King Richard: Nixon and Watergate ‑ An American Tragedy, by Michael Dobbs, Knopf, 396 pp, $32.50, ISBN: 978-0385350099
Watergate: A New History, by Garrett M Graff, Avid Reader Press, 795 pp, $35, ISBN: 978-1982139162
Among YouTube’s many trinkets is a collection of excerpts from a 1982 conversation between Richard Nixon and Pat Buchanan on the CNN television programme Crossfire. Eight years after his resignation from the presidency, five years after forty-five million viewers had watched his interviews with David Frost, Nixon is in emeritus form, responding to his former speechwriter’s soft questions with jowly gravitas. He compares the Kennedy brothers. He names the greatest American politicians of the twentieth century. Without irony, he defines what makes a good president. His self-presentation is assured, careful, authoritative.
Nestled within these clips is a half-minute or so of interaction between the two men during a commercial break. In this unaired, unfiltered moment, Buchanan suggests they might next discuss LBJ. The first volume of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson had just been published. “Oh yes, I can do that,” Nixon says. There is a pause. “You know, there’s this terrible book out on him,” he continues. “I read it. Unbelievable. Shit, it makes him feel like a goddamn ‑ ” he glances at the camera ‑ “animal.” Another pause. “Of course he was.” Hearty Republican laughter.
It is amusing and instructive to observe a public figure in an unguarded moment, even forty years after the fact. But in this case the exchange is particularly revealing. The bald juxtaposition of Nixon’s public and private personae is more than an instance of dramatic irony ‑ it encapsulates an essential element of the man’s character, perhaps the essential element. When the eyes of the world were on him, Nixon’s rhetoric was heightened and controlled, its pragmatic subtext wrapped in a safe swaddle of political cliché and stock American idealism. With men who were close to him ‑ and it was only men ‑ he modulated between aggressive coarseness and maudlin prattle. Both modes, like that nervous peek at the camera, betrayed a defining insecurity.
Yet the fanatic care Nixon took to keep these contrasting registers compartmentalised was dramatically breached, over and over again. He was a master of the self-inflicted wound. When he was down, he tended to lash out at those he felt had treated him poorly. “You don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore,” he snarled at a group of reporters after losing the California gubernatorial election of 1962. “I’m not a crook,” he declared at a Florida press conference during the final, fractious year of his presidency. And in perhaps the most revealing public statement he ever made, he told the White House staff on his last day as president, “Those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.”
Of course, by then Nixon had destroyed himself in a remarkable historical sequence that saw an overwhelmingly popular American president foster a climate of criminality in his administration, drive a cover-up of the resulting crimes when they came to light and fail to destroy the very evidence that proved to the world he was culpable ‑ evidence he himself had created. The simple shorthand for this unique passage of American political history is Watergate, an epithet so familiar its concluding syllable has become a universally recognised suffix for scandal (Brothelgate, Pizzagate, Spygate) ‑ though the events themselves were anything but simple.
It is now fifty years since, in the early hours of Saturday, June 17th, 1972, a security guard at the Watergate Hotel alerted Washington police to a burglary in progress at the offices of the Democratic National Committee. Directed by G Gordon Liddy, finance counsel for the Committee for the Re-Election of the President (CREEP), which had planned and funded the operation, the burglars had broken into the DNC to wiretap phones and search for documents that might compromise potential Democratic opponents of Nixon in the upcoming presidential election. The five men, as well as Liddy and the ex-CIA officer E Howard Hunt, who were monitoring the operation from a nearby hotel room, were arrested. Thus began an unprecedented national drama that would mesmerise the country for the next two years. As Fintan O’Toole has written of the IRA hunger strikes, some moments in history have the structure of art, “distilling the great world down into a small cast of characters”. Watergate went further ‑ it distilled the great world down to the character of Richard Nixon.
