I had read a few reviews of Tim Weiner’s new book about Richard Nixon, “One Man Against the World: the Tragedy of Richard NIxon”, and concluded it wasn’t for me. Weiner’s book, said the reviewers, was too harsh on Nixon, hard as that may be to imagine. It lacked balance. The reviewers compared Weiner’s book with another new book about Nixon, by Evan Thomas, “Being Nixon”, which was clearly more sympathetic to the former president.
But when I saw that Weiner was speaking at Politics and Prose, I decided to go and much to my surprise I was very intrigued. Weiner, a former National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize winner, read a chapter of his book, and answered a lot of questions. Every time that someone asked a “shouldn’t Nixon get credit for doing this good thing?” question, Weiner seemed to have a “he did it, but not of his own accord” type of answer that sounded right to me. In particular, he said that a number of Nixon’s progressive domestic accomplishments were really Congressional accomplishments that Nixon knew would survive a veto.
The book itself is fascinating. It is not a full biography, but Weiner calls it a biography of the Nixon presidency. In fact, it is not really even that – it is the story of Nixon and Vietnam, and the story of Nixon and Watergate. And a tawdry story it is.
It starts with the dirtiest of tricks, when Nixon, during the 1968 presidential election, convinced the South Vietnamese that they should pull back from Johnson’s Paris peace conference, because they would get a better deal under a Nixon presidency. Apparently, Johnson learned of this during the campaign, but was afraid to say anything public, because Nixon’s action would most likely have been viewed as criminal and perhaps treasonous, and that the country could not withstand this during a presidential campaign.
Weiner shows a new president, now determined to end the war and create his legacy. But he couldn’t stop the war without ceding the South to the North, and this he wouldn’t do, so he had to increase and increase and increase the pressure on Hanoi. But he didn’t want to be a war president, so he couldn’t really say what he was doing, so he turned to secrecy. And not only secrecy, but spreading the war outside of Vietnam, to Laos and to Cambodia, something he kept denying until it was impossible to do so any longer. And he did this with the aid of his loyal assistants, like Haldeman and Erlichman, as well as his experts, such as Henry Kissinger, who comes out of this book at least as bad as Nixon.
The leaking of the Pentagon Papers (the official, but secret, story of the Vietnam War written by the Defense Department) by Daniel Ellsberg to the New York Times, enraged Nixon and his team and, used to secrecy, Nixon authorized a group to perform dirty tricks, including authorizing them to burglarize Ellsberg’s office. All of this increased Nixon’s paranoia and led to the creation of the Committee to Re-Elect the President (or CREEP), which was organized to do dirty tricks to help Nixon win a second term. Included in these dirty tricks was the unauthorized entry into the Democrats’ office at the Watergate, an incident that it does not appear Nixon specifically authorized in advance. But when he learned of it, Nixon participated in and directed the cover up, which included the payment of large sums of money for silence, and the promise of employment, telling everyone to lie on a regular basis.
And then there were the tapes that no one knew about until a direct question was asked by Congressional investigators to Alexander Butterfield. They asked him whether there were any recording devices in the White House. Butterfield did not lie, and even the investigators must have been surprised at the breadth of the answer. And then another fight started – the investigators wanted the tapes. Nixon claimed executive privilege.
There are many other things you might remember from the Nixon years. The firing of the special prosecutor by Robert Bork. The imminence of impeachment proceedings. The criminal case against Vice President Agnew. The resignation from the presidency.
At Politics and Prose, Weiner was asked if he could name 5 things that did Nixon did that were good. He thought for a few minutes and said. First, he raised two wonderful daughters (following that he said – can that count for 2?). And another thing he did was resign the presidency, avoiding the impeachment trial. I don’t remember the fourth item, and there really wasn’t a fifth.
I finished this book a few days ago and recommend it highly. I picked up yesterday a copy of Bob Woodward’s “The War Within”, his story of the final two years of the Bush administration (2006-2008) and the war in Iraq………..Nixon redux. Nothing changes.