Watergate, S.J.: Three Jesuits and the downfall of a president
The Eastern Point Retreat House in Gloucester, Mass., in the 1970s was ordinary in its accommodations, but striking for its setting—situated at the ocean’s edge, where a narrow path reached out to an enormous rock, which rugged souls could mount while a soft or angry sea crashed around and beneath them. It was a good place for Jesuits to pray and to ponder God’s grace, evil and American politics.
By the spring of 1973, the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C., had become a sensation but not yet an obsession. It made headlines beginning in January, after President Richard M. Nixon had been re-elected by a landslide. The Watergate burglars, who had been arrested on June 17, 1972, were found guilty; the president’s top aides, H. R. Haldeman and John D. Ehrlichman, and Attorney General Richard Kleindienst resigned; and General Alexander M. Haig Jr. was appointed White House chief of staff.
A young New York Province Jesuit scholastic on retreat at Gloucester at the time, Frank Herrmann, was walking along the ocean shore, when an older Jesuit came touring by on a bike, saw Mr. Herrmann, stopped and introduced himself as Bob Drinan. Mr. Herrmann was impressed; most famous people simply assume you know who they are. When the conversation turned to President Nixon, Father Robert Drinan was quick to reply, “We’re going to get that bastard.”
In truth, Father Drinan was not yet ready to move for impeachment; and, as the controversy progressed, Father Drinan, who had learned that he was on President Nixon’s “enemies list,” described the impeachment in an interview with the The National Catholic Reporter as “a way to clear the air” and said he “hoped the president could be vindicated.” But Father Drinan also saw himself as a “moral architect,” a voice for those silent citizens who lacked the inclination or the nerve to speak out against a government’s abuse of power.
As dean of Boston College Law School, he had been active in the civil rights movement; and as the Vietnam War progressed, he saw it as both unjust and immoral. A trip to South Vietnam in 1969 with a study group of eight religious and civic leaders, focusing on human rights and the treatment of prisoners, “galvanized” him, he told The New Republic, to work for honest government. Vietnam, he found, was torturing its dissidents, and in the United States a State Department official had lied to him about it. His response was to run for Congress in 1970.
Father Drinan saw himself as a “moral architect,” a voice for those silent citizens who lacked the inclination or the nerve to speak out against a government’s abuse of power.
On the night of July 26, 1973, Father Drinan sat late at his desk, which was covered with press clippings. Some were from a series of articles by Seymour Hersh in The New York Times, including a report that the Pentagon admitted to 3,360 secret bombing raids on Cambodia in 1969 and 1970 and that it had destroyed the records to cover up the missions. He dictated a two-page memo to his staff explaining that his conscience called him to file a resolution to impeach the president. Yes, there were other reasons, including the plumbers’ invasion of Watergate. But for Father Drinan the illegal secret bombing of Cambodia was the reason he would stand before the House of Representatives on July 31 and say: “Mr. Speaker, with great reluctance I have come to the conclusion that the House of Representatives should initiate impeachment proceedings against the president.” He was particularly proud that he could make that historic speech, the first call for impeachment, on the feast of St. Ignatius Loyola.
“Morally, Drinan had a good case,” wrote House majority leader Thomas P. O’Neill, known as Tip, in his memoirs, “but politically, he damn near blew it.” The House was not ready to back impeachment, and Mr. O’Neill had to strike a deal with the minority leader, Gerald Ford, to keep Father Drinan’s resolution from coming up for a vote.
The View From 56th Street
America’s first editorial on the subject of the growing Watergate scandal, on Sept. 9, 1972, summarized events since the arrest of the five Watergate burglars on June 17 and warned that if no one were indicted, many citizens would conclude that politics had blocked the prosecution. In the following issue, the magazine’s “Washington Front” correspondent, Edward Glynn, S.J., compared the Watergate affair to a spicy stew that had been sitting on the back burner all summer. By May 5, 1973, the editorial board was hitting hard. This is not mere “bungling malfeasance,” but a “sinister strategy overseen by some highly placed administration men whose faces, at this writing, are still in the shadows.” The White House has been “shielding those faces from the light.”
