Jeb Stuart Magruder, a former White House aide and political operative who confessed to his role in the 1972 Watergate break-in, the bungled crime that he claimed — decades later — had been personally ordered by President Richard Nixon, died May 11 in Danbury, Connecticut. He was 79.
His death, from complications of a stroke, was announced on the website of Hull Funeral Service in Connecticut.
Magruder served seven months in federal prison after admitting that he had helped plan the break-in of the Democratic headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington and helped attempt to cover it up by lying to investigators and perjuring himself in court.
The scandal ultimately led to Nixon’s resignation in August 1974.
After his release, Magruder became an ordained Presbyterian minister and spoke publicly about the runaway ambition and unchecked loyalty that he said led him astray. He was convinced, he said, that “it’s a characteristic in American life that there is redemption.”
A former executive at cosmetics companies and Republican campaign staffer, Magruder joined the Nixon White House in 1969. Boyish and handsome, he served as deputy director of the Committee for the Re-Election of the President in 1972 and, after that, as director of the president’s inaugural committee.
As the Watergate drama unfolded, he became one of the first Nixon associates to “break ranks,” The Washington Post reported at the time, and provide investigators with evidence of the conspiracy.
“It has been nearly impossible,” he said at his sentencing, “for me to face the disappointment I see in the eyes of my friends, the confusion I see in the eyes of my children, the heartbreak I see in the eyes of my wife and, probably more difficult, the contempt I see in the eyes of others.”
“You cannot measure the impact on this administration or on this nation of Watergate,” he said. “But whatever the impact, I am confident that this country will survive its Watergates and its Jeb Magruders.”
Magruder said that former Attorney General John Mitchell approved the Watergate break-in, which Mitchell strenuously denied. Three decades later, in 2003, Magruder made news by telling interviewers that he was with Mitchell and heard Nixon, over the phone, approve the break-in plan.
The claim was not universally accepted but was regarded as a bombshell in the long effort to uncover what the president had known and when he had known it. Some historians found it implausible, citing Nixon’s practice of recording conversations, while other observers questioned why Magruder had waited so long to make the revelation.
Magruder said that during the Watergate investigation, he was hoping to receive executive clemency or a pardon. He also cited the deep sense of loyalty cultivated at the White House.
At the time of the revelation, Magruder recalled that Mitchell hung up the phone after speaking with the president and said, “Let’s see what happens.”
“In retrospect,” Magruder told The Washington Post, “that’s kind of hilarious.”
Jeb Stuart Magruder was born Nov. 5, 1934, on Staten Island, New York. His father, a Civil War buff, named him after Gen. J.E.B. Stuart of the Confederate cavalry.
After Army service in Korea, he graduated from Williams College in Massachusetts and received a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Chicago in 1963.
His marriages to Gail Nicholas and Patti Newton ended in divorce. Survivors include four children from his first marriage and nine grandchildren.
Magruder wrote two books, “An American Life: One Man’s Road to Watergate” (1974) and “From Power to Peace” (1978).
After his release from prison, he worked for the Christian ministry Young Life and received a master of divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary. He was a minister at churches in California, Ohio and Kentucky before retiring in 2003.
In 1988, in Columbus, Ohio, he led a commission on ethics and values.
“I’m aware that there might be some irony associated with that,” he said at the time. “But this is a natural issue for me. I had one of the great ethical dilemmas of all time.”