Home 9 History & Culture 9 Nixon’s Scandal: ‘Watergate: A New History’ Book Review

Nixon’s Scandal: ‘Watergate: A New History’ Book Review

by | October 27, 2023 | History & Culture, Books & Literature

Garrett M. Graff, Watergate: A New History. First edition published February 15, 2022 by Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster.

If you’re going to read one book about Watergate, this should be the one. Woodward and Bernstein’s book, All the President’s Men, deserves its standing as a classic and is also well worth reading, but it looks at the scandal through the narrow lens of the authors’ reporting for the Washington Post. It was, moreover, published in June 1974, before Richard Nixon’s resignation in August, as the story was still in progress.

Garrett Graff’s book, Watergate: A New History, benefits from the perspective of being written some 50 years after the events it describes. It also has a much broader scope, covering numerous crimes and misdeeds of Nixon and his allies in addition to the break-in at the Watergate complex. This is a necessary and appropriate way to tell the story, says Graff:

“Watergate represents much more than an individual moment, decision, event, or target. It has so many parts that there is no single motive or story to tell, no single thread that makes all the pieces come together—even the break-in that triggered the whole public unraveling seems possibly to have been committed by burglars with two or even three distinct and separate motives. ‘Watergate’ was less an event than a way of life for the Nixon administration—a mindset that evolved into a multiyear, multifaceted corruption and erosion of ethics within the office of the president.”

I can’t do justice to this excellent book in a short review. Graff’s research is meticulous and his command of the many details of the story is impressive. The book is massive: the text in my edition, exclusive of acknowledgments, notes, and index, runs to 679 pages. Yet the story flows smoothly, as Graff deftly weaves its strands together to form a very coherent narrative.

A few random details that stood out for me:

Watergate: A New History book cover
  • G. Gordon Liddy was enamored with being a tough guy and came up with a whole collection of dirty tricks, many of them illegal. At one point, he was prepared to assassinate columnist Jack Anderson. As he said in a 1980 Playboy interview, “‘I know it violates the sensibilities of the innocent and tender-minded, but in the real world, you sometimes have to employ extreme and extra-legal methods to preserve the very system whose laws you’re violating.’”
  • John Dean (despite his current anti-Trump efforts) comes across as amoral and blinded by ambition. “As [Special Prosecutor Archibald] Cox said one day, ‘If everything else goes down the drain, the one thing I can cling to is Dean’s venality.’
  • Although Alexander Haig is commonly perceived as a masterful manipulator who held the White House together in the final months of Nixon’s presidency, Graff suggests that Haig wanted to be liked by everyone and was in far over his head.
  • The Watergate prosecutors nicknamed Nixon “Le Grand Fromage” and referred to him as “GF” to avoid speaking his name.
  • When the Ervin Committee began investigating Watergate in the Senate, Nixon’s top aides decided to push the message that the committee was “a partisan sham.”

Does that last item sound familiar? Like me, most readers will, I think, find numerous instances in which the actions of Nixon and his team are echoed in today’s Republican politics. Indeed, as Graff notes, “Richard Nixon, first in victory and then in defeat, remade the nation’s politics for a half century. The electoral playbook that he and John Mitchell developed in ’68 and ’72 has become the bible for decades of Republican wins ….”

The story of Watergate is a tragedy on many levels, not least because Nixon was consumed by his own demons. His legacy could have been so different. “Richard Nixon was one of the most consequential political figures of the twentieth century. Judged on paper and résumé alone, Nixon should stand among the giants who occupied the White House through the American Century.” But instead, he became the most reviled of American presidents, at least until he was eclipsed by our most recent former president.

I highly recommend Watergate: A New History to anyone interested in American history and politics.

Copyright © Brian Lokker 2023.

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