Best of the Year: 2017

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2017 has been a stellar year for literature, and when I sat down to rate my top ten, I found myself stymied. Working up to it by offering the best of each genre seems more approachable, although still daunting. Most … Continue reading

Nixon: the Life, by John A. Farrell*****

richardnixonfarrellHistory buffs rejoice; the definitive Nixon biography is here.  John A. Farrell is the renowned biographer of Clarence Darrow. Now he gives us a comprehensive, compelling look at the only US president ever to resign from office under the cloud of imminent impeachment. This is the only Nixon biography that answers the many questions that left Americans—and those around the world that were watching—scratching our heads. Why, why, and why would he do these things? Farrell tells us. I read this book free and in advance, thanks to Net Galley and Doubleday, but it would have been worth paying the full retail price if I’d had to. It’s available to the public now.

Anytime I read nonfiction, I start with the sources. If the author hasn’t verified his information using primary sources, I go no further. Nonfiction is only fact if the author can prove that what he says is true—and I have never seen more meticulous, more thorough source work than what I see here. Every tape in the Nixon library; every memoir, from Nixon’s own, to those of the men that advised him as president, to those written by his family members, to those that opposed him are referenced, and that’s not all. Every set of presidential papers from Eisenhower on forward; the memoirs of LBJ, the president that served before Nixon took office; reminiscences of Brezhnev, leader of Russia ( which at the time was part of the USSR); reminiscences of Chinese leaders that hosted him; every single relevant source has been scoured and referenced in methodical, careful, painstaking detail. Farrell backs up every single fact in his book with multiple, sometimes a dozen excellent sources.

Because he has been so diligent, he’s also been able to take down some myths that were starting to gain a foothold in our national narrative. An example is the assertion that before the Kennedys unleashed their bag of dirty tricks on Nixon’s campaign in 1960, Nixon was a man of sound principle and strong ethics. A good hard look at his political campaigns in California knocks the legs out from under that fledgling bit of lore and knock it outs it out of the nest, and out of the atmosphere. Gone!

Lest I lend the impression that this is a biography useful only to the most careful students of history, folks willing to slog endlessly through excruciating detail, let me make myself perfectly clear: the man writes in a way that is hugely engaging and at times funny enough to leave me gasping for air. Although I taught American history and government for a long time, I also learned a great deal, not just about Nixon and those around him, but bits and pieces of American history that are relevant to the story but that don’t pop up anywhere else.

For those that have wondered why such a clearly intelligent politician, one that would win by a landslide, would hoist his own petard by authoring and authorizing plans to break into the offices of opponents—and their physicians—this is your book. For those that want to know what Nixon knew and when he knew it, this is for you, too.

I find myself mesmerized by the mental snapshots Farrell evokes: a tormented Nixon, still determined not to yield, pounding on the piano late into the night. I hear the clink of ice cubes in the background as Nixon, talking about Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of India, suggests that “The Indians need—what they really need—is a mass famine.”

I can see Kissinger and the Pentagon making last minute arrangements to deal with a possible 11th hour military coup before Nixon leaves office. Don’t leave him with the button during those last 24 hours, they figure.

And I picture poor Pat, his long-suffering wife to whom he told nothing, nothing, nothing, packing all through the night before they are to leave the White House…because of course he didn’t tell her they were going home in time to let her pack during normal hours.

The most damning and enlightening facts have to do with Vietnam and particularly, Cambodia. Farrell makes a case that the entire horrific Holocaust there with the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot could have been avoided had Nixon not contacted the Vietnamese ambassador and suggested that he not make a deal with Johnson to end the war.

Whether you are like I am, a person that reads every Watergate memoir that you can obtain free or cheaply, or whether you are a younger person that has never gone into that dark tunnel, this is the book to read. It’s thorough and it’s fair, and what’s more, it’s entertaining.

Get it. Read it. You won’t be sorry!

Friendly Fire, by C.D.B. Bryan****

friendlyfireBryan was a journalist and author during the mid-twentieth century, and Friendly Fire, which originally began as a story for the New Yorker and grew into something more, tells the story of the Mullen family and their response to the death of Michael, a clean-cut young man that answered his draft notice, dutifully served and was killed by friendly fire not long after he was sent to Vietnam. Thanks goes to Open Road Integrated Media and to Net Galley for the invitation to read and review. This is right up my alley and I found it compelling. It was published digitally May 10, 2016 and is now available for purchase.

