Does the world need another history of the Watergate scandal? If it’s this good, yes. Michael Dobbs’s tense facto-thriller covers the first hundred days of Richard Nixon’s second administration, from the triumph of re-election to the moment when things ‘fell apart’ in mid-1973. Dobbs stalks the president around the White House, watching and listening – much like the taping system Nixon installed to protect his reputation but that, in the end, destroyed it. We hear him make bigoted comments and plot to conceal the truth, as well as lie to the faces of men he professes to love – and to himself as well.
Tricky Dick probably didn’t order the burglary at the Democratic headquarters at the Watergate Hotel on 17 June 1972: responsibility lay with the Committee for the Re-election of the President, which was separate from the White House. The committee could easily have been thrown under the bus in the early days of the scandal. Instead, Nixon pursued a cover-up, all the while warning his staff that the worst thing to do when you’ve done something wrong is cover it up.
The inconsistency isn’t as strange as it first sounds. Nixon’s modus operandi was to encourage others to do bad things on his behalf and maintain enough distance from the wrongdoing to deny all personal responsibility. But by the time his counsel John Dean sat down with him on 21 March 1973 and informed him that there was a ‘cancer on the presidency’, Nixon must have known that the metaphor had become horribly apt, given how much crookedness, involving so many people, had built up over so long. He also knew that all it would take was one exposure to sink the entire administration. Nixon joked to his staff that they needn’t worry: America wouldn’t impeach him because that would put Spiro Agnew, his ghastly vice president, in charge. What he didn’t know was that Agnew was being quietly investigated for corruption and would soon have to quit. The crud crept across the administration.
Don’t think of Watergate as being about a break-in, but about what the break-in exposed: dirty ops, dirty tricks, dirty money. The burglars wanted cash to buy their silence, Dean told Nixon. Nixon said, ‘You could get a million dollars … I know where it could be gotten … The question is who the hell would handle that. Any ideas?’ He sounded less like a president than a Mafia don.
Dobbs masterfully crams in the odds and sods of Nixon’s curious personality. Breakfast was pineapple with cottage cheese. He hid dog biscuits in his office to entertain the hounds. He eschewed working in the Oval Office and preferred to be alone, withdrawing into himself because he’d read that this was what great men do – and even if Nixon wasn’t great, no one in history aspired to greatness as he did. He even cut his signature down from ‘Richard Nixon’ to ‘RN’ to save a few seconds every day.
A man of action needs a confidant, however, and some of the men who eventually ended up in jail enjoyed positions of influence because they had a gift for listening to their unhappy boss. Initially, they felt flattered: close up, the president seemed an intellectual, capable of vision and idealism. Over time some, like Dean, came to understand that they had been compromised by enjoying the president’s confidence, that he was at once sentimental – tears flowed easily – and calculating. Nixon wept like a baby when he finally realised he had to cut off his ‘two arms’ – his long-time advisers H R Haldeman and John Ehrlichman – to keep the investigators at bay, but he did it nonetheless. Even as he drew these men close, he reasserted his distance. Reporters were asking about fake State Department cables that purported to show that John F Kennedy had been behind an assassination in 1963. ‘Have you ever heard of such a goddamn thing?’ he said to Ehrlichman. ‘Goddamn it, I never heard of it, John.’ Yes you have, replied Ehrlichman: his recollection was that they had discussed this particularly dirty trick two weeks after the Watergate break-in. Dobbs frequently details a Nixon claim only to debunk it. ‘I never heard of E Howard Hunt’, the man who organised the break-in, he told Ehrlichman on that same call. But his own tapes later proved that Hunt’s services as a fixer were recommended to him on 1 July 1971.
The tapes made a certain sense: other presidents taped themselves too and Nixon, bedevilled by leaks and negative press, wanted an honest record of what was said and done. The problem was, however, that what the president said wasn’t always true. Why, when their existence came to light on 13 July, didn’t Nixon do the obvious thing and destroy the tapes? ‘Boss, you gotta have a bonfire,’ said Agnew. Almost everyone Nixon spoke to agreed, except Haldeman, who argued that they could prove the president was innocent. This was what Nixon wanted to hear, so that’s what Nixon chose to believe. The tapes, he declared on 17 July, were his ‘insurance … Those tapes are going to defend me.’ Later in the day, the special prosecutor requested access to eight recordings, including the ‘cancer on the presidency’ conversation. That night, Nixon wrote in his diary: ‘Should have destroyed the tapes.’
Dobbs’s book combines clarity, amusement and tragedy, opening up the Watergate story, perhaps, to a younger generation of readers who might imagine that Trump is as bad as it gets. ‘Nixon’s thirst for political intelligence’, he concludes, ‘had spawned a “whatever it takes” culture that led to massive lawbreaking by his administration’, with advisers careening off beyond the law in ways that are, in retrospect, almost unbelievable. Nixon encouraged them. He also betrayed them, though not, I think, because he was sociopathic but because he was all too human. Nixon could have killed the scandal if he’d been truly cold-hearted and decisive from the moment the story broke. Instead, he flapped about self-pityingly for a hundred sad days – not an evil genius but an ordinary man haunted by his mistakes.