Still tricky af­ter all these years

Carl Bern­stein re­mem­bers Nixon as a vil­lain, but not a car­toon­ish one. Two new books miss the nu­ance.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - book­world@wash­ Carl Bern­stein, with Bob Wood­ward, is the co-au­thor of “All the Pres­i­dent’s Men” and “The Fi­nal Days.” They cov­ered Water­gate for The Washington Post. Bern­stein’s latest book is “A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hil­lary Rod­ham Clinto

Is it pos­si­ble, four decades af­ter the res­ig­na­tion of Pres­i­dent Richard M. Nixon, to re­port and write a great nar­ra­tive bi­og­ra­phy of the man and his pres­i­dency? Or, on a more man­age­able scale, to pro­duce a mas­ter­ful and com­pre­hen­sive ac­count of his pres­i­dency that traces its en­demic crim­i­nal­ity and abuse of power from be­gin­ning to end — yet still deals con­tex­tu­ally with the re­mark­able com­plex­i­ties of Nixon’s char­ac­ter, his in­tel­lect, the loftier goals he brought to the White House and what­ever gen­uine ac­com­plish­ments are also part of his pres­i­den­tial legacy? Not quite yet, judg­ing from two am­bi­tious new works pub­lished this sum­mer: Tim Weiner’s “One Man Against the World” and Evan Thomas’s “Be­ing Nixon.”

Weiner, at­tempt­ing a more lim­ited task, comes much closer to re­al­iz­ing his goal than Thomas does in his uber-bi­o­graph­i­cal por­trait. But Weiner ul­ti­mately misses the op­por­tu­nity for a mas­ter­work on the Nixon pres­i­dency, es­pe­cially given the breadth of his re­search. He has ac­cessed the latest ma­te­ri­als, pro­duc­ing a fun­da­men­tally ac­cu­rate and vivid pic­ture of a crim­i­nal pres­i­dency — a kind of jour­nal­is­tic MRI of the bent spine of Nixon’s ten­ure. But there’s lit­tle of the tor­mented hu­man be­ing in­hab­it­ing the au­thor’s pages, lit­tle sense of the presi- dent’s in­ter­nal strug­gles and cer­tainly not the stuff of real tragedy, de­spite Weiner’s sub­ti­tle. His Nixon is be­yond dark — an un­com­pli­cated, nearly evil stick fig­ure — and his ac­count is de­void of al­most any ex­plo­ration of how he got that way. Weiner’s gra­tu­itous at­tri­bu­tion of base mo­tive to al­most ev­ery­thing Nixon did, in­clud­ing the pres­i­dent’s do­mes­tic pro­grams, tends to un­der­mine re­por­to­rial and his­tor­i­cal pur­pose.

The prob­lem with Thomas’s pic­ture of the Nixon pres­i­dency is the po­lar op­po­site: This au­thor seems overly en­am­ored of the kind of lofty thoughts and goals that Nixon of­ten scrib­bled on yel­low le­gal pads. (“Most pow­er­ful of­fice.” “Need to be good to do good.” “Need for joy, seren­ity, con­fi­dence.” “Set ex­am­ple, in­spire, in­still pride.”) “Be­ing Nixon” too of­ten gives as much weight to the im­pli­ca­tions of these at­mo­spheric, some­times ba­nal mus­ings as to the re­al­ity of the con­spir­acy at the heart of his pres­i­dency and what he ac­tu­ally did in of­fice.

