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king richard

26 april 2022

I didn't read much about Michael Dobbs' King Richard before starting it. I became engrossed in Dobbs' narrative of the Watergate coverup, but also noticed as it moved along that there were far too few pages remaining to take us through the impeachment hearings and Nixon's eventual resignation. So if you are reading this for guidance, be aware: King Richard is an outstanding book, both despite and because of an unusually narrow focus.

King Richard tells the story from January to July 1973. January because it was Nixon's second inauguration, a moment when Watergate seemed a minor concern in the rearview mirror. And July because that's when Al Haig learned (along with the rest of the world) of the existence of the White House taping system that had recorded the whole ghastly six months (and quite a bit before), thus ensuring that Nixon's part in the coverup would be revealed and his presidency would collapse. General Haig dismantled the taping system, so for the last 11 months of the Nixon administration, the archival record becomes quite different.

Dobbs decided to tell the story of the first half of 1973, which allows for maximum dramatic contrast, and maximum coverage in the taped record that finally became fully available in the mid-2010s. Of course, he also supplements his telling with insights from the principal players' memoirs; nearly everyone involved wrote one. Dobbs constructs the story as a Greek tragedy, which is an acceptable device. So we get sections labeled "hubris," "crisis," "catastrophe," and "catharsis." The terms mix structural features with character notes and affective terms, and help guide the story as Nixon plummets from his apogee.

Framing Watergate as a tragedy, though, has some inherent problems. It requires seeing Nixon as a great man. From certain perspectives this may work: Nixon going to China, or practicing detente with the Soviets. But the more you listen to Nixon as a character in his own tapes, the pettier and more venal he becomes. Nixon as Dobbs presents him was not a potentially noble man tripped up by a flaw or a mistake. He was a vindictive bastard who, after getting hoist by his own petard, started throwing all his loyalists under the bus. To mix a metaphor.

"Always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don't win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself." That was Nixon in his much-quoted August 1974 farewell to the White House. Nixon, who read a lot of books about storied political leaders, understood how to sound sententious, but his sentiment there is ambiguous. He intends to present himself as a hated man who has stayed above the fray. But he can't help but reveal that his default condition is hating others, and that it has destroyed him.

Dobbs, though, admires Nixon's talents (his memory, his energy, his mix of big-picture thought and detail-orientation, his sheer self-making), and makes this admiration the context for seeing Nixon's fall as tragic. I guess it sort of works; Nixon is evilly fascinating, and maybe that's enough for tragedy. I've remarked here before on Nixon's Everyman-like accessibility to the common imagination. And it is certainly possible to identify with Nixon and cringe. But at least in 1973, he never comes across as sympathetic. Did he ever?

In particular, Nixon's vaunted intelligence rarely comes through in the record. Watergate is a study in political obtuseness. Nixon and his arrogant underlings thought that they could hush up the mess of corruption they'd brewed, alternately using contemptuous coercion and suitcases full of money. That may work in organized crime, but in statesmanship, where your aides are likely to have joined your team out of some kind of idealism, it's a harder sell. Young presidential gofers like Jeb Magruder and John Dean followed Nixon's coverup direction automatically at first, but only for so long. Then they had to wonder if disgrace, prosecution, and for the lawyers among them, disbarment, was worth what they gained by exhibiting blind loyalty – loyalty which Nixon typically greeted by expressing scorn for their weakness.

Dobbs wryly quotes Nixon, on several occasions, lecturing subordinates about the lessons of the Alger Hiss case. Hiss, Nixon would explain from experience, was not brought down by his indiscretions, but by trying to cover them up. This lesson was usually a prelude to Nixon trying to get his interlocutor to cover something up. At such junctures, you have to ask yourself how smart Richard Nixon really was.

Dobbs, Michael. King Richard: Nixon and Watergate, an American tragedy. New York: Knopf [Penguin Random House], 2021. E 860 .D643