Still tricky after all these years
Carl Bernstein remembers Nixon as a villain, but not a cartoonish one. Two new books miss the nuance.
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.