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A Whiter Wash

Breach of Faith: The Fall of Richard Nixon

by Theodore H. White
Atheneum, 373 pp., $10.95

Mr. White’s book will probably have more influence on popular thinking about Watergate than any other to be published. Much of it has already appeared in the Reader’s Digest (US circulation: 17.8 million); it is a Book of the Month Club choice, 300,000 copies are “in print,” and such is the devotion of White’s public that it is likely to remain a best seller for a long time. There are perhaps millions of people, from Washington to Washington, who have been waiting for Teddy White to explain to them, in his authoritative and reassuring voice, the “meaning” of the Nixon years and Watergate.

What he has given them is a smoothly written and deeply ambiguous confection. His original contribution to the subject is that “the true crime of Richard Nixon was simple: he destroyed the myth that binds America together, and for this he was driven from power. The myth he broke was critical—that somewhere in American life there is at least one man who stands for law, the President.”

This is a surprisingly cynical view of the strengths of American society. It is also manifestly inaccurate; the real mythology that has been built around the president (in good part by such legends as the ones White spreads) is that of power. America did not fall apart as a result of Nixon’s lawlessness; Gerald Ford, on the other hand, was not seen by either the columnists or the polls as a plausible presidential candidate until he skated past both law and judgment to heap bombs upon Sihanoukville after the crew of the Mayagüez had already been released.

I was in Washington for the first time as Nixon was winning his re-election. I watched as he smirked on television that he had never known an election night when he could go to bed so early; saw John Ehrlichman throw back his head and laugh at the prospect of four more years; noted Nixon’s threatening assertion that “the average American is like the child in the family.” Christmas came and so did the B-52s over Hanoi. There were no demonstrations in front of the White House but James Reston assured his readers that Henry Kissinger was opposed to the bombing. The inaugural was a bitter, chill day and Cecil Stoughton, photographer to many presidents, dressed up in a plaid coat to photograph the oath taking. He was caught, coat and all, in the official pictures of the president’s magic moment and a few days later was told that his job with the Parks Service had been abolished.

Time found that all was well with the world and named Nixon and Kissinger as its “Men of the Year”; on the cover of its February 5 issue Newsweek was pleased to proclaim “PEACE.” Gordon Rule, one of the navy’s best cost analysts, was banished to Anacostia for his criticism of Litton Industries and Roy Ash; one by one Nixon’s appointees swept up Capitol Hill to announce rather than justify the president’s intention of dismantling much of “The Great Society” and reorganizing the government under unquestioned White House control. Over and over again they and the White House janizaries repeated their self-serving liturgy, “The President has a Mandate,” ignoring, as does Mr. White, that Nixon himself has always practiced Murray Chotiner’s theory that the only way to win elections is to get people to vote against the other man. The November 1972 congressional returns showed that this was just what did happen that year.

Congress, like White, accepted the rules imposed by the White House and seemed mesmerized by the “mandate.” Nixon clambered up and up the polls on the back of its inertia. Caspar Weinberger, who seemed to have the compassion of a fox with ice water in its veins, informed the Senate health subcommittee that the poor and the elderly abused the privileges of Medicare and Medicaid and so the prices had to go up. The Senate proved incapable of overriding Nixon’s veto of the Vocational Rehabilitation Bill—a measure with the broadest bipartisan support. Despite “peace with honor” and Article 20 of the Paris accords, the B-52s kept bombing Cambodia. Asked to justify this, William Sullivan, Kissinger’s deputy, said, “For now I’d just say the justification is the re-election of the President” and Elliot Richardson, secretary of defense, announced that even if Congress did manage to legislate against the bombing it would still continue “because it is right.”

The issue then was whether any control could be exercised over a dangerously authoritarian and vicious president who was making absolute claims to “executive privilege.” Attorney General Richard Kleindienst told a Senate subcommittee that the president could extend this privilege to cover every single member of the executive branch; if Congress did not like it, Congress should impeach him. “How can we do so if the facts are withheld by claims of privilege?” he was asked. “You don’t need facts to impeach the president,” replied Kleindienst.

