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For Egil Krogh, memory of Watergate break-in is a reminder of integrity lost

Reflections on the 40th anniversary of Watergate will, for many, merely be a pause to recall a bungled break-in that began the most tragic chapter in the history of the presidency. But for Egil (Bud) Krogh, an up-and-coming young Seattle attorney who became a key part of Richard Nixon's White House team, the lessons from the fall of a president echo down the years less as a bitter memory than as a reminder of integrity lost.

 
 

To Krogh, it's important that the events of 1972 that led inexorably to the resignation of Richard Nixon two years later be kept ever in the minds of elected officials and those who work for them. Thus he maintains a busy speaking schedule sharing his thoughts on integrity and the perspective of power before corporate and legal groups, academic assemblies and gatherings of young people on the importance of integrity-based decision making.

 

His 2007 book, "Integrity: Good People, Bad Choices and Life Lessons from the White House," had a second run last month, Krogh told me as I caught up with him by phone as he was en route toward a Pennsylvania speaking engagement. "It's selling better now than at the beginning. The issue of government integrity seems more relevant to people today."

 

He's also developed and is sharing a decision-making model he calls The Integrity Zone, which is designed to help people make integrity-based choices in their professional and personal lives. He suggests that the lessons from Watergate and its aftermath have become more relevant to people because of recent political and business scandals.

 

Krogh recalls that even though he had moved from the White House to be Undersecretary of Transportation by then, when he picked up the Washington Post that June morning in 1972 to read of the arrest of those who had been caught breaking into Democratic headquarters at the Watergate, he recalls one thought: "My God, that's my fault."

 

The reason for that reaction was that as co-director of the White House special investigations unit called the "Plumbers," Krogh had a year earlier approved a covert operation as part of a national security investigation into the leak of the Top Secret Pentagon Papers to the New York Times.

 

The covert operation was a break-in at the office of Lewis Fielding, the psychiatrist for Daniel Ellsburg, who had released the Pentagon Papers. Krogh hired G. Gordon Liddy and H. Howard Hunt to do that break-in, the same men who were arrested at the Watergate break-in.

 

Krogh assumed the blame for it all because he was convinced that the break-in at Fielding's office had created the sense that breaking the law on behalf of the president was acceptable, thus setting the stage for Watergate.

 

It's that conviction about his personal responsibility for what became Watergate, even though he knew nothing about the break-in before reading about it that morning, that has guided his thinking and involvements through the four decades as a sort of personal quest for redemption.

 

The dedication in his book, written with the help of his son, is a telling reflection of that lifelong campaign: "To those who deserved better, this book is offered as an apology, an explanation, and a way to keep integrity in the forefront of decision-making."

 

.The book itself details the lessons of Krogh's lifelong effort to make amends for what he describes as a "meltdown of personal integrity" in the face of issues of loyalty to the president and to the power of the office.

 

Krogh eventually went to prison for almost five months after pleading guilty to criminal conspiracy for engineering the break-in at Fielding's office.

 

Krogh has recalled in several of our discussions over the years how, after Nixon's resignation, his personal path toward reconciliation involved a visit with Fielding to apologize to him for what Krogh told him was "an unacceptable violation of the rights of a genuinely decent human being."

 

Then followed a visit with Nixon in California in which Krogh recalls basically saying: "Mr. President, I apologize to you because everything that's happened was really my fault."

 

Krogh and Ellsburg subsequently became friends with Ellsburg writing the forward comments for Krogh's book.

 

In our recent telephone conversation, Krogh noted that even the famous meeting between Nixon and Elvis Presley, who wanted to help the President tackle the nation's drug problem, had an outcome that simply lacked integrity.

 

"Elvis asked if the president could get him a special badge from the bureau of narcotics and, even though he wasn't entitled to that kind of a badge, I told the president I'd get one," recalls Krogh, who had actually arranged the Elvis meeting. "Elvis not only got a badge, but he carried it for seven years and he simply shouldn't have had that badge."

 

A historical note is that of all the requests made each year to the National Archives for reproductions of photographs and documents, the one that is requested more than any other is the photograph of Elvis and Nixon shaking hands at that December, 1970, visit. More requests than for copies of the Constitution or the Bill of Rights.

 

Krogh left Seattle and his law practice three years ago to join the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress as a Senior Fellow on Leadership, Ethics, and Integrity.

 

His current focus, however, is zeroing in on the School for Ethics and Global Leadership, which attracts high school students, and it's in that environment of sharing his philosophy with young people that he is honing his Integrity Zone concept.

 

And he is increasingly seeking to promote the concept of the Integrity Zone, which is based on a couple of fundamental considerations. The first challenges the process of thinking that precedes decisions, basically: "have I thought through all the implications?" while the second part is ethical considerations: "Is it right? Is this decision in alignment with basic values like fairness and respect?"

