Monday, March 29, 2010

The Walt Minnick You Don't Know

[Editor's Note: This collaborative analysis of first district Congressman Walt Minnick (D-Idaho) is as much a response to his vote Sunday night against health care reform as it is a manifestation of a deep-seated frustration with the repercussions of his election on Democratic politics statewide. I had the privilege of co-authoring this piece with the articulate & talented editor of The MountainGoat Report. This collaborative work is cross-posted at The MountainGoat Report. Future installments of this research will appear separately on our respective blogs. "The Walt Minnick You Don't Know" was originally published on March 22, 2010.]

It's not by accident that among the first lines in nearly every current biography of Idaho Congressman Walter Clifford Minnick is a phrase about growing up on a wheat farm in Walla Walla, Washington. It makes for a nice narrative and effective imagery—small town boy, hard work, conservative values—things a guy running for political office in a rural western district would want to highlight, especially one running as a reluctant Democrat.

Like anyone would, there are things in Walt Minnick's past that he frequently highlights, things he would rather forget and things he just doesn't talk about. Depending on the audience, those things vary. However, some of those things he highlights have been distorted or are downright false and most of what you think you know about Walt Minnick, you don't. Somewhere beneath Walt's glossy, airbrushed, postcard version of the past is the grainy, less glamorous, washed-out truth.

In the airbrushed version, Walt spent two years in the Army and even, as his campaign Facebook page reads, “serving his country in Vietnam.” This assertion is repeated in other biographies, including the executive search site “Boardroom Insiders” and The Committee for a Liveable Future (LivPAC), the political action committee founded by Congressman Earl Blumenaur (D-OR). Actually a young Walter Minnick was desperately looking for a way to avoid the draft, and did so successfully. While scores of men his age, most with less means, spent their tours of duty in the jungles of Southeast Asia, Walt spent his time as an analyst in the Pentagon, with at least the last six months of his two-year obligation spent in the White House.

In the glossy version, Walt worked in the Nixon White House on drug policy and he did—with a budget that, under his watch, ballooned to over 13 times what it was when he began. But even though he requested and received a letter from the Watergate Special Prosecutor confirming he was never a target of the investigation, multiple sources place Minnick, at least temporarily, in the Special Investigations Unit. Known as the “Plumbers,” this brainchild of Nixon was tasked with preventing leaks of classified information and carrying out covert operations against his political enemies. Led by Minnick's boss, Egil Krogh, who would eventually plead guilty and spend time in prison, the Plumbers were the nucleus of illegal activity that would ultimately lead to the downfall of the administration.

In the postcard version, Walt “resigned in protest” after the Saturday Night Massacre (when Nixon fired Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox). It's not clear when Minnick actually decided to resign, let alone whether he “resigned in protest,” but if he was protesting, it wasn't very loudly. He stuck around for at least three months after that October Saturday of 1973.

The truth doesn't fit as nicely on an airbrushed postcard but to understand Walt Minnick's grainy past you have to start at the beginning.

Conservative Background

It may be effective imagery, but to say Walt was raised on a wheat farm is to ignore most of the story. The Minnick wheat farm wasn't the hardscrabble existence typically associated with farming—for the most part, it wasn't even farmed by the Minnicks but hired out to a manager—and thanks to his family legacy, Walt was afforded benefits few others at the time enjoyed, including an elite education and draft deferments, that eventually took him all the way to the White House.

Walt's grandfather, Walter Clarence Minnick, was the second generation of Minnick land owners in Walla Walla County. With extensive tracts of land and among the county's large wheat growers, Walter Clarence was far from a typical farmer. He was educated at the Waitsburg Academy and the Walton College of Expression in Spokane, offering courses in law, oratory and dramatic action at a cost, in 1904, of $125 per year—two and a half times the tuition rate at Walla Walla's Whitman College. [1] He was also among the organizers of the Exchange Bank of Waitsburg and served as vice-president for a time. Praising his business ability for affording him time to “enjoy the worth-while pleasures of life,” Lyman's History of Old Walla Walla County described Walter Clarence among the “substantial men of Walla Walla.” [2]

His son, Walter Lawrence—Walt's father—graduated from Whitman College in 1935 where he was a member of Phi Beta Kappa and Phi Delta Theta and excelled in debate. He married fellow Whitman alum Dorothy Waldron in 1936 and, at the height of the Great Depression, both were off to the East Coast to finish their education—she at Tuft's University and he at Harvard Law. [3] After graduating and passing the Washington State Bar Exam in 1938 and a brief stint with a Seattle law firm, they returned to Walla Walla. Within months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Walter Lawrence began serving three years active duty as a Naval intelligence officer in the North Pacific. [4]

Upon his return, he became a partner in the law firm of Bean & Minnick, which became Minnick & Hahner in 1949 and eventually what is present day Minnick-Hayner. [5] As the couple busied themselves with preserving and building the Minnick legacy, somewhere along the way people began calling him “Shine.” Along the way they also developed a conservative viewpoint they shared publicly. They believed the National Labor Relations Act was flawed and should be revised, thought the forty-hour work week should be repealed during the Korean War, advised the community how to legally avoid estate taxes, protested regulation of herbicides and opposed public disclosure of campaign contributions. [6, 7, 8, 9, 10]

By September, 1942 when Walter Clifford arrived, the Minnicks were well established among the elite of Walla Walla County.