Per­haps most dis­ap­point­ing, nei­ther of these books comes to ad­e­quate an­a­lyt­i­cal grips with re­cent schol­ar­ship and his­to­ri­og­ra­phy. Newly re­leased Nixon tapes, re­cently de­clas­si­fied oral his­to­ries of his aides (es­pe­cially those of the mys­te­ri­ous Thomas Charles Hus­ton) and

pre­vi­ously with­held por­tions of H.R. Halde­man’s di­aries il­lu­mi­nate as never be­fore that Viet­nam and Water­gate are in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked in the Nixon pres­i­dency. They are an in­ter­twined tale — one story — of sor­did abuse of pres­i­den­tial power, vengeance, cyn­i­cism and law­less­ness. Nixon con­ducted the Viet­nam War and presided over the crimes of Water­gate with the same ruth­less mind-set, scorchedearth sen­si­bil­ity and dis­dain for es­tab­lished gov­ern­men­tal in­sti­tu­tions and their proper func­tion­ing. Not to men­tion para­noia, chaos and reck­less­ness. Weiner rec­og­nizes this, es­pe­cially through his tightly com­pressed nar­ra­tive struc­ture, but fails to un­der­take any re­ally new or nu­anced ex­am­i­na­tion of the dy­namic, es­pe­cially from the es­sen­tial van­tage points of Nixon and those around him.

“With­out the Viet­namwar, there would have been no Water­gate,” Halde­man noted ac­cu­rately, though long af­ter the fact. To un­der­stand that link, con­sider the de­ceit of pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Nixon and the cul­ture of il­le­gal­ity he brought to the White House. In his land­mark 2014 book, “Chas­ing Shad­ows,” Ken Hughes re­con­structs Nixon’s spec­tac­u­larly de­vi­ous role in scut­tling the Paris peace talks of 1968, in the clos­ing weeks of the cam­paign, af­ter Pres­i­dent Lyn­don John­son de­cided to halt the bomb­ing of North Viet­nam to help bring about a pos­si­ble set­tle­ment to end the war. This was the Chen­nault Af­fair, in which high-level emis­saries for Nixon promised South Viet­namese Pres­i­dent Nguyen Van Thieu that he would get a bet­ter peace deal if Nixon were elected— and not Hu­bert Humphrey, LBJ’s vice pres­i­dent and the 1968 Demo­cratic nom­i­nee. Thieu boy­cotted the peace talks.

When John­son learned of Nixon’s in­ter­ven­tion, he was in­censed. In con­ver­sa­tions with the Se­nate Repub­li­can leader, he called Nixon trea­sonous— im­ply­ing that he had vi­o­lated the Lo­gan Act, which for­bids pri­vate cit­i­zens from interfering in gov­ern­ment diplo­macy. By sub­vert­ing a move to­ward peace, Nixon had also po­ten­tially caused the in­jury and deaths of thou­sands more Amer­i­can sol­diers and count­less Viet­namese, John­son charged. So en­ter­ing the pres­i­dency, Nixon knew he had a ter­ri­ble se­cret to hide that could be ru­inous.

One of the strengths of Weiner’s ac­count is his fo­cus on Viet­nam and Water­gate, and he briefly cites the Hus­ton oral his­to­ries as source ma­te­rial. But he comes nowhere near avail­ing him­self fully of their rich­ness in fur­ther il­lu­mi­nat­ing the Nixon pres­i­dency. Hus­ton— his ti­tle was as­so­ciate coun­sel to the pres­i­dent— can be seen in many re­mark­able ways as a kind of epoxy that binds mo­men­tous episodes of the Water­gate tale. He rep­re­sents a con­nec­tive tis­sue hold­ing key el­e­ments of the un­der­side of Nixon’s pres­i­dency to­gether. Hus­ton is best known as the au­thor of the in­fa­mous Hus­ton Plan, ap­proved by Nixon in 1970, to au­tho­rize break-ins and other illegal sur­veil­lance — not only of left-wing rad­i­cals such as the Weath­er­men, who were build­ing bombs, but also of non­vi­o­lent lead­ers and prom­i­nent fig­ures in the an­ti­war move­ment. As Nixon ac­knowl­edged on tape when the coverup was un­rav­el­ing: “I or­dered that they use any means nec­es­sary, in­clud­ing illegal means, to ac­com­plish this goal. . . . The pres­i­dent of the United States can never ad­mit that.”

