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Keeler: The rot began even before Watergate

Dr. Daniel Ellsberg holds an impromptu news conference

Dr. Daniel Ellsberg holds an impromptu news conference outside the federal building in Boston, Mass., while his wife, Patricia, waits behind him. (June 28, 1971) Photo Credit: AP Photo

The words Watergate, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein are now so tightly interwoven that, 40 years after the infamous June 17 burglary that made "Woodstein" famous, it's tempting to see the Watergate saga primarily as a tale about dogged investigation by two Washington Post reporters.

But it's also possible to trace Watergate and the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon back to the principled anti-war stance of one man. His name is Randy Kehler.

His opposition to war is relevant today, because we've just exited one war, in Iraq, based on lies -- as was the Vietnam War, the one Kehler protested. And we are hearing serious, but seriously deluded, voices urging us into other military adventures, in Iran and Syria. It's a suitable time to celebrate a man whose service to the nation was a resounding no to a misbegotten war.

Long before Nixon's 1974 resignation, years before the 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee offices in Washington's Watergate complex that led to the unlikely pairing of Woodward and Bernstein, Kehler stood up and gave a powerful speech at Haverford College, outside Philadelphia, in August 1969.

Kehler, then 25, had just been indicted on a charge of draft resistance. The organizers of a War Resisters' International conference asked him to give a talk about that refusal. On the final day of the conference, he began on a lofty philosophical note, then got deeply emotional.

"I went off into my sobs and tears, trying to talk about who was already either in prison for opposing the war or about to go," Kehler recalled. "It took me the longest time to get through this litany of who was in prison or on the way to prison, because every time I was about to mention somebody's name, I'd choke up."

In the audience that day was someone whose emotions were equally close to the surface. His name was Daniel Ellsberg.

Like Kehler, he was a Harvard University graduate. Unlike Kehler, he had served in the military, in the Marine Corps. At the time of the conference, he was working for a think-tank called the RAND Corp., handling documents that traced the origins of the Vietnam War. Before Kehler's speech, Ellsberg had spoken with him briefly and come away impressed.

Then Kehler spoke, and the impact was profound.

Ellsberg left the hall and went to a men's room, where he sat on the tile floor, sobbed and thought repeatedly: "We are eating our young." Then, he recalled in his book, "Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers," he asked himself this question: "Might some action that risked prison help shorten the war? Obviously Randy thought so."

His answer to the question that swirled in his head after hearing Kehler's speech was to leak what became known as the Pentagon Papers. That act was a major step in turning the American people against the war by revealing the pattern of lies behind it. The biggest lie of all was that it could be won.

The leak led to a burglary by by Nixon's plumbers in the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist. They came away with nothing of value to discredit Ellsberg, but that burglary was the start of the events that led to Nixon's downfall. And Kehler's speech led in a direct line to the Pentagon Papers leak and the 1971 psychiatrist-office burglary.

For serving the nation by saying no, Randy Kehler spent 22 months in prison. For serving it by breaking and entering, lying and obstructing justice, too many of the Watergate crowd walked or served less time behind bars.

Just as hundreds of thousands of Americans, including my brother, served honorably in Vietnam, Kehler served honorably here. And, like Woodward and Bernstein, he was a key figure in Watergate.

Bob Keeler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.

This is a corrected version of the column. An earlier version said none of the Watergate crowd served as much time in prison as Randy Kehler.