Post-World War II Walla Walla was a conservative, rural community dominated by a Republican Party in which the Minnicks had become influential. There was also a healthy dose of libertarian-leaning, conspiracy theorist inclination. The summer of 1948, as a second “red scare” was sweeping the country, a Walla Walla native, University of Washington professor Melvin Rader, was dragged before the Washington State Un-American Activities (Canwell) Committee. In False Witness, his book on the incident and its aftermath, Rader described a similar fervor his attorney father, Cary Rader, encountered during the first red scare some three decades earlier with a group of substantial members of the community known as the Walla Walla “Committee of Public Safety.” [11] Decades of this “un-American” fervor cloaked as national security culminated in 1947 with the Canwell Committee, chaired by Rep. Albert Canwell of Spokane, which would become a harbinger of the McCarthy hearings to follow. Although not reauthorized in 1949, the Committee's proponents and sentiments remained, especially in the Inland Northwest.

This was evident in the 1952 GOP presidential primary pitting Ohio Senator Robert A. Taft, the non-interventionist, anti-socialist, anti-labor, “Mr. Republican” conservative standard bearer, against General Dwight Eisenhower. Among Taft supporters nationally, were Robert W. Welch, Jr., who would later form the John Birch Society, accusing Eisenhower and others of communism, and Senator Joseph McCarthy who would later chair his infamous hearings, accusing many of subversion and espionage as communist sympathizers.

Walla Walla County sent two rival slates of delegates to the Washington State GOP convention that year—one slate of 18 delegates pledged for Taft and another 18 for Eisenhower selected at a “rump” convention after accusing Taft supporters of railroading their slate through. [12] In a bitter convention fight, the state wound up sending 20 Ike and 4 Taft delegates to the national convention, the Taft delegates coming from the eastern counties. [13]

As Ike secured the GOP nomination, in part to assuage Taft supporters, a young California congressman who had made a name for himself on the House Un-American Activities Committee was selected as his running mate. The vice-presidential nomination was just the beginning for Richard M. Nixon who within twenty years would become President of the United States and eventually young Walter Minnick's boss.

Despite attempts to solidify their support, “anti-subversive” sentiment was still running high in Walla Walla. In October, Young Republican president Wayne Hereford urged Taft supporters and “all Americans” to unite behind Eisenhower and the Republican ticket to defeat the threats of “Trumanism, communism and socialism.” Hereford feared that a recent campaign appearance by the vice presidential nominee for the racist, antisemitic, anti-communist minor party Christian Nationalists (who had commandeered General Douglas MacArthur without his approval for the top of their ticket) would siphon votes from Eisenhower. [14, 15]

Those fears never materialized and two years later, all of Walla Walla turned out to welcome President Eisenhower for the dedication of McNary dam, complete with torchlight parade, a dozen or so high school bands, boy scouts selling coffee and a live baby elephant courtesy of Al Canwell who was running, it would turn out, unsuccessfully, for U.S. Congress. [16, 17]

Must have been a heady time for a young boy in Walla Walla just celebrating his twelfth birthday.

Meanwhile, with his parents, Shine and Dot, active in and leading a virtual who's who of Walla Walla civic and social clubs, including the Walla Walla County Republicans, the Walla Walla Country Club, the Chamber of Commerce, Kiwanis, Junior Club, YMCA, Masonic Lodge, Farm Bureau, American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars among others, the expectations for young Walter in maintaining the Minnick legacy must have been high.

Summers were spent working for Uncle Gib—his mother's brother-in-law, F. Gilbert Lamb, then president of pea packing turned potato processing giant, Lamb-Weston—where he began as insect control crewman, eventually becoming assistant to the comptroller. [18] Somewhere along the way people began calling him “Skeeter.”

With his father on the board of overseers and both parents Whitman alumni, there probably wasn't much discussion about it. At Whitman, Skeeter would pursue an economics degree and, like his father, was a member of Phi Beta Kappa and Phi Delta Theta and excelled in debate. He also followed his parents' lead politically, active in student government and serving as president of the Whitman College Young Republicans. [19] This gave Skeeter a front row seat to the nomination of “Mr. Conservative,” Barry Goldwater, at the 1964 Republican National Convention in San Francisco as assistant sergeant at arms. Hero to segregationists, Birchers, anti-communist extremists and other fanatics, Goldwater had the unanimous support of the Washington State delegation. [20]

Before the excitement of the Convention had time to wear off, the “Gulf of Tonkin” had become a household name and its implications would affect every decision made by 19 to 26 year-old, draft-eligible men and their families for the next ten years.

