, apparently, to get more information,” replied Haldeman. “As he got more pressure, he pushed the people harder.”

King Richard, Michael Dobbs