Jeb Magruder: Nixon campaign manager who was jailed for his part in the Watergate conspiracy and went on to find God

 

Jeb Magruder's career followed a classic Watergate arc. He was a Republican activist and California businessman who worked on Richard Nixon's successful 1968 campaign and followed him to the White House, only to be jailed for his part in the conspiracy and cover-up that forced the president to resign.

Upon release Magruder reinvented himself as a born-again Christian – like Chuck Colson, Nixon's special counsel – and worked as a Presbyterian minister. But for decades he stayed mostly silent on America's biggest political scandal, ion which he was an important member of the cast.

Then in 2003, Magruder ventured where no Watergate figure had gone before. Not only had Nixon orchestrated the cover-up of the scandal, he alleged, but the president had actually ordered the fateful break-in at Democratic party headquarters on the night of 17 June 1972 that would lead to his downfall.

Magruder had gone to Washington in January 1969 to work under Herbert Klein, Nixon's first director of communications. Three years later he was appointed deputy director of the 1972 re-election campaign, the infamous Committee for the Re-election of the President or CRP, also known as "Creep". Nixon routed his opponent George McGovern that November in the third largest electoral college landslide ever, and in January 1973 Magruder was made director of policy planning at the Commerce department.

In fact, his fate was effectively sealed that same month when his name came up during the trial of the five burglars at the Democratic offices in the Watergate building, as it emerged that the operation had been organised and financed by Creep. Magruder denied involvement under oath. But as the cover-up unravelled it was clear he had lied. His punishment was a four-year jail sentence.

Like Colson, the ruthless operative once known as "Nixon's hatchet man", who also participated in the cover-up and later became an influential evangelical Christian, Magruder ultimately spent seven months behind bars. Upon his release, he too turned to God.

"All the earthly supports I had ever known had given way, and when I saw how flimsy they were I understood why they had never been able to make me happy," he wrote in his 1978 memoir From Power to Peace. "The missing ingredient in my life was Jesus Christ."

After taking a divinity degree at Princeton Theological Seminary, Magruder was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1981, serving as pastor in churches in California, Kentucky and Columbus, Ohio, where he led a city committee on values and ethics. "I'm aware that there might be some irony associated with that," he told The New York Times. "But this is a natural issue for me. I had one of the great ethical dilemmas of all time."

However he reserved his real bombshell for interviews in 2003 marking the 30th anniversary of the scandal. Hitherto, Magruder had maintained that Nixon had no prior knowledge of the break-in. Now he claimed that he had heard the president ordering the operation on 30 March 1972, two and a half months beforehand, during a telephone conversation with John Mitchell, his close friend and former attorney general who headed the CRP.

The setting, Magruder said, was a meeting between himself and Mitchell in Key Biscayne, Florida, to discuss the Committee's plans ahead of the election, including one to bug the phone of Larry O'Brien, the Democratic chairman. Uneasy at the idea, Mitchell called HR Haldeman, the White House chief of staff, when Nixon himself came on the line.

"His voice is very distinct, you couldn't miss who was on the phone," Magruder said, claiming that the president had said, "John, we need to get that information on Larry O'Brien, you need to go ahead with the plan."

The assertion has been disputed by most Watergate experts, and neither official White House logs nor Nixon's secret tapes contain any evidence of such a conversation that day. But for Carl Bernstein, one of the Washington Post reporters who broke the original story, Magruder's amended version rung true. "I find it more than plausible, I find it compelling," Bernstein said at the time.

RUPERT CORNWELL

Jeb Stuart Magruder, businessman, White House official and Presbyterian minister: born New York 3 November 1934; married 1959 Gail Nicholas (divorced 1986; four children), 1987 Patricia Newton (divorced 2003); died Danbury, Connecticut 11 May 2014.

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