In the half-century since the botched break-in, millions of words have been spilled over the affair, analysing motives, speculating about who knew what and when they knew it and recreating the drama of the crime and its aftermath. Scores of books have been written by reporters, historians, politicians, novelists, prosecutors, judges and many of the principals themselves. The wave of analysis has never abated. Documents have been drip-fed from government archives; research has unearthed new detail; transcripts of the infamous White House tapes, published piecemeal over the decades, have been pored over and cross-referenced. Yet by now two broad truths about Watergate have been firmly established. One, it was the climax of a concentrated sequence of presidential dirty tricks, reaching back to before Nixon’s election in 1968; and two, it had a very simple prime mover ‑ Nixon himself, whose state of mind by the time he was elected to his first term was a nasty brew of suspicion, resentment, ruthlessness, and a willingness to use the mighty levers of presidential power to crush opponents and gain every conceivable political advantage.
Yet the burglary was redundant. Nixon needed no edge; nothing the break-in could have gained him was in the slightest way necessary. By the summer of ’72 he had an approval rating of 62 per cent. The Democrats, though they controlled both houses of Congress, had no viable presidential candidate. Hubert Humphrey carried the double stigma of having been LBJ’s vice-president and losing to Nixon four years earlier. Ted Kennedy had been sunk for good by Chappaquiddick. Edmund Muskie, Humphrey’s running mate in ’68, lacked the mettle to deal with Nixon’s political scheming. The Democrats would end up nominating George McGovern, the peace candidate, who was so out of touch with the American mainstream that he lost by eighteen million votes as Nixon carried every state in the union bar reliably liberal Massachusetts.
That irony is one of many. Until it was discovered, the break-in that would bring down a presidency had been low-profile. Nixon had not approved it and was unaware of it until after it happened. That weekend he was relaxing on a private island in the Bahamas with his pals Bebe Rebozo and Robert Abplanalp, wealthy confidants who had put their significant fortunes at his disposal. He heard about the burglary on Saturday morning, around the same time that Washington Post city editor Barry Sussman was assigning two young reporters named Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein to work the story from the newsroom. The news enraged the president. On Monday, back in the White House, he discussed the potential fallout with his chief of staff, Bob Haldeman. As Haldeman’s notes of that meeting make clear, Nixon wanted the connection with the White House hidden from day one:
Contain the break-in to CREEP, don’t let it slop over to the White House. Hold it to as low a level as possible. Furnish as little political ammunition to the Democrats as we can.
Later that day, less than seventy-two hours after the crime, Nixon moved into full cover-up mode. “These people who got caught are going to need money,” he told Haldeman over the phone. “I’ve been thinking how to do it …”
Why, from the get-go, did Nixon do the very thing that could bring him down? Why didn’t he condemn the burglary, claim he knew nothing about it (which was factually true), and fire those responsible? He had the nation on his side. He had worked well with Congress. He was odds-on favourite to win a second term. With Henry Kissinger, he had set a foreign policy agenda of unprecedented ambition: that February, he’d been the first US president to visit the People’s Republic of China and in May he was the first president to set foot in Moscow. Vietnam notwithstanding, he had created a legacy of international success that he believed would make him one of history’s great peacemakers. He had much to lose.
Yet as two new books on Watergate make clear, the cover-up was inevitable. The break-in was not a one-off but simply the latest in a string of illegal activities that Nixon’s team had sanctioned, planned, funded and kept secret, all at the behest of the president. The DNC burglary had to be kept dark because any light shed on its genesis would illuminate four years of dirty tricks. And the covert operations that had become standard operating procedure for the White House were the direct result of Nixon’s character. Garrett Graff’s Watergate: A New History provides a detailed account of those four years and the eventual unravelling of the presidency. Michael Dobbs, in King Richard, focuses on the crucial hundred days from Nixon’s inauguration in January 1973 to the beginning of the end ‑ the weekend in late April when he fired his two closest advisers, Haldeman and John Ehrlichman. Both books add to the historical record, revealing minor but significant new particulars, summarising prior research, and cross-referencing it all with primary and secondary sources. But their greatest value is literary: they show us in dramatic narrative detail how Nixon’s fall was as ineluctable as Lear’s.