 

"We never asked any of those questions in the Nixon White House," Krogh said. "And most of what we see in Congress today fails those tests. Instead we see a focus on loyalty and feilty to party. You simply can't check your personal integrity at the door."

    

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A look back over presidential primaries suggests some benefits in long campaigns

Concern among Republicans that the prolonged battle for their party's presidential nomination could have a lasting negative impact on the eventual nominee is intriguing given how struggles for the nominations of both parties used to unfold.

 

There is some understandable hand-wringing among GOP leaders who would like to see a wrap on the nomination battle so a presumptive nominee can begin to focus on campaigning against the president. But a look back would suggest it's the nature rather than the length of nomination battles in either party that wears on the voters.

 

And a student of history might reflect that something has been missing in recent presidential-election years. The process of presidential-preference primaries, born in Oregon in 1910 and originally viewed as empowering the people to choose their parties' candidates, has become a boring march to the inevitable for the past generation.

 

But 2012 may provide a revisiting of those campaigns in which the trail to the nomination led through Oregon in late May and on to the primaries' climax in California in early June.

 

It's the first time in 20 years that a June date in California and the quest for its huge pot of delegate gold has been possible. In 1996 California decided that its primary had become anti-climactic and moved it ahead to March so it could catch the heat of action.

 

Last summer, pronouncing that the experiment for California to compete for election dollars, high profile candidate appearances and perhaps also an increase in political clout had failed, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation to restore the state's primary to June.

 

So ironically, the decision may have put California and its 172 delegates back in the eye of the campaign hurricane, a week after Texas bestows its 155 delegates, and the two, plus Oregon and a handful of other states in late May, could explain why all of the four candidates insist they are staying in the race.

 

An ironic reflection on past presidential-nomination contests is provided by the one in which Mitt Romney's father was a vital early figure. I haven't seen as much recollection as I thought there might be on the fact that Gov. George Romney wasn't only a hopeful for the 1968 GOP nomination, but had been viewed as almost the pre-emptive favorite heading into that year.

 

And had he not made the disastrous slip of explaining his change of heart to become an opponent of the Vietnam War as having been "brainwashed on Vietnam," Mitt Romney might now be running as part of a family political dynasty, ala the names Kennedy or Bush. And it might have been a campaign in which the issue of a Mormon in the White House had long ago been resolved.

 

The '68 campaign was also one in which, as I reflected several years ago, prominent figures from Washington state played key roles, a campaign that, as a young political writer, I had the opportunity to cover.

 

There were still three nomination hopefuls in the Democratic-nomination race by the time of that '68 Oregon Primary. And there would still have been three by the disastrous Democratic convention in Chicago had Robert Kennedy not been assassinated a week after Oregon, moments after acknowledging victory in the California primary.

 

Everest-conqueror Jim Whittaker of Seattle was an ever-present figure by Kennedy's side until the fateful moment in a hallway of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles when Sirhan Sirhan shot Kennedy.

 

Washington's former governor and U.S. Senator Dan Evans still well remembers the GOP convention in Miami and his role as the keynote speaker whose support was sought by both eventual nominee Richard Nixon and New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, who still had a chance at convention time. Nixon even suggested the vice presidency might accompany an endorsement from Evans, who chose instead to endorse Rockefeller.

 

The Republican primary effort that year, despite enduring up to the convention, as did the Democrats', was a much more gentlemanly affair than the bitterly divisive, Vietnam-fueled Democratic struggle. And most students of history would suggest that campaign  bitterness had an influence on the fact Richard Nixon won in November.

 

Four years later, the decision about the Democratic nominee also stretched to the Oregon and California primaries. Eventual Democratic nominee Sen. George McGovern beat former Vice President Hubert Humphrey by 44 percent to 39 percent in California to assure himself the nomination.

 

Washington Sen. Henry M. Jackson was a distant third in '72 but didn't drop out until early May. And he was a more serious challenger in'76 in what was still a four-man race for the Democratic nomination when he dropped out May 1 after losing the Pennsylvania primary to eventual nominee, then president, Jimmy Carter.

 

As those and other campaigns make clear, there's nothing inherently undesirable about a prolonged primary campaign that exposes the candidates to an electorate that deserves the opportunity to get to know as much as possible about the person who could wind up as their president.

 

If the candidates' comments and pronouncements make their shortcomings as presidential timber obvious, that's beneficial to the voters, if not necessarily to their party. It's only when the unending barrage of negativity from opponents paints a picture of shortcomings that may not even exist that a prolonged campaign does damage to the political process.

 

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