That fall Skeeter packed his bags and retraced his father's nearly thirty-year-old footsteps to the East Coast. Once again a Minnick was enrolled at Harvard; this time at Harvard Business School.

Harvard, Draft Deferments, Army Service

At Harvard, Skeeter picked up where he left off at Whitman. He joined various clubs, including Young Republicans, and excelled academically, graduating first among 650. The summer of his first year, as troop levels in Vietnam were escalating (levels increased from 23,000 to 184,000 in '65), he married fellow Whitman ('66) alum, JoAnne Oliver. [21]

By June 1966, troop levels in Vietnam had increased to 268,000 and draft-eligible men all over the country were looking for ways to avoid the draft. Those with means to do so enrolled in college, many got married (until the policy lowering the priority status was rescinded) or appealed for hardship deferments and others chose to enlist in branches of the service that were less likely to be combat deployed, such as the Coast Guard or Army Reserve. [22]

Young Skeeter was no different. Although his marriage lowered his priority status, upon graduation his educational deferment expired, and at just a few months shy of 24 (priority in each category was oldest first), the likelihood of Skeeter's number being called was high. So despite missing out on the lucrative position with a top company that graduating first in his class would have guaranteed under different circumstances, Skeeter enrolled at Harvard Law.

Apparently his local draft board wanted to send him anyway and he appealed that decision all the way to the presidential appeals board. Two decades later Walt described events in The Native Home of Hope: People & the Northern Rockies:

“I went to law school during the Vietnam era when draft deferments were hard to get. I wa
s admitted to Harvard Law school but my local draft board didn't want to let me go. My draft appeal finally worked its way up to the presidential appeals board. If I won, I would be able to finish my first year of law school and then get drafted. If the state of Washington won, I would have to go right away. I didn't mind going in the army, but I really wanted to finish law school first. So I joined the Reserve Officer Training Corps unit—that was a couple of years before ROTC got thrown off the Harvard campus.” [23]

Skeeter remained at Harvard and in the spring of 1969 earned his JD and at some point joined ROTC (the Army Register lists his pay entry base date as 17 May 1969) which gave him a commission in the Army Reserve and committed him to two yea
rs active duty service. [24]

After graduation and passing the Oregon and Washington State Bar Exams, Walt found himself as an associate at the Portland law firm of Davies, Biggs, Strayer, Stoel & Boley, what is present day Stoel Rives. Within a few months, the Army Reserve called him to complete his active duty obligation and assigned him to the Quartermaster Corps stationed at the Pentagon where he reported to the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Comptroller). His duties involved analysis of the economic aspects of Vietnamization, the policy of South Vietnamese force buildup which, it was hoped, would allow them to prosecute the war without American support.

In this capacity Walter often found himself in contact with members of Richard Nixon's White House, especially his friend and Harvard Law school classmate Geoffrey Shepard, an associate director on the Domestic Council staff. It was these connections that in the summer of 1971, despite having approximately six months of active duty remaining, landed him a transfer to the White House where he was assigned to John Ehrlichman, Richard Nixon's chief domestic advisor. [25]

Skeeter Minnick had made the big time—twenty-nine and working in the administration of a Republican president. In Native Home he described it as “a very rarefied atmosphere.” Finally, this was something his father had never done.

Two years later that rarefied atmosphere had turned into a cloud of controversy that would lead to Skeeter's resignation.

White House Assignment & the Plumbers

June 25, 1973, Walter Minnick, a young member of President Richard Nixon's White House staff, stood nude in the basement of the Old Executive Office Building listening to the Senate Select Committee hearings investigating the Watergate scandal. White House Counsel John Dean was testifying that he had traveled with Minnick to Camp David for a meeting with Nixon advisors H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman at a crucial point in the Watergate cover up. [26]

That day would be a turning point. Haldeman, Ehrlichman and others would eventually go to prison, Minnick would testify at their trial as a witness for Ehrlichman and life would never be the same for the thirty-year-old standing in the health unit hearing his name broadcast on national TV in connection with Watergate.

This was not the “exciting experience” Skeeter envisioned when he accepted a position in the Nixon White House.

As a newly promoted 1st Lieutenant in the Army Reserves assigned to the White House, young Walt Minnick may have been on the fast track to political and professional success. Arriving at the White House as a graduate of both Harvard Law and Business and with experience serving as an analyst at the Pentagon, Minnick appeared well suited for the grueling schedule and demands of a White House staffer. He, like his Harvard classmate and friend Geoffrey Shepard, settled in quickly working on the Domestic Council. Unlike Shepard, who would continue to work in the White House well into the administration of Gerald Ford, Minnick would leave the White House just as the Watergate scandal began to taint all who touched it including Minnick himself.