Richard Nixon was the quintessential president as common man. He grew up poor in rural California, the son of Quaker parents who had come west from Ohio and Indiana at the turn of the century. Though he served honourably in the US navy, he was not a war hero. He did not attend an Ivy League college. He was not wealthy. But he was representative of the millions of mid-century Americans who had been raised in hard times and come into their own in the 1950s, when the US economy was firing on all cylinders and the country was at the zenith of its global power. In taste, tone, and temperament, he was one of what he would come to term the “silent majority”, white Americans of low to moderate income who had grown up in the Depression, fought the good fight in World War II, benefited from the country’s postwar prosperity and grown dismayed at the suddenness and severity of national change in the sixties: student radicalism, increased government spending, the rise in crime and the loosening of traditional social and political restraints. And their enemies were Nixon’s enemies: an increasingly liberal press, a permissive cultural elite, long-haired activists, the East Coast intelligentsia and left-leaning politicians.
Nixon had a deeply analytical mind and the patience to work out the most challenging political problems. He also had a killer instinct. From the beginning of his public life ‑ when, home from the war, he ran for Congress at age thirty-three and defeated the popular but complacent New Deal Democrat Jerry Voorhis ‑ he was a street-fighter, unafraid to smear an opponent or appear hypocritical before an attentive press. He viscerally identified with his conservative California base and told them what they wanted to hear ‑ that his Democratic opponents were free-spending communists getting in the way of hard-working ordinary people seeking to claim their free-enterprise birthright. His rise to power was swift: as a freshman in Congress he attracted national notice as a prominent player on the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC); he defeated Helen Gahagan Douglas (whom he described as “pink right down to her underwear”) for a California Senate seat in 1950; and he was Dwight Eisenhower’s choice as running mate in the 1952 presidential election, serving as vice-president for eight years before running himself in 1960 and losing to JFK.
The loss to Kennedy was bitter. The popular vote was virtually dead even, a margin of .17 percent ‑ 112,000 votes out of 68 million cast. Nixon believed, perhaps correctly, that Kennedy money and influence had enabled ballot-stuffed wins in Texas and Illinois. Had Nixon taken those states, he would have won the electoral college by two votes. The wounds from that defeat had salt rubbed into them two years later when Pat Brown beat him for the California governorship. Yet for years he patiently worked the Republican leadership, positioning himself as a reasonable centrist with the best chance of securing the presidency for the party at a time when the Democrats were ascendant. When he won the nomination in ’68, he went into the election determined not to be outmanoeuvred, legally or otherwise, by his opponents. He won, of course, but at a cost that would ruin him.
Postwar American politics was a rough-and-tumble business, and Nixon’s campaigns were not much different from those of others in the field. But the gulf between his cornball public face and the pit-bull tactics of his political team made him a frequent target of a media that was increasingly independent and sensitive to the rising importance of image-making in national politics ‑ especially those reporters and other liberal observers who resented his heavy-handed use of the red scare. He made enemies easily and then hated them for doing to him what he was doing to others. He couldn’t take criticism. His first instinct was to fight back, and he was always looking to get even. Though he had a sentimental side, he was a cold, humourless introvert who found it hard to get close to anyone and who nursed his grudges quietly but passionately. And he lacked confidence, especially in his sense of self. “Nixon must always be thinking about who he is,” JFK said in 1960. “That is a strain. I can be myself.”
As president, Nixon left none of his resentments behind. Graff devotes a full chapter to his “enemies list” and details how the list ballooned in the first months of his presidency as aides researched and delivered a comprehensive twenty-six page catalogue of the nation’s press corps, with biographies, editorial comments and friendliness rankings. The list of “Those We Can Count On” was short, but “Those We Can Never Count On” ran on for nearly three full pages. Ultimately, more than two hundred people would populate the administration’s constellation of foes.
The number of men Nixon trusted was very small. He had a highly centralised approach to power and kept a very lean team of advisers, aides like Haldeman and Ehrlichman, who had worked as his advance men for years and whose loyalty was unquestioned. Through Kissinger, he guided foreign policy directly from his own desk. He cultivated an atmosphere of suspicion and secrecy and was so worried about press leaks that soon after taking office he had the FBI wiretap members of the White House staff and the National Security Council. From there it was an easy step to bugging the phones of journalists, including reporters at The New York Times and CBS.
