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Book Review: 'Watergate: A New History,' Garrett M. Graff

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Published June 15, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.


Garrett M. Graff - COURTESY OF ANDY DUBACK
  • Courtesy Of Andy Duback
  • Garrett M. Graff

Garrett M. Graff's Watergate: A New History comes 50 years after the fateful night in 1972 when five burglars were caught in the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the luxury Watergate complex in Washington, D.C.

The book is a zombie thriller, bringing a cataclysmic 26-month political episode back to life. It's a visit to the graveyard where five decades ago the American people learned about confidence-shaking criminality by a sitting president and, for the first time in history, a president resigned rather than face inevitable conviction after an expected impeachment.

The president was Richard Nixon, now a disgraced name in the hall of presidents. Today Nixon ranks 31st among 44 presidents whom C-SPAN has rated in consultation with a bank of presidential historians, and he's been steadily dropping. (Donald Trump ranks 41st, ahead of three real clunkers.)

Vermont author Graff covers Watergate as anything but a pedagogical, dry-as-dust scholar's subject. Instead, the book is a crime drama, a pirate tale, a mystery, a character study, a spy story and a Greek tragedy, disguised as Pulitzer Prize-level historiography.

As he did in his spellbinding oral history of 9/11, The Only Plane in the Sky (2019), Graff methodically assembles facts, perspectives, activities, analysis, anecdotes and interpretations into a seamless, engaging book that will hold the attention of scholars, college students and beach readers alike. If you're among the latter, a warning: Get a tablet with a glare-proof screen, because the book itself, at more than 800 pages, is hard to hold and makes a digital reader indispensable.

Graff's national résumé is impressive, including editorial leadership at magazines Politico and Washingtonian and multiple acclaimed best sellers. As a high school student in Montpelier, he was governor Howard Dean's first webmaster; in 2004, he made history with Dean's masterful internet-based presidential campaign. He has served on Vermont Public Radio's Board of Directors and currently sits on the Burlington Housing Authority's Board of Commissioners.

Graff portrays Nixon's background fairly and transparently. No mistake: More than most presidents and unlike the disgraced recent president to whom he's often compared, Nixon was a bright and knowledgeable guy who broadly understood the nation's ills and its foreign roles and responsibilities. After serving in the U.S. House and Senate and for eight years as vice president under Dwight Eisenhower, he was well prepared for the presidency.

The author conveys Nixon's paradigm-shifting presidential policy achievements: outreach to mainland China, ending the U.S. combat presence in Vietnam, overseeing successful ballistic missile negotiations with the Soviet Union and coproducing landmark eco law.

Yet Graff's writing sparkles with respect to Nixon's psychological backstory — the story now so familiar to Americans, about deceit, paranoia and secrecy. As early as 1947, in his first congressional race, Nixon publicly smeared his opponent as a secret communist, setting a pattern for subsequent campaigns. Among his numerous fears, he had a consuming conviction that the Kennedys had stolen the 1960 election from him, and he imagined a Kennedy in the shadows of future conspiracies.

Nixon wasn't paranoid only about political opponents. In his view, almost anyone could be double-crossed, jilted or set up; in most cases, loyalty meant nothing. He lashed out at Jews, Catholics and Black people in private conversations with his staff. He had a gut-level hatred for hippies, radicals and those who questioned America. He expected campaign workers to play dirty tricks that would turn off voters tempted to vote for Democrats. For good reason does right-wing political operative Roger Stone — the eminent dirty trickster who got his start on Nixon's campaign team — have a nearly full-size, minutely detailed tattoo of Nixon on his back.

Nixon was always sure the Democrats were up to something, setting him up and knocking him down. He drank to excess. He was a conspiracy theorist surrounded by conspiracy theorists. Henry Kissinger, his Nobel Prize-winning secretary of state, questioned his mental stability.

"As his administration advanced," Graff writes, "Nixon worried that his brilliant strategy and decisive leadership weren't being adequately captured for posterity." So he secretly ordered a system to tape his White House conversations. "From February 16, 1971, until July 12, 1973, the recording system would capture 3,432 hours of conversation, providing ... the most thorough and intimate view America has had of any of its presidents. It also would be the root cause of his downfall."

Watergate: A History by Garrett M. Graff. Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster, 832 pages. $35. - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Watergate: A History by Garrett M. Graff. Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster, 832 pages. $35.

On these tapes was the sizzling record of schemes for burglary, illicit fundraising and payoffs, perjury, outright lies, presidential prevarication to the media, and manipulation of staff to maintain secrecy. Nixon was well into the Watergate crisis when his staff finally ordered the taping system removed.

On Friday, July 13, 1973, Nixon aide Alexander Butterfield acknowledged the existence of the tapes in response to congressional staff questioning about the Watergate burglary. "The words hit like lightning," Graff writes.

