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The Man Behind The Mask


I went to a book party for former New Yorker Washington correspondent Elizabeth Drew's book, Richard M. Nixon. It's one of a series of books (The American Presidents Series); each a short, readable book on a president. The rest are done by historians. Gregg bought a copy for us, which he's reading first, because I'm still finishing Elmore Leonard's Unknown Man #89, which I highly recommend.

Drew was fascinating, and the bits of the book I skimmed look great -- stuff about Nixon's paranoia, and his giving all sorts of orders while drunk in the middle of the night, and how he was also drugged up on Dilantin, which he got from a friend without a prescription. And then, there are unbelievable tales of how utterly inept the Watergate burglars were (more about that in Drew's LAT piece linked below). I'm going to read Drew's book, and then move through some of the other presidents.

Here's what Drew wrote in the LA Times about "Why Watergate Matters":

Think of it: an American president considering political opponents and other domestic critics — hardly people armed with nuclear weapons — his "enemies." And then using the instruments of government, such as the Internal Revenue Service, against them. ("Crush them" was another oft-used Nixon phrase.) Nothing like this is known to have happened at any other time in U.S. history.

The break-in at the DNC and other actions (such as the hiring of Donald Segretti to disrupt and create chaos at Democratic Party events) portray a president intent on undermining and even interfering with the opposition party's nominating process. In that sense, the Nixon operation was like a step on the road to fascism. The first thing a usurper does is undermine the opposition party.

Watergate was not, as some Nixon defenders still argue heatedly, a "mere" burglary and coverup. It was a constitutional crisis. The raid on Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office was a clear violation of the 4th Amendment's prohibition against unwarranted searches and seizures. And Nixon was engaged in a systematic attempt to defy the courts and Congress — denying them information and seeking to make the executive branch unaccountable to the other branches of government.

At stake was whether our system of government would successfully withstand Nixon's abuse of power. It's become a settled part of history that "the system worked." But it almost didn't. Many members of Congress were loath to move against Nixon until they found a "smoking gun" — in a roomful of smoke.

But even before the smoking gun was found — a tape on which Nixon instructed his top aide, H.R. (Bob) Haldeman, to tell the CIA to tell the FBI to drop the Watergate case, on the (nonexistent) ground of a threat to national security — the House Judiciary Committee had decided on bipartisan votes that Nixon had committed impeachable offenses.

The committee's deliberations were serious and careful. This was no partisan lynch mob out to "get" Nixon; his fate was sealed not by the "liberal media," as Nixon die-hards said and still say, but by a thoughtful group of members of Congress of both parties, as well as the office of the independent counsel, which Nixon had been forced to appoint. In the end, it was a small group of Republican congressional leaders who went to the White House and told Nixon that he had to resign.

All of this matters not only because it's an important part of American history but because it is a cautionary tale about overreaching for power, abuse of the office of the presidency, and about protecting the Constitution. Such things matter a lot.

Posted by aalkon at June 23, 2007 2:57 PM


Other sources say the "drunk" talk is overblown. No one disputes the "paranoia."

Also, as we quibble with wording, I'm not sure it was a constitutional crisis... It was more like a new test for the constitution, which is not the same thing. I remember that at the time, Beltway journalists (though it wasn't popularly called the beltway) said that as each branch of government took a swing at the problem, they city could feel the machinery of justice grinding in a way that seemed reassuringly automatic.

And last year when Ford died, Hitchens made a point that I'd waited a half a life for someone to make:

> You may choose, if you wish, to
> parrot the line that Watergate
> was a "long national nightmare,"
> but some of us found it rather
> exhilarating to see a criminal
> president successfully investigated
> and exposed and discredited. And
> we do not think it in the least
> bit nightmarish that the Constitution
> says that such a man is not
> above the law.

Nixon was not the only politician to test the boundaries of his office in an obnoxious way (Hello, Mr. Delgadillo!) And there wasn't much that was novel about how he did it. (Ever read the G. Gordon Liddy book? These were men playing children's games. Hating Oliver North wouldn't just be a natural response, it would be a polished one.)

There's a discontinuity between this passage...

> Many members of Congress were
> loath to move against Nixon
> until they found a "smoking gun"

...and this one...

> The committee's deliberations
> were serious and careful.

