Thursday, 3 October 2019

The Secret Life of Donald Segretti's Shirt - Umberto Tosi

Segretti flushed out of his Watergate hole, 1973
The more things change..., as the French say.... Today it's deja vu Trump-Watergate: I see a kaleidoscope of patterns each formed from the same little pieces of coloured glass.  Flashback: There is a scene in the 1976 film All the President's Men in which Washington Post investigative reporter Carl Bernstein (played by Dustin Hoffman) interviews then young, Nixon campaign operative Donald Segretti (played by Robert Walden) at the latter's yacht-side apartment in L.A.'s trendy Marina del Rey. The scene portrays Segretti as something of a regretful dupe recruited by a former University of Southern California buddy and Republican "dirty trickster" to head an undercover squad of self-described "ratfuckers'" to slime Democratic candidates leading up to the 1972 US Presidential election. As revealed in one of the one of the lesser known, but nastier footnotes to the Watergate scandal, it turned out that Segretti, had done a very effective job of skewing the Democratic Party primary process to Nixon's advantage.

Nixon stumping CA for US Senate, 1950
In the movie scene, Segretti whines that all he did was "nickel-and-dime stuff," He asserted that he "never did anything illegal... I'm a lawyer, Carl. I'm a damn good lawyer, and I'll probably end up going to jail and being disbarred... I don't know what I did that was so goddamn awful." Indeed, Segretti was disgraced and did go to jail for lying to investigators, albeit for a mere four-and-a-half months. That was a lesser sentence than many of the 48 Nixon Administration officials (plus various campaign associates, including Chapin) who served time in federal lockups in the aftermath of that scandal. Segretti was being modest. His undercover "dirty tricks" on behalf of the infamous Committee to Re-elect the President (CRP - nicknamed "Creep") arguably knocked 1972 Democratic front runner Senator Edmund Muskie Sixtus
(D-Maine) out of contention for the nomination. Nixon's 1972 reelection was far from the shoo-in that it would seem in hindsight.  Polls favoured Muskie, a popular, moderate liberal, anti-Vietnam-War, environmentalist to beat Nixon in the presidential election that November.

Seasoned anti-corruption prosecutors call Segretti's fallback the "so-what defense," as in yeah, I did it; so what are you going to do about it... Nixon and his cronies blustered self-serving litanies - but nowhere to the extent of Donald Trump, his cohorts, who have made criminality-in-plain sight their theme song, portraying them to gullible followers as righteous.
Newsweek cover, 30 April 1973
Sound familiar? Donald Trump and his cohorts are in hot water for similarly underhanded attempts to mess with the election process (along with Trump's long list of other corruption and misconduct scandals) - smearing a potential Democratic nominee whom Trump apparently fears most. But Nixon, at least bought American. Nixon was a good old-fashioned American crook, thus beholden to no power-hungry, foreign potentate. Trump on the other hand can be compared to an international gangster. His operations and collaborators are global. His financial and political entanglements with the Kremlin have become legendary since the Russian's cyber-leveraged his 2016 presidential campaign. Now he's been caught attempting to blackmail Ukraine into smearing his political opponents and interfere in the 2020 election, as well as twisting arms and doing shady deals with other international leaders.

Double deja vu for me: I crossed paths with Segretti myself during that Watergate period. This was during my brief days as a stringer for Newsweek Magazine's Los Angeles Bureau, then headed by front-line, civil rights journalism icon Karl Fleming, albeit briefly. The Watergate storm was only beginning to gather during late 1972 early '73. Most of the major news outlets - including the New York Times, Time, and  - were still giving Watergate lukewarm coverage while WaPo's daring duo Woodward and Bernstein sloughed ahead, "following the money" (a path Trump's investigators have found heavily obstructed thus far.)  Fortunately, Newsweek, then owned by the Post, had a green light. The L.A. bureau, however, was on the periphery of the growing scandal in Washington.

I never in a million years expected to join what was to become the great Nixon boar hunt. Like a lot of my friends, I  never believed the Watergate story would get very far, given Tricky Dick's landslide 1972 re-election, his extraordinary luck, weaseling virtuosity. But I was no investigative reporter. I spent most of those days holed up at my home office in the Hollywood Hills back then, pounding at my old Underwood typewriter on a rambling, "Great American" novel, having left the Los Angeles Times after eleven years to seek what I hoped would be new horizons. Stringing was a moonlighting thing for me. Stringers were at the bottom of the now-decimated news gathering food chain. (The etymology of the term varies, including that it harks to the nineteenth century when newspapers measured stories with lengths of string and paid contributors accordingly.)

