'King Richard' Is A Fresh Retelling Of Watergate — With All The Drama
We are still a year away from the 50th anniversary of the famous burglary that added "Watergate" to everyone's political vocabulary. But in King Richard, veteran journalist and author Michael Dobbs stirs memories of the intense personal drama connecting that break-in to the downfall of President Richard Nixon.
Dobbs has been listening to a vast store of tape recordings from Nixon's White House that has been released in recent years. It enables him to offer a vivid retelling of both the crime story and the human stories around it.
It was of course supremely ironic that the secret recordings Nixon ordered made in his own home and offices led to his own undoing. It was especially so because the original burglary at the Watergate office complex in Washington was intended to secretly record conversations in the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.
The irony lives on in allowing us all to relive it now.
Dobbs uses this vivid source, among others, to re-enact the struggles within the Nixon operation just as it started to unravel. This may give King Richard a better shot than most histories have at reaching younger readers. At the same time, it gives a (much) older generation of Watergate junkies a way to rediscover the dark intrigues of Nixon and his entourage — with notes of relief that we all survived, and perhaps a touch of nostalgia as well.
Watergate is a broad term for a series of criminal acts during the 1972 presidential cycle that were intended to plug information leaks within the government and to further the re-election of President Richard Nixon. The original scandal was soon overtaken by the efforts of the Nixon re-election campaign to cover up its role in it, and thereafter by the efforts of Nixon's White House to conceal the campaign's cover-up.
Dobbs does not try to encompass all this in his relatively compact review. He isolates, instead, a crucial period early in 1973, at the outset of Nixon's second term, roughly seven months after the botched bugging. He also ends his narrative a full year before Nixon finally resigned on the brink of impeachment.
Within this tight focus, Dobbs presents something he likens to a play. His title is a reference to Shakespeare, and the four sections within the book borrow their titles from concepts in Greek tragedy (Hubris, Crisis, Catastrophe and Catharsis).
The story unfolds largely in the dialog among the principals. We read what Nixon said to John Dean, the White House counsel, and what Nixon said to Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman and domestic advisor John Erlichmann, the "German shepherds" who jointly oversaw his White House operation.
All three of those Nixon men wrote memoirs and gave interviews over the years, as did many of Dobbs' other dramatis personae. Dobbs drew on all these sources, and others as well, but the tape recordings are the essential element. Some are from the Oval Office but many were recorded in Nixon's preferred space in the Lincoln Sitting Room or in his hideaway office, a small suite of rooms in the Executive Office Building next door to the White House. Nixon had these two private sancta santora wired as well, and here we are privy to still more of his tete-a-tetes with aides, family members and others — often late at night when he has been drinking or feeling the effects of his medications.
Dobbs achieves something of a cinematic effect, thanks in part to the brevity of the chapters. Each focuses on one of the first 100 days after his second inauguration on Jan. 20, 1973.
As the story begins, Nixon is about to take his oath of office again, and one would expect he would be at a career peak. Efforts to link his campaign to the Watergate burglary and other campaign "dirty tricks" had largely failed, at least in the mind of the general electorate. He had won 49 states and a little more than 60 percent of the popular vote.
Yet at inauguration time, we find Nixon anxious and melancholy. Some of those around him are increasingly so, as well. One of the burglars, a former CIA employee named James McCord, writes a letter to the sentencing judge in an effort to escape the terms of his imprisonment. The letter confirm's the judge's suspicions of complicity among higher-ups in the campaign. More Nixon men are being called before the grand jury, and Dobbs traces the day-by-day deepening of that fear.
Dobbs the narrator lets us inhabit Nixon's haunts and be as stealthy and ubiquitous as the taping system itself. He makes artful use of "carefully chosen dialogue" from the tapes, letting us eavesdrop at length on the agonized councils of Nixon and his inner circle. They sometimes sound like movie gangsters caught on an FBI wiretap. "The jig is up," says one. "If Liddy blows, he can hit us all," says another, referring to Gordon Liddy, the henchman who supervised the Watergate incursion as well as other illegal escapades in support of Nixon's 1972 re-election campaign.
