OXFORD, England — The first people outside the White House to hear Richard Nixon's secret Watergate tapes 44 years ago were a young law clerk who would become a Mormon apostle and his boss, the judge in the Watergate trials.
In a jury room next to the judge's chambers, Todd Christofferson slipped a tape into the machine and stuffed paper under the record button to protect against an accident that would erase evidence. He and Judge John J. Sirica then slipped on headphones and listened in stunned silence as the president of the United States agreed to blackmail.
"Judge Sirica and I were shocked as we heard Nixon calmly ask" how much money it would take to keep the Watergate burglars quiet, Elder D. Todd Christofferson said Thursday, when the member of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints shared lessons he learned from his remarkable ringside seat during Watergate with the faculty and students at Christ Church College in Oxford, England.
Nixon's numbed conscience ran his presidency aground. With an awakened conscience, Elder Christofferson said, he could have ended the Watergate cover-up and saved his presidency.
Instead, Sirica and Elder Christofferson heard Nixon say he could raise $1 million to pay off the burglars and worry that the money be traced back to him.
A numbed conscience
"The judge and I couldn’t believe, didn’t want to believe what we were hearing," Elder Christofferson said, "and he passed me a note suggesting we rewind the tape and listen again. Up to this point we both still hoped that the president was not really involved, but this was indisputable."
Sirica told his clerk he felt gut punched. They finished listening to the conversation, put the tape away and went home early.
"Even now, I remember the sense of disillusionment and sadness," Elder Christofferson said. "This was some months before Nixon’s resignation, but we knew then that the president would be impeached if he did not resign first."
Saturday is the 45th anniversary of the Watergate break-in that led to the cover-up. Elder Christofferson said in an interview that he hears echoes of Watergate whenever a special prosecutor or special counsel is appointed to investigate the White House, a president considers firing one and there are pervasive leaks in the news. The point of his lecture was that there are moral absolutes, that Watergate was a failure of decent men to follow their conscience, and that the world needs public servants with personal integrity.
He does not believe Nixon and those around him were inherently evil.
"A weak conscience, and certainly a numbed conscience, opens the door for 'Watergates,' be they large or small, collective or personal — disasters that can hurt and destroy both the guilty and the innocent," Elder Christofferson said.
A scandal's scandal
"None of us are above that challenge," he added in an interview, "and we shouldn't go blithely along and assume it's only very bad people who do those things. It's basically decent people who go astray."
The apostle called Watergate a scandal's scandal. More than 40 years later, Elder Christofferson continues to wonder why Nixon allowed it to fester. It began when burglars tied to the president's re-election committee broke into the Democratic National Party's headquarters at the Watergate hotel and office complex on June 17, 1972, to repair electronic eavesdropping bugs they had installed the previous month. Police arrested the burglars. There still is no evidence Nixon ordered the break-in, but rather than call a wrong a wrong, he quickly agreed to the scheme his aides concocted to cover up ties to the White House.
The result became "astonishing theater from first to last," said Nigel Bowles, a Nixon expert at Corpus Christi College in Oxford. Watergate reminded the rest of the world that America does not have a straightforward presidential system but a government with separate powers.
Watergate also was a set of events that opened a window on Nixon's character, Bowles said.
Sirica was Nixon's antipode.
"I was proud of him for his integrity and commitment to follow his conscience," Elder Christofferson said. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld Sirica's order compelling Nixon to comply with the prosecutor's subpoena of nine tapes of Nixon conversations about Watergate.
The burglars were indicted in Sirica's courtroom two weeks after Elder Christofferson, a recent graduate of Duke law school, became Sirica's clerk. The judge and his clerk quickly developed a close relationship. Sirica eventually asked Elder Christofferson to more than double his one-year clerkship and gave him major responsibilities. Elder Christofferson handled media requests and ultimately carried the 50-page grand jury report that revealed Nixon's role in the conspiracy to the House Impeachment Committee at the U.S. Capitol.
"They were political animals intent on victory, no doubt, but they didn’t begin this process as criminals," Elder Christofferson said of Nixon, his attorney general, the White House legal counsel and other Nixon aides. "Many even served in the military and philanthropic organizations. Why did they do what they did, and what protects you or me, in our lives, our marriages, our families, and our school and vocational endeavors, from tragically destructive errors or even criminal conduct?"
Good public servants have personal integrity, which is based on conscience, he said. Moral relativism is the enemy of conscience, which "requires faith in fixed moral concepts and values such as justice, mercy, love, honesty, generosity, self-restraint and integrity that exist apart from personal preference."
"The life lesson I took away from this experience," Elder Christofferson said, "was that my hope for avoiding the possibility of a similar catastrophe in my own life lay in never making an exception — always and invariably submitting to the dictates of an ethical conscience. Putting one’s integrity on hold, even for seemingly small acts in seemingly small matters, places one in danger of losing the benefit and protection of conscience altogether."
Elder Christofferson offered a practical, self-help suggestion.
"A life devoted to service to others allows conscience to flourish," he said. "Service provides a natural barrier against the ills that flow in the wake of self-will and self-interest. A focus outside ourselves and beyond personal autonomy and personal pleasure will protect and strengthen conscience."
Nixon eventually did resign. Elder Christofferson called Watergate an intriguing, sad affair, a tragedy.
His talk filled the lecture hall at Christ Church College at Oxford University. About 100 people attended the event, including the president of the LDS Church's Europe Area, Elder Patrick Kearon; the president of the faith's England London Mission, Mark Stevens, and his wife, Sister Jean A. Stevens, formerly of the church's Primary General Presidency; London Temple President Michael Otterson, former managing director of Church Public Affairs; and Utah Valley University President Matt Holland, who is on a summer sabbatical at Oxford.
During the question-and-answer session, Elder Christofferson expressed personal concern about the constant discussion of politics and Supreme Court nominees, justices and decisions. "I worry about partisanship infecting the judiciary," he said.
He confessed to some pessimism that the lessons of Watergate seem to be relearned by each generation.
"However," he added, "I came away from my experience with Watergate feeling quite positive about many people who were truly public servants. You have a lot of fine people who really care about conscience and try to do good. I took comfort in that."
During his 28 months as Sirica's law clerk, the judge once stopped Elder Christofferson and said, "I hope you appreciate this. Not many law clerks get an experience like this."
He paused, then added, "I guess not many judges do, either."