No one, even in the tiny, dying number who'd still support Nixon wholeheartedly, ever said the impeachment effort was reckless or twitchy. I don't want to come of like Father-Time-Remembers-It-All, especially since I was a punk kid a thousand miles away. But this thing jelled over years in moves and countermoves in an almost haphazard, exploratory path. It was grueling, and people were concerned about failure, but no one doubted that the matters were taken seriously. When you're a teenager, everything's a metaphor for first sex, right? "Honey, I'll find the thing, just gimme a minute..."

We should be glad we live in a country where branches of government are hesitant to gut each other's power. If only that were the case in Venezuela...

Posted by: Crid at June 23, 2007 9:59 AM

Memory may not serve me here, but I believe it's from Haldeman's diaries that a lot of the stuff about him being drunk all the time comes from.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at June 23, 2007 11:36 AM

Haldeman was a Californian from Santa Barbara. Do you remember that haircut? He might not have been the sort who was patient with drinkers... And few had better reason to remember things with bitterness.

Posted by: Crid at June 23, 2007 11:48 AM

Okay, but do you think he made up entries about Nixon being tanked? I think Drew said he was drunk on the eve of the invasion of Cambodia. You were just making fun of Sarko for being (apparently) drunk. (He claims he was out of breath -- and he has a reputation for never touching alcohol.) Still, Sarko was behaving rather weirdly for a leader of a world power.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at June 23, 2007 11:57 AM

Goddamit, I cannot defend both Nixon and Bush in one morning!

Posted by: Crid at June 23, 2007 11:59 AM

"but some of us found it rather
> exhilarating to see a criminal
> president successfully investigated
> and exposed and discredited."

See Bush/Gore 2000 election battle. Same principle, different application. Despite headlines, the recounts and ensuing litigation was testament to the System's integrity. Any way it turned out (state-wide recount, electors picked by state Fla state legislature, dueling slates of electors to be validated by the Senate, etc.) would have been the result of a legitimate framework of democratic checks and balances. Constitutional Crisis? More like Constitutional Triumph.

Posted by: snakeman99` at June 23, 2007 1:47 PM

So who was the last "clean" Prez? JFK? Bush I? Ford? Were any of them "clean"?

Posted by: The Mad Hungarian at June 23, 2007 5:42 PM


Here's a little tidbit for you...Grace Slick on a contemplated plot to LSD in Nixon's drink:

Posted by: Amy Alkon at June 23, 2007 5:45 PM

I read a great deal about the Nixon debacle. Over 18 inches worth. I was also careful not to read derivative works. My conclusions are somewhat different from that of many people.

Bobbies boys, who were convicted then fined for the break-in and bugging of the Republican Party headquarters during the 1960 election, were brought in to testify during the Watergate hearings. (Look it up.) So, it wasn't really about the break-in, was it?

The thing that brought down Nixon was the same thing that nearly brought down Clinton. His appointments. The White House Staffers were inept, arrogant, secretive, and insulting to anyone to which they felt "superior". The same went for some of the other appointees. His refusal to restaff, and then to appologise for having placed buffoons into sensitive positions are what put him into serious hot water. He had an ongoing war with the State Department, the FBI, the Brass in the Pentagon, the CIA and other bureaucracies which have remained out of control of any of the administrations since Roosevelt.

Washington is a really strange place. They never forget. I asked about Hoover, and why he has been continuously demonized for all of these years and was responded to with a hiss about Hoover's wife--as if the whole thing happened yesterday. Odd place, with really odd people.

People forget the kind of mess that "King Dick" inherited: MacNamera was inherited, Race Riots were inherited, Vietnam was inherited, corruption in the housing and urban redevelopment thing was inherited, an increasingly "fake" monetary and banking system was inherited, there were other things as well. The country was in a shambles. It is truely amazing that anything was accomplished at all during the time in which he was in the White House. Don't get me wrong, he had many flaws--I just don't think that his flaws merit the continuous "black-washing" the man has gotten for all of these decades. We may have to wait until all of the baby-boomers die off to ever learn of the actual accomplishments of his administration--if the country survives that long.
[Sorry I don't know html, so I can't clean up the style.]

