Jefferson Morley is the author of the new book Scorpion's Dance: The President, the Spymaster, and Watergate. It focuses on the dynamic between Richard Nixon and CIA director Richard Helms. Morley's other books include The Ghost. A longtime journalist and editor, he lives in Washington, D.C.
Q: What inspired you to write Scorpion’s Dance?
A: The book originated when I was surfing the web 10 years ago, and found the site nixontapes.org. They compiled all the Watergate tapes, but most had never been listened to. The recordings between Richard Nixon and Richard Helms are the only known recordings between a president and a CIA director. I thought it was a good peg for a story.
A few years ago, after I’d written a few books about the CIA, I came back to it. The relationship between the two men culminated in the Watergate affair. The book was 10 years in the making as it gestated in my mind. I got a contract in 2019 to write it.
Q: How would you describe the dynamic between Nixon and Helms?
A: These were two men who spent a lot of time at the pinnacle of American power. Helms was a career CIA officer who was director for six years. Nixon was vice president for eight years and president for close to five. These were two men of power who were very Machiavellian, very devious, and very realistic.
Feeling besieged by the antiwar movement, Nixon wanted to attack his perceived enemies and expand domestic surveillance. And Helms enabled him.
Helms provided the [Watergate] burglars to the president. This is a side of the story that’s never been told. He provided them. We have it on tape, [chief of staff Bob] Haldeman telling Nixon that he wants to plug the leaks and that Helms recommends [E. Howard] Hunt.
The idea over the years that the CIA was a bystander is false. It was Dick Helms’s cover story. The burglary was a joint venture between the White House and the CIA.
I tried to reframe it. Watergate is usually told as a chapter in the history of Richard Nixon’s mind and his presidency. Four of the seven burglars worked for the CIA. Hunt put together the burglary team. It mainstreams the story—it’s not just Richard Nixon’s paranoid mind, but a broader streak in the American government: If we want to break the law, we can.
The collaboration of the CIA and the president in the Watergate affair is the driving force. Over the years, we’ve come to understand Watergate through the lens of All the President’s Men, the media myth that us newspaper reporters love. But there was much more to the story.
Q: Can you say more about the most common perceptions and misconceptions about Watergate?
A: I was on a panel with Tim Naftali, who was director of the Nixon library, and he said one result of Watergate was the belief that our institutions are strong. It’s the All the President’s Men story—that the free press prevailed over the president. Naftali said it wasn’t that the institutions worked, but that idiosyncratic factors led to Nixon’s downfall. He didn’t want to defy the Supreme Court, or burn the tapes.
Now, there’s a [former] president with no compunction about that. One way that we’ve talked about Watergate is too optimistic. People connect the Nixon presidency to the Trump presidency. Roger Stone was connected to both, and he and others learned the lessons: not to obey the Supreme Court, to destroy evidence, to be proud about it. There’s a continuity between the Nixon and the Trump presidency—Trump learned from Nixon’s mistakes.
Q: We’re now in the middle of another set of congressional hearings. What resonance do you think Watergate has in today’s political climate?
A: There’s a sense of, can Congress hold a lawless president accountable? That was the question in Watergate, and it’s the question today.
And what is the role of the CIA today? Institutionally, it was hostile to President Trump since it saw the dealings with Russian state actors in the 2016 election. In Watergate, the president and the CIA were working together. That’s a difference.
One thing that’s worth thinking about: if the Watergate affair resulted from a lawless president and an agency acting with impunity, what happens if Trump gets back in and gets control of the CIA? He didn’t really try to do that the last time. He denigrated it. If he’s president again, he will try to get control of the CIA.
You see former CIA officials on TV who are critical of Trump, but there are people at the CIA who support him. If he finds a supportive faction, you’re back to the Watergate situation. It’s a pretty scary prospect.
Q: How did you research the book?
A: Mostly, except for the first couple of months, I was doing this during the pandemic. So there was no archival research. It was difficult. Instead of going to an archive, I would identify folders that might be relevant, and would get a big package of material. I could get access to some archival material that way.
But the Nixon Library didn’t take document requests during the pandemic. I wanted to see his correspondence during his “wilderness years” in the 1960s.
I borrowed a friend’s cabin, and would go out and write all day. For my books, I develop a complete chronology that makes the writing much easier. I did research remotely, I did interviews remotely, I put the chronology together, and I started writing.
I had a very tight deadline. If we wanted the book to be out in June 2022 for the 50th anniversary of Watergate, I had to get the book in by June 2021. Ideally I would have had more time, but this is the time to do a Watergate book. On deadline in a pandemic—it was challenging!
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m writing a memoir of my high school basketball team. It won the Minnesota state championship in 1976. It’s a great sports story—I’m looking at what happened to all the guys on the team.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Something that’s genuinely new in the book is that part of the backdrop of Watergate is the politics of assassination and how it played out at the highest levels of government.
[Senator] Howard Baker said Nixon and Helms had so much on each other. They knew about the deadly business of assassination, going back to the Cuban revolution. How it played out between the two men is most revelatory…it’s a cautionary tale.
Related to that, it’s almost Shakespearean, the seriousness and deadliness of their ambition. As a biography of power, that’s one of the things that’s the most interesting about the book. I didn’t set out to do that, but I realized that’s what I did.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Jefferson Morley.