The Aztec Gold, Diamond Dogs, and Political Witchcraft Surrounding Watergate

Think things are weird now? Along with the strange machinations surrounding the fall of Richard Nixon, the Watergate era also gave us the David Bowie look-alike contest.


A few weeks ago I mentioned to someone with a conspiratorial bent that I was looking through the Voice archives to see how we had covered the Watergate scandal in the 1970s. He immediately grabbed a book off his shelf called Sinister Forces: A Grimoire of American Political Witchcraft – the Manson Secret and turned to a page noting that the author, Peter Levenda, had been inspired in his lifelong quest to expose the underbelly of American power by an article he had read in the Village Voice, in 1973. Levenda wrote, “The Voice article linked such disparate elements as the Charles Manson murders, Richard Nixon and Watergate, E. Howard Hunt and occultism, Howard Hughes, and even Disneyland. It may have been intended as whimsical, but the links — as I would later learn from the work of Professor Culianu — are themselves evidence of one of the strongest forces in history. For the sin of revealing these forces, Giordano Bruno was put to the stake during the Inquisition. For the sin of revealing these same forces, Professor Culianu was murdered in 1991.”

Conspiracy theories aren’t really my jam, but this dark reference to the publication I have written for since 1994 very much intrigued me. We are in the process of digitizing the Voice archives, but in the meantime one complete set is contained in bound volumes in our Manhattan offices. It is actually a near-complete set, because the very first volume was stolen by an unknown asshole sometime in 2015. Now we keep the archives under lock and key, but I was a bit taken aback when I looked for the article in question, which Levenda noted elsewhere was titled “Political Witchcraft,” by a writer I was unfamiliar with, Craig Karpel, and found that volume — No. 18, October 4, 1973, to December 27, 1973 — also missing.

Hmmm. Well, I thought, let’s see what’s in the card catalog under “Karpel.” Although the hand-typed index cards were not kept up after the dawn of the electronic age, in the 1990s, the 1970s are well covered, and sure enough I found Karpel referenced in other issues. And, for my purposes, I struck gold:

Karpel, Craig, “Rock me on the Watergate.”
A fantastic voyage of Richard N. through South Bimini,
Key Biscayne, and other reaches of the celestial star-crossed Prexy. (page 5, 5/10/73)

Wow. This sounded like an interesting trip — getting into the head of a political villain, something George Steiner later did with Hitler in his wildly controversial 1981 book, The Portage to San Cristóbal of A.H., and Tom Carson did with an ensemble cast of political and pop-cult postwar characters in 2003’s Gilligan’s Wake. (Yes, that Gilligan, of “fateful trip” and “three-hour tour” fame.) Indeed, this was something to look forward to reading. I pulled out the heavy, green-bound volume, turned to the last page of the May 3, 1973, issue and saw, on the right-hand side, the first page of…the May 17, 1973, issue. What?!?

I have to admit that for the briefest moment I did hear a snippet of the X-Files theme in my head, but as I looked closer I saw that the bindery had simply left that issue out — it hadn’t been removed. I have seen similar mistakes in other volumes (individual issues bound upside down, for example), and chalked them up to the hippie-hangover carelessness of the era. And there is ultimately no reason to be creeped out by the omission, because anyone who really wants to read the articles can find them on microfilm at the main library on 42nd Street, as well as at university libraries around the country. And, hopefully soon, all of the pages will be digitized right here on the Voice’s website. In the meantime, we do have Jules Feiffer’s cartoon from that May 17, 1973, issue, which replaces the promises Nixon had been making for five years to end the Vietnam War with an equally mendacious pledge to pursue justice “fairly, fully, and impartially, no matter who is involved,” as Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox’s Watergate investigations got under way. At this time, the impeachment of Richard Nixon was just a fever dream on the left —the president had the strong backing of his party and his approval/disapproval ratings matched at roughly 42 percent, numbers such a seasoned pol could easily weather.