For Father Drinan, the illegal secret bombing of Cambodia was the reason he would stand before the House of Representatives on July 31 and say: “Mr. Speaker, with great reluctance I have come to the conclusion that the House of Representatives should initiate impeachment proceedings against the president.”
During the spring and summer, America’s editorial writers continued Father Glynn’s use of metaphor: a “giant cyclorama that grows ever more crowded” (5/5), “a huge darksome bird of prey hovering over the heads of us all” (the column Of Many Things, 5/12), the “fiery poisoned shirt that Hercules could neither endure nor tear off” (8/18) and both a web and an iceberg (6/15/74). A steady theme was “the fundamental danger is a pattern of power exercised in high places of total disregard of law,” characterized by an absolute righteousness that then covers up the truth through “public scorn and contempt heaped on distinguished newspapers” (5/12/73).
As if in anticipation of Father Drinan’s speech in Congress, a two-page editorial in America on July 21 took the form of a homily delivered in the White House. “God’s word is a two-edged sword,” it begins, and the role of religion in society is twofold: “to canonize and to criticize, to support society but also to judge it.” The editors believed that Watergate represented a new kind of political corruption: “American politics has known before men who abused positions of power for private gain. The Watergate conspiracy betrayed the public trust in more deadly fashion. It stole our birthright.”
Enter John McLaughlin, S.J.
Both Robert Drinan and John McLaughlin were members of the New England Province of the Society of Jesus, wrote for America and, at different stages, opposed elements of the Vietnam War. They ran for Congress in the same year—Father Drinan for the House from Boston and Father McLaughlin for the Senate from Rhode Island. Having lost his Senate race as a Republican, Father McLaughlin went to the Nixon White House as a speechwriter. If anyone believed that all Jesuits, having been molded from the same spiritual clay, shared the same mind-set or lifestyle, Drinan versus McLaughlin was a rich case study.
Born in Providence, R.I., in 1927, John McLaughlin entered the Society of Jesus after graduating from LaSalle Academy and, after completing the ordinary Jesuit course of studies at that time, was ordained in 1959. At Boston College he earned master’s degrees in English and philosophy. He then taught high school, earned a doctorate in communications at Columbia University and became an editor at America in the late 1960s, where he published an article criticizing the bombing strategy in Vietnam. He also gave lectures on sexual morality. When he left America, the editor in chief, Donald Campion, S.J., declined to tell The New York Times why, though he described him as a man “who has a way with words in a baroque way—you don’t know quite what they mean, but they sort of stun you.”
America’s first editorial on the subject of the growing Watergate scandal, on Sept. 9, 1972, summarized events since the arrest of the five Watergate burglars on June 17 and warned that if no one were indicted, many citizens would conclude that politics had blocked the prosecution.
Patrick Buchanan, then a White House adviser, brought Father McLaughlin to the White House as an assistant speechwriter and “resident Jesuit,” a priestly advocate for the Nixon administration. He took an apartment in the Watergate Hotel, gave his blessing to the 1972 Christmas bombing of Hanoi, defended the president’s obscenities on the tapes as “emotional drainage” and told CBS News that Mr. Nixon was “the greatest moral leader in the last third of this century.” When the president insisted that there would be no more tapes released to anyone, Father McLaughlin explained that according to a theological analysis of the transcripts, they were neither amoral nor immoral and that the president had acquitted himself with honor during these discussions. He described Senator Hugh Scott’s concern about the tapes as “erroneous, unjust” and containing elements of hypocrisy. To Father McLaughlin, Representative Peter Rodino, who led the House Judiciary Committee’s investigation of the Nixon White House, was a “crude political tactician.”
