Friday, June 17, 2022

Recalling My Watergate Connections

Assuming you were alive back on this date 50 years ago—June 17, 1972—do you remember what you were doing that evening or during subsequent days when details of the Watergate break-in, described by presidential press secretary Ron Ziegler as a “third rate burglary,” came to light?

I can’t. And I had the “good fortune” to have encountered some of the principals of the political scandal that rocked and continues to rock the very foundation of our democratic republic.

Some background: In March 1972 I was pursuing a master’s degree in newspaper journalism at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications. For one of my courses the class embarked on a week-long field trip to Miami to cover the presidential primary of both parties.

We rode a bus from Syracuse, stopping, as I recall, in Washington for a briefing by Jeb McGruder, deputy director of CREP, the Committee for the Re-Election of the President. For his involvement in Watergate, McGruder served seven months in federal prison for conspiracy to wiretap, obstruct justice and defraud the United States.

After the briefing our bus trip continued south. I slept most of the way, waking up momentarily as we passed a billboard depicting a Ku Klux Klansman bearing a flaming cross welcoming us to North Carolina.

In Florida I was assigned to follow Congressman John Ashbrook, a conservative from Ohio, who was challenging Richard Nixon’s nomination for a second term, an endeavor on a par with George McGovern’s Quixotic quest in the general election eight months later.

My time trailing Ashbrook was less than exhilarating. I joined some classmates and we wangled a ride on a Goodyear blimp for the next day. Or so we thought. We were pre-empted by the film crew for Walter Cronkite. Uncle Walter wanted some local background film for CBS’s primary night coverage. I never got another shot at a blimp trip, though I did once ride in a helicopter, but I digress.

Unlike many of today’s journalists I was not inspired to choose my profession by Woodward and Bernstein, the youthful Washington Post reporters who won a Pulitzer Prize by “following the money” to unravel the mysteries of Watergate and the presidency of Richard Nixon. I had chosen my career path more than 18 months before the Watergate break-in.

That path took me to Washington in February 1972 for another journalism class. I interviewed White House reporters on the dangers of pack journalism. I briefly met Ron Ziegler who passed me onto one of his nondescript aides.

It was at the end of that visit that I encountered the man himself. As I was walking the driveway from the West Wing toward Pennsylvania Avenue I heard the sound of people running. I turned to my left to see about half a dozen men surrounding a man who had come out of the Executive Office Building. He was briskly making his way toward the White House. Though it was winter he wore no overcoat. His eyes locked onto mine, he smiled and waved. I did not return Richard Nixon’s greeting.

After graduating I began my newspaper career at The New Haven Register. I profiled Ron Sarasin, a Republican state legislator trying to unseat seven-term Democratic Congressman John Monagan. Aided by Nixon’s coattails Sarasin won. 

Some 35 years later I ran into the former three-term congressman and subsequent Washington lobbyist at a Food Marketing Institute conference. Mutually bewildered to see one another, I explained my being there as editor and publisher of Chain Store Age. He was there as first spouse, his wife having recently been installed as president and CEO of the supermarket industry association.

Like many, I followed the developing Watergate story through newspaper and television reports. I saw only a smattering of the televised Senate Watergate hearings during the summer of 1973.

Gilda, on the other hand, watched all of them as she was between jobs and awaiting the start of courses to become a registered nurse. To pass the time she crocheted what we call her Watergate quilt.

For the Labor Day weekend break in the hearings The Register secured an interview with one of the Select Committee’s members, Connecticut Senator Lowell Weicker, an outspoken Republican critic of Nixon. The interview would take place Friday afternoon at Weicker’s home in Greenwich.

There were few reporters in the newsroom that hot, languorous Friday afternoon. For a reason never explained to me, I was chosen to conduct both the interview and take pictures of the senator and his family. 

I had to be there by 3 pm. Weicker’s home was almost an hour from our newsroom. I floored my Chevy Vega, fortunately not hitting any traffic. My car had no air conditioning. I sweated profusely from trepidation and the near 90 degrees and high humidity weather. I looked forward to sitting in Weicker’s air conditioned home.

Not to be! This scion of a co-founder of the Squibb pharmaceutical company had a colonial style home with NO AIR CONDITIONING!

The interview/photo shoot over, I raced back to New Haven to file the story that evening. Weicker had not related to me anything he had not already publicly stated about Nixon and Watergate, with one prominent exception: He categorically rejected any suggestion that he would launch a presidential campaign in 1976 based on the fame he had garnered from his service on the Watergate committee. My story began with that pronouncement. The Associated Press picked up the story and ran it nationally. 

Weicker was true to his word. He did not run for president in 1976. He waited until 1980 to seek the GOP nomination. Ronald Reagan won it and the presidency. 

About three years ago Gilda and I stopped in New Haven for the best pizza anywhere, at Sally’s Apizza on Wooster Street. I spotted Weicker sitting at a table at the far end of the restaurant. Weicker, for those not familiar with him, is an easy person to spot. He is about six and a half feet tall. I was about to walk over to exchange greetings when I noticed him exiting from a side door. 

I was more lucky meeting up with Ron Ziegler in his post-Watergate career. Ziegler headed the National Association of Chain Drug Stores. He used his political connections to bring domestic and international politicians and commentators to the retail drug industry’s national convention. Vendors used their clout to bring in top notch entertainment. 

The year I attended the NACDS conference in 1992 speakers and entertainers included former and future Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, former Nixon speechwriter and New York Times columnist William Safire, Bob Hope and Liza Minnelli.  

Impressive. But the real reason I attended was the conference was held in Maui. Gilda and I had no qualms enjoying one of the perks of my publishing office.  

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