Reopening the gates that contained the scandal of the Nixon presidency

August 07, 1994|By Henry Trewhitt

The first question is, do we need another -- heaven help us -- book about Watergate? It would be comforting if history always leaped cleanly into focus and remained immutable. Those elements do not apply here, of course. The ceaseless drip of new information, new perspectives, and the catalytic event -- such as Richard Nixon's recent death -- argue for painful revisiting of old battlefields.

Nothing could make the point more cleanly than the first reactions to his death in April. For a week or so, coverage left the impression that Watergate was somehow a terrible misunderstanding -- a generational thing, probably, that demonstrated the success of Nixon's third or fourth or fifth political rebirth. But then people of a certain age grasped that the new generation didn't know much about Watergate, and most of what it knew was wrong.

Well, Nixon was brilliant in foreign policy, and after all he didn't actually shoot anybody, the new generation said. True, and irrelevant. But it was Nixon's people, not Nixon, it was said, who conceived and executed the slimy events that became known as Watergate. Only partly true, and not true of the attitudes and assumptions that encouraged the madness. Anyway, all Nixon was guilty of was excessive loyalty to friends and staff, the argument ran. Totally, mindlessly wrong. Eventually the non-participatory veterans of Watergate, old reporters and prosecutors and innocent victims, recovered and began to set the record straight, sounding churlish but closer to reality.

Fred Emery does it all here. He is of the Watergate generation of journalists and was one of the few Britons who were well wired with sources. Later he went on to become executive editor of the Times of London. Mr. Emery has taken the new material, including the dribble of Nixon tapes from the National Archives, and revisited survivors for perspective. Fortunately, he talked with H. R. Haldeman, Nixon's White House chief of staff, before Haldeman's death last November.

This is probably the place for an obligatory paragraph for the new generation. Watergate was the name of an office-apartment complex in Washington. On June 17, 1972, it housed the Democratic National Committee, the target of a ludicrously bungled burglary directed by Nixon aides in the White House. Later the name was applied to a whole pattern of sleaze -- bribery, perjury, obstruction of justice -- in which Nixon participated and which ultimately forced his resignation.

What? You say you don't need such elementary reminders. Have you asked a 25-year-old lately to describe Watergate? Remember that in the eruption of charity at Nixon's funeral, the current president of the United States refused to judge Nixon on "anything other than his entire life and career."

The rule for funerals is to say nothing unless you can say something nice. But one has to work hard to avoid scoffing at Bill Clinton's remarks. Presumably he did not intend to defend Nixon on Watergate. But his reference to Nixon's other works rang strangely from a president who demonstrated abroad against Nixon's foreign policy and plotted to avoid the draft. What else would Mr. Clinton list as comprising the entire record? There must be something in the air of the Oval Office that changes the rules -- or maybe you have to change the rules to get there.

Anyway, Nixon did not have to reorder his rules a lot. He began with bare-knuckle politics and continued it in the White House. It is dismaying to read again the driving assumption that burglary, wiretapping and character assassination are what the boss wants. It is even more dismaying to see how naturally the cover-up and the cover-up of the cover-up evolved right into the Oval Office. Nixon never thought of not covering up, and, according to law covering up here is obstruction of justice.

The comic-opera incompetence of the Nixon staff is a whole other story. What is not another story is that Nixon left running -- for reasons still not clear -- the taping system that recorded all sounds in his White House offices. Besides forcing him from office, it left the bewildering reality that Nixon and his men, most lawyers, never seemed to understand that while burglary was criminal, so was obstruction of justice. So they earnestly taped the means of their own destruction.

Mr. Emery's book is more a meticulous and readable recounting than it is revelatory. He establishes that John Mitchell, Nixon's friend and attorney general, tried at one point to take the fall for Watergate if the prosecutors would bypass the president. The deal failed because Mitchell refused to incriminate anyone but himself. There's new evidence of the crimes that culminated in scandal. Mr. Emery also has reconstructed the Watergate burglary with new detail that would be funny were it not a national tragedy. But the new material is meaningful mainly to Watergate buffs.

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