Though eventually the Army would assign Minnick to John Ehrlichman, Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs, to serve out the remainder of his Army commitment, Minnick began his work in the White House in the summer of 1971 under the direction of Egil “Bud” Krogh, Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs and Assistant Director of the Domestic Council. Ehrlichman’s plan for Minnick, as outlined in an official White House memo sent from Ehrlichman to General Hughes at the Pentagon, was for him to serve as Staff Coordinator for the newly formed Cabinet Committee on International Narcotics Control which was created August 17, 1971.

From the creation of the Cabinet Committee on International Narcotics Control in August through November of 1971, Minnick’s office was in Room 16 of the Executive Office Building. It was a space he shared with G. Gordon Liddy, E. Howard Hunt, David Young, Kathleen Chenow, and Bud Krogh—a group created by Ehrlichman and under the supervision of Bud Krogh known as the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) or as the press would come to call them, the Plumbers. [27]

The summer and early fall of 1971 were busy times for the Plumbers. The Pentagon Papers were published in June, the SIU was formed in July, and in September the Plumbers broke into the office of Dr. Lewis Fielding, the psychiatrist of Daniel Ellsberg, hoping to attain information that would discredit Ellsberg and therefore his disclosure of the Pentagon Papers. The summer and early fall of 1971 were also busy times for Skeeter Minnick, a long way from that Walla Walla wheat farm where he grew up.

That Minnick once shared an office with the Plumbers is not necessarily news. Though his own account of his time in the Nixon White House went unchallenged during his 2008 campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives, information regarding Minnick’s first attempt at public service was readily available at that time. In 2005 when W. Mark Felt revealed himself to be Deep Throat, the man that provided information to the Washington Post that broke the Watergate story, Minnick was asked by the Twin Falls Times-News (Felt’s hometown newspaper) about Watergate and he volunteered that he had shared an office with G. Gordon Liddy while working at the White House. Minnick called Liddy “very unbalanced” with a “bizarre personality” and recounted an incident at a birthday party where he watched Liddy burn himself with a lighter to make a point. [28] When news of the Watergate break-in became public, Minnick and a colleague guessed immediately who was involved. “It has to be crazy Gordon,” he recalled them saying to each other in a 1996 High Country News article. [29]

When interviewed by the Department of Justice on October 12, 1973 as part of the Watergate Special Prosecution Force investigation, Minnick admitted to having shared an office with the Plumbers, having heard the Plumbers discussing Ellsberg and the likelihood that they would be able to prosecute him for leaking the Pentagon Papers, and specifically that they wanted to “nail Ellsberg in a vindictive sense.” Also in the DOJ interview, obtained through an FOIA request, Minnick volunteered that he had become close to both David Young and E. Howard Hunt. [30]

Since leaving the White House, Minnick has claimed that his work in Room 16 was a matter of logistics, merely somewhere to “hang his hat.” But not only was Minnick working side-by-side with the White House Plumbers, five sources including one of his old office mates in Room 16 (E. Howard Hunt), a man who claims to have been Minnick’s close friend (writer Edward Jay Epstein), and a Pulitzer Prize-winning author (J. Anthony Lukas) claim that Walt Minnick was not only sharing Room 16 with the Plumbers, he was a temporary Plumber himself. [31]

In the October Department of Justice interview, Minnick also told investigators he was called to Ehrichman's office two days after the Watergate break-in to answer questions about Hunt's status at the White House. White House Staff Secretary Bruce Kehrli, who was “working on the Hunt problem” for Haldeman told the Watergate Special Prosecutor Force in a July 18, 1973 interview that Minnick was present when Hunt's safe was opened. [32]

While Minnick may downplay his time in the Nixon administration, portraying his work as that of a lowly staffer watching the most powerful players in Washington from the outside, five sources contending that he was in fact a Plumber in some capacity, and his tangential involvement with key figures, suggests otherwise.

If in Walt Minnick's airbrushed version he was too much of an outsider to have had anything to do with Watergate and it turns out he was a Plumber, what other grainy truths are hidden beneath the Idaho congressman's glossy portrayals of the past? As it turns out, quite a bit of what we thought we knew about Walt Minnick is far from the truth.

Drug Policy

The creation of the Cabinet Committee on International Narcotics Control was one of many components of the Nixon administration’s hard line drug policy. The Cabinet Committee was created by Nixon to better assess and deal with the growing illicit drug market in the United States. It is unclear what, if anything, prepared Minnick for his assignment as staff coordinator of the Cabinet Committee since his time at the Pentagon had been spent studying the economic aspects of Vietnamization. Regardless of how Walt Minnick fit into the drug policy puzzle for the Nixon administration, it had been determined as early as 1969 that the Nixon administration would not be positioned in any way that would appear they were soft on drugs. Increased drug use and drug trafficking during the Nixon administration coincided with a large number of returning soldiers who had been introduced to illegal drugs while stationed in Southeast Asia. Under the guise of helping returning Vietnam veterans and preventing an increase in the crime rate that might have been perpetuated by the amount of illegal drugs on the market, Nixon maintained that his administration would make drug policy one of its priorities. [33]

Serving on the staff of the Domestic Council, Walt Minnick was reunited with his Harvard classmate, Geoffrey Shepard, and was supervised by Bud Krogh. While the Domestic Council’s role in drug policy was limited to drug control and enforcement at home, Minnick would become acquainted with the Nixon administration’s urging of diplomatic control and enforcement of drugs abroad, especially narcotics. While Walt’s current campaign bio states that “[h]e was instrumental in the creation of the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) and consolidation of all Border Patrol functions into a single agency in the U.S. Treasury Department,” his role in drug policy for the Nixon White House has been exaggerated in places and airbrushed in others.

