Why you should care

Because history can turn on a dime, or even a free drink.

What does it take to bring down a president and change the world? Sometimes years of collective action, planning and organizing; sometimes it’s as simple as one man doing nothing one night in a local bar.

U.S. President Richard Nixon — as we learned again from a recently discovered cache of notes from aide H.R. Haldeman (revealing an effort to scuttle Vietnam peace talks in the fall of 1968 to ensure his election) — had a knack for manipulating the forces of history in his favor. Fate, however, as we all know, would get the last laugh on Tricky Dick.

But before the intrepid investigation by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, before Deep Throat, before the cover-up, there was the Watergate break-in itself and the arrest of the five burglars who perpetrated it. “There can be no doubt,” Senator (and future Vice President) Walter Mondale observed on the Senate floor the summer Nixon resigned, “that when the Watergate history is written, one of the most interesting and bizarre footnotes will concern the fact that, were it not for a series of fortuitous accidents, the complete story may never have come to light.”

And Mondale didn’t even know the most bizarre twist of all.

Squad car 80’s officer responded to the request by stating he was low on gas.

 

They were called the “bum squad.” And just after midnight on Saturday, June 17, 1972, Sergeant Paul Leeper of the Washington Police Department and two fellow officers — costumed as hippies — were cruising the streets of Georgetown in an unmarked light-blue Ford sedan searching for street criminals. When the call came to investigate a potential break-in at the Democratic National Committee’s office at the Watergate complex in Foggy Bottom, it was around 2 a.m. and Leeper, a 10-year veteran of the force, was about to head home after putting in two hours of overtime already.

When Leeper and his colleagues arrived at the Watergate — with no flashing lights, no uniform and no squad car — they escaped the notice of one Alfred C. Baldwin III, the lookout for the burglars, who was watching a horror movie from a room on the seventh floor of the Howard Johnson Motor Lodge across the street. Leeper and company entered the building and proceeded to make one of the biggest arrests in American history.

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Police officer Paul Leeper giving testimony during Watergate hearings as his colleague Officer John Barrett sits in the background.

Source Gjon Mili/Getty

But the bum squad was not the first to get the call to investigate that night. The vehicle responsible for that area — squad car 80 — and its uniformed officer had been contacted by the dispatcher first but had been unable to respond. Why? According to contemporary news accounts, squad car 80’s officer responded to the call that he was low on gas and had some paperwork to handle, and he asked if someone else could be dispatched. The next nearest unit? The bum squad.

Squad car 80’s lack of gas became part of the Watergate tale, remaining largely unexamined until about five years ago, when historian and Ronald Reagan biographer Craig Shirley and his research assistant delved deeper into the night in question. They spoke with Bill Lacey, the longtime co-owner of PW’s Saloon, a popular D.C. bar in the 1970s among Washington’s police offers, who would stop by for free meals and (strong) drinks, even while on duty. Lacey told them that squad car 80 was not low on gas; rather, its driver was riding high on bourbon and Coke, which he had started drinking around midnight. By the time the call to investigate came across the walkie-talkie lying on the bar, he could barely walk. Lacey’s brother, and fellow bar owner, no stranger to inebriated officers, suggested he tell them he was out of gas and couldn’t respond. So he did. And, at approximately 2:10 a.m. that morning, it was the plain-clothed Leeper and the bum squad that made the historic arrests of the Watergate Five at the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters.

Much as he tried to confirm the identity of the officer in squad car 80 that fateful evening, Shirley tells OZY, he “ran into the Blue Wall of Silence,” not to mention a haphazard D.C. police archive with no pertinent records. How might history have been different if squad car 80 and its uniformed officer had caught the lookout’s attention? “Everything would have been different,” says Shirley, author of the new book Reagan Rising. “Nixon would have backed John Connally over Spiro Agnew for the GOP nomination in 1976, and Reagan would have most likely not even run.”

Now that’s a strong drink.

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