‘King Richard’ finds fresh drama in Watergate

A kayaker paddles along the Potomac River past the Watergate Hotel in Washington, June 27, 2016. (Photo: NYTimes)
Before delving into Michael Dobbs’ rich and kaleidoscopic new book about Richard Nixon and Watergate, it’s worth thinking a bit about the miniature kaleidoscope contained in its title. There is the literal meaning of “King Richard” — the fact that Nixon’s mother named him after Richard the Lionheart, the 12th-century English king who spent most of his 10-year reign waging crusades in the Holy Land. And then there are the Shakespearean Richards: Richard II, who was forced to abdicate the throne; and Richard III, the murderous tyrant. Dobbs’ title also happens to echo the title of “King Lear,” Shakespeare’s tragedy about a monarch whose need for flattery invites treachery, precipitating his own downfall.اضافة اعلان

Dobbs himself plays up this lugubrious element with the “American tragedy” in his subtitle and in the arc of the book itself, which is explicitly structured as a classical tragedy, he says, albeit with four acts instead of five. But in his wry and absorbing narrative, I sensed an ironic dimension, too — a portrait of a petulant, insecure man who fancied himself king, or something like it; who told British journalist David Frost: “When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” Garry Wills, in a 2017 preface to his 1970 classic, “Nixon Agonistes,” called him “the stuff of sad (almost heartbreaking) comedy,” whose “real tragedy is that he never had the stature to be a tragic hero.”

Considering there hasn’t been a shortage of volumes about the 37th president, “King Richard” distinguishes itself in part by limiting its narrative mostly to the first hundred days after Nixon’s second inauguration, when the victorious president looked poised to coast through another four years before the wagons of the Watergate scandal started to circle closer and closer. An author whose previous subjects include the Cuban missile crisis and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Dobbs explains that he is fascinated by “hinge moments,” citing Barbara Tuchman’s preference for “history by the ounce” over “history in gallon jugs.”

This circumscribed frame allows Dobbs to deploy his observational gifts to full effect. He has taken the vast literature about his subject, along with the 3,700 hours of Nixon’s tape recordings that were released to the public in 2013, to recreate the daily dramas of an increasingly paranoid Nixon and his increasingly paranoid co-conspirators. Out of this raw material, Dobbs has carved out something intimate and extraordinary, skillfully chiseling out the details to bring the story to lurid life.

The book starts cozy, with Nixon sitting in his favorite room of the White House after his inauguration, having won a landslide victory and basking in an approval rating of 68 percent. He was about to secure a peace agreement with the North Vietnamese. The break-in at the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate, which took place seven months before, seemed to be loosening its grip on the public imagination.

But if you looked closer, the cracks were starting to show. The elaborate secret taping system that Nixon had installed in 1971 worked so efficiently that he “no longer gave any thought to the fact that he was recording himself,” Dobbs writes. Nixon was obsessed with his legacy, and the tapes were supposed to help him write his memoirs — but they also happened to record him and his aides chatting and gossiping and plotting, which would prove to be a boon to investigators and to writers like Dobbs.

“King Richard” makes vivid use of the tapes to convey a White House that seemed to be an unholy combination of the grimly determined and aggressively puerile. We have Nixon chortling at his own jokes and railing against the media, gloating about having “really stuck ’em in the groin.” His special counsel, Chuck Colson, listening to Nixon prepare for a speech, “emitted a moan of pleasure down the phone line.” Bob Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, speculated that the White House counsel, John Dean, must have been taking out “all his frustrations in just pure, raw, animal, unadulterated sex.” And then there’s the national security adviser Henry Kissinger kissing up, effusively praising Nixon’s Vietnam speech: “The overwhelming reaction is ecstasy.”

But Nixon wasn’t the only one taping conversations. After the Senate voted 77–0 in February 1973 to establish a committee to investigate Watergate and other “illegal, improper and unethical” campaign activities, the people surrounding the president started to turn on one another, using their own recording devices. Each man seemed to believe that he could be the hero of his own story — or could, at least, present himself that way. Dobbs catches Haldeman at one point feigning ignorance “for the benefit” of his own hidden recorder; two pages later, Dobbs has John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s domestic policy adviser, insisting on his own ignorance “for the benefit of his hidden tape machine.”

Toward the self-pitying figures in this book, Dobbs is empathetic, but he isn’t sentimental. “Sometimes it was the small things that tripped up a Watergate conspirator,” he writes, as he recounts the increasingly frantic efforts of everyone involved to get their stories straight. “Events began to speed up, like the final scenes of an elaborate Broadway farce.” Some of the scenes are so farcical that they shade into depravity. “Just remember you’re doing the right thing,” Nixon told Haldeman, who was about to resign. “That’s what I used to think when I killed some innocent children in Hanoi.”

Dobbs prefaces “King Richard” with a long list of dramatis personae, but he could have added one more — the automatic taping system itself, which didn’t have an on-and-off switch and seemed to take on a life of its own. It went from being a harmless fly on the wall to a witness to the president’s “dreams and nightmares,” Dobbs writes, becoming the “monster that Nixon could neither slay nor tame.”

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