The Cabinet Committee, as described by Minnick himself, was to “put together a control plan for every country that had a material role to play in the heroin or cocaine problem.” [34] As staff coordinator for the Cabinet Committee, Minnick was capable of having an American ambassador recalled for not supporting the administration’s drug policy to the extent in which Minnick believed he should have. The incident was portrayed as follows:

“Soft spoken and, some would say, stoic, Minnick possessed sharp bureaucratic instincts honed during a tour as a junior officer with the Army in the Pentagon. One American ambassador to a Latin American country learned this only after Minnick had him summarily recalled. “He wasn’t carrying to his counterparts the message we were asking him to convey,” Minnick explains matter-of-factly. It is probably seldom, if ever, that an officer of such junior rank has ever arranged for the release of an ambassador and made it stick. While isolated, the incident illustrates the extent of the license enjoyed by Krogh and Minnick in pursuing narcotics control programs.” [35]

A lowly White House staffer, as Minnick often characterizes himself as being, wouldn’t have had the power to recall an American ambassador—Minnick clearly did.

In addition to the power Minnick wielded in having an ambassador recalled, in testimony given to Congress May, 1973 and again after leaving the Nixon administration, Minnick mentioned his nearly unlimited budget for the Cabinet Committee on International Narcotics Control. [36] Somewhat boasting, Minnick reasserts in Native Home of Hope that “during [his] time at the White House total government spending on the drug problem increased from $65 million to $850 million, two-thirds of it for treatment and prevention.” Continuing in a somewhat boastful manner, Minnick outlined his actual role in Nixon’s drug control policy:

“We masterminded the capture of the leading drug running feudal warlord in the Golden Triangle of Burma and the destruction of his private army by Thai government irregulars. We indicted the brother of the president of Panama and destroyed clandestine heroine labs in Marseilles. I staffed and stage managed meetings of cabinet members and for awhile wrote or suggested virtually everything the president said about drugs.”

Walt Minnick worked closely with the CIA on drug issues, with the CIA budgeting for his travel to Southeast Asia on occasion. In the summer of 1972, Minnick and his boss Bud Krogh expressed interest in getting the CIA involved in covert action activities including “large scale” paramilitary activities to combat international narcotics. [37]

While Minnick was urging international cooperation on drug issues, here at home the Nixon administration’s drug policy was resulting in new domestic production of opium in response to the Turkish poppy ban and illegal drug raids in places like Collinsville, Illinois. Raids, such as those that took place in Collinsville in 1973 on the watch of Minnick, were among the many concerns of Congress in 1973 when Nixon’s proposal for reorganizing the executive branch was considered. Minnick, who claims to have been responsible for Reorganization Plan No. 2 of 1973 that created the DEA, did not testify before Congress at all. How Minnick was instrumental in the creation of the DEA without having testified before Congress is just one of the many logistical questions regarding Minnick’s role in drug policy. [38] In his book Blind Ambition, John Dean states that Minnick’s role in the Reorganization was to find ways to implement the changes to the executive branch without having to go to Congress for approval. [39]

Like much in the Nixon Administration, the focus on controlling illegal drugs turned out to be politically motivated. In 1974, Minnick told author Edward J. Epstein that the creation of the Office of Drug Abuse Law Enforcement, “was an election year stunt.” In a 1975 Congressional hearing, he testified that the American people had been misled into believing that a ban on Turkish poppy production would make a significant dent in heroin addiction. The focus on drugs would be a means to a political end and a valuable lesson for Walt Minnick. [40]

I walked in and quit” … three months later

Despite growing revelations of the Plumber's illegal activity, in the Fall of 1972 Nixon was reelected in a landslide. Through congressional hearings and the special prosecutor investigation the following year, the magnitude of illegal activity and the subsequent coverup emerged. Minnick witnessed the effects on the Administration and on his friends and colleagues, describing the atmosphere years later as a “siege mentality” in a 2005 Times-News interview. Decades afterward he recalled in a Business Week interview that Ehrlichman assistant Hank Paulson, his friend and former Pentagon colleague, “was very troubled” and quit when he thought the President was lying. [41]

Through the indictments in September 1972 of key figures in the Plumbers unit—including Walt's former office mates Hunt and Liddy—and their January convictions, Minnick remained. Through the April resignations of Nixon advisors Haldeman and Ehrlichman and the firing of Dean and the May resignation of Krogh, Minnick remained. When John Dean's decision to cooperate with the prosecution and his subsequent testimony to the Ervin Committee in late June revealed that Nixon was deeply involved in the obstruction of justice and the cover up, Minnick remained. This despite being named in Dean's testimony and making front-page headlines in his hometown Walla Walla Union-Bulletin. [42] In July when the White House taping system was revealed and Nixon refused to release the tapes, Minnick remained. In August when Nixon addressed the nation, denying any wrongdoing, Minnick remained. October 11, when his former boss Bud Krogh was indicted for his role as head of the Plumbers, Minnick remained.

