New book retells Watergate story based on transcripts of damning White House recordings
By all rights, 1973 should’ve been the greatest year of Richard Nixon’s life. Having just come off a historic election victory and negotiated an end to the Vietnam War, he was riding into his second term as one of the most consequential American presidents in history. But the first hundred days of his second term also saw the “third-rate burglary” of Watergate expand into an illness that would hobble his administration. And thanks to the secret recording system he had installed not just in the White House but in various offices and residences, Richard Nixon would be caught on tape conspiring to cover-up his misdeeds, setting the stage for his eventual resignation.
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King Richard: Nixon and Watergate–An American Tragedy, a new book by Michael Dobbs, mines the hours of taped conversations that Nixon and his associates had over the first hundred days of his second term. He paints a picture of the Watergate saga as a tragedy of Nixon’s own making. Nearly fifty years after the initial break-in, the story of Watergate and Nixon’s crimes continues to fascinate Americans because it reveals so much about the sort of individual who seeks the kind of power that Presidents can wield. It’s also a case study in abuse of power.
There are no shortage of books about Watergate, but Dobbs deftly demonstrates how the hubris of Nixon and his top aides ultimately them down by their own hubris. In those crucial months when Nixon’s second term began and his enemies on the Left suddenly seemed to have no ammunition to use against him, Nixon and his cronies gave them a gift.
Dobbs uses the very words of Nixon and his men against them as he paints a harrowing portrait of an increasingly claustrophobic White House, the walls closing in on major players like John Ehrlichman and H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, as well as White House counsel John Dean and campaign aide Jeb Stuart Magruder. The Nixon White House was also home to such personalities as G. Gordon Liddy (a former FBI agent and all-around psychopath) and E. Howard Hunt, a CIA operative who wrote spy novels on the side. As the trial of the Watergate burglars unfolded and they realized that the White House would not bail them out, they began to hint to law enforcement that there was more to the event than a bungled attempt to bug the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.
Partly in response to the publication of The Pentagon Papers in 1971, Nixon and his aides sought to crush any further leaks of classified information that could make them look bad or lose them the 1972 election (an election which, by the way, Nixon won with a crushing electoral college majority that only left Massachusetts out of the winning column).
As Dean tried to get immunity for his damning testimony, Nixon became even more worried that his own recordings would destroy his administration. Dobbs makes it clear that Nixon, with increasingly less room to maneuver, had to let his two top aides, Haldeman and Ehrlichman, go because the press was tying them closer to the Watergate burglary with each passing day. In order to protect the presidency (and his own hide), Nixon forced both men to resign from their roles. This act, more than any other, set the stage for the eventual collapse of the Nixon White House.
Dobbs, a former Washington Post reporter who’s previously written about the fall of Soviet Russia and the Cuban Missile Crisis, focuses in on the fraught days when, almost as soon as Nixon’s second inauguration wound down, the story of Watergate ramped up, egged on by such antagonists as the press (and Mark Felt, later revealed to be “Deep Throat”) and by aides like Dean and Magruder who, facing long prison sentences for perjury and other ethical violations, decided to turn on their boss.
It’s a riveting, engrossing story of people in power being very paranoid and very dumb, and it’s all verifiable because of the source material, the very recordings that Nixon meant to use to write his post-Presidential memoirs. The tragedy of Nixon is that he sought power in the highest office in the land without being qualified for it because of his character. It’s safe to say that fewer Presidents wanted the office more, or did more harm to it once they achieved it. “King Richard” shows that Nixon may still be unparalleled in his abuse of power, despite more recent contenders for that title.
Watergate continues to be the standard by which we measure presidential scandal–we usually attach the suffix “gate” to anything even remotely scandal-ish that becomes major news. It’s unlikely that we’ll ever really know the full story of how a third-rate burglary brought down a Presidency. But Michael Dobbs goes a long way towards recounting, in the words of the participants, how the most crucial period of the saga unfolded. And it’s a bloody good story indeed.
Knopf (May 25, 2021)