Nixon exults in how he "stuck it to the bastards" from time to time, but also sinks swiftly into self-pity. One such call connects him with his press secretary Ron Ziegler several hours after both had attended the annual White House Correspondents Association dinner on April 14, 1973, the weekend when, Nixon would later say, "it all started to fall apart."
Among honorees at the media event were Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, two Washington Post reporters who had doggedly pursued Watergate since the first day after the initial break-in. Ziegler can be heard trying to downplay that part of the evening.
"There was very little discussion tonight about Watergate," Ziegler says.
"Well, there will be later," Nixon replies. "When they indict Mitchell, all hell will break loose."
Nixon was talking about John Mitchell, who had been his law partner and then his attorney general. Mitchell had left the Cabinet in 1972 to run the Committee to Re-Elect the President, and he had been involved in hush money payments to the burglars. Nixon, Dean and the German shepherds had determined that Mitchell could not be protected and ought to give himself up.
In fact, even as Nixon and Ziegler spoke that night, top Justice Department prosecutors were visiting the home of Mitchell's successor as attorney general, a man Mitchell had mentored and promoted. They wanted to give him a head's up. (Although he always denied approving the Watergate operation itself, Mitchell would eventually serve 19 months in federal prison for perjury, conspiracy and obstruction of justice.)
Mitchell was the first major player ensnared because his trusted former deputy, fearful of jail, had talked to the prosecutors. So had Dean. After months as a loyal member of Nixon's team, "the desk officer for the cover-up," Dean hired a criminal defense lawyer of his own to keep from being made the fall guy.
Dean's attorney, Charles Shaffer, stands out in Dobbs' recounting. Less celebrated in the annals of Watergate than the key prosecutors and senators who would come later, Shaffer emerges here as a colorful and pivotal agent in Dean's conversion to being the star prosecution witness.
Time To Tell It All Again?
Some may ask whether we need another book about Watergate at this stage, when scores have been written and published over the decades. The answer is that every generation has a right to its own insights and appreciation of the past, especially those events that are still reverberating in the present.
But Dobbs does not reach for any explicit message of connection. He stays with the clear pane-of-glass reporting that highlights facts. He restricts his scope with remarkable restraint. There is little exploration of the historical context or attempt to find the final significance of it all. In his acknowledgments he states it clearly: "I leave it to readers to judge what lessons we have learned from the torment Nixon inflicted on the country and himself."
Contemporary readers may search for comparisons to other presidents, of course, and may consult the index for mentions of Donald Trump in particular. They will find only one, and that in a list of recent presidents who had more personal charisma than Nixon. There is no comparison made to the impeachment of Bill Clinton, or the two impeachments of Trump.
But from the perspective of our present moment, the contrast is compelling. Whether you lived through the Watergate years, or have studied them since, Dobbs' book hearkens back to an era when even a president elected in a landslide could be held to account by the system itself. It was a time when a bipartisan committee of Congress could command respect as investigators, and when even the leaders of the president's party were prepared to acknowledge his wrongdoing.
Beyond 100 Days
Dobbs does step beyond his framework in his section titled Catharsis, bringing in several days that came that summer. One is the day of Dean's televised testimony to the Senate committee investigating campaign misdeeds. In accusing the president, Dean strongly suggests their conversations might have been taped. Then Dobbs takes us to the same committee's session on July 13, when Alexander Butterfield, a former assistant to Haldeman, describes to the Senate committee the extraordinary extent of the White House taping system.
That is followed with a nod to one more day in that fateful summer. On July 17, Nixon tells his chief of staff: "I've thought about this all night long. Those tapes are going to defend me."
That was also the day the special prosecutor would formally request eight tapes relevant to Dean's testimony to the Senate committee. "The battle for possession of the tapes began immediately," writes Dobbs, and it would take a full year to pry loose enough of them to expose Nixon in full, forcing his resignation. As Dodd concludes: "The tapes, witnesses to his dreams and nightmares, light side and dark side, triumphs and defeats, would be his partner in a campaign that would last until his death, and even beyond."