Thomas, un­like Weiner, fails to suf­fi­ciently stress the ne­far­i­ous and un­break­able con­nec­tion be­tween Water­gate and Viet­nam, even while not­ing, for in­stance, Hus­ton’s unique role in the White House. Though Hus­ton per­son­ally had noth­ing to do with the bur­glary at the Water­gate or the cover-up, he shows up re­peat­edly, Zelig-like, in the Nixo­nian de­lib­er­a­tions that made Water­gate pos­si­ble. A very spe­cial as­sis­tant with un­usu­ally broad se­cu­rity clear­ances, he was cho­sen to con­duct pri­vate re­search projects for the pres­i­dent— es­pe­cially to pro­vide him with se­cret in­for­ma­tion about what Nixon’s en­e­mies might know about him.

Hus­ton’s pres­ence, and the in­vo­ca­tion of his name, are con­spic­u­ous at cru­cial mo­ments. (“Fol­low Hus­ton” is a fruit­ful no­tion.) He’s there early, un­der­tak­ing an in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the bomb­ing halt for the new pres­i­dent to de­ter­mine, in part, ex­actly what John­son and FBI Di­rec­tor J. Edgar Hoover knew about Nixon’s com­plic­ity in un­der­min­ing the Paris peace talks. Around the same time, he con­ducted another in­ves­ti­ga­tion for Nixon that, in­fu­ri­at­ing the pres­i­dent in its con­clu­sion, failed to find ev­i­dence that the North Viet­namese or other for­eign pow­ers were giv­ing fi­nan­cial sup­port to the an­ti­war move­ment in Amer­ica.

When the pres­i­dent de­cided he needed a spe­cial unit, the Plum­bers — who later broke into Water­gate — to in­ves­ti­gate his po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents and en­e­mies, he said, “I re­ally need a son of a bitch like Hus­ton who will work his butt off and do it dis­hon­or­ably.” In a mo­ment on the tapes that is per­haps the most re­veal­ing of Nixon’s mind-set, the pres­i­dent re­peat­edly or­ders a break-in at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion, a Washington think tank, ex­actly one year be­fore the Water­gate break-in. “You re­mem­ber Hus­ton’s plan,” Nixon de­clares, and de­mands that Brook­ings be bur­glar­ized: “I want it im­ple­mented on a thiev­ery ba­sis.” He be­lieved that a safe there held in­for­ma­tion about Viet­nam, the bomb­ing halt, his po­lit­i­cal ad­ver­saries and him­self. “Blow the safe and get it,” he or­ders.

Hus­ton elab­o­rates on many of these and other mat­ters in two oral his­to­ries that the Na­tional Ar­chives de­clas­si­fied and the Nixon Pres­i­den­tial Li­brary re­leased in the spring of 2014. The in­ter­views were con­ducted six years ear­lier by for­mer Nixon Li­brary di­rec­tor Tim Naf­tali, a his­to­rian and non-Nixo­nian who suc­ceeded in his mis­sion to open Nixon’s ar­chives to in­de­pen­dent schol­ar­ship. In the oral his­to­ries, Hus­ton comes across as a com­pli­cated fig­ure who had no in­ter­est in run­ning the Plum­bers. He also re­fused to un­der­take an in­ves­ti­ga­tion with Nixon’s un­sa­vory deputy Charles Col­son into the as­sas­si­na­tion of South Viet­namese Pres­i­dent Ngo Dinh Diem. Nixon wanted to fur­ther dis­credit the Kennedy fam­ily by show­ing that the killing had been or­dered by Pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy. (Even­tu­ally, Water­gate bur­glar Howard Hunt forged a diplo­matic tele­gram to “prove” that Kennedy was re­spon­si­ble.)

Hus­ton ad­dresses Viet­nam and the Nixo­nian urge to­ward crim­i­nal­ity at sev­eral points in the oral his­to­ries. And of great sig­nif­i­cance, he pro­vides the cru­cial ex­pert tes­ti­mony con­firm­ing that Nixon— not un­der­lings— or­dered the ef­forts to de­rail LBJ’s quest for peace in Viet­nam. “Over the years as I’ve stud­ied it,” Hus­ton says in one of the in­ter­views, “I’ve con­cluded that there was no doubt that Nixon was — would have been di­rectly in­volved, that it’s not some­thing that any­body would’ve un­der­taken on their own.”

