Forty years past Watergate, authors add to Nixon-era literature

Richard M. Nixon in 1990. Three new books detail events before, during, and after the scandal. Orange County Register
Richard M. Nixon in 1990. Three new books detail events before, during, and after the scandal. Orange County Register
Posted: August 01, 2014

John Dean is awfully tired of Americans' penchant for applying the suffix -gate - from Monicagate to Obamagate - to attack politicians they dislike.

Dean, White House counsel to President Richard M. Nixon, plead guilty in 1974 to obstruction of justice in the mother of all political scandals, the real -gate, Watergate.

The scandal? A cadre of Nixon operatives were arrested on June 17, 1972, after breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington, most likely to steal the Dems' election strategy and bug the office. Nixon became involved within three days and ordered a cover-up. By the time the dust settled, 60 people had been convicted of related offenses.

"There are an awful lot of young people who have don't have a clue about Watergate," said Dean, whose new book, The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It, provides a detailed account of the cover-up that ended Nixon's presidency 40 years ago, almost to the day. (Nixon resigned on Aug. 9, 1974.)

The Nixon Defense, which Dean will discuss Thursday at the Free Library of Philadelphia's Central Library at 7:30 p.m., is one of a slew of new books joining the already crowded scholarship about Nixon and his activities.

Published in time to mark the scandal's anniversary, they include Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate by University of Virginia historian Ken Hughes, and Nation writer Rick Perlstein's The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan. (Perlstein will talk about his book at the library on Tuesday, also at 7:30 p.m.)

While none contains earth-shattering surprises, the three books are based on a good deal of new material: a recently declassified collection of secret tapes Nixon made of his conversations while he was at the White House. (Of the 3,700 hours of recordings, 800 hours will remain classified.)

Why do we need another book on Watergate?

"We are a country that likes to ignore history and likes to pretend it doesn't matter," said Dean, who already has published two books on the subject, Blind Ambition (1976) and Lost Honor (1982).

Dean, a harsh critic of what he calls Nixon's imperial presidency, said the presidency of George W. Bush proved the country didn't learn its lesson.

"These are presidents that look upon themselves more as having the powers of a king than the checks and balances of a democracy," said Dean, whose books also include Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush.

The Nixon Defense is a meticulous, detailed day-to-day account of the actions Nixon and his aides took over a one-year period, from June 1972 to July 1973, to cover up the Watergate burglary.

Dean immersed himself for four years in the Nixon tapes, isolating and studying more than 1,000 separate conversations about Watergate.

He said he was horrified.

"The Nixon that emerged from those tapes was worse than the Nixon I ever knew. The paranoia, the revenge plans against his enemies. The absolutely zero moral concern about what he was doing," Dean said from his home in Beverly Hills, Calif.

Dean maintains that neither Nixon nor his White House aides had prior knowledge of the Watergate break-in, but that the president ordered a cover-up within days.

Dean said Nixon would have entered far darker waters had the "plumbers," as his cadre of former intelligence and law enforcement officers was known, not blown the Watergate operation.

"G. Gordon Liddy [one of the plumbers] thought he was James Bond. In fact, he wasn't even up to the standard of Maxwell Smart," said Dean, referring to the 1960s TV-spoof spy.

"Had they not bungled the operation, they would have gone on to their main mission, breaking into [Democratic presidential candidate George] McGovern's headquarters."

Added Dean: "That was traceable directly to the White House."

Ken Hughes, who helps run the Miller Center's Presidential Recording Program at the University of Virginia, said that a year before the Watergate break-in, Nixon's aides drew up plans to cover up a crime Nixon committed during his 1968 campaign.

Hughes, who also has researched the White House tapes of Lyndon B. Johnson and John F. Kennedy, said the president had ordered the men to break into the Brookings Institution to steal documents about Vietnam.

Hughes said he uncovered evidence suggesting Nixon wanted the documents because they prove he manipulated South Vietnamese policy in 1968 to boost his popularity.

"He asked the South Vietnamese to sabotage the 1968 peace talks until after the election," said Hughes.

"Liddy and [coconspirator E. Howard] Hunt came up with a plan to firebomb the Brookings and send in burglars dressed as firemen," said Hughes.

The plan was abandoned. "The White House told them it would be too expensive to get a fire truck," said Hughes.

"I think the most shocking thing I learned from the tapes is that Nixon made decisions about war on the basis of how they would affect his election chances," Hughes added.

While Hughes looks at the history leading up to Watergate, Perlstein's The Invisible Bridge looks at its legacy.

A free-ranging cultural history focusing on the years 1973 to 1976, it's the third in a series of books by Perlstein about the rise of modern conservatism.

"The premise is that 1973 started as this triumphant year. Nixon won a second term in a landslide," said Perlstein. "But three things happened."

First, the Vietnam War ended with the collapse of U.S. ally South Vietnam. "Nixon called it 'peace with honor,' but it really was a loss" costing 58,000 American lives.

Then came the Watergate hearings.

And third, "this was the beginning of the energy crisis," said Perlstein.

The nation's mood darkened by the day.

The Watergate hearings were followed by the Church Commission's efforts to uncover evidence of more government malfeasance, including CIA plots to assassinate foreign leaders and FBI operations against activists and dissidents.

Add to this the Arab oil embargo, crippling inflation, a rapid rise in violent crime, a recession, and two assassination attempts on President Gerald R. Ford, and America thought itself to be in the middle of a national nightmare.

Perlstein said these situations inspired in Americans a more sober discussion of politics.

"Washington and the whole country stopped doing what it usually does, to have a complicated civic debate . . . about who we are," said Perlstein.

Americans no longer saw the country as the chosen people, but as one nation among other nations.

This chastened self-image didn't last long, said Perlstein, thanks to the rise of a modern conservative coalition that included evangelical Christians and anticommunists. Led by Ronald Reagan, they urged people to reject negative thinking.

The Bicentennial celebrations in 1976 gave these activists a chance to shape a more positive self-image. They said "we are inherently blessed by God's grace, and anyone who would criticize America would be un-American," said Perlstein.

Reagan, Perlstein said, invited Americans to embrace historical amnesia and forget Watergate and Vietnam.

"Reagan presented what I call a liturgy of absolution. He would repeat lines from this famous Puritan sermon that called America 'a shining city on the hill,' " said Perlstein.

"Ironically, [Reagan] mischaracterized the meaning. The sermon [says] . . . since the world's eyes are upon us, we need to work even harder to be that much more above reproach. But for Reagan, this meant we could do no wrong.


John Dean: "The Nixon Defense"

7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Free Library of Philadelphia, 1901 Vine St.

Rick Perlstein: "The Invisible Bridge"

7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Free Library.

Admission free for both events. Information: 215-567-4341,


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