Michael Mullen was the favorite son of Iowan farmers Gene and Peg Mullen, working farmers steeped in traditional values and respect for authority, who had never questioned the US involvement in Vietnam. If the government said that US forces were fighting there to contain the spread of communism and keep Americans safe, then it must be so. Michael was the kind of young man that called people “ma’am” and “sir”.  When his effects were delivered to his family following his death, there were no fewer than three rosaries he’d carried on his person. He had expected to return from service, as his father had done from an earlier war, and inherit the family farm. His family was part of the Silent Majority to which governmental authorities referred when defending the role of the USA in Indochina.

In short, they were the last people anyone would have expected to see become anti-war activists.

Michael’s death rocked parents Peg and Gene, and their grief eventually alienated them from the three children left to them. The part of their story that galvanized me was in reading their intelligent, sharp responses during the initial period following their bereavement. For many of us facing the loss of any loved one—and the death of a child is the worst loss of all—ferreting out information about that person’s days, weeks, even months is our last link to them. But Peg and Gene took it to another level when they realized that some of the information they had received was untrue. Peg became an organizational whirlwind, searching for the names and stories of other Iowa boys that had died in that conflict and she realized that the casualties that were being reported to and in the media were incorrect. The responses she received from everyone from US officials to the parish priest were so insensitive, so baldly insulting that she and husband Gene made the war and those near their son when he died into an immense research project, reaching out to newspapers and television news widely. This reviewer grew up during this period and when I read that Peg was on the phone with national newscaster Chet Huntley’s secretary in New York, my jaw dropped!  In this era before satellites gave us phones in our pockets and information available at the touch of a keyboard, they typed letters, made long-distance phone calls, and in time even traveled to Washington D.C. in order to know how and why their son had been killed and who was to blame.

The fifth star here is denied because the beginning of the story, which goes into overmuch detail about the family’s genealogical beginnings and its long history in Iowa soil, is deadly dull. When the book was first published, the video game had not yet been invented and readers had longer attention spans.  Today if a book does not hook a reader from the start, chances are excellent it will be immediately and forever abandoned. Although the point that the Mullen farm had stood for five generations is surely relevant to the story, the author drags this portion of the story out sufficiently to glaze even the eyes of this history teacher, and together with an awkward introduction that appears to substitute for a bibliography or end notes, a lot of readers won’t get to the interesting part, and that’s a crying shame.

Ultimately the Mullens’ cause alienated them from their community, probably because they were so free in dispensing blame to everyone that drew breath. Everyone that had not actively opposed the war was called out at some point. The heat of their rage and grief lacked focus.  In many ways they undid a lot of the good they had done by cursing old friends and neighbors simply because they had never done anything about the war.

The story will interest those that research conspiracies. The Mullens believed more deception was in play than actually was, yet when a person knows he has been lied to about one thing, it is the intelligent thing to do to wonder how much more one was told is also untrue. And so as they relentlessly sought to find one particular officer that might be to blame for the friendly fire that killed their son, I wanted to bang my head on the wall, because it was so much more than that; the conspiracy, we know now, was seated in the Oval Office, jotting more names, possibly their own, onto his enemies’ list. Targeting this soldier or that minor officer was just wrong-headed, but when people are hurt, they lash out, and the Mullens did so exponentially.

The end of the book deals with the author’s own motivation in following the Mullens and their search for the truth so diligently; nevertheless, it seemed strange to find a host of author photos at the end of the book rather than of the Mullen family.

Had the editing of this digital edition been given to me along with permission to do anything I wished, I would have tightened up the beginning, put the author’s notes at the end of the book rather than the start, and deleted the photo section entirely.

Nevertheless, those with an interest in the struggle to end the US war in Vietnam will find this story well worth reading, and to them I recommend this memoir.

