The resignation of Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994) as President of the United States on August 9, 1974, remains one of America’s darkest political moments. The revelation of the break-ins at the Democratic National Committee office in the Watergate complex and the subsequent attempted cover up, riveted American citizens and resulted in the downfall of a political icon. Through the years, myths and disinformation about the Watergate scandal have been propagated causing an aura of mystique over a crime of monumental proportions. I picked up this investigative account by Fred Emery to learn what really happened on June 17, 1972 and the process behind the scenes that led to Nixon’s resignation. And what I found is a book that dives deep into the Watergate scandal to show the reader what really happened from start to finish.
The story about Watergate, as we learn in the book, begins far in advance of the actual break-in and was rooted in retribution, paranoia, arrogance and greed. It shook the foundation of American politics and caused many to question their own Commander-in-Chief. Throughout the book, we are introduced to a steady stream of characters whose names became permanently etched in history due to their involvement in the Watergate affair. Many of them will be familiar to most readers but others forgotten over time. In the story at hand, they are resurrected with their deeds and mis-deeds on full display. The plot, crime and cover-up formed a complex nexus of covert activity that fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. Emery does a masterful job of putting the pieces together in a narrative that is easy to follow but deeply engaging. And throughout the book, there were times where I could not believe what I was reading.
It is well-known that Nixon recorded nearly all of his conversations in the oval office. The very tapes which he created would later be used to force his resignation and result in the indictments and convictions of several co-conspirators, several of whom will be known to those familiar with the secrets of the CIA and the administration of John F. Kennedy, who by this time had been deceased for nine years. Nixon’s obsession with Kennedy is deeply disturbing and raises more questions than answers. And as to why Nixon would record himself discussing the cover up of a crime is a secret he took with him to his grave. The tapes become the crux of the book as the battle between the White House and John Sirica evolves into clash of the titans. Incredibly, for all of the hours that are on the tapes that were released, there are thousands of minutes that have been hidden from the public. And perhaps it will never be known what they contain.
As the walls around Nixon began to collapse, attention shifted to John Dean (1938- ), who served as Nixon’s White House Counsel. He plays a prominent role in the story and the unavoidable fallout was largely the result of his decisions to cooperated with investigators. But as we see in the book, Dean was not the only person who realized what was at stake and decided to change their tune. Inadvertent comments, disgruntled operatives and eagle-eyed investigators combined to slowly peel the lid of the scandal turning Nixon’s fears into nightmares. And while Dean was in fact, largely responsible for the downfall of Nixon, there are many parts of the story that are either forgotten or ignored. In fact, the importance of Alexander Butterfield (1926-) cannot be overstated. He and Dean were just two members of a group of individuals who would eventually provide investigators with the facts that they needed to open Pandora’s box. And what they found changed the course of American political history. Nixon was eventually pardoned by his successor Gerald Ford, on September 8, 1974 but the damage had been done and he would live with the cloud of Watergate over his head until his death. His action and decisions remain somewhat mystifying and there are still many unanswered questions that will probably never be answered. And among all of them, the one that continues to stand out is what did the President know and when did he know it?
For anyone wishing to learn about the Watergate scandal and the sad ending of a President’s time in office, this is a great place to start. Highly recommended.