It’s been more than 40 years since President Richard Nixon warned us not to “wallow in Watergate,” and yet we just keep at it. Four decades past the end of his presidency and two after his death, Nixon and the political scandal that toppled him have never been hotter.
Four major books on Nixon have been published this year. He turns up as a character in several others, sometimes charging in from distant right field. (Breaking news from George W. Bush’s 41 — A Portrait of My Father: W. once dated Nixon’s daughter Tricia, but she went home to the White House early after he spilled red wine on her at dinner.)
YouTube has even launched a series of webisodes in which comedian Harry Shearer and other actors recreate hilariously awkward Nixon conversations captured by the White House taping system, like one in which the president explains to dairy-industry lobbyists that their marketing shouldn’t mention cholesterol.
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America’s enduring fascination with Nixon and Watergate is no surprise to historian Rick Perlstein, author The Invisible Bridge: The Fall Of Nixon And The Rise Of Reagan, one of the new volumes. “Instinctively, people — even people too young to remember Watergate on their own — understand that the idea of a president who resigns just before he gets fired by his own electorate is extraordinary drama,” Perlstein says.
“It’s the Super Bowl of drama. If you’re tired of Nixon, you’re tired of life.”
Both Perlstein and John Dean, the Watergate conspirator who turned on Nixon, will speak at the Miami Book Fair International on Saturday in Miami Dade College’s Chapman Conference Center, 300 NE Second Ave. (Dean will speak at 10 a.m., Perlstein at 11:30 a.m.).
Dean’s recent book, The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It, is his sixth on Nixon’s presidency. Becoming the most prolific historian of his boss’ political scandal was not the career Dean planned while he was serving a four-month sentence (in a Witness Protection Program safe house on a Maryland military base) for obstruction of justice during Watergate.
But when he was released, Dean found he didn’t have any other cards to play. “It became clear that my knowledge of Watergate was still my most employable asset,” he wrote in 1982, in his second book. “I did not relish the prospect of continuing to make a career out of Watergate.”
A reporter who read that quote back to Dean last week got a mordant chuckle in response. “When you get pigeon-holed, you’re in the pigeon hole,” he said. “That happens to everybody whose visibility is tied to some event, especially an infamous one ... It’s amazing when you read the obituaries of some famous people. They take the worst moment, the lowest moment, of your life, and that becomes the lead of the obituary.”
Nonetheless, he’s embraced the job with, if not gusto, tenacity. For The Nixon Defense, Dean and a team of college students transcribed 1,000 conversations (about 600 never before heard by anybody except the staff of the National Archives) captured by the secret White House taping system. That’s 8,500 pages and four million words, not that Dean was counting. He knew his life had reached its most surreal moment when he found himself listening to an eight-hour tape of Nixon listening to tapes.
“The question I was trying to answer was, how could a savvy, intelligent guy like Nixon let himself be brought down by the Watergate burglary, which by itself was really sort of a small thing,” Dean said. “I didn’t think I would have to listen to all the tapes to find that, but in the end I did.
“And I got the answer. The answer to that question is absolutely clear: Nixon wasn’t as savvy as we thought he was. He was a bungler. He was a terrible administrator, always making decisions from the seat of his pants. He had trouble understanding what was going on — a lot of the tapes are just maddeningly repetitious, as he goes over the same events over and over and over again, trying to comprehend. And a lot of the time he was not well-served by his staff.”
In fact, Dean believes the Watergate burglary was pretty much what the Nixon administration labeled it as at the time, a third-rate burglary by overenthusiastic low-level subordinates. “I’ve never found any evidence that Nixon knew about the burglary in advance, or ordered it, and I don’t think he did,” says Dean.
But Nixon’s senior aides were worried that too much tugging on the threads of the Watergate burglary would reveal another operation they had ordered but the boss didn’t know about: a burglary of the office of the psychiatrist treating Daniel Ellsberg, a renegade national security aide who leaked the secret Pentagon Papers to the press. “In the end, I think the Ellsberg burglary is really what drives the Watergate coverup,” says Dean.
Perlstein is another veteran chronicler of Nixon. The Invisible Bridge is one of his three books (a fourth is in the works) on the birth of the modern conservative movement and the fractious red-state-blue-state political divide that resulted. Nixon is a major character in them all.
He concurs with Dean that Watergate was a minor misstep by lunkhead staffers. “All you have to know about the Watergate break-in is that the Cuban burglars who carried it out had to fly back to Miami first because they forgot to bring the right lock-picking tools,” Perlstein notes.
What turned the break-in politically lethal was its exposure of the seamy underbelly of Nixon’s presidency — an underbelly that Perlstein believes has only gotten uglier over the years as new White House tapes and oral histories emerge.
“It just gets more appalling all the time,” he says. “Now we have this picture of Nixon sitting in the White House, ranting and raving constantly about fire-bombing the Brookings Insitution [a liberal think-tank]. What actually happened is stranger than any conspiracy theory, and people are going to rediscover that every generation, which is why all these books are being written and read 40 years later....
“The fact that this guy was the one with his finger on the button is riveting, this unbelievably complex and bizarre guy. The fact that he gained the world and lost his soul is unbelievable drama.”
One theme throughout Perlstein’s books is that Nixon deliberately polarized America as a cynical campaign tactic. (His second book was titled Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America.) Some critics think that’s wildly oversimplified — that American consensus was rare and fleeting long before Nixon came along.
“There’s some truth in that,” he admits. “We had a civil war, after all. That’s about as polarized as you can get. But I think that may be the meaning, or the significance, of Nixon. He’s at an apex of our history, America’s continuing struggle after 240 years with the miracle of self-government — the tension between our higher and lower faculties when it comes to choosing our leaders.
“It’s the challenge of our resisting demagogues. It’s all these fascinating issues about whether we can unite in common purpose as a nation. These are big questions, and Nixon’s at the very center of them.”
Eye on politics
These will be among the new political reads featured at the book fair:
▪ Matt Bai, ‘All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid’
▪ Joan Biskupic, ‘Breaking In: The Rise of Sonia Sotomayor and the Politics of Justice’
▪ James E. Clyburn, ‘Blessed Experiences: Genuinely Southern, Proudly Black’
▪ Franklin Foer, ‘Insurrections of the Mind: 100 Years of Politics and Culture’
▪ Mark “Oz” Geist, ‘13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened In Benghazi’
▪ Myra MacPherson ‘The Scarlet Sisters: Sex, Suffrage, and Scandal in the Gilded Age’
▪ Peter Kornbluh, ‘Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana’
▪ Gary M. Segura, ‘Latino America: How America's Most Dynamic Population Is Poised to Transform the Politics of the Nation’
▪ Ilan Stavans, ‘A Most Imperfect Union: A Contrarian History of the United States’
▪ Chuck Todd, ‘The Stranger: Barack Obama in the White House’
▪ David Rothkopf, ‘National Insecurity: American Leadership in an Age of Fear’
▪ For a complete schedule of authors, go to http://www.miamibookfair.com/