Watergate | A New History
by Garrett M. Graff
Simon & Shuster
Hardcover; photos; 795 pgs; $35,
Political journalist and historian Garritt Graff acknowledges that there are shelves of books and declassified government documents that chronicle Watergate saga that led to the downfall of Richard Nixon’s presidency. But, 50 years on, Graff debriefs on all of the untold tales of all the president’s men and women in his book ‘Watergate- A New History.
Graff is not only a veteran political reporter for Politico, The Washingtonian, CNN and New York Times he is a researcher who can stylishly weave together the many colliding political capers and dramas that swirled around Nixon with both journalistic and theatrical flair.
The book opens on Richard Nixon’s “last joyful day” in the White House- the day he and Pat hosted his daughter Trisha’s wedding in the White House. But the next day he groused that there was not enough tv coverage, that had it been a Kennedy wedding it would have been covered live on all three networks. The following day the wedding was covered on the front page, with a glittering photo of the event, but next to it ran the first installment of The Pentagon Papers that exposed the disastrous US policies that fueled the war for over a decade that had cost tens of thousands of American lives.
Even though the Pentagon Papers exposed the malfeasance and warmongering hubris of previous administrations, Nixon was obsessed with insider leaks to the press could potentially lead leaks about the first term of his own presidency. And what was being plotted for his second term.
Graff is methodical in his sourcing and granular its detail- both the established facts and disputed ones- newly revealed sourcing and, critically, exculpatory evidence that can now be collated into the voluminous Watergate lore.
There’s deep background on known and unknown aspects of Watergate and the cast of infamous characters the short list being- Howard Hunt, G. Gordon Liddy- the jailed off burglars being paid off to keep quiet, not to mention the Oval Office cabal of Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Mitchell and Dean collaborating with the hard-drinking paranoid, vengeful Nixon.
Graff’s paints a dimensional portrait of a Nixon, the man and politician full of dualities and contradictions, but as he justified his actions and whose less self-destructive side led him to think of himself as the great statesman who had a positive agenda for cleaning up the environment, achieved détente with Russia and China, advocated for cancer research, and even for more women in the male dominated jobs in government. Graff reminds readers of his reasonable political agenda.
The overtures to bug the Watergate was ignited by Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist being surveilled. Nixon had considered J. Edgar Hoover useless to do his bidding. Graff goes into the shady dealings of Nixon’s landslide victory in 1968 dubbed, The Chenault Affair where Nixon’s engaged a society matron to in sabotage the Paris Peace talks until after his 1968 run for the presidency.,
Nixon who was vengeful, petty, insecure, and power greedy. And sabotage political opponents. Graff devotes a chapter early on detailing the Chennault scandal in which Nixon was engaged in clandestine overtures with the South Vietnamese government that would stall the Paris peace talks at the end of the Johnson administration. Johnson knew about it and tried to contain it, when he could have exposed Nixon in what would have, on the face of it been a treasonous offence.
Nixon’s fear of leaks over his impulses to ignore legalities. The formation of the Plumbers, not only to smear Nixon’s enemies, but using methods that were indisputable crimes. Sound familiar?
Graff dissects the events that led up of the break-in at the Watergate. Gives the backstory of the dupes and shady characters recruited by Nixon’s henchmen. The opening chapters dissecting Nixon’s obsessive tactics employed to blackmail, silence, and smear his real or perceived enemies.
Graff delves into fascinating episodes such as Nixon knowing that the aging J. Edgar Hoover was losing his iron grip on the FBI. Mark Felt aka Deep Throat, was Hoover’s heir apparent at the FBI. Or that Nixon and his inner circle figured it out early that he was feeding information to reporters. But Nixon thought it wouldn’t serve them to expose him but strategized how to sideline, and control him, knowing that he was waiting be named director.
John Dean’s image as the President’s lawyer of conscience who’s famous ‘There’s a cancer growing on the presidency’ account to the Ervin committee made him come off as a choirboy, as Graff reveals Dean’s testimony was a performative red herring to the Ervin Committee since he an active participant in the coverup from the start.
Graff tips his hat to the groundbreaking first line reporting by Woodward & Bernstein in cracking open the case, but he also dissects the faults and factual errors in their best-selling All The President’s Men and the blockbuster movie produced by Robert Redford.
And to fill in the areas that dropped off the radar, or were under seal, or hidden until years after Nixon was out of office. New details about the infamous showdown over the Nixon tapes, the Saturday Night Massacre, Executive privilege, Rosemary Woods contortions caused the 18-and-a-half-minute-gap,
At near 800 pages of reveals, Graff uncovers all of the political malfeasants, hubris, smear tactics and dirty tricks that became the Nixon administration’s brand. Watergate | A New History reads like a political primer that anticipated what the Republican party has now become, a secret, cut-throat, undemocratic, petrified institution cast with people who will do or say anything to stay in power.
Nixon’s tragic flaws are still fascinatingly Shakespearean in their complexities, even as his compulsions are the stuff of farce- unfortunately a comedy with tragic consequences for a democracy.