To Set the Record Straight

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

Because of the large number of books that have been written about Watergate by those directly involved in addition to those by scholars and other interested people, it is reasonable to ask if there is anything of value in another Watergate book. The answer is yes; the judge who presided over these cases with their thorny legal and constitutional issues does present Watergate from a unique vantage point. John Sirica’s primary purpose as expressed in the title is to tell what he believes really happened, but this inevitably includes explanations and justifications for his decisions and judgments. Because there is a potential contradiction between the goal of presenting the facts correctly, that is, setting the record straight, and justifying his own decisions, the book should be approached with a healthy skepticism.

The book is also valuable because it provides unusual insight into judicial decisionmaking. Judge Sirica describes how he perceived problems, presents and analyzes the assumptions he made, and reveals the emotions he experienced as he moved to decisions. He did not face these problems entirely alone but shared the burden with his law clerk, Todd Christofferson, who provided moral support as well as legal assistance. Relating Watergate as a series of problems which required decisions by the trial judge conveys the tension and drama of Watergate. The book would be valuable if for no other reason because it contains a good analysis of the tremendously complex events and judicial decisions of Watergate. In a clear, succinct style, the essentials are presented. This is no mean achievement because it is difficult to select and highlight the significant from the vast amount of information about Watergate.

Moreover, the book is worthwhile because it provides us with a better understanding of how a judge with the limited experience of Judge Sirica could meet the demands of these trials. In many ways, Judge Sirica was a most unlikely judge to hear the cases whose ramifications ultimately led to the first resignation of a President of the United States and to deal with the issues of executive privilege, power of the courts to subpoena a sitting President, and a grand jury report naming the President an unindicted coconspirator in the cover-up of the Watergate break-in. As Judge Sirica freely admits, his legal training was minimal, and neither his practice of law nor the cases which came before the District Court prepared him for the legal and constitutional questions which emerged in these cases. Yet, as Judge Sirica tells the story, it becomes clear that in other ways he had unique qualifications which equipped him to try these cases. As judge of the District Court in Washington, Judge Sirica presided over a steady stream of criminal cases, some of which no doubt involved the plotting and execution of burglaries and cunning attempts to cover up crimes. Similarly, he had experience with criminal defendants who pled guilty to one charge rather than disclose their full knowledge of a crime. With this background, it is natural that he was dissatisfied with the guilty pleas of the break-in defendants.

Besides his experience as a criminal court judge, other aspects of Judge Sirica’s life made him more suspicious and curious about the burglary than another judge might have been. An early interest in boxing had brought him into contact with the rough life, rough language, and uncertain morals of people who frequented the fringes of the boxing world. Moreover, he had actively participated in Republican politics and was aware of the force and power that political ambition could exert on individuals. Without doubt, these aspects of Judge Sirica’s background and experience are stressed in the book for the reason just presented, and although they are reasonable in demonstrating how his life experience helped him with the Watergate cases, at times the author comes perilously close to overkill. Nevertheless, Sirica’s unwillingness to accept the break-in at the Democratic Headquarters as beginning and ending with the defendants who were apprehended there is a critical element in the eventual unwinding of the complete story.

Despite the vital role he played, Judge Sirica is careful to give proper credit to James McCord, without whose letter there would have been little that the judge alone could have achieved. The letter was important because of McCord’s allegations that political pressure was applied to the defendants to plead guilty and remain silent and that others involved in the Watergate operation could have been named but were not. It is significant to note that McCord had confidence in Judge Sirica but did not feel confident in testifying before the grand jury whose United States Attorneys worked for the Justice Department.

Judge Sirica is justified in feeling proud that he had conducted the trial in a manner which inspired this kind of confidence. From the beginning of the trial, Judge Sirica felt the prosecution was not asking the questions which needed to be answered. He wanted to know why the...

(The entire section is 2067 words.)