Father McLaughlin was a Republican attack dog, picking up where former Vice President Spiro Agnew, who had resigned on Oct. 10, 1973, amid a bribery scandal, had left off. On Oct. 20, in what became known as the Saturday Night Massacre, President Nixon fired the Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox; and Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus resigned in protest. Three days later, 44 Watergate-related bills were introduced in Congress, including 22 that called for an impeachment investigation.
Against this background Father McLaughlin defended the president in a series of radio and television talk show appearances in the Boston area. In one 53-minute radio encounter, he argued that the special prosecutor had “provoked his firing” by rejecting a reasonable compromise when Mr. Nixon refused to release tapes that were “private.” He compared the investigation to the Spanish Inquisition and said all the charges of “abuse of power” and maladministration were vague and weak and that, while Mr. Nixon had made mistakes, all presidents had made mistakes and pursuing all these charges would weaken future presidents.
Father McLaughlin’s basic argument, often repeated, was that Mr. Nixon had not committed a crime, and impeachment required a crime. Father Drinan, a member of the House Judiciary Committee that would address the impeachment case, had studied that question and concluded, with the committee, that no crime was required for impeachment.
The display of two battling Jesuits challenged the Washington press. Father Drinan had decided that when Father McLaughlin barked, he would not bite back; but the Los Angeles Times national correspondent Jack Nelson simulated a debate by bringing together two separate interviews in “Two Jesuits at Odds Over Nixon” (10/10/74). Father McLaughlin compared the House Judiciary Committee to the novel Lord of the Flies and charged Father Drinan with a “rape of justice” and with having characterized Mr. Nixon’s policies as “Hitlerite genocide.”
Father Drinan replied, “Never said it,” and blew up at Mr. Nelson: “If [ Father McLaughlin] had any goddamn sense of decency, he would not misinterpret my position.... But don’t quote me on that, I don’t want to have anything to do with this. I only talked to you [Mr. Nelson] because I thought you wanted to talk about impeachment.”
Responding to questions about lifestyle, Father Drinan refused to say why he wore the Roman collar, although he had previously told the press that he had only one suit or that he wore it to get attention. He lived in one room in the Jesuit community at Georgetown University, with a bathroom down the hall, and turned in half his salary to the Society of Jesus for the room. Father McLaughlin said his Watergate suite was less luxurious than many Jesuit rooms, did not want to “trade off the collar” and would not disclose his salary, reported to be $30,000 a year—the equivalent of more than $150,000 in 2014.
The Brothers Haig
The forced resignations of John Ehrlichman and H. R. Haldeman in April 1973 threw President Nixon into a state of depression. Withdrawing even from his wife, he retreated to his haven in Key Biscayne, Fla., where at Mr. Haldeman’s insistence he summoned General Haig to assume the role of chief of staff. General Haig was a decorated veteran of the wars in Korea and Vietnam and had earned a master’s degree in international relations from Georgetown University. He was formerly on the staff of Henry Kissinger, who described him as “strong in crises, decisive in judgment, skillful in bureaucratic infighting.” The top White House staff job was to stand in the midst of the conflict and both keep order and protect the president. Mr. Haig resisted, but he could not refuse his commander in chief.
As months passed, evidence mounted that the president was taking less responsibility for his behavior. Mr. Haig had witnessed this development. Mr. Nixon began calling his friends and advisers at night, asking whether he should resign. His chief of staff repeatedly said no. But once he became aware in July 1974 of the June 23, 1972, tape that made clear that the president had ordered the cover-up of the Watergate break-in, his role changed, shifting from protecting the president to managing the president’s resignation in a way that would allow Mr. Nixon to come to the decision on his own. Mr. Haig admonished Mr. Nixon’s visitors to give the president the facts about the mounting opposition but not to suggest quitting. Mr. Nixon had to resign “freely.”
Throughout, Mr. Haig’s off-scene supporter and confidant was his younger brother, Frank Haig, S.J., a physicist who had been president of Wheeling College from 1966 to 1972, and after his brother served both President Gerald Ford and President Ronald Reagan, was president of LeMoyne College in Syracuse, N.Y. (1981-89). Though he had always been a Democrat, he called himself a Rockefeller Republican to support his brother.
