Richard Nixon was a stranger in his own very strange parallel-universe land.
It is probably not unreasonable to conclude that all the men (so far) who have inhabited the White House were, each in his unique way, egotists, iconoclasts, eccentrics and out-and-out oddballs. After all, to pursue the highest political office in the land requires a hard-driving, obsessive-compulsive personality. Some of our presidents have been able to mask their quirkiness, and their darkness, better than others.
But among all who have occupied the Oval Office, none was a more unlikely figure than Richard Milhous Nixon, who, long after he was forced into post-Watergate-scandal political exile after his resignation in 1974, remains an endless source of fascination. The latest evidence: two intriguing recent books on the 37th president, Ray Locker's Nixon's Gamble: How a President's Own Secret Government Destroyed His Administration and Tim Weiner's One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon. Same subject. Two vastly different approaches.
Locker, a former political columnist for the Tampa Tribune, who currently is the enterprise editor for USA Today, has penned a book that justifiably reads like a taut Washington political thriller. Then again, not even the great Allen Drury, who wrote the classic Beltway novel Advise & Consent, could have thought up this Byzantine plot line full of conspiracies, high crimes and misdemeanors and a cast of almost Quentin Tarantino-like shady characters, beginning foremost with Nixon himself, the Don Corleone of the Electoral College. Oh, and there are hookers, too.
Both Locker and Weiner, a former New York Times reporter who won the National Book Award for nonfiction for his 2007 book Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, dwell on a similar theme. Was Nixon a brilliant political strategist? Yes. A foreign policy visionary? No question. But by any measure Nixon also was a paranoid, insecure, emotionally stunted, very troubled guy who couldn't hold his liquor. That may be fine if you're a shepherd. Not so much when you have access to the nuclear codes.
Nixon's Gamble tells a troubling story of a president who, within hours after being sworn into office, created his own clandestine government within the federal government — made up primarily of himself, national security adviser Henry Kissinger, chief of staff Bob Haldeman and chief domestic adviser John Ehrlichman.
From the beginning, in an effort to bring the Vietnam War to an end and open up relations with China, Nixon bypassed his own Secretary of State William Rogers and even Defense Secretary Melvin Laird, launching a supersecret diplomatic relationship with the then Soviet Union without ever consulting with his own diplomats.
Nixon's Gamble explores a president's obsession with and distrust of the very government he was elected to lead. And thus it didn't take long before the Joint Chiefs of Staff had planted the nondescript Navy Yeoman Charles Radford to spy on Kissinger's national security team and report back to the military. Under Kissinger's nose and that of his top aide, Gen. Alexander Haig, Radford rummaged through briefcases, stole sensitive documents and reported his findings back to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Adm. Thomas Moorer.
Bugs. Burglaries. And bumblers. Oh my. We know how this story ends. But not necessarily why.
In Locker's telling, the Watergate break-in that cascaded into the downfall of Nixon began as a quest by White House Counsel John Dean to expose a call girl operation within the Democratic National Committee office in the Watergate complex. Salacious stuff, to be sure, made all the more intriguing by the fact that the henchmen hired to conduct the break-in turned out to be more inept than the Little Rascals. Exhibit A: Liddy, G. Gordon.
In the end, Nixon was done in by a combination of his own hubris and his own paranoia. Really now, how many criminal conspirators record themselves in the act of breaking the law?
Both books offer a thoroughly researched and detailed account of the long, tortured fall of Nixon. While roaming over the same real estate of corruption, Weiner also deftly captures Nixon's arrogant dismissal of the very people who elected him. "The American people are suckers," Weiner notes the president of the United States saying on tape, recording his own cynicism. "Gray Middle America — they're suckers." And in a way, Nixon was right.
Standing on its own, Weiner's One Man Against the World is certainly a compelling account of the Nixon-era moral circus, told in a steady, readable narrative style. But Locker's account is far more dramatically engaging. Nixon's Gamble makes the Borgias look like the Walton Family. Weiner's Nixon is the boorish loudmouth at the end of the bar.
From Locker's vantage point, as Watergate overwhelmed Nixon, who often spent his days in a booze-induced haze, the nation was essentially governed by a covert co-presidency occupied by Haig and Kissinger, who took it upon themselves to order a heightened DEFCON 3 level of military readiness during the 1973 Yom Kippur War without ever consulting with the besotted commander in chief, who was too tipsy to take a call from British Prime Minister Edward Heath.
In addition to the conniving by Kissinger and Haig, who also plotted Nixon's eventual resignation, Locker paints complex portraits of various other figures, most notably former top FBI agent William Sullivan, who played a critical role in bringing down a president — none of which is addressed by One Man Against the World.
Famed Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, who along with Carl Bernstein made his reputation reporting on Watergate, also comes in for special scrutiny by Locker. He makes a convincing argument that the famed "Deep Throat" source for many of the reporters' scoops was really a composite character rather than the singular figure of FBI agent Mark Felt. Locker also suggests Woodward was a far more active behind-the scenes political player in the Watergate scandal. Yet Woodward receives scant attention in Weiner's narrative of the Watergate melodrama.
As much as we know about the Nixon years, Locker and Weiner remind us there is always more still to discover. That's an important historical service served up by two able journalists. And one more thing is painfully clear. For six years the United States was led by one very, very strange, scary man. Had Watergate not occurred, we might never have learned that the reins of power had been given to such a delusional, dangerous figure.
And we learned this as well. If we survived Richard Nixon — and we did — we can survive anything. And we have.
Contact Daniel Ruth at [email protected]