An odd Watergate reunion of sorts is taking place today way up in Minnesota at the University of St. Thomas School of Law. Coming together for the first time ever at a conference are two key aides to then President Nixon: counsel John Dean and domestic affairs deputy and codirector of the secret "plumbers" unit Egil "Bud" Krogh. Also two key prosecutors, Charles Breyer and Jill Wine-Banks. The point? To teach the lessons learned.
When I interviewed Krogh and Wine-Banks, they were remarkably in agreement on the key lesson: integrity. Krogh, in fact, has recently come out with a book with that title, cowritten with son Matthew. "You can never check your personal integrity at the door," said Krogh, who admits that he clearly did when accepting without question Nixon’s request that he find out who leaked the Pentagon Papers. Once dubbed "Mr. Clean," he conceded that there was so much pressure to do what Nixon wanted and also to be liked that "we didn’t even see the ethical issue" of digging into the files of the psychiatrist for Pentagon Papers figure Daniel Ellsberg to find damaging information. His team found nothing. Now a long-serving lawyer in Washington State, Krogh has lots of advice for those who might join the new administration next January. First, he says, swear allegiance to the office, not the man. Next, "align yourself with good people" who can determine what’s ethical and what’s not. Avoid groupthink. And challenge requests and decisions you think are wrong. "I’m not saying it’s easy," he said, explaining that "you don’t want to risk alienating the president for fear that you won’t be in the next meeting with the president.” As part of his integrity drive and book, he has also developed a model called "the integrity zone" that he hopes incoming White House staffers will review. "It’s the book I wish I could have read 35 years ago when I was sworn in," he said.
Wine-Banks, an assistant Watergate prosecutor who is chief of the Department of Education to Careers for the Chicago public schools, noted that back in the 1970s, lawyers weren’t taught ethics, and most of those involved were young. "It’s very hard to say no to the boss," she said. "That’s the lesson of Watergate," she added in a message she planned to explore at St. Thomas today. Wine-Banks said the lesson, unfortunately, has to be relearned often in Washington, especially in administrations perceived to be full of yes men. "It’s asking the hard questions and being willing to speak up" that can keep aides out of trouble, she said.
Interestingly, they both are recommending books for the incoming staff to read that will guide them on issues of ethics and responsibility. Krogh went with David Abshire’s A Call to Greatness, and Wine-Banks recommends former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s Memo to the President Elect.