Saturday, October 20, 1973 Nixon ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox who was still demanding that Nixon comply with a subpoena to turn over the White House tapes. Richardson refused and resigned in protest. When Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus was ordered to carry out the firing, he refused and resigned in protest as well. Finally, Solicitor General Robert Bork carried out Nixon's order and fired Cox. The events became known as the Saturday Night Massacre.

As Walt tells it, he “resigned in protest” the Monday after the Saturday Night Massacre and that has become the established account. In a December 17, 1974 letter requesting confirmation that he had not been a target of the investigation, he related that account nearly word for word to Watergate prosecutors. [43] “I walked in and quit,” he added in the June, 2005 Times-News interview. But in Native Home, Walt also described being frustrated with how it affected his ability to do his job.

I had been working with Elliot Richardson, staffing a meeting that was to take place the next week between him and the Mexican attorney general to discuss the growing Mexican heroin problem. All of a sudden Richardson was gone. That was the last straw.”

Unlike others leaving the Administration in protest whose resignations became effective immediately, Minnick's “protest” did not. His letter to the prosecutor also included this, “I was actually carried on the payroll until January 14, 1974, while efforts were made to find my replacement” and in a March 1975 Congressional hearing, Walt testified that he left the Administration in January of 1974. A November 30, 1973 story in the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin carried the headline “Former resident involved in narcotics-medical debate” identifying Minnick as a government official with no mention of him having resigned from the Administration in protest a month earlier. [44]

If his resignation was “in protest,” it certainly was an unusual one.


Walt Minnick's family legacy, elite education and attempts to avoid the Vietnam draft landed him in what he considered the “rarefied atmosphere” of the Nixon White House. Two and a half years later, he resigned amid a cloud of controversy including being named in connection to Watergate. After more than a decade of reflection, when asked in Native Home of Hope if he ever thought about going into government service again, Walt Minnick replied:

“Well, I really prefer the private sector. I couldn't put up with the phony lifestyle required of an elected public official. I'm a bit too outspoken and too inflexible to make the necessary, politically expedient compromises on the issues. I don't suffer fools lightly, and you have to do that.

“As a very young man, it was something that looked very glamorous and attractive. Now I might consider an administration position, on a short-term basis, where you didn't have to go through all the baloney associated with elections. But I've been there once. I've been at the very center of the government of the United States during a very exciting period of time, and I don't really have a desire to go back and start over in that world. Basically, I'm able to control my enthusiasm for the public sector.”

Apparently, a decade later he was no longer able to quell that enthusiasm and he launched an unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate. In 2009 he must have quickly learned how to “suffer fools” and put up with living a “phony lifestyle” when he was sworn in to represent the 1st District of Idaho in Congress.

Why did he do it? He had money. He had a successful business career. He had a young family and wasn't a young man. And he pushed aside a loyal Democrat who most assuredly would have prevailed over the damaged-goods incumbent, Bill Sali.

The answer: only Walt Minnick knows for sure. But there are hints from his family legacy; in his drive to succeed no matter the cost; in his laments about having to leave a glamorous Washington, disillusioned and dejected with all that promise discarded.

It was Odysseus's triumphant return. It was MacArthur in the Philippines. It was Skeeter returning to Washington to finally close the circle; to remove the perceived tarnish from the Minnick name. Perhaps it wasn't enough to have, by most accounts, succeeded in other aspects of life. He had to return to the place where it all began.

It appears that Walt Minnick did it for Walt Minnick.

The views he brings to his Congressional office today were developed in his elite, conservative Walla Walla upbringing: fighting socialism, despising taxes and favoring business over organized labor. Walt's attempts to ingratiate himself with the anti-government fringe and his comfort embracing Republican philosophy is deeply ingrained. But Walt is also willing to do whatever it takes to get whatever he wants. He embellishes his Army service, downplays his involvement in questionable activities of the Nixon Administration and mischaracterizes the nature of his departure from it.

Many have suggested that Walt Minnick is good for the Idaho Democratic Party, that in this state a Democrat who can appeal to conservatives and moderates will transfer some of that appeal to other Democratic candidates and to the Party as a whole. That may be true generally, but in this specific case of Minnick, that evidence isn't there, and in fact, just the opposite may be true. While there are some Independents and Republicans willing to vote for Walt Minnick given his conservative record, that has not translated into an increase in the number of self-identified Democrats. In fact, it is more likely that a conservative would vote for Walt despite his Democratic affiliation than that one would vote for another Democrat because of him. And let's face it, Idaho Democrats are demoralized by his actions.