Posted by: Eric Watson at June 24, 2007 10:11 AM

An added Note:

Until I see former Nixon staffers apologise for their behavior whilst in office, I wouldn't take anything that they say about anyone---including themselves--to be the "gospel truth". The list of people who were insulted enough to raise a stink under the Nixon administration even included the Cab-drivers in D.C.. You can't make this stuff up.

Posted by: Eric Watson at June 24, 2007 10:31 AM

Eric Watson has a lot of good is easy for those younger than 50 -or so- to remember what this country was like in 1968. While I do believe that Nixon was disturbed...let us not forget the tender mercies of LBJ, let us not forget the misuse of the FBI and other agencies by JFK and point is that context is important. And frankly, I think the only reason Clinton wasn't impeached was that his people learned from Nixon and did him one better. Last not forget that Nixon had UNCONTRAVERTABLE evidence of election fraud in Chicago and Illinois and did not contest it because 'it would damage the country at a critical time' (sic)...not exactly the work of a psycho, eh?

Posted by: john primm at June 24, 2007 11:17 AM

Naw. One reason I don't think alcohol was Nxon's main problem was that it didn't need to be... This guy had one twisted personality. Even at the time everyone knew those years were bringing great change. But despite what you see in the movies, it was a long way from chaos, and the people who elected Nixon deserved better. And to blame his staff is just silly; the Executive is responsible for the team he selects. (And McNamara resigned during Johnson's second term).

> Until I see former Nixon
> staffers apologise

And even after they have... Meaning, don't take John Dean too seriously, OK?

Posted by: Crid at June 24, 2007 11:53 AM

I'm remembering that Alexander Haig thought enough of the idea that Nixon was consistently drunk in the night that he had issued orders to the military NOT to push the nuclear button if they got that order from the President at 3:00 in the morning. I don't think that Haldemann is the only one to have commented upon (or acted upon) the information that Nixon was trying to drown his sorrows in a bottle. Nor that he was a potentially agressive and murderous drunk.

Posted by: NahnCee at June 24, 2007 12:37 PM

Think of it: an American president considering political opponents and other domestic critics — hardly people armed with nuclear weapons — his "enemies."

Sound like someone else we know?

Nixon was not the only politician to test the boundaries of his office in an obnoxious way

Sound like someone else we know?

Posted by: Patrick at June 24, 2007 12:59 PM

And frankly, I think the only reason Clinton wasn't impeached

Clinton was impeached.

Posted by: Patrick at June 24, 2007 1:01 PM

NahnCee, I think you're right, I'd read that too. What I worry about is that because of the Oliver Stone movie, people are going to look back at this and say "He'd been drinking!" as if that were the problem. It wasn't. By the 1960's (and probably for a century theretofore), if a president or candidate had been meaningfully afflicted with alcoholism, the press would have blown the whistle.... Teddy took a huge punch concurrently for chappaquiddick:

And for the record, Haig was writing about the later months of the second term, as the "constitutional crisis" as in full bloom.

(I just don't think we should call it a constitutional crisis. From this short retrospect, everything appears to have worked out like we would have wanted it to. Weak, incompetent public servants [the only kind we've got] were compelled --in pursuit of their own interests-- to [covertly] blow a whistle on a senior public servant run amok. It would have been nice if Mark Felt had done this out of Christian or Hebrew devotion; but the result would have been the same. So what else could you ask for? Score one, a big one, for the Constitution of the United States.)

Nixon's character attracted a lot of well-meaning, sober, compassionate voters, and he turned out to be a freaky guy anyway. This deserves exploration from people who want to learn things about postwar politics. You don't have to scratch far below the surface to start finding clues about human nature... Better ones than you get from the consideration of his drinking. Alcoholics are all about audacity and confrontation; Nixon's tapes reveal a spirit of muffled, paranoid subterfuge.

Nixon was a gifted pianist who could play fluidly in several keys, but he couldn't read music. He did it by rote. Get the picture? This fucker's immortal soul was wrapped up tight.

Posted by: Crid at June 24, 2007 3:10 PM

Remember Nixon with those stacks and stacks of 3-ring binders behind him announcing, “I am not a crook.” Those volumes of binders contained maybe two or three hundred pages of information. What a media show.

I sure miss ‘Tricky Dicky” and the days when politicians openly lied to the American people on a regular basis.

Posted by: Roger at June 25, 2007 5:01 AM

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