Being Nixon: A Man Divided, by Evan Thomas ****

beingnixonSuddenly, everyone is writing Nixon biographies; it’s a Watergate junkie’s dream come true! Here Thomas does his best to take us inside Nixon’s skin and tell us what motivated some of the decidedly strange things he did. It makes for highly engaging reading. 3.75 stars get rounded up to 4, along with my thanks to Net Galley and Random House for the DRC. This book is available for sale now.

When I signed on for this galley, I imagined that perhaps Thomas had a background in psychology or psychiatry and was going to take a stab at diagnosing a mental illness that might explain what in the world Nixon was thinking when he did the things he did; if he’d had different meds, would things have shaken out differently? But that isn’t what this book is about. Instead, it is a glimpse at Nixon’s life, including his early childhood and adolescence, postulating that childhood experiences may have shaped the politician Nixon became.

To this, I will admit that I said, “Psssh. Right. Whatever.”

Because it’s a plain and simple fact that many presidents had lives that were scarred by events as bad or worse than what Nixon experienced, and most of them still managed to do their jobs without coming within a hair’s breadth of impeachment. So I don’t buy that theory.

Nevertheless, there are so many interesting tidbits and stories in this memoir that even if the reader doesn’t buy the overall thesis, it’s a compelling read. The conversational narrative kept me rolling along, and every time I found an opinion I thought was baloney, I made a note of it and kept going. I would have continued reading even if I didn’t have an obligation to the publisher, because it really is fascinating stuff.

Imagine, for instance, a solitary candidate with a love for classical music, sitting all by himself in his hotel suite, with the 1812 Overture blasting away, with his arms furiously directing an unseen orchestra. Just one aide saw this, and Thomas ferreted the incident out and presented it here. I doubt you’ll find these tidbits anywhere else!

In addition, few other biographers have managed any insights into what went on in the Nixon residence. I often wondered about Pat, Tricia, and Julie. When he showed up to home, did he storm in and turn the coffee table over? Get quietly drunk? Blame his family for all his ills? Drawing heavily on the memoirs written by family members that I am unlikely to ever read, Thomas gives us a little voyeuristic peek behind the curtains, and I found it intriguing indeed.

When it comes to Watergate, Thomas holds Nixon responsible for what he did, for the greater part, but I rolled my eyes at the repeated claim that if he hadn’t been too shy to socialize with the staff, with the Washington socialites who invited him to dinners, and so forth, maybe he would not have become so isolated…if his childhood hadn’t been so poor, and if his father hadn’t kept him home from his Yale scholarship because there was no money for dorm fees…if…if…if…

I felt much more certain that the author’s research, which is mostly done via secondary sources and the Nixon family’s memoirs, including heavy use of Nixon’s own (RN), was based on fact when he dealt directly with Nixon’s personal life. Although various quotes by the Watergate conspirators were interesting, some are more believable than others. I found one fact in this bio that directly conflicts with that of biographer Tim Weiner, and it has to do with the choice of Spiro Agnew as a running mate. Thomas cites reasons personal and political; Weiner documents that the choice was bought and paid for by Greek financial interests. Here, I believe Weiner. It’s just one directly conflicting fact, but when I found it, just as a humble reviewer rather than as a researcher, it called other things into question, which is where ¼ star fell off this review.

The author thanks a number of people in his after-notes. I always read those, because you can pick up little things lost elsewhere. He especially thanks the man that told him to beware the various items found in the prodigious memoirs by “that old thespian”, Richard Nixon, who was a student actor before he went into politics. It was strong advice.

In perusing this biography, I realized two things. The first is that the reason Nixon had so little domestic policy, and the reason the country moved so smoothly without him during the tortuous period prior to his departure, is because he didn’t have much of a tool kit to start with. The author notes that although Nixon has gained a sinister reputation as an evil, sneaking genius, in fact there were areas in which he really wasn’t all that smart, and this was one of them. He focused on three things: foreign policy, in which he was better equipped to carry out the wishes of the bourgeoisie than most presidents have been; running for office again and when that was done, honing his legacy, about which enough has been said; and of course, revenge, revenge, revenge.

The second thing I realized is that the reason he was virtually cast out of office in a situation in which other presidents might have been able to pull their chestnuts out of the fire, had to do with the fact that he believed himself, as US president, to be more powerful than the ruling bourgeoisie. He misjudged the relationship of power between himself and those that rule us quietly, usually in an unseen way. In attempting to yank the broadcasting license of CBS as part of a personal vendetta against the owner of the Washington Post, he took on a sector of the ruling rich, and he made of himself an object lesson.