The pres­i­dent’s ad­mir­ing com­ment about Hus­ton “work[ing] his butt off ... dis­hon­or­ably” was made in a taped Oval Of­fice dis­cus­sion with Halde­man. Like the tapes, Halde­man’s le­gal pads and note­books, with their metic­u­lous no­ta­tions of Nixon’s dark­est mus­ings and ac­tions, seem more rel­e­vant than the pres­i­dent’s rhetor­i­cal and in­spi­ra­tional scrib­blings. Case in point is this Halde­man en­try on July 2, 1969, af­ter meet­ing with the pres­i­dent: “Reg meet­ings— dirty tricks dept. use of power of WH more ruth­lessly in deadly bat­tle— use all weapons” While Thomas quotes this en­try, he never suf­fi­ciently de­vel­ops the im­pli­ca­tion to its log­i­cal the­matic con­clu­sion or gives it proper heft. Weiner, how­ever, un­der­stands that Nixon lived to win, ex­er­cise and— from the first days of his pres­i­dency — re­tain power at all costs. The soar­ing am­bi­tions on Nixon’s yel­low le­gal pads col­lided head-on with Viet­nam, the an­ti­war move­ment and Nixon’s own char­ac­ter traits as the coun­try (and its pres­i­dent) be­came con­vulsed. As polls in­di­cated wider dis­ap­proval of Nixon’s per­for­mance on Viet­nam, the pres­i­dent called Halde­man and Henry Kissinger toa meet­ing only 10 months into his term and told them (ac­cord­ing to Halde­man’s di­ary, cited by both au­thors), “We have only two al­ter­na­tives, bug out [of the war] or ac­cel­er­ate, and that we must es­ca­late or P [the pres­i­dency] is lost.”

Both books ex­ten­sively dis­cuss Nixon’s men­tal state. Both have chap­ter head­ings us­ing the word “Mad­man” (a play on Nixon’s own sug­ges­tion that it might be ad­van­ta­geous for the North Viet­namese to view him that way) and in­di­cate that there were pe­ri­ods when the pres­i­dent was dan­ger­ously un­sta­ble and some­times drunk, even in mo­ments of cri­sis. ( When Bob Wood­ward and I first re­ported on Nixon’s some­times ex­ces­sive drink­ing in “The Fi­nal Days,” es­pe­cially as the pres­sures of Water­gate en­veloped him and the cover-up un­rav­eled, we noted that his abil­ity to han­dle liquor was mar­ginal: Two drinks and he could be out of it.) Stu­art Spencer, a po­lit­i­cal ad­viser quoted by Thomas, noted Nixon’s ex­tra­or­di­nary dis­ci­pline and “ca­pa­cious po­lit­i­cal brain,” adding: “But then he’d drink a lit­tle scotch and a switch would click and he’d get para­noid.”

For stress, Thomas re­ports, “Nixon took an anti-seizure medicine called Di­lantin. . . . In Oc­to­ber 1968, three weeks be­fore the elec­tion, Nixon asked [a friend who had supplied him with 1,000 pills], ‘Is it all right if I take two pills ev­ery­day?’ ” The friend, Jack Drey­fus, a mu­tual fund op­er­a­tor, told him yes.

Naf­tali, who cu­rated the Nixon Li­brary’s Water­gate ex­hibit, has said he be­lieves that Nixon be­came “un­hinged . . . to the point of a break­down” around the time of the Pen­tagon Pa­pers’ re­lease and the Brook­ings episode in 1971. Nixon’s ob­ses­sive in­sis­tence over sev­eral days to his aides, in­clud­ing the al­ways sy­co­phan­tic Henry Kissinger, that away be found to bur­glar­ize the Brook­ings safe, along with the lan­guage he used — “I want the Brook­ings In­sti­tute safe cleaned out. . . . Who’s gonna break in the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion? . . . I’ve got to get that safe cracked over there” — is a sem­i­nal episode in his pres­i­dency.

