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The Thinker

Organizational Response
to the Watergate Crisis


"I am not a crook" is not good enough



Richard Nixon put the rock in the snowball with the wiretaps, packed it firmly with snow with his approval of the Huston Plan, rolled it along the ground with the Ellsberg motivation, and watched it go over the rise of the hill, Hunt and Liddy trotting alongside. From that point on, it was out of his hands (Safire, 1975).

Dick Nixon sure knows how to build a snowman.

The second break-in of the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate Hotel in 1972 and the Nixon administration’s attempts to cover it up have been documented ad infinitum. History has shown that Richard Nixon’s organization of first- and second-tier advisers and managers was essentially corrupt long before the GEMSTONE project (a suite of illegal plans) was approved earlier that year by Jeb Magruder, aide to Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman. But its members were not born that way, and the organization did not start out that way.

The Nixon presidency faced two organizational challenges, which it failed to meet. The first was the identification and correction of the faulty decision-making Watergate montageprocesses that led it to justify and rationalize illegal behavior. The second was the administration’s inept, unsuccessful crisis response to news reports of the second Watergate Hotel break-in and the potential connection between the "Plumbers" (burglars and operatives employed to stop information leaks) and the White House. These two failures relate directly to the Nixon staff's misunderstanding or outright ignorance of several fundamental organizational communication principles, among them, 1) organizational ethics, 2) groupthink, and 3) closed communication systems.

Case Description

The following is a brief timeline of the events leading up to and including the Nixon administration’s organizational and communicational failures.

November 5, 1968
Richard Nixon elected to first term as U.S. president

June 1970            
Nixon aides develop Huston Plan, which includes electronic surveillance, break-ins, and other illegal activities

July 14, 1970                   
Nixon endorses Huston Plan

July 27, 1970                   
Attorney General John Mitchell first hears of Huston Plan and urges Nixon to stop it; though Nixon did stop it then, his mind-set had begun to shift

September 18, 1970                  
Counsel to the President John Dean sends memo to Attorney General Mitchell outlining plan to neutralize political opposition that would "proceed to remove the restraints as necessary to obtain such (damaging) intelligence" (Dean, 1970)

May 3, 1971                     
The New York Times publishes excerpts (leaked to them by Daniel Ellsberg) from The Pentagon Papers, a secret analysis of the Vietnam War commissioned by former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in 1967 for future scholars to use

July 1971             
Domestic Affairs Assistant to the President John Ehrlichman (the number two presidential adviser behind Haldeman) authorizes creation of Plumbers unit

September 3, 1971          
Plumbers break into office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist looking for damaging or embarrassing information with which to discredit Ellsberg; Plumbers are not caught

February 4, 1972 
G. Gordon Liddy presents slimmed down GEMSTONE Plan (which still contains extensive illegal activities, including break-ins, to gather damaging information about political opponents) to Attorney General Mitchell, Counsel to the President Dean, and Jeb Magruder, Deputy Campaign Director of CRP (Committee to Re-Elect the President aka Creep); approval is deferred

April 7, 1972                     
Jeb Magruder gives approval for GEMSTONE Plan

May 28, 1972                   
Plumbers conduct first break-in at Watergate Hotel headquarters of DNC (Democratic National Committee); Plumbers are not caught

June 17, 1972                  
Plumbers conduct second break-in at Watergate Hotel headquarters of DNC; Plumbers are caught and arrested

June 18, 1972                  
The Washington Post initiates exhaustive, in-depth investigation of break-in, Plumbers, and their possible connection to White House

August 29, 1972   
President Nixon gives news conference announcing that a thorough internal investigation by Counsel to the President Dean confirms that no one in or connected with the White House was involved in the Watergate Hotel break-in

November 1972   
President Nixon is re-elected in landslide victory over Democrat George McGovern

April 30, 1973                   
President’s four top-tier advisers resign (Attorney General Richard Kleindienst, Chief of Staff H.R. "Bob" Haldeman, Assistant for Domestic Affairs John D. Ehrlichman) or are fired (White House Counsel John W. Dean III)

May 18, 1973                   
Archibald Cox is appointed as special prosecutor in the Watergate investigation by Attorney General-designate Elliot Richardson.

