The Secret History of Watergate

John Ehrlichman, UCLA 1948 co-valedictorian (UCLA Archives via California Historian)

As a reporter for UCLA’s Daily Bruin I wrote about a New York Times op-ed published after the 1993 death of H.R. “Bob” Haldeman by fellow UCLA alumnus Clancy Sigal. In the article, Sigal revealed a campus controversy that embroiled Haldeman in the late 1940s, involving a dead dog discovered at his fraternity and the fight he had with the campus newspaper. In his op-ed, Sigal set up a generational rivalry that played out decades later through the Watergate affair that eventually sent Haldeman to prison.

It sounded a little ridiculous until Sigal reminded the reader who his fellow alumni were: John Ehrlichman, Frank Mankiewicz, Alexander Butterfield and Gil Harrison.  Ehrlichman and Butterfield pledged the same fraternity; Mankiewicz and Harrison wrote for the Daily Bruin.  For those who don’t remember their history: Ehrlichman and Haldeman ran the campaigns and White House of Richard Nixon. Mankiewicz ran the campaign of George McGovern against Nixon in 1972 and Harrison the left-liberal New Republic.  Maybe this little dog was no historical pup after all.

I was fascinated. Raised in a politically attuned family with a Watergate obsession – my mother watched the entire hearings when I was barely two years old — during the next few months I elaborated Sigal’s op-ed into a feverish two-part series for the Daily Bruin that won the California Intercollegiate Press Association’s award for best series the following year. I filled out an untold story mostly taken up, in All the President’s Men, by the “dirty tricks” perpetrated by University of Southern California alumni. Nobody had told the UCLA story in such detail.

I talked to Mankiewicz and Haldeman’s widow.  I interviewed (and taped – taped!)  Ehrlichman. I talked to Gil Harrison and his wife.  I talked to Clancy Sigal.  It was a cub reporters’ dream, to uncover the secret history of Watergate.

Filled with an undergraduate’s limitless sense of the possible and one’s own abilities, I then took the series and expanded it.  Behind the uncanny campus connections among the Nixon-McGovern operatives I discovered a common thread.  They had all been cultivated by a woman named Adaline Guenther, known universally as “Grandma,” who ran an interfaith center at UCLA in the 1940s and 1950s and had an extraordinary eye for budding talent. In those days she cultivated Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Harrison, Mankiewicz, and later Tom Bradley, the first African American mayor of Los Angeles – an entire generation of Southern California leaders and intellectuals.

This gave the story both a spine and a tragic thread. Grandma was pure of heart and soul, an absolute idealist, and in her dotage – she had retired by the 1970s – she watched the finest she had cultivated destroy themselves in the most public way imaginable.  I read her oral history and some of her journals and felt her horror as she witnessed, in anonymous privacy, her brightest stars burn out in a blaze of obscenity and paranoia.  It led her, in her last years, to question everything she had ever done with her life.

I was so moved by the example of this selfless, perceptive but forgotten woman – you will find only ephemera about her in a Google search – that I just recently parted with her oral history.  I post my article here (you’ll forgive the editors’ remarks at the end which I did not consent to) in part to preserve her life as well as to add an additional chapter to our understanding of Watergate. Most of these personalities are now dead (Sigal excepted) which makes this story all the more poignant.

The article I wrote didn’t find the outlet I was hoping for – the fairly obscure magazine of the Conference of California Historians – but I post it here because it is not available in any other format other than the few libraries that might have a copy on their shelves.

Westwood to Watergate – California Historian Winter 1999