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Half the president's men

National | PBS airs Jeb Magruder's new Watergate accusation against Nixon-but doesn't talk to the only other person who knows whether the charge is true

Issue: "Class warfare on vouchers," Aug. 23, 2003

DONNING HIS BLUE SKIPPER'S cap, 75-year-old Fred LaRue begins a morning ritual that includes endless coffee, Southern beach breezes as slow and smooth as his drawl, and polite pigeons at Mary Mahoney's cafŽ on the Gulf Coast. He long ago served his four-and-one-half-month prison term for paying hush money after the failed June 1972 Watergate break-in. Now life is quiet for this long-time Mississippi oilman.

Then emerged Jeb Magruder's revelations last month about the Nixon-era Watergate scandal. Mr. Magruder helped run Richard Nixon's reelection campaign, which included the botched burglary of the Democratic National Committee office in the Watergate Building. When President Nixon resigned in August 1974, he acknowledged his attempt to cover up White House involvement in the burglary plan yet denied knowing of it in advance. No evidence ever has proved otherwise.

But Watergate Plus 30: Shadow of History, a July 30 PBS documentary, featured Mr. Magruder's new claim that Nixon gave the go-ahead for the Watergate break-in during a March 30, 1972 meeting in Key Biscayne, Fla. Concerning that claim, Mr. LaRue flatly told WORLD last week that "Magruder is a [liar]"-except that Mr. LaRue's words were unprintably sharper than that.

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Here's what we do know: The three persons present at the Key Biscayne meeting were now-deceased John Mitchell, chairman of Nixon's 1972 reelection campaign; Mr. LaRue, Mitchell's assistant; and Mr. Magruder, who originally stated that Nixon had no prior knowledge of the burglary attempt. Then, years later, Mr. Magruder claimed Mitchell spoke with White House staffers Robert Haldeman and possibly John Ehrlichman over the phone during the Key Biscayne meeting, and that raised questions of Nixon involvement. Haldeman denied the call occurred.

Now, in the fresh PBS documentary, Mr. Magruder says he overheard President Nixon's voice out of the phone earpiece speaking to Mitchell from the White House. Mr. LaRue says that is impossible. Though he may have left the all-morning meeting briefly "to go to the bathroom," he insists that he screened all calls for Mitchell, who would have told him of such an important call. "There was no phone call. If there had been a phone call, Mitchell wouldn't have answered the phone. That's why I was there. I was there to screen his calls. I got all the phone calls that came into Key Biscayne during this ... period."

Mr. LaRue also claims that even if a call from the White House had occurred, there was no way that Mr. Magruder could have heard who was on the other end. Sitting at a breakfast table at Mary Mahoney's, Mr. LaRue held his hand up to his ear and muttered something that the person across the table could not hear. How much more unlikely, Mr. LaRue said, that Nixon's voice could have been heard and recognized over the earpiece from a distance if a call had occurred.

Why is this dispute important? Mr. LaRue still is confident that, while "President Nixon undoubtedly was involved in the cover-up ... there is absolutely no way that the president OK'd [in advance the break-in]." Mr. Magruder's story stipulates Nixon's complicity: He says Mitchell hung up the phone after talking with Nixon and told Mr. Magruder to give G. Gordon Liddy $250,000 to pay for the break-in.

At this point, with Nixon and Mitchell gone and Mr. LaRue and Mr. Magruder at odds, it's hard to know who is telling the truth-but it's striking that Mr. Magruder's accusation received national publicity, while Mr. LaRue's defense has been ignored. Mr. LaRue says that the PBS documentary crew "never tried to contact me. They didn't want to contact me."

PBS spokesman Mark Fleming was "not really sure" why Mr. LaRue wasn't contacted. Carlton Productions, the company that filmed Watergate Plus 30 for PBS, confirmed that Mr. LaRue was not contacted. "I don't know what the reason was," said Carlton PR representative Colby Kelly.

-Joe Maxwell is writer-in-residence at Belhaven College in Jackson, Miss.

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