by Bob Baker
In a November 1973 nationally televised press conference, President Richard Nixon denied his involvement in the Watergate cover-up and declared “I am not a crook.” In the U.K., where I was working in the U.S. embassy, British television showed the scene repeatedly as part of its daily coverage of the Watergate break-in scandal.
As an assistant cultural affairs officer in the London embassy, part of my job was to improve the U.S. image and British understanding of our policies. I did not agree with all of our policies, but focused my work on the best in U.S. policy and culture. That included keeping British support for NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, our main alliance in the cold war with the Soviet Union.
For months, President Nixon twisted on television every day as investigations led toward him. He wanted to avoid blame for his role in the burglary at Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. His almost daily interviews on television had eroded British trust in the United States. How could Brits trust the U.S. as a strategic partner in NATO if the President was a crook?
Not Just a Domestic Nightmare
Moscow constantly probed for ways to split the U.S. from its European NATO allies, including Britain. Watergate had become not just an American domestic nightmare, but also a NATO problem. With many contacts among younger Brits in politics, the media and academia. I saw how the scandal affected them powerfully.
The U.K., unlike the Continent, shared most American assumptions about limits on the role of politicians. Brits were scandalized by the Watergate investigation of White House dirty tricks. Our common foreign policy goals had made the U.K. for decades our chief ally. The Watergate turmoil appeared every night on British television and every day in the press. It made many Brits feel the U.S. was falling apart.
I sent two telegrams (cleared by my boss, the Public Affairs Officer, and the Ambassador) to the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) Washington headquarters. I asked for policy guidance on the single most important issue of the day, the Watergate affair. Neither telegram was answered.
After my second telegram, USIA headquarters told me by telephone to stop asking. Washington, with profound bureaucratic wisdom, remained silent and gave no policy guidance. Our career guys in headquarters likely feared doing any more than passing on the latest Watergate news straight in our official press releases. They gave no policy guidance. If the President had prevailed and the policy guidance had not supported him, their careers might end. It also was a unique problem, so maybe they had no policy guidance to give.
I was angry about Watergate and the Agency’s tergiversation. We had to do something to persuade the British that, despite the President’s disgraceful behavior, the American system of government would in the end prove stable. We needed to show that America would remain a reliable NATO ally because our Constitutional division of powers would keep our government functioning, resolve the scandal and keep our Alliance sound. I thought that the Congress and the Supreme Court would rein in the White House and keep the U.S. a reliable NATO ally. I believed we had to persuade the British public of that.
It was clear that any direct approach I took to mitigate the damage caused by the Watergate affair would not be acceptable to Washington or to my embassy boss, Ambassador Walter Annenberg, a Nixon appointee.
Explaining the U.S. System of Government
So, I devised an historical seminar, for British leaders, off the record, with top American speakers. The title was “The Tripartite American Government Since World War II: The Balance Between the Executive, the Congress and the Judiciary.” Power had in fact shifted to the White House during and after WWII, but Congress and the Judiciary remained strong countervailing forces. I wanted to underscore that in a private seminar for British opinion leaders.
My politically conservative boss in London approved the seminar and so did Washington. However, shortly before the seminar start in June 1974, we heard from Dr. Henry Kissinger, at the time serving as both Secretary of State and National Security Adviser. Dr. Kissinger asked for our complete seminar guest list with their titles and the same for all our speakers, a request for detail I never saw before or afterward. I provided both lists and got approval to go ahead.
We sent invitations to all Members of Parliament’s North American Committee, and to the foreign editors of all major newspapers (The Times, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The Post, The Express, etc.) and to the top editors of major provincial papers, and to all radio and television foreign affairs editors. We also invited the leading personalities on radio and television news. The most important British academics who wrote on American politics were invited along with a smattering of major intellectuals.
My British assistant, Terry, booked an entire small, good, old hotel on the sea in Brighton for privacy and distance from the capital. We opened with a reception and dinner Friday evening. The seminar ran until just after lunch on Sunday. All the guests were busy and could not get away weekdays.
USIA headquarters did an excellent job recruiting the American speakers once the seminar was approved. Among the speakers were the newly retired Chief of Staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a senior Federal judge, and Berkeley Professor Aaron Wildavsky, whose books I admired. His most recent was on British government. We recruited matching British speakers for each topic covered by an American. The rapporteur I recruited was the University of Kent Professor of Constitutional Law. About fifty guests attended.
Wildavsky’s opening address was a brilliant survey delivered without notes on the moral basis for law and government in the United States. He traced it back to Mosaic law, through the Greeks and Romans, and up to our own national histories. The entire audience rose to applaud his virtuoso performance. The following speakers continued the same theme, showing how the deliberate division of powers in the United States was designed specifically to prevent the abuse of power by any one branch. Speakers analyzed the shift of power toward the presidency while stressing the continuing importance of the legislative and judicial branches.
“Searching and Honest Study”
After lunch on Sunday the rapporteur reviewed the main points in the formal lectures and in discussions. He concluded by thanking the embassy for organizing the seminar. He said it was a tribute to the stability of America’s democratic government that the embassy could organize so “searching and honest a study” of a critically important current issue. His speech was strongly applauded. My guess is the audience admired his summing up and applauded so much because they were relieved to feel the U.S. was not falling apart after all.
In the weeks that followed, there was a change in the tone of British editorial comment about the Watergate affair. The twitchy feeling disappeared and writers noted the continuing stability of the American government.
That was precisely what was wanted from the seminar. It was worth the endless hours of planning, arrangements, and thousands of details, some a pain in the neck. Professor Wildavsky, for example, happened to be in London with a girlfriend. At the last moment, he called to demand not only first class accommodation at a separate hotel in Brighton but also a chauffeured Rolls to bring them down to Brighton in style. I reluctantly agreed. He was worth it.
Every night after supper, we ran a special bar upstairs at the hotel with imported cigars and the best brandies and scotch. We invited up after supper the key participants to have a drink with the American and British speakers and some embassy political officers.
After the last guests had left the Brighton hotel, I put on my bathing trunks for the first time that year and plunged into the sea. It felt very clean.
Our tiny office—an excellent young British assistant, a secretary and myself—made all the substantive arrangements, plus travel, per diem, honoraria, etc. We turned out a spiffy and effective affair. That cost many hundred-hour work weeks. It was worth it. It was my best work in my entire career. President Nixon resigned less than two months after our seminar. His successor, President Gerald Ford, restored stability domestically and internationally. NATO was again secure as our main alliance.
Bob Baker began his career with the US Information Agency as an intelligence analyst analyzing communist propaganda in East Africa. Subsequently, as a foreign service officer, Baker served in Uganda, Mali, London, Germany, Australia, Los Angeles, VOA Washington, and the Regional Program Office in Vienna.