Why Watergate? Tim Weiner’s (above) new book on Nixon, One Man Against the World, is a good summary of Nixon’s rise and presidency, and Weiner’s particular angle, probably not exclusive to Weiner but nevertheless the book’s organising principle, is that Watergate was the product of Nixon’s early-developed habit of dirty tricks and his frustration with trying to end the Vietnam War. Newly opened sources and the transcription of the White House tapes are providing more primary evidence for Weiner’s thesis, as well as spurring the publication of a whole lot of new books on Nixon of late (yay!).
Nixon himself, on the other side as a presidential contender in ’68, initially tried to undermine the peace process, and got away with it. Democrats thought, on the eve of the election, that revealing Nixon’s treachery would be too destabilising, sowing the seed, says Weiner, for a culture of Nixon thinking he could get away with underhanded activity. Once Nixon inherited Vietnam, he continued his dirty tricks to harass protestors and political opponents, while desperately trying to bomb his way to peace. The figures for bombs dropped on North Vietnam are staggering, and the cold calculation of Kissinger and Nixon is chilling, not to mention the fact they were also bombing a neutral country, making them war criminals. Evan Thomas, in the recent biography Being Nixon, comments that Nixon was afraid of personal confrontation, and perhaps this repressed side came out in force in the abstract belligerence of war planning.
At the same time, Weiner also relates, Nixon wanted to be seen as the pioneering international statesman, with his visit to China, in order to appeal to the broad middle and working class ‘silent majority’ who were ‘suckers’ for that stuff.
Nixon is often seen as an amusing historical oddity, an aberration. But Nixon is responsible for moving the US Supreme Court to the right and is perhaps responsible, therefore, says Weiner, for the election of Dubbya Bush. Most sobering is Weiner’s conclusion that US presidents have learned nothing about covering things up since, or perhaps learned that they simply need to be smarter about dirty tricks and illegal war activities – Clinton falling into the former category, and Obama and Bush falling into the latter.