Elizabeth Drew’s writing never gets old. Nearly 50 years ago, her meticulous, skeptical reporting for the Atlantic exposed the lovers’ embrace between Congress and Big Tobacco. Her book “Washington Journal,” an eyewitness account of the Watergate scandal supplemented by interviews as the scandal unfolded, was published soon after President Richard M. Nixon resigned in 1974. Luckily for us, it has been republished this year. Yes, you know the ending. It’s still worth reading, although it has more characters than a Russian novel and can get bogged down in detail.
Written as a series of lengthy diary entries, the book begins in September 1973, months after the revelation about the recording system in the White House that would help bring Nixon down. As the book opens, Sen. Sam Ervin is holding a fourth month of investigative hearings into presidential campaign activities. Famously, the White House had dismissed the June 1972 break-in at the offices of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate complex as “a third-rate burglary.” Nixon admits that there had been a program of wiretapping, espionage and the “plumbers” operation to “stop security leaks and to investigate other sensitive security matters.” He denies involvement.
More illegal wiretaps come to light along with document-shredding, stories of using campaign contributions for Watergate defendants, money “left in telephone booths and airport lockers,” enemies’ lists, and all the other nefarious schemes for which the scandal is famous. What sets the book apart is Drew’s interviews and the book’s “you are there” detail. Sometimes it lends the feeling of living in a Dali painting, with familiar features of governance and life in Washington distorted by daily crisis. People hang on newspapers, TV or radio for every new twist. With each story or report, there grows a fear that the administration’s activities amount to an attack on the Constitution itself.
We see Rep. Peter Rodino develop from an ordinary New Jersey congressman into the dignified, skilled Judiciary Committee chairman he became during the impeachment hearings. We watch as Rep. Barbara Jordan becomes an overnight hero for her eloquence. White House aides go to prison. Nixon says he isn’t a crook. When rumors sweep the capital that the president might resign, the stock market goes up.
Things don’t come to a head until Aug. 5, 1974, when it becomes clear that Nixon directed the CIA to stop the FBI’s investigation of the Watergate burglary. He resigns four days later.
To many under 40, Nixon is as distant a figure as Grover Cleveland. For them and for us, the best part of the book may be the afterword, when Drew sifts through the contents of Nixon’s life, examining his post-presidential efforts to overcome Watergate (he never did) and why he got so entangled in the first place. “In Richard Nixon’s tormented mind a large array of ‘enemies’ was out to get him — so he had to retaliate, ‘get the goods’ on them, or even, as he put it, ‘destroy’ them. . . . His prejudices blinded him and led to some of his darkest moments. . . . He simply couldn’t stop himself until he arranged his own doom.”
Nixon never publicly admitted to being involved in a cover-up, Drew points out, despite the assertion otherwise in the popular play and subsequent movie “Frost/Nixon.” I wish her analysis touched on revelations about the National Security Agency’s massive efforts to collect information on ordinary citizens. God only knows what Nixon would have done if he’d had the current technology at his disposal — or what temptations it offers to current and future presidents.
Reporting Watergate and Richard Nixon’s Downfall
By Elizabeth Drew
Overlook Duckworth. 450 pp. $29.95