He was right in one way: facts alone are not enough; they have to be appreciated. On March 17, 1973, White had a long chat with the president which impressed him deeply. “My judgment, suspended at that date, would have cast Richard Nixon as one of the major Presidents of the twentieth century,” he wrote in The Making of the President 1972, published in June 1973. In his new book he asks Pat Buchanan, “What went wrong?” Buchanan replies: “It runs to the President himself. There’s a mean side to his nature you’ve never seen.” That was probably true, but in the spring of 1973 it was more than ever visible to anyone who looked.

White seems confused by what he has been forced to see since then. His dislike of Haldeman’s and Ehrlichman’s brutality appears almost balanced by his fear of those who have always, in his words, been “Nixon haters.” In the best passage of his new book he describes the post-election attempt by the White House to dominate every branch of government and compares it, fairly, to the control exercised by the Politburo in the Soviet Union. But he still believes that “much of the idea did make good sense”—the problem was just that bad men were given the Politburo jobs. He is unable to understand that good men would not want part of such a system.

But this is only the beginning of White’s obtuseness. Just as the Kalb brothers can produce a 550-page book on Kissinger in which the story of Allende and Chile does not appear, so White can extol the “success” of the invasion of Cambodia. For him, the Nixon administration is a “story of bungling criminals,” which “begins with the circumstance, very difficult for Richard Nixon’s enemies to accept, that most of the men at the top were devout patriots, convinced that what they were doing was best for their country.” These men, flawed but well-intentioned, were, according to White, badly let down by a distinct, if not separate, organization, the White House “underground,” which he agrees they commanded but which, for reasons he cannot make clear, was infested by “men of little patriotism and no principle, as self-seeking as their enemies saw them.”

That Nixon, Haldeman, Ehrlichman, et al. considered themselves patriots is not only obvious and therefore easy to accept, it is also irrelevant. Very few of history’s bad guys have ever taken a dim view of their own motives. What is novel is that White should consider self-righteousness a mitigating factor and that he should be so snobbishly selective in its application. Hunt, Liddy, and the other moles were no less “patriotic” and no more “self-seeking” than their above-ground masters. White says that “the disaster [the break-in] had been building since the spring of 1969, working its way up from the dark places, where the underground was poisoning politics, to the desk of the former Attorney General himself.”

In fact, as Hunt said of the need for hush money, “this is a two-way street”—the “poison” flowed in both directions. White scornfully dismisses any speculation that Nixon might have had prior knowledge of the break-in, on grounds of his “experience” and his lack of time for electioneering “trivia.” Again he is accepting Nixon’s own conventions; Butterfield’s testimony and the transcripts show that Nixon was obsessed by every aspect of the campaign. Any one who could worry about Tricia’s hairstyle certainly had time for “intelligence gathering.”

Still, his portrait of Richard Nixon is kind and sometimes convincing; he describes well both Nixon’s haunted unpleasantness and the way in which he was scarred by the dislike shown by Eisenhower (who understood him well), and by the contempt of JFK and other snobs who objected above all to his supposed “lack of style’—one of the few deficiencies that were to Nixon’s credit. Other figures are less convincing. Where in this book is the Haldeman who, with Nixon, was found responsible by a court for setting up a fake “Committee for the Preservation of the Democratic Party” in Nixon’s 1962 campaign against Pat Brown? Where is the Ehrlichman who wanted to let Pat Gray “hang there…. Let him twist slowly, slowly in the wind,” and who suggested that the president might commit murder in the name of national security?

Where, above all, is Alexander Meigs Haig, Jr., a man deeply involved in both the first and the last of the White House coverups, who did more than anyone else to help Mr. Nixon evade the responsibility for his crimes? White praises Haig for saving the world from disaster during the last, difficult days of Nixon’s rule. If Haig had had his way, Nixon would be ruling still.

White clearly understands one aspect of Haig. He suggests that had Haig or other White House staff members been told early enough in the summer of 1973, “they might have had time to examine the tapes, destroy them or cope with them before the judicial system locked its authority over them as evidence.” White’s apparent ruefulness that they were unable to do so suggests what he seems to consider the real “tragedy of Watergate.”