By my count, this was my twelfth Nixon biography, though I may have read and forgot about some others. It’s neither the best nor the worst, but for those fascinated with Nixon’s rise and fall, and with Watergate, it should go on the to-read list. It’s just too good to miss!

Unholy Fury: Whitlam and Nixon at War, by James Curran ***-****

unholyfuryAll of a sudden, everybody is writing a book about or featuring Richard Nixon. Having grown up during the Watergate era, I voraciously attack anything and everything apart from the most blatant apologists’ work. This title, in which Nixon’s relationship with the government of Australia and in particular, Gough Whitlam, who became Australian prime minister during the Nixon administration, is examined, seemed like a good diversion from what I usually read. Like many Americans, I tend to focus too exclusively on matters having to do with the USA. It probably has to do with the size of the country and consequently, the sheer weight of available material on matters closest to home. But I knew next to nothing about Australia’s government, apart from their participation as an Allied force in World War II and their status as a friendly government to the US and Britain, so I dove in.

Thank you to Net Galley and Melbourne University Press for the galley, which I received free in exchange for an honest review.

Between the title’s subheading and the book’s cover, which shows Gough speaking and Nixon looking furious, one might almost conclude that the two nations were on the brink of a shooting war with one another. Not so, not so. Yet the antagonism that sprung up between the two nations during a time when both had outspoken and sometimes abrasive leaders is unquestionable. There were two primary realms of disagreement that went beyond mere personality issues. One was the role of Australia in relation to the USA, and the other was the future of Asia in relation to both countries and in general.

Before reading Curran’s biography, I had never thought of Australia as an Asian nation. I sort of considered them to be out there adrift, all by themselves, being kept company just by New Zealand the Pacific Islands. I am aware that they are on the opposite side of the equator from where I am, and so when it’s summer here, it’s winter there. That, cowboy boots, kangaroos, and an unfortunate record for treating indigenous people fairly, one which the US shares, about sum up my knowledge base.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know the capital was Canberra.

Nixon was mostly not focused on Australia, and that, it seems, was a part of the problem. Menzies had preceded Whitlam as prime minister, and he too was an old hand who thought largely in Cold War terms. Nixon and Menzies had been fond of one another. But when elections were held and the beleaguered President Lyndon Johnson was due to leave Washington, he told Australia’s representatives, who were opposed to the US intervention in Vietnam, that they “might have one or two problems” with Mr. Nixon. It was a very droll understatement.

First, Nixon was outraged that a nation that looked to the US for security and aid would dare publicly criticize its role in Vietnam, and then—worse—in Cambodia. He regarded the Australians as a satellite that ought to be grateful and not bite the hand, etc.

Gough Whitlam took office with an eye toward creating a more independent Australia. He considered Australia very unlikely to be in danger of external attack for ten or fifteen years at least, and was aghast at Uncle Sam’s ugly doings in Indochina. He was looking for distance, and Nixon, under enough pressure from enemies without getting it from friends, erupted. Eventually Richard Nixon played a dangerous bluff on Moscow by recalling nuclear missiles from nearby Fiji, which involved the use of Australian terrain, without actually notifying the Australians. Visions of a mushroom cloud on home soil didn’t do much to endear President Nixon or the American government to Australians, needless to say.

Whereas Nixon was convinced that communist hoards would continue to advance across Asia unless Vietnam was forced to adopt a parliamentary democracy, Australia felt that it was time for the super powers to quit telling smaller nations what to do and abide by home rule in whatever form its citizens chose.

Though no actual shooting war was ever threatened or contemplated, the US did examine alternate places for its bases—a $5 billion dollar investment in 1970’s dollars—and at one point, Australian dock workers voted not to unload goods from US ships. In turn, US dock workers placed a moratorium on Australian trade, which left a good deal of beef rotting near the dock for days on end. And sometimes, with breathtaking rapidity, trade wars can in fact lead to shooting wars. It wasn’t going to happen this time, though; the USA already had its plate full.