Walt Minnick's venture into Congress has been a case study in building a fiefdom, not a party. He has shown no interest in convincing moderates and independents that Democratic values are Idaho values and can make a difference in their lives. He's simply been trying to convince as many as will listen that he's not like other Democrats. That may be good strategy for Walt Minnick but it hasn't been good for Idaho Democrats.

He jumped on their backs, rode the Democratic wave into office and once there began rowing away in the only lifeboat. Using Republican talking points he attempted to ingratiate himself with even the very fringes of conservatism, at every turn distancing himself from the national Democratic Party and its leadership and berating long-time Idaho Democrats, assuming they'd have nowhere else to turn come election time. Along the way, he eschewed nearly every fundamental Democratic principle: that everyone deserves access to affordable health care; that government ought to work effectively for the middle class; that clean air and clean water are more important than company profits; that government isn't a beast to be slain but a life-preserver in a troubled sea. While Democrats have been frantically throwing life-preservers, Walt Minnick has been maniacally slashing them. Walt and his staff have made no secret of their belief that his reelection was more important than 138,000 people in his district having access to health insurance.

In his 1996 unsuccessful Senate campaign he told Roll Call, “I'm not a Democrat … I'm an Independent seeking the Democratic nomination.” [45] Walt Minnick is not a Democrat; he's an Ayn Rand conservative, through and through. He is not good for Idaho Democrats and they should unhitch their wagon from his self-aggrandizing quest.

[1] Washington (State). Superintendent of Public Instruction. Seventeenth Biennial Report of the Superintendent of Public Instruction to the Governor of the State. Olympia, Washington: The Quick Print, 1904.
[2] Lyman, William Denison. “Walter Clarence Minnick.” Lyman's History of Old Walla Walla County: Embracing Walla Walla, Columbia, Garfield and Asotin Counties. Volume 1. Chicago: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1918.
[3] “Dorothy Waldron Minnick.” Obit. Walla Walla
Union-Bulletin. October 31, 2001.
[4] Taylor, Charles William. “W. L. Minnick.”
Eminent Judges and Lawyers of the Northwest, 1843-1955. Palo Alto, California: C.W. Taylor, Jr., 1954.
[5] “New Law Firm Is Announced.” Walla Walla
Union-Bulletin. December 11, 1946.
[6] “Minnick Cites Flaws in Act.” Walla Walla
Union-Bulletin. March 6, 1947.
[7] “Community.” Walla Walla
Union-Bulletin. January 23, 1951.
[8] “Club Advised About Estates.” Walla Walla
Union-Bulletin. December 6, 1950.
[9] “Big Wheat Growers Converge to Oppose Herbicide Regulation Being Planned Here.” Walla Walla
Union-Bulletin. June 19, 1953.
[10] “Solon may sue over listing of contributors.” Walla Walla
Union-Bulletin. March 14, 1977.
[11] Rader, Melvin Miller.
False Witness. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1998.
[12] “County GOP Confab Split on Ike, Taft.” Walla Walla
Union-Bulletin. April 27, 1952.
[13] “Ike-Taft Chiefs Eye Peace After Stormy GOP Confab.” Spokane
Daily Chronicle. May 26, 1952.
[14] “MacArthur Is Asked to Issue Call for GOP Ticket Support.”
Spokesman-Review. October 28, 1952.
[15] Christian Nationalist Crusade Collection, 1945-1968. Western Historical Manuscript Collection. University of Missouri-St. Louis. Finding aid accessible online:

[16] Powers, Dorothy R. “Chief Executive Is Greeted by Crowds at Missoula and Walla Walla.”
Spokesman-Review. September 23, 1954.
[17] “Eisenhower Is Welcomed To Inland Empire.”
Spokesman-Review. September 23, 1954.
[18] “The Lamb Weston Story.” Lamb Weston. ConAgra Foods. Accessible Online:

[19] Walt C. Minnick Resume, 1972. Records of the Watergate Special Prosecution Force. Record Group 460. National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland. (Obtained via FOIA request)

[20] “State Delegates United.” Ellensburg
Daily Record. July 17, 1964.
[21] Department of the Army. Heiser, Joseph M. Jr., Lieutenant General.
Vietnam Studies: Logistic Support. U.S. Government Printing Office, 1991.
[22] United States. Selective Service System.
Annual Report of the Director of Selective Service for the Fiscal Year 1965. U.S. Government Printing Office, 1966.
[23] Bethell, Thomas N., Deborah E. Tuck and Michael S. Clark, eds. “Walter Minnick.”
The Native Home of Hope: People & the Northern Rockies. Salt Lake City: Howe Brothers, 1986.
[24] United States Army.
Army Register, Vol. II. “Walter C. Minnick.” U.S. Government Printing Office, January 1, 1972.
[25] John D. Ehrlichman, White House, to General Hughes, Pentagon, September 20, 1971. Records of the Watergate Special Prosecution Force. Record Group 460. National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland. (Obtained via FOIA request)