At that time, Nixon saw him­self as be­sieged and be­lea­guered by many things he couldn’t con­trol: the Kennedys, the FBI (it wouldn’t ex­e­cute the break-ins he wanted), the CIA, Jews, the an­ti­war move­ment, De­fense Depart­ment bu­reau­crats, the press. He wor­ried that ev­i­dence about the Chen­nault Af­fair was in the Brook­ings safe, along with in­for­ma­tion he was seek­ing in or­der to black­mail and pub­licly smear John­son. ( Wor­ried aides in­ter­vened and fi­nally called off the pro­posed bur­glary.)

Both Weiner and Thomas are very ex­pe­ri­enced, highly re­garded jour­nal­ists. Weiner is a Pulitzer win­ner and for­mer New York Times re­porter who won the Na­tional Book Award for his history of the CIA; Thomas, a for­mer Washington bureau chief of Newsweek, has writ­ten nine books, in­clud­ing stud­ies of Dwight Eisen­hower and Robert F. Kennedy. Weiner does the bet­ter job of pulling to­gether his ma­te­rial into a co­her­ent his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive, con­nect­ing the dots with great skill, though there is rel­a­tively lit­tle orig­i­nal re­port­ing, de­spite what the pub­lic­ity for his book prom­ises. His ac­com­plish­ment is in show­ing us graph­i­cally, fro­mall the source ma­te­rial now avail­able, how Nixon op­er­ated: It is an even more dis­turb­ing pic­ture than we might have imag­ined. Weiner ap­pears so pal­pa­bly an­gry at Nixon, how­ever, that he can­not ren­der the pres­i­dent in three-di­men­sional terms. His ac­count is de­liv­ered with rarely a hint of em­pa­thy — some­thing that, given the arc of Nixon’s life, is called for in the Nixon saga, as Thomas un­der­stands.

Thomas, though, seems to get lost in his ma­te­rial, es­pe­cially when he prac­tices re­por­to­rial psy­chi­a­try on Nixon. Parts of his book re­flect how fine a jour­nal­ist and his­to­rian he can be, es­pe­cially in de­scrib­ing Nixon’s early years, both in Cal­i­for­nia and in Washington. But it’s very dif­fi­cult to en­gage in psy­chi­atric history when the doc­tor/re­porter is not in di­a­logue with the pa­tient. De­spite all the au­thor’s at­tempts, his Nixon is in­scrutable.

Thomas’s ac­com­plish­ment against all this is his sym­pa­thy and un­der­stand­ing of Nixon’s grand goals for him­self, for his pres­i­dency and for his coun­try. Thenation would seem sec­ondary in his schema, if we are to be­lieve the tapes and not his no­ta­tions on yel­low le­gal pads; Nixon al­most never speaks on the tapes ofwhat would be good for the coun­try but rather what would be good for Nixon — and ap­pro­pri­ate pun­ish­ment for his en­e­mies. The self-de­scribed Nixon of the yel­low le­gal pads is the unloved and un­ap­pre­ci­ated strate­gist and states­man who came to the pres­i­dency de­ter­mined to end the war in Viet­nam — to bring “peace with honor,” as he put it in his speech on Jan. 23, 1973, as he an­nounced a cease-fire — while orches­trat­ing the Water­gate coverup. The phrase was a vari­a­tion on a cam­paign prom­ise Nixon had made in 1968: “I pledge to you that we shall have an hon­or­able end to the war in Viet­nam.”

