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A Slice of Watergate History

With the reopening of the Watergate Hotel, my mind skipped back to The Associated Press and a job three of us did after the fateful break-in at the Watergate Office Building.

Our teletype newsprint of the AP story backs up the memory.

This was the first news story linking Richard Nixon’s re-election committee to the break-in. Our original is now brown and musty, saved only by the expertise of a professional restorer. But the words remain clear and readable.

I had transferred barely a year earlier to the AP’s DC bureau from my post as AP’s Atlantic City correspondent. As still a newcomer to the bureau, I was relegated to a Saturday shift. June 17, 1972, was slow. There was a night editor, a teletype operator (in the non-computer days), and me.

Bored, I wandered over to where the teletype operator was typing in a short, very short, sliver of a police blurb. It reported that five men broke into the Democratic National Committee office at the Watergate complex and were nabbed. Way back then, AP had an “A” wire for national news and a “B” wire for secondary and regional news. The editor had put the blurb onto the “B” wire rack to be sent as a minor story.

I had a gnawing hunch. My gut said that it was a bigger thing that deserved the “A” wire. The editor, a crusty ol’ guy, was intimidating. I didn’t want to piss him off. But I ambled over to him and gently suggested perhaps that blurb deserved “A” wire attention. He didn’t say a word. Seconds later, I noticed he had walked over and quietly moved the blurb to the “A” wire.

Early the next morning – Sunday -- the ringing phone woke me up. I answered the call. It was a young Republican friend who lived at the other end of the hallway from my apartment at the St. George, near DuPont Circle. He (unnamed by me forever) was a lower level staffer at the Committee to Re-elect the President who was planning to launch his own fledgling computer-related equipment company. He was laughing that one of the break-in men worked at the Nixon campaign committee.

WHAT?! I quickly ditched a commitment to go with a hiking group to Calvert Cliffs.

I shouted to my husband, Dick Barnes, an AP investigative reporter that this was quite a startling, if not shocking, revelation. We both headed straight to the AP office three blocks away. Less than a week earlier, the first reports under a new federal campaign finance law had become available at what was then the General Accounting Office. Most reporters had purchased the contributions list; Dick also obtained the expenditures report filed by the Nixon committee.

Bingo! It listed the name of James W. McCord, Jr. of Rockville, one of the men arrested in the burglary. He was the paid security coordinator for the committee that had been derisively nicknamed CReeP. And, McCord’s private security firm in Rockville had provided equipment to the committee.

Dick had another AP investigative reporter – H.L. Schwartz, who was at home --- scurry out to McCord’s house in Rockville to try to get quotes. But Schwartz was met with refusals. Telephone inquiries were similarly stone walled.

Dick telephoned the assistant U.S. Attorney handling the case, then pounded out the major story. One detail in the story: “Authorities investigating the case were not aware of the link to the Nixon committee until The Associated Press found McCord listed in the voluminous filing required under the new campaign finance act.”

The long 750-word story went on the AP’s “A” wire (first graphs reproduced here from the original). As only an editor of the original piece (although I intially talked with the source), I declined (now regrettably) to be included in the double byline.

The Washington Post’s Woodward and Bernstein went all the way with Watergate, of course. But in their second day on the story, they came to their newsroom and found our AP story that, according to All the President’s Men, “made it embarrassingly clear why McCord had deserved further checking.”

An unheralded involvement in the course of history? Yes. Still, Barnes, Staihar & Schwartz touched history.