July 13, 1973                   
Deputy Assistant to the President Alexander Butterfield reveals (during Senate Watergate Hearings) existence of a White House Oval Office taping system

July 23, 1973                   
Nixon refuses requests from Senate Watergate Committee and special prosecutor to turn over presidential tape recordings

October 20, 1973 
Saturday Night Massacre: Nixon orders Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox (after Cox moved to subpoena Oval Office tapes); Richardson refuses and resigns; Nixon then orders Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus to fire Cox; Ruckelshaus also refuses and resigns; Nixon then contacts Solicitor General Robert Bork and orders him (as acting head of the Justice Department) to fire Cox; Bork accedes to the order

November 17, 1973                  
Nixon famously declares to the nation, "I'm not a crook"

December 7, 1973           
Discovery of infamous 18½ minute gap in subpoenaed tapes

March 1, 1974                  
Grand jury indicts seven former and current Nixon top advisers

April 1974                   
House Judiciary Committee subpoenas tapes of 42 White House conversations

April 30, 1974                   
White House releases 1200 pages of edited tape transcripts to House Judiciary Committee; committee insists on actual tapes

July 24, 1974                   
Supreme Court unanimously rejects president’s claim of executive privilege and rules that tape recordings of 64 White House conversations must be turned over, which they are several days later

July 27, 1974                   
House Judiciary Committee approves first of three Articles of Impeachment, charging obstruction of justice

August 5, 1974     
So-called smoking gun tape, which implicates Nixon in conspiracy to obstruct justice, is made public; virtually all remaining Nixon supporters turn against him

August 8, 1974     
President Nixon addresses nation and resigns presidency, effective the next day

("Brief Timeline," n.d.; "Timeline," n.d.)

Communication Theories

The Watergate Hotel break-in and subsequent arrests of its perpetrators did not constitute an unlucky break or an anomaly only in that they got caught. Contrary to the opinion of many diehard partisans, this type of thing does not happen in every administration. President Nixon and his administration set the tone — the organizational culture — early on. "The illegal snooping trains had left the station in early 1969, and could not be recalled; the process would have surely come to light sooner or later." (Safire, 1975).

 Organizational Ethics

Richard Nixon was a complicated leader possessing many good qualities, even by Democratic standards. Indeed, he co-opted many of their principles as he was developing his "New Federalist" approach to governing. So at times, the Democrats were ambivalent: they liked many of his ideas but disliked him for "stealing" them. He was self-reliant and expected the same trait in his staff members. And he was fiercely loyal, to a fault.

Nixon was also a suspicious and paranoid optimist, oxymoronically meaning he believed that people were out to get him while also believing that things would always get better. He had a long memory for slights he had suffered and a full back stock of resentment. "Nixon has suffered more than most men, and enjoys thinking about how he has suffered more than most men: this has made him strong and stubborn." (Safire, 1975).

It also gave him a sense of entitlement and righteousness. Through all his suffering and slights, Richard Nixon believed he earned his way to the presidency; however, if he was not careful, if he did not protect his back, he could lose it all. So he made sure to surround himself with staffers who understood this and had his back.

Richard Nixon was not publicly known for any strong ethical streak. He had already gained the pejorative nickname "Tricky Dick" while still Eisenhower’s vice president. Nevertheless, Nixon overcame that reputation to win the presidency, and he took office on January 20, 1969. His subsequent inner-circle appointments gave clues to the organizational culture or inner style that Nixon would create. It took several years for that style to manifest and cause problems; but the seeds of those problems were sewn within his administration’s first six months (White, 1975).

President Nixon quickly chose H. R. "Bob" Haldeman to be the second-most powerful man in the administration. Nixon and Haldeman shared a belief in control to maintain order. They both believed that in managing essentially the largest corporation on earth, they could control events, and they must control events. Ultimately, they confused the nature of administrative control for efficiency with the illegal and unethical control (subjugation) of the law to achieve their ends (White, 1975).

The corporate culture was cast. It is well-known that organizational leaders set the example for how its members should behave, the ethical tone. Nixon and Haldeman had a value system that included controlling the system. This value was, apparently, stronger than obeying the law. This blatant unethical thinking turned into action in the administration’s first six months. President Nixon had already endorsed the Huston Plan by July 14, 1970, only backtracking when his Attorney General talked him out of it. By September 1970, though, Nixon’s chief counsel was devising another illegal plan to neutralize the administration’s political opponents. By July 1971, Domestic Affairs Assistant to the President John Ehrlichman had authorized the creation of the Plumbers (to control leaks ... get it?). And by September 1971, the Plumbers had broken into Daniel (leaked the Pentagon Papers) Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office.

It is difficult to know what knowledge, if any, Nixon had of illegal activities taking place before the Watergate cover-up began. The point is that whether or not he was specifically aware of illicit activities, his administrative culture conveyed implicit permission and tacit approval for these plans. This is similar to the Iran-Contra scandal in which Oliver North and others carried out illegal activities that helped achieve Reagan administration goals. Though President Reagan apparently had no specific knowledge of illegal activities, many believe his leadership tone and the organizational culture tacitly encouraged and approved of them while giving the president "plausible deniability" (Lumsden & Cragan, 2006).