Though a some­what dis­or­derly ride, Thomas’s book is filled with anec­dotes that hu­man­ize Nixon. There are pages sug­gest­ing real in­sight and, es­pe­cially, how the pres­i­dent was seen by those around him — par­tic­u­larly Halde­man, do­mes­tic pol­icy ad­viser John Ehrlich­man and Alex But­ter­field (best known for re­veal­ing the ex­is­tence of Nixon’s tap­ing sys­tem to the Water­gate com­mit­tee), who in the first days of the pres­i­dency was or­dered by Nixon to get the Se­cret Ser­vice to put a tail on Sen. Ted Kennedy and, wide-eyed, served on the in­ter­a­gency group that con­sid­ered the Hus­ton Plan. There are well-crafted word-pic­tures of Nixon through­out the nar­ra­tive, from his leg­endary awk­ward­ness to his cat­a­strophic frus­tra­tion and vin­dic­tive rage. A poor sleeper, he wan­dered from cabin to cabin at Camp David, look­ing for a place to write on his ubiq­ui­tous yel­low pad, which his aides called his “best friend”; in the Lin­coln Sit­ting Room and else­where, he ha­bit­u­ally played a record­ing of Richard Rodgers and Robert Rus­sell Ben­nett’s “Vic­tory at Sea” at high vol­ume, as he had on the morn­ing of his elec­tion as pres­i­dent.

Weiner’s is cer­tainly the bet­ter book about Nixon’s pres­i­dency. Thomas, in his ap­par­ent de­sire for even-hand­ed­ness, mis­reads the record, es­pe­cially of Water­gate, whose larger mean­ings and con­text in Amer­i­can history he fun­da­men­tally mis­un­der­stands; its re­la­tion­ship to Viet­nam of­ten eludes him or gets lost in the nar­ra­tive. Still, there are many anec­dotes and events de­scribed in Thomas’s book that would leaven and give bet­ter con­text to Weiner’s ac­count.

Nixon’s life — and his om­nipres­ence in the life of Amer­ica for half a cen­tury— may re­quire the likes of a Robert Caro (now work­ing on his fifth Lyn­don John­son vol­ume) and decades of study to do it jus­tice.

Weiner uses the word “tragedy” in his ti­tle, but his nar­ra­tive is far too un­sym­pa­thetic to Nixon’s in­ner strug­gles to even be­gin to ex­plore the clas­sic as­pects of a tragic tale. That seems to have been part of Thomas’s in­tent, but ul­ti­mately, while his sec­tions on Water­gate are riv­et­ing, they fail to con­nect suf­fi­ciently to his Viet­nam ma­te­rial or the ear­lier parts of Nixon’s life and po­lit­i­cal ca­reer.

Thomas makes con­sid­er­able use of Julie Nixon Eisen­hower’s ob­ser­va­tions. The pres­i­dent’s daugh­ter is com­pelling, per­haps his book’s most sym­pa­thetic char­ac­ter, be­cause of her com­pre­hen­sion and the pathos and sad­ness of the per­sonal story; she, her sis­ter, Tricia, and es­pe­cially their mother, Pat Nixon, are the in­no­cents who suf­fer hor­ri­bly from the trans­gres­sions of their prince. A twinge of tragedy emerges in the pres­i­dent’s amaz­ing mo­ment of self-un­der­stand­ing in his East Room farewell: “Al­ways re­mem­ber, oth­ers may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win un­less you hate them, and then you de­stroy your­self.”

The life of Richard Nixon still awaits his Boswell, and his pres­i­dency awaits his Thucy­dides. He de­serves noth­ing less.


By Evan Thomas Ran­dom House. 619 pp. $35 BE­ING NIXON A Man Di­vided

By Tim Weiner Henry Holt. 369 pp. $30 ONE MAN AGAINST THE WORLD The Tragedy of Richard Nixon


Nixon with H.R. “Bob” Halde­man, his do­mes­tic pol­icy ad­viser, in the Oval Of­fice. Halde­man took metic­u­lous notes on Nixon’s mus­ings and ac­tions.


Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon vis­its sol­diers with the 1st In­fantry Di­vi­sion at their head­quar­ters at Di An, Viet­nam, on July 30, 1969. As pres­i­dent, Nixon promised to end the war, but as a can­di­date he sab­o­taged peace talks.

Nixon aide Thomas Charles Hus­ton de­vised a plan for illegal sur­veil­lance.

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