Nixon told his chief of staff to destroy the tapes, but his order was never carried out. As Graff moves beyond Nixon's history into Watergate itself, his recapitulation of events — the individual conversations, the stealth, the distrust among colleagues, Nixon's rants, the undermining of his own lawyers — becomes a rollicking, thunderous roller-coaster ride of a read, the kind of thing you can't put down even when you smell dinner burning.

One example is the story of the Federal Bureau of Investigation official who was eventually revealed as the "Deep Throat" source who fed secret investigative information to reporters. He turns out to be an ambitious insider who coveted the FBI director's job and spent a large part of his government-salaried time undermining the appointed director. By the time Graff's narrative reveals this, the reader can only be shocked — shocked, much like the corrupt police official discovering gambling at Rick's Café in Casablanca.

Graff quotes one of the great first-person mendacities by any president, from a press conference in which Nixon was publicly posing as a victim, a naïf: "What really hurts in matters of this sort is not the fact that they occur — because overzealous people in campaigns do things that are wrong — what really hurts is if you try to cover it up." Somehow Nixon always drew the inspector's magnifying glass onto himself.

In fact, the president was involved in everything within a couple of days after the Watergate break-in. He masterminded the cover-up. He repeatedly pressured White House counsel John Dean, later a Nixon traitor whose extensive congressional testimony exposed the entire affair, to write a "Dean Report" that would whitewash the events. Who'd a thunk it. And, as Graff documents, Nixon well knew that the burglary wasn't an isolated event, linked as it was to shady campaign fundraising for off-the-books cash and to a stack of other dirty tricks.

Aesop couldn't have written a better morality fable than "Nixon and the Tapes." And Graff's history does it all fabulous justice: word by word, lie by lie.

Sadly for the reading public, current political memory has no room for enormous Watergate-era personalities such as the irresistible, flame-throwing archconservative Arkansan Martha Mitchell. But hallelujah! Graff resurrects Mitchell, one of the best-known women of her era and the wife of Nixon's condescending attorney general. He meticulously follows the thread of her energetic efforts first to campaign for and later to expose Nixon, including drunken late-night calls, a physical battle with a security agent and efforts to get through even to Nixon himself.

In threads that run throughout the book, Graff brings dramatic Watergate players to life, from the Mitchells to Kissinger to world-class journalists, such as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post, to each of the henchmen who carried out Nixon's schemes. These included G. Gordon Liddy, the former FBI agent who, after serving time, became a popular and unrepentant nationally syndicated talk radio host — aggressive, acerbic, archconservative, intelligent, gun-loving, mightily mustachioed and somewhat warped.

Graff shows us how John Dean transformed from an ambitious lawyer-prince into a croaking, truth-telling frog. John Ehrlichman and Bob Haldeman, the president's tag team of chief aides, feature prominently until they are purged in a blame-focused, tail-covering pogrom. Senator Sam Ervin and other personalities (such as U.S. representative Peter Rodino) from the wall-to-wall TV coverage of the congressional hearings are fully represented and analyzed. The lawyers, oh, the lawyers! There are so many, and they all have issues.

The book reminds us that, as the saga unfolded, federal Watergate judge John Sirica was Time's Man of the Year in 1973 — a title that pre-Watergate Nixon had won or shared in '71 and '72. The president's fall was very fast and very final.

And that's where modern readers of Graff's history may start to notice instructive contrasts. It's impossible to ignore the difference between hall-of-fame Republicans such as senators Howard Baker and Barry Goldwater, who eventually grew disgusted with Nixon and abandoned him, and today's spineless GOP leadership.

Yet Graff, while including the politicos in the action, leaves such contrast to the reader. He never colors his history with modern-day parallels or compares Nixon's behavior to that of former president Trump.

Overall, Watergate: A New History is delicious and smoothly digestible. The photos are great. If grad students wrote any chapters, we can't tell — unlike some recent histories in which multiple chapters reintroduce the same people or issues as though the reader hasn't yet encountered them.

The references and annotations are thorough and helpful, as is Graff's explanation of his research sources and methodology. His style is refreshingly colloquial, more reportorial at times than scholarly, keeping the book exciting from cover to cover. It would help if he reminded us more frequently of specific dates instead of saying "That same day" when the date reference is several pages back, but that's a quibble.

One reason it's smart to wait 50 years to do real historical analysis is that by then, you know a lot more about the past — and, for context, what happened in the interim.

One can only imagine what future historians will have to say about the events of the past few years. While Graff himself doesn't draw the comparison, history will eventually show that Watergate's tortuous sequence of investigations, firings, bombshell journalistic revelations, whimpering Republican cowardice and simpering GOP loyalty are a pale precedent to what happened during the Trump presidency and in the aftermath of the January 6 riot. Wait for it.

Ned Farquhar, of Waitsfield, recently served as president and a board member of Friends of the Mad River and is treasurer of the Mad River Valley Rotary Club. He was a senior adviser to former governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico and on Richardson's 2007 presidential campaign, and for five years he was a deputy assistant secretary in the Obama administration.

The original print version of this article was headlined "The 'Gate That Started It All"