The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Nixon knew better, but he couldn’t save himself

President Richard Nixon announces on April 30, 1970, that American ground troops have attacked, on his order, a communist complex in Cambodia. Nixon didn’t want to be seen as the first American president to lose a war. (AP Photo)
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One of Richard Nixon’s favorite quotes came from Charles de Gaulle: “There can be no power without mystery. . . . Nothing more enhances authority than silence.” One of Nixon’s abiding principles came from the case of Alger Hiss, the Soviet spy he helped send to prison for perjury: “It was the coverup that hurt, not the fact that Hiss was guilty. Get my point?” he told his aide Charles Colson. Another favorite quote came from the 19th-century British prime minister William Gladstone: “The first essential for a prime minister is to be a good butcher.”

So he knew. He knew that the elaborate taping system he’d installed in the White House could eventually make his administration the least mysterious — and most banal until Donald Trump’s — in American history. He knew the perils of covering up the dirty tricks and “third-rate burglary,” as his press secretary Ron Ziegler put it, that his henchmen performed in a witless effort to secure him reelection; he knew it could cost him his presidency. He knew that he had to be brutal — a butcher — when it came to cutting loose those who’d acted on his behalf, but he always acted too sloppily and too late.

Michael Dobbs makes a splendid case that Nixon was “an American tragedy,” though I have a quibble. In the classic Greek and Shakespearean definition, there is absolutely nothing the tragic hero can do to avoid his destiny. That was certainly true in this case; Nixon was fated to go down. But the word “hero” also conveys a greatness of spirit, albeit famously flawed, and Nixon had none of that (although the office of president certainly did). He was, Dobbs posits, a common man. Actually, he was an uncommonly nasty and neurotic man: It was as if Shakespeare had written a tragedy starring Iago as the central character.

We are approaching the 50th anniversary of the Watergate scandal, so you can expect a flood of books examining this fundamental turning point (I believe) in American history. For those new to the story, “King Richard” is an excellent place to start. Dobbs, a former Washington Post correspondent, has a keen sense of drama. And, by focusing on the 100 days after Nixon’s triumphant second inauguration, he provides a clever lens for viewing most all of the president’s disastrous decisions, with an intimacy — due to Dobbs’s subtle choice of extracts from the tapes — that is stunning.

Nixon was brilliant. His foreign policy successes — the opening to China, detente with the Soviet Union — were historic. His domestic policy wasn’t so terrible, either: He proposed a Family Assistance Plan that might have put a serious dent in American poverty, and he created the Environmental Protection Agency. But it was his personality, not his policies, that mattered.

He had made an honorable choice once. He had not contested the 1960 presidential election, which may actually have been stolen from him by the minions of John F. Kennedy — but his festering resentment over that alleged robbery was a prime source for the Watergate disaster. The other main source was provided by Kennedy as well: the war in Vietnam. Nixon knew it wasn’t winnable, but appearances mattered. He couldn’t be seen to be the first American president to lose a war. So he committed atrocities — dropping more bombs on North Vietnam than had hit Germany in World War II — in pursuit of a mirage. And when the mirage began to dissipate, with the publication of the leaked Pentagon Papers in 1971, he attempted his first coverup. He hired a hapless group called “the plumbers” to investigate the leak in the name of “national security.” They broke into the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist (Ellsberg had given the papers to the press) and found nothing incriminating; they planned to break into the Brookings Institution dressed as firemen responding to an arson. They played the fool in the tragedy, although Shakespeare’s fools tended to be more astute.

And then Nixon loosed them on the Democratic Party, hoping to play the same “dirty tricks” that Kennedy’s miscreants had played on him in 1960. One of these tricks was an attempt to bug the party’s headquarters in the Watergate office building. The burglars were caught in the act; the Nixon administration tried to cover up the involvement of key White House aides. The tape system captured it all.

The story Dobbs tells is, by turns, hilarious, pathetic and infuriating. The banality of it all — the huggermugger of Nixon’s conversations with his two top aides, H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman — is reminiscent of a high school locker room populated by nerds. Ehrlichman comes up with goofy phrases that are now embedded in our political canon. When the president and his aides suggest they cooperate with investigators just a little, Nixon offers, “Let it hang out, so to speak.” Ehrlichman curbs the notion, defining any possible cooperation as “a modified, limited hangout.” He suggests that the hapless acting FBI director, L. Patrick Gray, be left to “twist slowly, twist slowly in the wind.” Nixon’s foreign policy adviser, Henry Kissinger, sets a new land-speed record for obsequiousness: “You saved this country, Mr. President. The history books will show that, when no one will know what Watergate means.”

Nixon can’t sleep. He takes drugs for that, including one that causes insomnia. He begins to drink heavily. When he finally fires Haldeman and Ehrlichman, he cries uncontrollably and then suffers a serious bout of pneumonia. “A man is not finished when he’s defeated,” he had once mused in a note to himself. “He’s finished when he quits.” And then, a year later, he quits, the first American president forced from office.

There is another definition of “tragedy,” one less rigorous than the classical. A tragedy can be a cataclysm, a horrific storm, a terrible defeat — or a national loss of innocence. Watergate, along with Vietnam, burst the American bubble. Generations had been raised to think that America never lost a war and that American presidents were, with a few exceptions, pillars of righteousness. That ended with Vietnam and Nixon. The country’s confidence was shattered. A tide of cynicism about government was unleashed; it may have crested with Trump, but it remains to be overcome. Fifty years later, we are a very different people. By shattering our foundational myth of competence and decency, Nixon left an entire nation twisting slowly, slowly in the wind.

King Richard

Nixon and Watergate — An American Tragedy

By Michael Dobbs

396 pp. $32.50