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Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Bob's Books - Nightmare: The Underside of the Nixon Years by J. Anthony Lukas

I first read J. Anthony Lukas’ Nightmare: The Underside of the Nixon Years, a couple of decades ago. Though details faded as I aged, I retained the impression that it was just about the best book on Watergate I had come across. With my collection now inching towards a hundred volumes, I decided to revisit Lukas’s tome and see how it actually stands up.

This book from the two time Pulitzer Prize winning reporter and author grew out of articles which he wrote for the New York Times Magazine (two full issues consisted of only his writings on Watergate): plus a third that was commissioned but scotched when Nixon resigned the Presidency.  Lukas sets the stage with the unsuccessful (for the Republicans) 1970 midterm elections and the state of civil unrest in Washington in 1971. Then he leads us into, and out of, Watergate.

Lukas’ comprehensive but not overwhelming look at his subject matter is well laid out, as evidenced by the chapter titles: Fear of Losing, State of Siege, Leaks and Traps, Plumbers, Dirty Money, Dirty Tricks, Break-in, Cover-up, Uncover, Houses in the Sun, Tapes, Agnew, Firestorm, Operation Candor, Impeachment and Resignation. Watergate was not simply a ‘third rate burglary.’ It was an event that grew out of the Nixon administration’s increasing combativeness and declining respect for the law.

Bob Haldeman (L) and John Erlichman (R) were Nixon's
'Palace Guard' and went to jail for their illegal actions:
something Nixon, the chief architect, was spared.
Some books use Nixon’s flawed character development to show how the operating culture of his White House evolved. And certainly, other Watergate volumes provide information and theories not included in this book. But Lukas takes a direct path approach, from point A to point B (or to Z) and it works. By the middle of Chapter 3 (Leaks and Taps, which is about the wiretapping of employees and enemies, both real and perceived), you recognize that the Nixon White House viewed governing as one hundred percent “us against everybody who is not with us” and that the end (getting our enemies) justified the means (whatever possibly or blatantly illegal methods we used). While this is serious stuff, there are some Keystone Kops type moments: such as discovering that the Secret Service (presumably at the direction of Bob Haldeman and John Erlichman) wire tapped the President’s brother, Donald Nixon because he was a cause of embarrassment.

But things got less amusing as the paranoia and arrogance of power grew. Egil ‘Bud’ Krogh Jr. (who did jail time related to the Plumbers’ activities) is quoted in 1971 as saying, “Anyone who opposes us, we’ll destroy. As a matter of fact, anyone who doesn’t support us, we’ll destroy.” As Lukas explores the Plumbers unit and campaign finance shenanigans (that’s a soft word for unethical, illegal actions), it’s clear that the Nixon Administration has lost both perspective and any kind of moral compass (you can argue Nixon lost that years before).

Lukas’ narrative leaves the reader wondering if things would have reached such critical proportions if Henry Kissinger hadn’t convinced Nixon that the leaking of The Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg was devastating to national security; for Early on, Nixon realized that it was the prior administration of Lyndon Johnson which would look bad on Vietnam, not his. It is in the response to Ellsberg’s actions that we see the seeds of Nixon’s downfall sprout into towering trees. Though, as you dig deeper into the book, you realize Nixon’s flawed personality was as fatal as Achilles’ own heel.
The President, the Attorney General, the White House Chief of Staff, special counsels, the Domestic Policy Advisor, staffers at all levels; all the president’s men broke the law and/or acted unethically time and time again. It’s shocking to read, decades later. Lukas paints a picture of all the president’s men doing everything they could to make sure the truth of the Watergate break in did not come to light. And this was in large part due to all the other illicit and embarrassing activities that would be exposed to the light of day. And that includes his lack of ethics regarding his personal taxes and willingness to spend public money on his private properties.

Nixon's net worth went through the roof during his Presidency.
This is part of one of the two 'satellite offices' he established (in
San Clemente, CA; the other was in Key Biscayne, FL).

Richard Nixon had three priorities, from least to greatest: the American public, the presidency and himself. Nightmare paints a vivid picture of an administration that believed it could do anything it wanted, however it wanted. After his resignation, Nixon famously said, “Well, if the president does it, then it’s not illegal.” That’s a pretty good epithet for his presidency. Nixon did not have a disdain for the law: he had an utter contempt for it. And he was willing to betray his oath of office and sacrifice the office of the President for his own interests.

If you buy into the misleading mantra, “it wasn’t so much the crime, it was the cover-up,” you need to read this book. It was a staggering combination of both. Thirty-nine years after its first publication, Anthony Lukas’ Nightmare remains perhaps the finest account of Watergate and the events surrounding it.