Even before he was elected president, Nixon’s penchant for intrigue and willingness to do anything to get an edge knew no bounds. The 1968 contest was as tight as the ’72 election was lopsided, and Nixon faced an adversary who was no political slouch. At first well behind in the polls, the Democratic nominee, Hubert Humphrey, had overcome his association with the Johnson administration just five weeks before the election by breaking with LBJ on the war and calling for an unconditional halt to the bombing of North Vietnam. The Paris Peace Talks were at a delicate stage, and North Vietnamese negotiators were pushing for such a halt. Sensing danger, Nixon used his foreign policy connections to make a secret deal with the South Vietnamese government, asking them to boycott the talks with the understanding that the South would get better terms under a Nixon presidency. The deal shut the door on Johnson’s progress, stalled Humphrey’s momentum, and helped Nixon clinch victory. It also made sure the bombing continued.
Graff tells this story well and positions it convincingly as a precursor to Watergate. He quotes Walt Rostow, Johnson’s national security adviser: “They got away with it. As the same men faced the election of 1972 there was nothing … to warn them off; and there were memories of how close an election could get and the possible utility of pressing to the limit ‑ or beyond.” Wiretapping journalists must have seemed venial to a politician willing to extend a vicious bombing campaign to win an election. Yet in retrospect, Nixon’s first term was defined by a clear link between the two: like Johnson, he would fail to position an immoral war as an honourable exercise, and the newspapers and reporters who described America’s involvement in Southeast Asia for what it was would make the top of his enemies list.
In June 1971, The New York Times revealed the existence of the Pentagon Papers, a detailed (and theretofore secret) indictment of US military strategy in Vietnam, commissioned by secretary of defence Robert McNamara in 1967. Daniel Ellsberg, who had worked on the study, had leaked it to the Times and the Washington Post. Though Nixon’s leadership postdated the report, he was livid at the leak. The war was an elephant he had inherited, yet he had staked his reputation on his (and Kissinger’s) ability to achieve “peace with honour”. Any press that exposed the yawning chasm between the US government’s public lies and private cynicism, whether he was involved or not, compromised Nixon’s strategy. So he had the Department of Justice go after the newspapers, and he had his dogs go after Ellsberg.
Ehrlichman put a special team together to uncover what Nixon believed was a conspiracy between Ellsberg and New Left radicals. That team, nicknamed the Plumbers, included Liddy and Hunt (described by the investigative reporter Jim Hougan as “narcissists in love with the romance of espionage”). In September 1971, they flew to Los Angeles and burglarised the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, in search of evidence that might prove the nonexistent conspiracy. A template for Watergate had been conceived, implemented and tested. Nixon had the means at hand to go after whomever he wished, protected, he believed, by executive privilege, and with plenty of laundered money from the re-election campaign coffers. And he didn’t hesitate to suggest who they might burgle, including the Brookings Institution, a think tank rumoured to be holding a secret report on the peace talks. “I want it,” he said to Haldeman about the report. “Goddamnit, get in and get those files ‑ blow the safe and get it.” He may not have known every detail of every crime, but he was making them happen.
Graff’s step-by-step account of how Nixon’s sense of grievance and mistrust led to this culture of criminality is thorough and absorbing. Dobbs’s portrait too, of Nixon as an isolated tragic figure whose greatest strengths became his greatest flaws, is apt. Their books convince us of the historical inevitability of the scandal. Yet perhaps the greatest irony of Watergate is that Nixon would not have been brought down at all if it hadn’t been for the crowning example of his hubris: the White House tapes. From February 1971 to July 1973, a sound-activated recording system, which the president had had secretly installed, captured all his conversations in the Oval Office, at other locations within the White House, and in rooms at the presidential retreat in Camp David, Maryland. Over those two-plus years, this system recorded nearly four thousand hours of discussion between Nixon and others, almost all of whom knew nothing of the taping (the only people who knew of the system’s existence were Haldeman, a few Secret Service agents, and Alexander Butterfield, who set it up and ran it).
How the tapes came to light was the biggest bombshell in a scandal full of explosions. In May 1973, three weeks after Haldeman and Ehrlichman had been forced to resign, the US Senate convened the Watergate Committee Hearings, a nationally televised investigative panel that would offer more high drama than a Mexican soap opera. In June, John Dean, the former White House counsel, testified for four days, claiming that Nixon was directly involved in Watergate and the cover-up. Nixon vigorously denied the accusations, and because Dean had no corroborating evidence, the outcome was at best a stalemate ‑ his word against the president’s. Then, in July, Butterfield appeared before the committee. His testimony lasted for only thirty minutes but contained the sentence “There is tape in the Oval Office.” All hell broke loose.