Groupthink

"Irving Janis coined the term groupthink to describe a set of behaviors consistently exhibited by high-power groups that made disastrous decisions" (Lumsden & Cragan, 2006). This certainly describes the Nixon White House. Groupthink involves a kind of tunnel vision — and in this case, one might say tunnel ethics. Within the first year of his first term, Nixon’s inner circle became obsessed with their political opposition. They likely justified the unethical, illegal attempts to damage the other side’s election hopes as necessary to carry on the administration’s good work (classic ends-justify-the-means reasoning). Many probably rationalized the wrongs through one or more of Bell’s ethical traps: "’I really have no choice,’ ‘I’m not as bad as the other guy,’ ‘There’s a ‘good reason’ for the unethical behavior,’ or ‘No one will ever find out’" (Bell, 1991; Lumsden & Cragan, 2006). The great irony is that Nixon was so far ahead of Democratic candidate George McGovern in the polls, no extra (illegal) help was necessary. Their paranoia overpowered their practical reasoning and their risk/benefit analysis abilities.

Unethical groupthink generally involves one of Bell’s traps. And the intellectual bait in these traps often comprises two delusions: A) the rigid group belief that their cause is just and worth the occasional ethical lapse; and B) that the ethical lapses are occasional. Additionally, rigid, authoritarian, controlling leaders often push — or pull — their group peers and subordinates into groupthink. One might speculate that in these scenarios, it is simply easier for an organizational member to submit rather than object. This leadership description does not necessarily describe Richard Nixon, but it does describe H. R. Haldeman accurately. Nixon generally avoided confrontation, but he compensated with Haldeman’s leadership style (Bell, 1991; Lumsden & Cragan, 2006; Safire, 1975).

Closed Communication System

It is well-known that a group or organization can be characterized as a system. Individual members of the group are subsystems who assume varying roles in the larger organizational machinery. Group members have conflicts, problems, and common goals; and group members are interdependent. Some members, however, are more interdependent than others. This is a humorous reference to the old joke about equality: some people are more equal than others. Within interdependent groups and organizations, there are always power inequities. And a high-power group situation like the Nixon White House amplifies those inequities. Consequently, leaders like Haldeman carried an inordinate influence on groupthink. An important reason for this was the closed aspect of the system (Lumsden & Cragan, 2006).

An open system is one that interacts with its environment and the outside world. This is necessary for healthy, efficient functioning of the organization for several reasons. The most important reason is perspective. Be careful, though; sometimes there can be "too much (expletive deleted) perspective" (Reiner, 1984). Seriously, healthy perspective in a system is important to maintaining an accurate view of norms. What is acceptable? What is not acceptable? Ethical? Unethical? In a closed system, with little or no outside influence or feedback, the group and its norms become isolated. With damaged perspective, norm-creep sets in and gradually extends the limits of unethical behavior. What was once questionable has become normal. And what was once unacceptable is now only slightly pushing the limits (Eisenberg, Goodall, & Trethewey, 2007).

The Nixon White House administrative team was clearly a closed system, and that characteristic took hold almost immediately after they moved in. The Jim Jones Peoples’ Temple ministry was a closed system. The Charles Manson family was a closed system. A stubborn Henry kept the Ford Motor Company a closed system until long after the competition overtook Model T sales. The threat of bankruptcy opened that system. Alexander Butterfield’s surprise bombshell (an aside that exposed a secret Oval Office taping network) during an otherwise sleepy stretch of Senate Watergate Hearings testimony ultimately opened up the Nixon White House system.

Crisis Response Effectiveness

For a corporation or branch of government, it is a practical reality that truth-telling generally reaps long-term benefits, even though it could be damaging in the short run. But as consistent as this fact proves to be, it is difficult to implement — companies, celebrities, and bureaucracies continue to make the mistake of lying to cover up an embarrassment or a crime. There is nothing so damaging to an organization as the drawn out drip-drip of continuous negative information about a scandal while the principal denies, denies, and denies. Just ask former Senator John Edwards, or former Senator Larry Craig, or radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, or former President Bill Clinton. Just ask a member of the Nixon White House.

Sadly, there was little hope of changing the downward ethical path the administration had established early on. To deny and lie was written into its DNA. Richard Nixon, himself, would have had to have an ethical core of values from which to refer; and he would have needed to choose his officers based on that same ethical core. Any intervention would have had to occur before Nixon made all of his staff appointments. Once H. R. Haldeman was in place, it was too late.

But it is conceivable that the Nixon presidency could have survived, guilty or not, if they had had a better understanding of organizational crisis response principles. After the Plumbers were caught and arrested in June 1972, the White House was locked into the familiar response of deny, deny, deny. As subsequent bits and pieces of evidence surfaced about some of the Plumbers’ connections to low-level White House staffers, Nixon maintained his defiant stance, much like Henry Ford did when advised by his people that customers were starting to demand more choice in style and color. (Henry ignored reality and kept pumping out one shade of black — and only black — Model T’s.)