[26] Walt Minnick, Testimony on behalf of John D. Ehrlichman.
U.S. v Mitchell, et al. December 9, 1974. Records of the Watergate Special Prosecution Force. Record Group 460. National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland. (Obtained via FOIA request)
[27] Krogh, Egil.
Integrity: Good People, Bad Choices, and Life Lessons from the White House. New York: Public Affairs, 2007.
[28] “Felt’s hometown hails him as hero, role model.” Twin Falls
Times-News. June 2, 2005.
[29] Brinckman, Jonathan. “Can this man break the right’s grip on Idaho?”
High Country News. September 30, 1996. Accessible online:
[30] Walt Minnick, interview by Phil Bakes, Department of Justice, Washington, D.C., October 16, 1973. Records of the Special Prosecution Force. Record Group 460. National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland. (Obtained via FOIA request)

[31] Five sources directly implicate Minnick as having been a Plumber. The five sources are as follows:
-Epstein, Edward Jay. Agency of Fear: Opiates and Political Power in America. New York: G.P. Putnam & Sons, 1976. Most of Agency of Fear is available online:
-Farmer, Brian.
American Conservatism: History, Theory, and Practice. New Castle: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2005. (Farmer’s own reference for his listing of Minnick as a “temporary plumber” is John Dean’s Blind Ambition.)
-Hunt, E. Howard.
American Spy: My Secret History in the CIA, Watergate and Beyond. Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley, 2007. (In addition to this source, E. Howard Hunt mentioned Minnick in his testimony to the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1978.)
-Kr├╝ger, Henrik.
The Great Heroin Coup: Drugs, Intelligence, & International Fascism. Boston: South End Press, 1980.
-Lukas, J. Anthony.
Nightmare: The Underside of the Nixon Years. New York: Viking Press, 1976.
[32] Bruce Kehrli, interview by Assistant Special Prosecutor, July 24, 1973. Cross-reference file. Records of the Special Prosecution Force. Record Group 460. National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland. (Obtained via FOIA request)

[33] Musto, David F. and Pamela Korsmeyer.
The Quest for Drug Control: Politics and Federal Policy in a Period of Increasing Substance Abuse, 1963-1981. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.
[34] Ibid.

[35] McAvoy, Clyde R. "The Diplomatic War on Heroin."
Journal of Drug Issues 7, no. 2 (Spring 1977): 163-181.
[36] U.S. Senate.
Poppy Politics, Vol. I. Hearings before the Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency of the Committee on the Judiciary. March 4 and 5, 1975. U.S. Government Printing Office, 1975. and U.S. House of Representatives. Evaluating the Federal Effort to Control Drug Abuse (Part I). Hearings before the Subcommittee of the Committee on Government Operations. May 1, 2, 7, 10, and 14, 1973. U.S. Government Printing Office, 1973.
[37] Charles A. Briggs, Director of Planning, Programming and Budgeting, to Deputy Director for Management and Service, Central Intelligence Agency. May 23, 1973.
Family Jewels. 1973. Accessible online via Georgetown University:
[38] U.S. Senate. Hearings before the Subcommittee on Reorganization, Research, and International Organizations, Committee on Government Operations, Washington, D.C.
Reorganization Plan No. 2 of 1973 to Establish a Drug Enforcement Administration. April 12, 1973. U.S. Government Printing Office, 1973.
[39] Dean, John W.
Blind Ambition: The White House Years. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1976.
[40] “Nixon approved U.S. opium to fill void, probers told.”
Berkshire Eagle. March 5, 1975., “Drug wars invented by Nixon to extend his power.” Irish Times. August 13, 1999., and “U.S. develops medical poppy.” Long Beach Independent. March 5, 1975.
[41] “Wall Street’s Lone Ranger.”
Business Week. March 4, 2002. Accessible online:
[42] “Minnick Mentioned in Watergate Coverage.” Walla Walla
Union-Bulletin. June 26, 1973.
[43] Walt Minnick to Carl B. Feldbaum, Assistant Special Prosecutor, December 17, 1974. Records of the Watergate Special Prosecution Force. Record Group 460. National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland. (Obtained via FOIA request)

[44] “Former resident involved in narcotics-medical debate.” Walla Walla
Union-Bulletin. November 30, 1973.
[45] Sheffner, Benjamin. “A Reluctant Democrat: Nixon White House Veteran Runs vs. Craig.”
Roll Call. March 14, 1996.


Alan said...

Nice writing, Tara. And clearly a ton of work. Well done!

Tara A. Rowe said...

Thank you, Alan.

Anonymous said...

fabulous, dahlink. This was very well done. Kudos!

Serephin said...

Bravo, Tara and MG! (*standing up and applauding wildly*)

Tara A. Rowe said...

Thank you very much.