Photographer: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images
Photographer: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Jeb Magruder, one of the central figures of the Watergate scandal, died May 11, we learned today.

Magruder was key to the original Watergate operation because, as operational manager of Richard Nixon's re-election committee, he was the direct supervisor of G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt, who organized the break-in and orchestrated campaign intelligence and dirty tricks.

Magruder, 79, was the last surviving attendee of the meeting where (according to Magruder) the “Gemstone” Liddy/Hunt operation was approved by campaign director and former Attorney General John Mitchell, though Mitchell never accepted responsibility. In a 2003 interview, Magruder also claimed he had heard Mitchell receiving orders from Nixon to go after Democratic National Committee Chairman Larry O’Brien’s office in the Watergate. I’m skeptical there’s very much to that story.

Magruder’s role in the coverup and its breakdown was second only to John Dean’s. When the original cover story began to collapse in early 1973, Dean and Magruder raced to cut the best deal with prosecutors. Magruder lost, though both wound up in federal prison and both spilled the beans on important pieces of the puzzle.

Magruder takes with him some of the hope of solving some of the remaining Watergate mysteries, though I don’t think he knew much about Nixon’s personal involvement or knowledge before the arrests in June 1972. He certainly knew (at least within the limits of memory) what happened in the authorizing meeting that included himself, Mitchell and Fred LaRue, but we'll never know if he told the truth about it.

Magruder also may have known more about the decision to target the Watergate. If Liddy told the truth, however -– and on this there’s no particular reason to think he hasn't -- the burglars chose Democratic headquarters principally out of expediency. It was easier to get into than George McGovern’s campaign offices.

However, other than the overheard phone call, there’s no reason to believe that Magruder knew anything about Nixon. Our last opportunity to learn more from a first-person witness probably ended with the death of Chuck Colson two years ago. It is possible, but less likely, that Magruder may have had second-hand information he never told, such as a conversation with Mitchell or Bob Haldeman. The only remaining hope for learning more about Nixon’s “pre-“ role will be from physical evidence. Perhaps some day engineers will manage to recover more information from the tapes.

On the other hand, though we never did learn the whole story of Nixon’s involvement, I don’t think it’s that big a deal. We know that he personally supervised the original coverup, and that the coverup of the coverup was practically a one-man affair on his part. We know that he was aware of criminal activity before the Watergate break-ins, even if we don’t know whether he knew about that particular operation. We know that he ordered his staff to commit crimes, even if we don’t know whether he ordered any of the crimes they actually committed (we know that his staff ignored some of his orders). And we know that he was personally responsible for the general atmosphere of illegality in the White House and in his campaign, and that he personally cultivated the obsession with obtaining political information that led directly to Watergate and other crimes.

Magruder wasn't the worst of Nixon’s men. As far as I know, his post-Nixon life as a minister was respectable and responsible. He was, like Dean, an ambitious guy in the wrong place, who then made the wrong decisions. He'll always be known as a criminal and an important figure in perhaps the greatest political crime in U.S. history.

To contact the writer of this article: Jonathan Bernstein at Jbernstein62@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net.