Also below you will, in fact, find some of Karpel’s free-range prose on Watergate, from other volumes of the Voice archive, plus additional Voice-ian takes on Nixon’s political demise. And for extra historical context, we’ve included some ads to remind us that — along with politicians and everyday citizens — such cultural luminaries as David Bowie and Francis Ford Coppola were also caught up in the paranoia of the age.

For rootin’-tootin’ intrigue, Karpel’s tale about billions of dollars’ worth of Aztec gold secreted somewhere in New Mexico’s White Sands Missile Range is tough to top. The story of gold bars stacked like cordwood in an underground cavern had been around for decades (long before the military had appropriated the land to test rockets and various ordnance), but gained new currency when former White House Counsel John Dean, testifying before the Senate Watergate Committee, mentioned that celebrity lawyer F. Lee Bailey had approached Nixon’s attorney general John Mitchell about greasing the skids with the Army to allow a search for the gold on federal land. Karpel also lays out another possibility, that the gold was not from pre-Columbian hordes but had been gathered by a secret society in the former Confederate states to finance a second civil war: “ ‘The Golden Circle spared no expense in burying its stolen or accumulated gold,’ says Jesse James III, of Banning, California, grandson of who do you think. ‘It employed the best engineers and the most modern equipment. My daddy said a white laborer was seldom employed in building a depository. Indians or Negroes were preferred because they could keep their mouths shut…. The big depositories were booby-trapped from all directions and more than one snooper has been blown into a million pieces.’ ” The grandson of the infamous outlaw added, “Everything seems to be turning up these days in the Watergate hearings.”

And what would a conspiracy theory be without a link to the 1963 JFK assassination? In a January 31, 1974, article, Karpel reminded Voice readers that Leon Jaworski — who had become the Watergate investigation’s special prosecutor after Nixon fired Cox during the Saturday Night Massacre — had also been on the periphery of the Warren Commission’s investigation into Kennedy’s murder. Karpel informs us that Jaworski was part of a team interrogating Jack Ruby, the mobbed-up nightclub owner who had gunned down Lee Harvey Oswald — JFK’s alleged assassin — thereby forestalling any trial that might get out all the facts about the Kennedy killing. Karpel writes that Jaworski sat opposite Ruby “in a fluorescent-lit room in Dallas County Jail giving poor Jack the double fish-eye on behalf of [Texas Governor] John B. Connally and a number of John Does too libelous to mention.”

Karpel continues, “You mean — don’t tell me! — Leon Jaworski was in the room the day Jack L. Ruby begged to be taken directly to Washington so he could stop telling nothing but the truth and start telling the whole truth??”

Karpel speculates that Ruby was too afraid of retribution to tell what he knew in a local jail and felt he could only be safe in federal custody, but got no help from Jaworski, who, Karpel writes, could’ve telephoned the Texas attorney general and demand that Ruby “be brought to Washington at once to testify further before this Commission. Does anyone have a dime?”

It is fascinating to go through the archives and come across other reminders of the agitation that was rampant at that time, so much like our own. A full-page ad for “The Bowie Look-Alike Contest,” in the July 4, 1974, Voice, is a reminder that David Bowie’s recently released Diamond Dogs album was filled with a cynicism and paranoia that was only partially related to his failed attempt to get permission to write a musical based on George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. Although Bowie would reference Nixon directly on 1975’s Young Americans, it is Diamond Dogs’ enthralling song triptych — “Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (Reprise)” — that channels the ominous mood of the Watergate era. Although the public had not yet heard the poorly recorded White House tapes — they were at this time only available in transcripts filled with the term “expletive deleted,” to spare the nation from knowing that the Leader of the Free World often said, “shit,” “fuck,” and other words banned from American TV — the stuttering distortions and static-laden howls of Bowie’s sonic collages captured an ambience of backroom schemes and baroque corruption. Such lyrics as “I’ll make you a deal/Like any other candidate/We’ll pretend we’re walking home/’Cause your future’s at stake” and “I’m having so much fun/With the poisonous people/Spreading rumors and lies/And stories they made up” were dead-on back then, and remain surprising relevant today.

