The Last Crisis of Richard Nixon

By Stanley I. Kutler

Knopf. 733 pp. $24.95

Stanley I. Kutler, a University of Wisconsin historian, has done a masterly job, which scholars will appreciate, of combing through huge amounts of Watergate documentation. However, most readers are likely to be dismayed by Kutler's decision to spend the first third of his 620 pages of text on miscellaneous background data. Some of it has little or nothing to do with Watergate, and including this material requires him to wander back and forth across Nixon's presidency in a tedious and confusing manner. Impatient readers may want to jump forward to Chapter 8, the point at which Kutler's narrative begins.

What follows is a story familiar in broad outline to anyone who was of age during the period of 1972-74, but enriched with much juicy information not available then. One learns, for example, that Howard Baker played a double game, working with Nixon to contain the effects of Watergate while at the same time serving on the Senate committee that was investigating it. Kutler shows how Baker, while seeming to be impartial, was actually Nixon's most effective champion on the committee until the White House tape recordings destroyed his position -- along with that of every other Nixon supporter.

After Nixon himself, John Dean probably played the key role, first in covering up the Watergate burglary and then as the government's most damaging witness. Dean's ability to re-create conversations months, or even years, after the fact was so remarkable that Nixon loyalists used to insist he was making things up. On the contrary, Kutler says, the White House tapes established Dean's accuracy. Nixon himself, it happens, listened to his taped conversations with Dean after hearing his former counsel testify about them, and once even found Dean to be in error. Nixon's problem was that to release one tape would have required him to hand over the others, which would have proved Dean right almost all the time, even on minor details.

If the first question always asked about Watergate is why Nixon authorized what John Mitchell called "the White House horrors," to which there seems to be no good answer, the second must be why Nixon failed to destroy the tapes as soon as Alexander Butterfield revealed their existence. In 1986, when Newsweek asked Nixon for the greatest lesson taught by Watergate, he answered: "Just destroy all the tapes." But when he had the chance he didn't because, Kutler maintains, no one in the White House believed that he would ever have to give them up.

In addition, the tapes had many uses. Listening to them helped Nixon map out his strategy, for one. Also, Henry Kissinger believes that Nixon taped a conversation with him, during which H.R. Haldeman argued against the Christmas bombing of North Vietnam in 1972, presumably to set Kissinger up for the fall in case something went wrong. Nixon himself wrote that the tapes were "my best insurance against the unforeseeable future"; that is, they would protect him against traitors like Dean. And, as this suggests, Nixon has never understood that the tapes incriminated him. Since he has said he believes his only fault was to have made errors in judgment, he saw no reason to destroy the tapes while he still had time.

Kutler believes that the pardon given Nixon by President Ford, usually regarded as infamous, might well have saved the nation from embarrassment or worse, since otherwise Nixon and his lawyers would have contested and appealed the charges against him for years, at whatever cost to public life. And after that, Nixon might still have escaped conviction on technical grounds, mocking the legal process. Ford was right, therefore, to issue the pardon, but wrong in failing to secure some kind of confession from Nixon that would have made it palatable, Kutler reasons. This could easily have been managed, he suggests, if Ford, in announcing the pardon, had said "that its acceptance acknowledged guilt and that he knew Nixon deeply regretted his wrongdoing. How could Nixon have denied the statement?" How indeed! What a simple and elegant solution that would have been; what a pity Ford failed to employ it.

Kutler's narrative stops at the pardon, though it is followed by 46 more pages of inconclusive remarks in which he attempts to determine the meaning of Watergate. He never quite does, coming closest with the following statement: "The Watergate wars offered eloquent testimony that the nation had a serious commitment to the rule of law." Of course, but did not Watergate also bear witness to the strength of American democracy? Nixon turned to crime, after all, because such great federal agencies as the FBI, the CIA and the Internal Revenue Service would not break the law on his behalf. And after his henchmen did so, they were exposed by a free press and convicted by an independent judiciary.

Nixon would certainly have been impeached had he not resigned, and even if he had destroyed the tapes and somehow clung to office, he would have remained an impotent president with his closest aides in jail or disgraced. During a dark time the Watergate prosecutions restored faith in government, and they remain our best insurance against future abuses of power. It is good to be reminded of this.

The reviewer, who teaches American history at Rutgers University, is the author of "Coming Apart: An Informal History of America in the 1960s."