On August 29, 1972, President Nixon held a press conference in which he averred that Counsel to the President John Dean had conducted a comprehensive investigation and found absolutely no connection of any Watergate burglars to any White House employees. Most surprised by this announcement was John Dean — Nixon had lied about the investigation and never warned Dean about the mendacious press conference. That was one closed system. Even the subsystems — members — were closed off from each other (Dean & Gorey, 1975).

With the continued denials came redoubled efforts by investigative reporters to find something. It is my contention that had Nixon decided to admit to some low-level White House connection with the Plumbers (that, of course, he had no previous knowledge of), he might have salvaged his administration. Granted, he would not have wanted to jeopardize his November re-election. However, right after the glow of victory had worn off would have been an excellent time. He won in a landslide. His popularity was high. The timing would have been right. It is likely that reporters would have given the story a rest after the initial uproar over the admission had died down. Managing editors might have pulled their reporters off the stale, difficult-to-document story, as Bill Bradley (editor at The Washington Post) had almost done several times.

One successful crisis response strategy for organizational image-repair and reduction of perceived event offensiveness involves apologia, or apology. Though history has established that the Nixon White House was clearly guilty of multiple legal offenses, the country might never have found this out. Traits and qualities attach to an organization just as to an individual. Admitting to a low-level connection (apparent honesty) and apologizing to the nation (apparent contrition) during the "questioning of [the White House’s] moral nature, motives, or reputation" would have been effective in turning public opinion their way (Davis, 2006).

The goal with this strategy is to admit responsibility while at the same time trying to convince the audience that the offensive event was not as bad as originally perceived. Partisan supporters could have projected this Watergate Hotel break-in thing as little more than a college stunt. Another element to this strategy involves compensation, the offer of some type of reparation to victims of the offensive action. In this case, the victims are the American people. The White House communication professionals could have come up with some form of creative trust repayment.

More effective, though, in an organizational crisis like this would be the use of corrective action. This can be accomplished either by A) attempting to return the situation to the way it existed prior to the offensive act or B) promising to make efforts to prevent or correct the offensive act in the future. The administration could have easily come up with several real or convincing cosmetic procedures for preventing future overzealousness. Had the Nixon White House had an effective communications expert, Julie Nixon Eisenhower might now be Senator Eisenhower, and the suffix –gate would be unknown as an add-on descriptor of a scandal (Davis, 2006).

Lessons for Future Organizations

As corporate history has shown, honesty, concern for the consumer (or voter) above all else, credibility, contrition, and the willingness to compensate victims has usually been a winning formula. From a practical standpoint, the concept of cutting one’s losses might be more understandable. Whatever the organizational currency — profit, political power, intellectual influence, etc. — the organization almost always comes out ahead in the big picture by 1) getting the negative truth out as soon as possible, 2) forgoing any blame, 3) putting consumer safety first, and 4) being generous with compensation. Though it is always tempting to violate these principles to save money or credibility in the short run, it rarely pays off in the end.

There is nothing as important to ensuring customer loyalty as honesty, humility, the ability to admit a mistake, and the ability to apologize and make amends. Just like an individual, an organization’s reputation is invaluable. All of these factors comprise an organization’s identity or culture, for better or worse. Enron, Toyota, and NASA know about worse. Johnson & Johnson (Tylenol) knows about better.

Honesty-contrition-compensation is a classic win-win-win formula for a corporation in a crisis. They usually maintain or improve their good reputation, and they remain more profitable in the end.

Conclusion

The Nixon administration missed every opportunity to correct its organizational descent into unethical and illegal behavior. And guilty or not, it missed the opportunity to pull itself out of a tough media situation and recover its governing ability. It is conceivable that if the Nixon presidency had adhered to some basic principles of organizational identity and image-repair, it could have survived the news of the break-in and the burglars’ connections to White House staff. Instead, they succumbed to gross communicational errors related to organizational ethics, groupthink, and a closed system of communication that greatly distorted interdependence and perspective and stifled feedback. The Nixon presidency was a technical exercise in how not to develop organizational-communicational cultures, evaluate problems, and make decisions. ■



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Headline: "Nixon Won't Resign"

 

History has shown that Richard Nixon's organization was essentially corrupt long before the GEMSTONE project (a suite of illegal plans) was approved. But its members were not born that way, and the organization did not start out that way.

 

Richard Nixon grimmacing

 

On August 29, 1972, President Nixon held a press conference in which he averred that Counsel to the President John Dean had conducted a comprehensive investigation and found absolutely no connection of any Watergate burglars to any White House employees. Most surprised by this announcement was John Dean — Nixon had lied about the investigation and never warned Dean about the mendacious press conference.

 

Headline: "Nixon Resigns

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