It probably is telling of my own ethnocentrism that I had difficulty focusing on the lengthy passages leading up to the conflict. There’s a fair amount of detail regarding Australian politics that novices like me may find it hard to plow through. On the other hand, the author should have known that communists would never use the term “Vietcong”, which was a pejorative. Vietnamese freedom fighters are referred to as members of the National Liberation Force.

Even if the reader gives in and skims those bits of political nuance that will suit some interest levels but not others, there is a great deal of entertaining dialogue and detail in the meaty center of this work to make it worth reading.

One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon, by Tim Weiner*****

onemanagainsttheworldQuestion: What do an old typewriter, a copy machine, Scotch tape, and a razor blade share in common?

Answer: They were all tools used by White House employee Howard Hunt, at President Richard Nixon’s request, to forge a cable that would make (dead) President JFK appear to have ordered the assassination of South Vietnamese President Diem.

My, my, my. The things you can learn once you start digging. This is by no means the most important part of the Nixon story as told by veteran political writer Tim Weiner, nor even the most humorous, in a grim, gallows sense; it’s just a small sample of the bizarre, the paranoid, and above all, the crooked, reprehensible deeds committed by Nixon and his creepy co-conspirators during his administration. And by now I am already supposed to have told you that I read this book free, thanks to Net Galley and Henry Holt Company.

So, can we find a way to go back and make it look like I told you during the first paragraph, like I was supposed to? And for God’s sake, don’t tell anyone.

How much will it cost to keep this thing quiet?

I was just a kid during Nixon’s first term. But as young as I was, I have to tell you, dear reader, that the times were so polarized, so politicized (not unlike the time in which we now find ourselves) that issues like Civil Rights and the Vietnam War could not be relegated to the more traditional venues, such as the evening news or the newspaper. As soon as someone opened the newspaper, or turned on the television, or started to talk about something they had seen on the news, everyone within hearing range erupted in one direction or another. It happened at home; it happened at school; and it probably happened in workplaces. Even if I hadn’t been so fascinated, there was no getting away from it.

During the time Nixon was in office, most of the media criticism of his behavior was initially soft-pedaled out of respect for his office. It took awhile before anyone in the journalistic community used the word “lie”, for example. The words I heard were “discrepancies” and “evasions”. And all of us, kids and adults alike, were stunned by the number of times the words “expletive deleted” were used.

The fact that President Nixon referred to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall as “black of course…dumb as hell” was redacted until after Marshall’s death. The horror.

All that was a long time ago, of course, and Weiner is unfettered by any of the above considerations. His story is remarkably complete yet succinct, and oh so darkly funny. Even though others in my household do not share my absorption in things Nixon-related, I can’t get through more than three pages of this book without having to stop and repeat something on the page to whoever is walking through the room. For example, after having invaded Cambodia without the consent of Congress, and in direct violation of every US and international military law on the books, Nixon announced the invasion to the American people on television thusly:

“This is not an invasion of Cambodia.”

One more thing: Nixon’s cover up; the vast number of dead people, mostly young, who should have emerged alive and unhurt rather than killed against their will in an unjust war; the outrageous wrongdoings that unfolded in our capital and that were paid for with our tax dollars; and the outright theft of Federal monies for personal gain…the parallels that shake out between Nixon and Stalin, whose biography I reviewed two weeks ago, are disquieting.

And that much really isn’t funny.

Weiner, whose journalistic pedigree to date may make him America’s finest living political writer, does an outstanding job of eloquently stating what needs to be said and its significance without tossing in a lot of arcane trivia to muddy the water. Unlike most that have written about Watergate, he had no role in the crimes that took place and has no personal ax to grind. So if you want to just read everything that gets printed about Watergate, as I have so far, then read this along with everything else. But if you weren’t around during this time in American history and want to read one—and just one—book about Watergate and Richard Nixon’s resignation, then let this be it.

At the end of the book is a treasure trove of web links that will take the reader to primary resources, very valuable to those doing research.

Read it for your own political education, or look at it as grim, terrible humor, whichever suits you. For me, I guess it was some of each. But if you want to avoid stepping into the abyss, whether here in the USA or in whatever nation you call home, you’re better off being aware of what took place in the past.

