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It was the summer of 1973, and Watergate was in the air.
What had begun as an apparently simple break-in at an apartment complex on the Potomac River a year earlier had spiraled into a scandal shaking the presidency. Top White House aides had stepped down. The attorney general had appointed a special prosecutor to investigate. By late June, the Senate Watergate Committee hearings were in full swing.
Inside Jimmy’s restaurant in midtown Manhattan, the bar TV was tuned to the hearings, but Sid Davidoff wasn’t paying much attention. A few years earlier, he had been the “burly troubleshooter” for Mayor John V. Lindsay, a Nixon critic. But now he was just a part owner in a steakhouse struggling to stay afloat.
Suddenly, everyone at the bar began shouting, pointing at the screen and calling Davidoff’s name.
“They said, ‘Sid, they’re talking about you,’ ” Davidoff, now 79, recalled.
John Dean III, Nixon’s former White House aide, had just stunned Congress by revealing the president had an enemies list.
And Davidoff was No. 12.
“The next thing I know, my phones are lighting up,” Davidoff, now a high-powered New York City lobbyist, told The Washington Post.
“It was a shocker,” he said. “Then I had to explain to my mother, who was an elderly woman in Miami Beach, that it wasn’t a bad thing. She wanted to know what I had done wrong.”
Half a century later, with the White House again under investigation, another president has drawn up a list of enemies.
The Trump administration announced last week that it had stripped former CIA director John Brennan of his security clearance and was considering moving against at least nine others.
On Sunday, Brennan fired back on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” vowing to take Trump to court to keep him from stripping security clearances from people who have criticized the president or played a role in the investigation of alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign.
On “Fox News Sunday,” Trump’s threats were condemned by Mike Mullen, a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who called it a sign that the president is “creating a list of political enemies.”
“It immediately brings back the whole concept of the ‘enemies list’ under President Nixon,” Mullen said.
Like Nixon, Trump’s list could backfire on him.
“It became a badge of honor after I revealed it,” Dean, now 79, said by phone from his home in Beverly Hills. He spoke to The Post on the 47th anniversary of the internal White House memo he penned about the list.
“This memorandum addresses the matter of how we can maximize the fact of our incumbency in dealing with persons known to be active in their opposition to our Administration,” he wrote on Aug. 16, 1971. “Stated a bit more bluntly — how we can use the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies.”
According to Dean, who would serve four months in prison for his involvement in the Watergate coverup, the reason the memo was so explicit was because he never wanted to write it in the first place.
“They kept pushing me on it, to assemble this ‘attack our enemies’ program,” he said, recalling that the administration kept “suspension files” on employees to ensure they carried out their assigned tasks. “I said, well, I’ll just fire one back at them and make it as blunt and crude as possible, thinking they’d reject it. Well, [Nixon’s chief of staff H.R.] Haldeman loved it!”
Within a few weeks, Nixon’s special counsel, Charles Colson, had prepared a list of 20 people whose screwing was a priority. Next to their names were notes explaining their inclusion.
Among them were labor leaders, top Democratic fundraisers and journalists. CBS reporter Daniel Schorr was “a real media enemy.” Washington Star (and future Washington Post) columnist Mary McGrory, who would later win a Pulitzer Prize for writing about Watergate, made the cut because of her “daily hate Nixon articles.”
Some of the notes hinted at ways to target the people on the list. Next to Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) was the note: “Coming on fast. Emerging as a leading black anti-Nixon spokesman. Has known weakness for white females.”
“A scandal would be most helpful here,” read the note next to Morton Halperin, a former aide to Henry Kissinger who the administration, it would later emerge, had illegally wiretapped for 21 months.
Paul Newman lent a touch of celebrity to the list. “Radic-Lib causes,” said the note next to the actor’s name. “Heavy [Eugene] McCarthy involvement ’68. Used effectively in nationwide T.V. commercials. ’72 involvement certain.”
“Lindsay’s top personal aide,” his entry read. “A first class S.O.B., wheeler-dealer and suspected bagman. Positive results would really shake the Lindsay camp and Lindsay’s plans to capture youth vote. Davidoff in charge.”