I was well aware of how low stringers rank on the journalism food chain, but I needed the work back then. (In fact, "stringing" survives today, feeding video, images and information into online news sites.) The old print news magazines were regular, well staffed news production lines in those days, as were newspaper city rooms. In those days, Newsweek stringers filed their reports with their local bureau chief who compiles and sent a master file to the magazine's main editorial office  (in New York, for Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, Time, etc.) There, the editors - all men until 60 women staffers sued the company in 1970 - stirred everything into the finished news summaries poured into the columns of the weekly edition. There were a few byline writers, but the rest of us fed the pipeline.

I got my fifteen minutes on the Watergate front line nonetheless. My contact at the bureau, then staffer Peter S. Greenberg (now CBS News travel editor) set me to hunting Donald Segretti. It was a name that had only recently come up in the Watergate investigation which had unearthed systematic Nixon election nastiness and illegalities well beyond the the Watergate break in - including couriers with suitcases full of dark money, enemies lists and campaign irregularities in which Segretti had an active role. Segretti, it seemed, had forged incriminating letters on stationery stolen from the campaigns of leading Democratic presidential campaign contenders and distributed them to the press. Like the Nixon-gang's burglary of Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate apartments itself, the Chapin-Segretti operation - paid for in illegally obtained campaign cash - was a low tech version of the Kremlin's hacking of Democratic Party computers and distribution of embarrassing emails through Wikileaks to help Trump flip the Electoral College in 2016.

Sen. Edmund Muskie (D-ME) 1980
Most notable were the "secret" Segretti-crafted letters purporting to contain ethnic slurs by Muskie - against New Hampshire French Canadians - the "Canuck letters" - as well a later letters accusing the late Vice President Hubert Humphrey of sexual misconduct and accusing then fellow candidate Sen. Henry (Scoop) Jackson (D-WA) of fathering an illegitimate child with a teenage girl. The fallout contributed to Muskie withdrawing his candidacy, opening the way for the Democrats to nominate Sen. George McGovern - a stalwart, war hero, antiwar liberal whom Nixon - facing an unfortunately less popular Democrat than Muskie whom his dirty tricksters had helped eliminiate -- summarily crushed in November, 1972.

Suddenly the select committee investigating the Watergate affair wanted to question Segretti. Just as suddenly Segretti disappeared. We were tipped that he lived in Marina del Rey, but had not been seen there in weeks. I drove out there to search for clues and report back. I knew the place well - snug with then becoming ultra trendy Venice Beach - via an L.A. Times colleague and his German wife who lived in one of its apartments and used to take me sailing in the harbor. I combed the docks asking resident, attendants, bistro and bartenders anything they could give me on Segretti. I found his apartment, but no Segretti there.

My "hottest" lead came from a local dry cleaner who informed me that indeed, Segretti had been dropping off and picking up his shirts there all along, establishing that he was hiding in plain sight nearby. At least we knew now that even if Segretti wasn't at his apartment, he was lurking nearby and had not skipped town as many had thought. Sunglasses on and pencil perched. I continued this semi-farcical, sunnny Southern California seashore sleuthing for a couple of weeks - I don't recall all the details - duly filing next-to-useless memos - until Segretti, flushed out, got served and was off to DC to face the music. I don't know if all this occurred before or after Bernstein's interview, probably before. I went back to pounding away on my novel. One ancillary lesson in retrospect is that one rarely knows the significance of one's deeds, particularly when it comes to writing -- in my case be it that particular novel I never finished, or those stringer memos I filed to help pay my bills, or something else entirely. One should just keep writing and hitting those deadlines, external or self-imposed.

None of Nixon's subsequently exposed chicanery surprised me, only that he would ultimately to go down for it. We didn't need for Congress to find a legalistic "smoking gun" to arrive at the common sense conclusion - good enough for voting - that he - like Trump today - was guilty as hell.