Because it’s better to be watching, participating, and engaging in honest dialogue, and better to back your statements with actions that demonstrate integrity, than it is to hide in the fucking basement and scheme against enemies, real or imagined. Honest social and political discourse carried out as citizens of the world are what keep the rest of us from going down that rabbit hole.

Weiner’s masterpiece will be available starting July 21, but it’s probably best to order your copy now. So much of the future depends on what we know of the past.

The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It, by John Dean *****

the nixon defenseJohn Dean is a man with a mission, one that has lasted him most of his adult life. This comprehensive tome is the sort of documented, primary evidence that is only done by someone who’s got a large stake in setting the historical record straight. Dean is that man.

It goes to show that even though the First Amendment has become narrower in some ways, what with the NSA helping itself to all of our phone records and no reporters or photographers being permitted in war zones anymore, yet in some ways it has become much broader. If you are curious about these transcripts yourself, you can get onto the website Dean offers at the very beginning of his missive, or you can do as I did, and go to YouTube. I don’t know whether all of the transcripts are there; I wasn’t on a mission with a scope as large as Dean’s, and there were so many, many hours of taped conversation, but YouTube has so much material, some of it historical and/or arcane. But during my surf I did note that there was a lot of what would previously have been considered restricted material there. It wasn’t just the resignation and the Checkers speech; it was a tremendous amount of data. Send out your thanks to the gods of technology, which is what made Dean’s newer and more comprehensive transcription possible.

I was in high school during the Watergate scandal, and I wasn’t in Seattle then, but in a nearly 100% Caucasian,mostly affluent Republican suburb outside Portland, Oregon. My high school peers said things like, “Oh well of course he lied, but he’s still a better president than McGovern would have been”, and “Wow. Rose Mary Woods. Now there’s loyalty!”

My own father, a conservative Republican, scowled at my sister and me as we avidly viewed the presidential resignation speech. He poured himself another, another and yet another glass of bourbon and shook his head, telling us that the president was a fine man who had been viciously hounded by a liberal press. So, for those of us who lived through this American political saga, it’s about context.

For those who seek less detail than is included here or want a novel-like story arc, I would recommend “All the President’s Men”, which is a briefer and less repetitive narrative told by one of the investigative journalists who uncovered the Watergate scandal. For those who are sticklers for detail, either for academic or professional reasons or because, like me, you are addicted to Watergate material, this will be a deeply satisfying read.

To put it another way: if, like me, you had to get a copy of The Pentagon Papers and read what the US government tried to suppress, then you also ought to read this book.

At first, I thought Dean’s tone was a little too plaintive, given that he had cooperated in a cover-up himself, albeit under protest, for nearly a year. Once I got into the trial material and saw the vindictive and purposeful way Richard Nixon and those who worked for him set about to “destroy Dean”, I no longer felt that he protested too much. The machinations of Nixon’s revenge are worth a thesis unto themselves, so I will let that bit go and move on. You’ll have to read the book if you want more about Nixon’s vengeance.

What did Nixon know? I started to provide it in bullet points here, and realized it was just no fun that way. Let me say this much: Dean does answer the question. Nobody living knows more about this subject than John Dean. It has become his life’s work. If you invest yourself in 700+ pages of text, you will not come away feeling cheated, unless you skim and miss things. I didn’t.

It was not only Nixon’s self-righteous attitude when it was clear that he was legally and morally wrong that I found disturbing, but also the tone. The racist and sexist remarks that punctuate the conversations he has with his highest-level advisors cannot simply be written off as relics of that point in history. It is appalling.

What is equally appalling is that upon learning of the burglary at the Democratic headquarters, Nixon, Haldeman and Ehrlichman find no moral objection to what has been done; hell, they’ve authorized far worse things, as we later learn. No, what disturbs them is how badly the job was done, how unprofessional the burglars were. It sounds like something out of a Godfather sequel.