Davidoff may have caught Nixon’s attention on May 8, 1970. That morning, Lindsay had ordered the city’s flags lowered to half-staff in memory of the four students killed days earlier at Kent State University. But a pro-Vietnam crowd of hundreds of construction workers in hard hats began to gather near city hall, “chasing [antiwar] youths through the canyons of the financial district in a wild noontime melee that left about 70 persons injured,” the New York Times reported.
When a rogue postal worker sympathetic to the construction workers’ cause re-raised the flag, Davidoff, whose many jobs included monitoring protests, “went crazy.”
“I went up onto the roof and found that it was a postman,” he said. “I immediately threw him down the stairs and lowered the flag. There’s a great picture of me giving the peace sign, at which point the construction workers went crazy.”
“It was the first time city hall was almost taken over by riotous crowd,” he said with no small amount of pride.
Nixon critic and Rolling Stone writer Hunter S. Thompson once wrote about “the Gross sense of Injury I felt when I saw that my name was not included on the infamous ‘Enemies of the White House’ list. I would almost have preferred a vindictive tax audit to that kind of crippling exclusion.”
But for Davidoff, being named as one of Nixon’s top-20 enemies was simultaneously exhilarating and scary — like taunting the construction workers from atop city hall.
“It was a funny, odd experience,” Davidoff recalled. “You’re basically an enemy of the state at the time, which I’ve carried as a huge badge of honor.”
At one point during the conversation, Davidoff put the phone on speaker and walked across his office to where he has a copy of the enemies list framed on the wall.
“I can almost do it by heart, but not quite,” he said, reading the description of himself as an “S.O.B.”
Shortly after the list was revealed — Schorr, the CBS newsman, reportedly only realized he was on the list as he read it on air — Davidoff held an “enemies ball” at his restaurant.
Conyers came, he said, as did a few others on the list.
“It was great fun,” Davidoff said.
But later on, he said, being on the list became a “pain in the neck because it led to IRS audits, it led to people close to me, friends, interviewed by federal officials, being interviewed about me and their relationship to me and who I am and so on.”
“It was like sitting shiva,” he said of the Jewish mourning ritual. “After everybody goes home, you realize what you’re left with, and the next couple of years it was hell trying to straighten my life out.”
Dean denies that the enemies list actually led to anyone being harassed or audited.
“I can’t think of anybody on the enemies list who was ever attacked by anybody in the administration for anything,” Dean said. “There was talk of it, but it just never happened.”
One IRS official, Johnnie Mac Walters, recalled Dean coming to him in 1972 with an envelope containing the enemies list, which by then had grown to about 200 names. With the election approaching, the White House wanted those on the list “investigated and some put in jail” Walters wrote in his memoir.
A few days later, Walters showed the list to his boss, Treasury Secretary George P. Shultz, and recommended they do “absolutely nothing” with it.
Shultz agreed, and the list wound up sealed and locked inside an IRS safe.
Long before Trump, Nixon had his own troubles with the “deep state.”
Both Dean and Davidoff said they saw similarities and differences between the two presidents and the way they targeted their enemies.
“I don’t think the man ever forgot any slight that he experienced in his entire adult life, and he was going to get back at everybody,” Dean said. “Watergate precluded that.”
Both men labeled the press as “the enemy.”
But while Trump attacks his enemies openly, in daily tweets, Nixon railed in private, only to be exposed by White House recordings. And while Trump is a political outsider who has vowed to “drain the swamp,” Nixon was a Washington insider who had been a U.S. representative, senator and two-term vice president before becoming commander in chief, Dean pointed out.
“The big difference between Trump and Nixon is that Trump doesn’t have a clue how government works,” Dean said. “Nixon did.”
Dean, who has emerged as a prominent critic of the current president, said Nixon was a master at using the machinery of the government to go after people, as evidenced by the enemies list. But he was loath to go into greater detail lest it give Trump ideas.
Davidoff has ties to both presidents. He was targeted by Nixon, but said he represented Trump in real estate deals in the past.
The parallels between the Nixon era and the age of Trump were obvious, Davidoff acknowledged. He had even received an email the night before from a friend that read: “We see that Trump has an enemies list. How come you’re not on it?”