According to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in The Final Days (1976), Alexander Haig “detested” John McLaughlin, S.J., whose ideas on morality were not going to save the president. According to Father Haig, in a recent interview for this article, his brother had opposed bringing Father McLaughlin in as a speechwriter, but later accepted him, though in his estimation the Jesuit speechwriter was not what a good Catholic priest should be, not a strong defender of both the faith and the truth.
For a while, Mr. Haig was suspected of being the unidentified source known as Deep Throat, who fed information to investigative journalists at The Washington Post. But there was no way Alexander Haig could have been Deep Throat, his brother said. He would rather have quit. What should Mr. Nixon have done? The Haigs thought he should have told the whole truth right away and the issue would have died.
On July 24, 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court, at the request of the special prosecutor Leon Jaworski, decided 8 to 0 (Justice Rehnquist had recused himself) that executive privilege did not apply to the White House tapes and ordered President Nixon to surrender them all to Judge John Sirica, who had been hearing the Watergate case since the arrest of the plumbers two years earlier. The court asked Sirica to review the tapes and decide which should be released to the special prosecutor’s office. Thus the public learned that Mr. Nixon had said to his aides, “I want you all to stonewall it, let [the burglars] plead the Fifth Amendment, cover up, or anything else, it’ll save it—save the plan.” That evening the House Judiciary Committee, which had been working on impeachment since the previous December, began its deliberations in earnest.
Over the following several days, the committee voted by wide margins to recommend impeachment on the first three articles: obstruction of justice, abuse of power and refusal to cooperate with the committee’s investigation. Father Drinan seldom spoke during the hearings. He had already had his moment in the sun with his original proposal; he was surrounded by 37 other lawyers who had a lot to say, and he had a hard time getting recognized. The fourth article of impeachment, on the bombing of Cambodia, was anti-climactic and was rejected, although Father Drinan had to ask, “How could we impeach a president for concealing a burglary but not for concealing a mass bombing?” On Aug. 9, 1974, President Nixon resigned.
Exit John McLaughlin
Three months earlier, in May, Richard Cleary, S.J., the provincial superior of the Jesuits in New England, told the Boston press that he had called Father McLaughlin to return to Boston for an eight-day retreat to reconsider his lifestyle and his interpretations of moral laws, which some had misunderstood as representing those of the Society of Jesus. Father McLaughlin dismissed Father Cleary’s comments as coming from the “geopolitical center of liberal thinking...Massachusetts, the only state out of step with the rest of the country.” By the end of the month they had resolved their differences. But in October The National Jesuit News reported that Father Cleary had ordered Father McLaughlin to resign from the White House. Father McLaughlin claimed he quit because President Ford wanted a new staff. He promptly left the Society of Jesus, worked for several years in radio and television talk shows, and still presides over a long-running Sunday morning political panel called “The McLaughlin Group.” He did not respond to several requests to be interviewed for this article.
Frank Haig, S.J., asked recently what his brother learned from the Watergate experience, described Alexander’s impatience when diplomats from other countries as well as Americans talked in terms of loyalty to the president or some national leader. “He learned that being an American has nothing to do with race or color or religion or origin or wealth. It is your devotion to the founding principles: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.”
America, in its end-of-the-year editorial (12/28/74), said that “our national experience reflects the dilemma behind the crisis of leadership throughout the world....The temptation is to withdraw and seek compensation...in...prayer and intimacy. Still, total preoccupation with a private life...becomes unreal. The challenge, then...is to bring the insight and the courage that arise from this personal center into the public struggle to redeem the systems within which we live.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: June 23, 2014
An earlier version of this article misidentified the year that John McLaughlin was ordained to the priesthood. It was 1959, not 1947.
Click here for America's coverage of Watergate as events unfolded between the summers of 1972 and 1974.