That revelation was the beginning of a compelling public battle that would last for another year. Nixon refused to hand over the tapes. Both the senate committee and Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor appointed by the Department of Justice, subpoenaed the president. For the rest of the summer and into the autumn the issue worked its way through the courts. In October, Nixon ordered Cox’s dismissal. In what became known as the Saturday Night Massacre, the attorney general, Elliott Richardson, and his deputy, William Ruckelshaus, refused the order and resigned. Solicitor general Robert Bork, as the third ranking official in the Department of Justice, fired Cox. Another prosecutor was appointed while Nixon continued to maintain his innocence and pretended to be trying to get to the root of the scandal. Over the winter, he danced around the issue while Congress issued a further subpoena and considered impeachment proceedings. Eventually, in April 1974, Nixon handed over 1,200 pages of transcripts, carefully selected and heavily redacted, though not the tapes themselves. In July, the Supreme Court ordered the release of the tapes. That release, at the beginning of August, brought everything that Nixon had been trying to hide to the surface, including the “smoking gun” tape from June 23rd, 1972 (less than a week after the break-in), which proved that he had been covering up from the start. He resigned four days later. The saga was over.
For anyone interested in this history, there is another obvious question: why didn’t Nixon destroy the tapes? He had sole possession of them until close to the end. He knew what was in them. As soon as their existence was revealed, he was urged by many of his advisers ‑ including his Watergate counsel, Fred Buzhardt, his then chief of staff, Alexander Haig, and Buchanan ‑ to destroy them. But he wavered. He believed that the concept of executive privilege would enable him to avoid handing them over. He also saw them as protection against being implicated by those who had already been indicted (“Who knows what Ehrlichman might say or even Bob Haldeman?” he said to Haig. “The tapes are my best insurance against perjury.”). But the primary reason, I believe, was pride, the flip side of Nixon’s profound sense of grievance. He had counted on the tapes to secure his legacy, to prove that he ‑ not Kissinger or anyone else on his staff ‑ had led the nation out of war and into a global balance of power with the world’s two communist superpowers.
Well, secure his legacy they did. But not the one he dreamed of. The president who read biographies of Lincoln and Disraeli, who said in his first inaugural address that “the greatest honour history can bestow is the title of peacemaker”, who saw himself as a latter-day Woodrow Wilson, would be remembered for very different reasons. As Stanley Kutler, the historian who successfully sued the National Archives for the eventual release of the full tranche of White House tapes, told Michael Dobbs in 2015: “In twenty years, all the Watergate characters will be forgotten. The only one anyone will remember will be Nixon himself ‑and he will endure forever.”
Nixon’s biographer John Farrell wrote that he “longed to be the hero of his moment”. Buchanan, who spent as much time with him as president as anyone, said that he “wanted to be a great man”. He was certainly equipped for leadership. His political instincts were unmatched, and he had an unerring sense of what the American people wanted. He was a masterly tactician. But these gifts were undermined at every turn by his congenital lack of confidence and his inability to move beyond suspicion and pique. On the night in late April 1973 when he was building up the courage to force Haldeman and Ehrlichman to resign, Nixon said to his press secretary, Ron Ziegler, “Look, if we went in with sackcloth and ashes and fired the whole White House staff … that isn’t going to satisfy those goddam cannibals. They’d still be after us. Who are they after? Hell, they’re not after Haldeman or Ehrlichman or Dean; they’re after me, the president. They hate my guts.”
They hate my guts. This was not a sentiment expressed in anger and then forgotten. It was a permanent belief borne of insecurity. Four years later, when the dust had settled and he agreed to be interviewed by David Frost (for a fee of $600,000 and 20 per cent of the profits), Nixon’s verdict was more trenchantly expressed but no less hateful: “I gave them a sword. And they stuck it in. And they twisted it with relish. And I guess if I’d been in their position, I’d have done the same thing.”
Kevin Stevens is a novelist, critic, and editorial director of Imagine Books, the adult imprint of Charlesbridge Publishing in Boston.