By the August 1, 1974, issue, the transcripts from the tapes, which revealed Nixon obstructing justice and scheming to raise cash to pay off blackmailers, among other crimes and misdemeanors, had eroded his support among the public and politicians. Impeachment loomed, and Jules Feiffer used the paper’s front page to remind citizens that Nixon had not only suborned perjury, enriched himself in office, and used presidential powers to attack his personal enemies, but had also prolonged the pointless war in Southeast Asia for purely political reasons.

When the August 8 issue rolled off the presses, Nixon was still clinging to power, and the Voice sent a 27-year-old reporter, Ron Rosenbaum, to Washington to cover the congressional machinations over an impeachment vote. The Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s followers were on the steps of the Capitol to support the president, and Rosenbaum writes, “God has spoken twice to the Reverend Sun Moon, one of his supporters told me. First in Korea in the late 1930s when Sun Moon was a lad of sixteen, God told him he would have an important mission in the world. Then last year God spoke again and told the Reverend Sun Moon that he had a mission to convince America to forgive Richard Nixon and forget impeachment.” Rosenbaum then delves into the minutiae of arguments among House members of the pros and cons of an impeachment vote. Such painstaking reporting on the wielding and abuse of power no doubt helped prepare Rosenbaum for the massive amounts of research he would go on to do for his magisterial 1998 bestseller, Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil

The following issue found Rosenbaum speculating on what day and hour the president would give up the ghost and actually resign: “Inside the Cabinet Room Richard Nixon is smiling. Consciously and intentionally. This is the morning after he confessed to lying and deceiving not only the public but his most loyal supporters, his closest friends, his own family.” Toward the end of the article, Rosenbaum recounts how Nixon had the press literally locked up. “At 6:20 an armed guard takes up a position right outside the briefing room doors. Reporters trying to leave are told that no one is to exit or enter ‘for a few minutes.’ No explanation. Orders.” He picks up a phone and is connected to one of the White House press assistants, and asks her if she knows the press has been locked in. “ ‘Yes we do,’ she says cheerfully.” Turns out that Nixon wanted to walk from the Executive Office Building to his last supper in the White House alone and unobserved by the press or anyone else.

The Watergate scandal ground on for two years, and Nixon’s agonies dominated the airwaves and front pages for much of that time. In the August 22 issue, two Voice reporters ruminated on Nixon’s resignation in “What Will We Talk About Now?” and “What Will We Write About Now?” After Nixon had lost the California governor’s race, in 1962, he’d groused to the assembled press, “Just think how much you’re gonna be missing — you don’t have Nixon to kick around, anymore.” A dozen years later, the majority of Americans were indeed sick of their self-aggrandizing, divisive leader and were ready to hear the last of Richard Nixon. His partial rehabilitation in later decades, helped along by, among others, Bill Clinton, is a story for another time.

We’ll conclude with an ad that sums up those times. Although he started working on the script long before the revelation that Nixon had been secretly taping conversations in the White House, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation was released at the height of the Watergate scandal. In May 1974, fellow film director Brian De Palma interviewed Coppola and asked him if there was any connection between the claustrophobic thriller, starring Gene Hackman as a surveillance expert who has uncovered a plot by a wife and her lover to murder her husband, and the national scandal.

DE PALMA: But surely you knew that when the secret was found out and you discovered that it was only a wife killing her husband instead of something like preventing an assassination or some cataclysmic event that it might disappoint people?

COPPOLA: Yes, I was afraid that people would think there was more to it than there really was. And especially when Watergate happened, I was really frightened that people would expect it to be about spies and tapes and that sort of thing and then be very angry that it wasn’t. But right from the beginning I wanted it to be something personal, not political, because somehow that is even more terrible to me.

But, as we are learning once again in the age of Trump, the old saying is really true: “The personal is political.”