Anybody who knew California politics back then figured Nixon to be a thoroughgoing scoundrel - having watched his climb from suburban Whittier to the the vice presidency, then as the candidate defeated by John F. Kennedy, then, finally, to the White House. He first endeared himself to the right, and attracted big money conservative backers by his red-scare smears of local California opponents. He had been a counsel for the notorious, McCarthy-era, House Unamerican Activities Committee in Congress, then became Dwight Eisenhower's, scandal-dodging, two-term running mate, failed 1960 GOP presidential candidate and finally President in 1968.

Yale Historian Timothy Snyder in Lviv, Ukraine, 2014
We knew Nixon in L.A. like New Yorkers know - as an amoral operator who stops at nothing and gets away with everything. Trump, of course, swaggers a lot more than sweaty Nixon. He compromises less. (Trump is dismantling environmental protections, whereas Nixon presided over the establishment of the EPA.) Trump makes a virtue of public vulgarity, while Nixon kept his cussing, corruption and bullying under wraps, perhaps because propriety - even of the hypocritical kind - was expected of public figures back then. Whatever the case, Nixon, like Donald Trump today, seemed invincible until he was not.

Most of us were not Woodward and Bernstein back then. News people tended to scurry around the Watergate scandal lke ants at a picnic. But there were a lot more journalists in the 1970s than there are gainfully employed in the so-called information age of the 21st century.  Now only a handful of news organizations remain as sources of real news that everyone else discusses - WaPo, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, a few magazines, eg., Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair, the Daily Beast -- too few. Yale historian Timothy D. Snyder, author of On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, sounded an alarm about that during a recent interview by MSNBC's Rachel Maddow about the rise of international authoritarianism and how Russia has encouraged U.S. politics to drift away from the principles and accountability of democracy to something more accepting Kremlin's type of oligarchic government corruption."What if another Trump happens ten or twenty years from now when there will be even fewer journalists than we have now? That's been the trend," he observed. Indeed.

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Due to having artificial intraocular lens implants, Umberto Tosi is technically a cyborg. He is the author of Sometimes Ridiculous, Ophelia Rising, Milagro on 34th Street and Our Own. His short stories have been published in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. He was contributing writer to Forbes, covering the Silicon Valley 1995-2004. Prior to that, he was an editor and staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and its Sunday magazine, West. He was also the editor of San Francisco Magazine. He has written more than 300 articles for newspapers and magazines, online and in print. He joined Authors Electric in May 2015 and has contributed to several of its anthologies, including Another Flash in the Pen and One More Flash in the Pen. He has four adult children - Alicia Sammons, Kara Towe, Cristina Sheppard and Zoƫ Tosi - nine grandchildren, three great grandchildren. He resides in Chicago. (He can be contacted at Umberto3000@gmail.com






5 comments:

Sandra Horn said...

Wow! What a post! You are an uncover (rather than undercover)agent, Umberto. A fascinating insight into the murky waters of politics, parts of which are mirrored here now. We've had more than enough of 'blustered self-serving litanies'. Thank you for taking the lid off. We feel your pain.

Susan Price said...

We certainly do feel it, as we are presently saddled with mini-Trump, who 'seems invincible' mostly because no one can get past the barrage of lies. How I am looking forward to the time when 'he is not.'

Jan Needle said...

Fortunately, Sandra's done most of my work for me. What a delightful sidelight on world politics today. Can't say it's nice to realise just how similarly corrupt and vile many modern politicians are to many of yesterday's, but the current slime trail will hopefully end in the same place. As I type I see a sea of swirling faces - Johnson, Trump, Cummings to name but three. How long can it go on? (Berlusconi is apparently made entirely of plastic and transistors now, fuelled by sildenifil, but he ain't dead yet!) Thanks Umberto.

Griselda Heppel said...

Exciting, fascinating post! I see you now in sunglasses and unobtrusive clothing, haunting the beach bars and cafes of southern california, watchful as a hawk over the top of the newspaper you pretend to be reading. Montalbano of Southern California, only without the spaghetti and Sicilian pastries.
Very interesting to know that exposing Nixon's guilt was no foregone conclusion and that the general view was that he was powerful enough to get away with it. The world desperately needs a whole lot more Woodward and Bernstein teams today - and not just in the US.

Bill Kirton said...

I can add nothing to the admiration and enthusiasm expressed by the others, Umberto. What a post! Thanks so much (even though you have rather dented my hope that the goodies may one day beat the baddies).