And it just gets worse. By the time Dean decides that Nixon cannot be redeemed and goes to the prosecutor to explain what has happened and try to gain immunity, we see Nixon vow first not to speak to him and to fire him as White House counsel; then to “destroy” him, which is ugly but can have multiple meanings, literal and figurative…and then ultimately Dean must enter a witness protection program for awhile because of the mountains of death threats that are received daily. Dean’s counsel wants to know whether Nixon would try to have him killed, and at first Dean, who did not ruffle easily, thought not. But then he mused that it was possible the president would arrange something through his pal, Bebe Rebozo.

I had heard from friends who had read more than I had that Mitchell, Haldeman and Ehrlichman were serious thugs. This transcript and the brief paraphrasing that connects its pieces (not unlike Sheehan’s Pentagon Papers) makes all of it quite real. This man was supposedly the leader of the “free world”! He used public monies to bring down retribution on his enemies (his own word), and used other people’s tax dollars to fund a remodeling and extension of his home in San Clemente. He continually revised the truth according to what was convenient for him.

At first, I wondered: did the guy have some sort of psychiatric disorder that made him unable to process clearly? But as the story unfolded, I could see exactly how well he tracked events. His temperament and loyalties were ever-changing and always in line with his own self-interest. He could not, absolutely could not bear for the burglary scandal to touch his dear friend and former law partner, John Mitchell, who headed up the Committee to Re-elect the President. Absolutely not! It was unthinkable, but only until the jig was obviously up. And when Mitchell had to be sacrificed, then Nixon just didn’t talk to him anymore. That was it, over, done. And then, everything was Mitchell’s fault; his old friend was more like a waste basket by the door. When you see a problem, toss it onto the Mitchell pile. He did it.

Then of course he had other two best friends, Haldeman and Ehrlichman, who were the only people he still trusted (and though this book is about politics, I found it interesting that the First Lady is never mentioned; he doesn’t eat dinner with her, doesn’t have her out on the presidential yacht…we hear from Tricia and Julie, his daughters, during the peak of crisis, but the guy’s wife was practically invisible).

But Haldeman and Ehrlichman should not be culpable for all the illegal things they had helped him plan and execute, and so he decided that his counsel, John Dean, should serve as the go-between, so that everything that was told to Nixon by Dean would (he thought) be covered by attorney-client privilege. And this is when Dean begins to squirm, as things that are illegal, immoral, and untenable are sent via him as the presidential filter. At first he just does what the boss says; then he starts to tentatively warn him that he’s getting into some deep water here; and eventually he is laying it on the line, and Nixon tells him that of course, those discussions never occurred, and these things never happened.

Later, when Dean realizes that he cannot work with Nixon without breaking the law, he goes to the prosecutor, hoping to avoid prison. Then, Dean is no longer the guy Nixon trusts, and in fact every bad thing anyone who ever worked for Nixon ever did, is said to have been done by Dean. It is a fascinating transformation. And the way Nixon first clings to Haldeman and Ehrlichman, and seems to actually be a little afraid to fire them, but he then is ready to lay blame at their door (while suggesting to Haldeman on the side that he can pardon him when the whole thing is over). Fascinating. It is so dreadful that I found myself tempted to add this book to my “horror” shelf.

Here’s the obvious analogy I see: when people go to the zoo, some of them want to see the giraffes, the hippos, the monkeys, and then they get their cotton candy and take the kiddies home.

But others have to visit the small dark building where the reptiles slither around.

And so it is with Nixon buffs: we cannot help but be transfixed by that which seems so sinister, so repulsive to our own humanity. We look because we can’t stand not to look. Once we look, we cannot look away.

Dean’s revenge is in having the last word about what was done during that terrible time, and in making absolutely plain what the truth is. He is painstaking in using new technology to improve the historical record. Payback is sweetest when you are absolutely correct, and if there is a theme to this publication, there it is. And now most of the ugliest players are dead and cannot come back to wreck havoc upon the living anymore. May they rot where they lie.

If like me you cannot look away, read Dean’s record of this criminal conspiracy to cover up covered up obstructed justice by the man who held more power than any other politician, and by his loyal minions. The repetition of the conversations in some ways is entirely appropriate because it shows the level of obsession, and in particular, of Nixon’s obsession with the power that his presidency provided, at least for a time, and how badly the public’s trust and resources can be misused and abused.

If you read it at night, you may want to leave the light on when you go to sleep. Nixon is dead, but you just never know who the hell is out there.