The image of Haig destroying the tapes is the only glimpse of the real Al Haig that White vouchsafes us; the rest is myth. Where is the Haig who arranged with Kissinger the 1969 wiretaps on his colleagues and on reporters, who received the transcripts sent to the White House and later told the Senate it was not his fault? “I never viewed myself as anything but an extension of Dr. Kissinger…. I would never presume to do anything in this area that I had not discussed with him or had specific authority for.” (Where, for that matter, is this Kissinger?) Nor do we find the Haig who, primed with the transcripts of tapped Halperin-Ellsberg conversations, testified against Halperin at Ellsberg’s trial a few days before it was dismissed partly because of that tap, and at a time when the court had ordered all transcripts turned over.

Nor does White mention the Haig who, in June 1973, told Nixon to attack “that son of a bitch” John Dean and agreed that Haldeman should “handle” the problems of March 21 by giving the Ervin committee his own account of the conversation—without revealing the existence of the tapes. “Well, as I told you, we do have one problem,” Nixon told him and Ziegler on June 4. “It’s that damn conversation of March 21 due to the fact that, uh, for the reasons (unintelligible). But I think we can handle that.”

Haig: I think we ca-, can. That’s, that’s the….

President: Bob can handle it. He’ll get up there and say that—Bob will say, “I was there; the President said…!”

Haig: That’s exactly right.

President: So we’ll see what else is in the God-damned—

Haig: [Unintelligible] that’s the thing for you to do, for your own, really your own peace of mind right now.

President: Yeah.

Haig: You just can’t recall. It was in a meeting [unintelligible].

President: [Sighs] As you know, we’re up against ruthless people.

Haig: Well, we’re going to be in great shape now, ‘cause we’re going to prepare….

President: [Sighs] This is hard work.

Haig: It is.

President: But I’ve got to do it. Got to do it. And it’s best for me to do it, too.

Haig: Only you. Only you.

President: Thank you a lot, Al….

A few weeks later, Haig urged Nixon to resist Melvin Laird’s advice to release the tapes, and it was Haig who then raised and fanned the October firestorm. White mentions very little of this. Read his chapter on the Saturday Night Massacre and you will learn about the “hysterical” reaction in the press and in the country; but you will hardly believe that Haig was in Washington at all that week. There is no trace here of the Haig who tried to force Richardson to force Cox to break his commitment to the Senate and who, knowing that three of the nine subpoenaed tapes were either missing or erased, persuaded Stennis and helped fool Baker, Ervin, Wright into accepting the president’s “generous compromise” on all nine. There is not even the spoor of the Haig who padded around dropping discreet hints that Richardson was drunk, ordered Ruckelshaus to do as his commander-in-chief ordered and sack Cox, and lied on “Face the Nation” that the “compromise” had broken down only because Cox and Cox alone would not accept it.

Where is the Haig who was told by Jaworski that Nixon was indictable but who nevertheless insisted, until after the Supreme Court ruling, that he must remain in office? In Sirica’s court, Haig suggested that “some sinister force had come in and applied the other energy source and taken care of the information” on the eighteen-and-a-half-minute erased section of the June 20, 1972 tape, and then blamed Rose Mary Woods for the gap. He also promised the patsy Hugh Scott that the March 21 tape proved Nixon’s innocence. Along with Buzhardt, Woods, and perhaps St. Clair, Haig helped—or at least allowed—Nixon to produce his April 30, 1974 fake transcripts which, according to the White House summary, established that Nixon “had no knowledge of any coverup prior to March 21, 1973.”* White does not even raise the question whether Haig discussed pre-resignation promises of pardon with Ford. Where, in short, is the man who bears more responsibility than any other for the second year of the coverup, who worked doggedly to sustain in office a criminal and, according to White’s own sources, drunken and clearly incompetent president?

Well, he is in Brussels, rewarded for his service to the Republic with a new uniform, as leader of the NATO forces defending “the free world” which the man he served so well tried so hard to diminish, the subject of flattering profiles in some national magazines and obsequious interviews in others—totally whitewashed.

Perhaps White’s most dangerous myth and the one most likely to linger in many minds (especially as the process of Nixon rehabilitation gets under way) is that there was anything original or successful about the Nixon-Kissinger foreign policy. White, whose 1972 book was a panegyric to their statesmanship, is still deeply impressed: “The philosophy ran clear: that America, though it must abandon its role as the world’s dominant power, must remain the world’s first power. Its purpose was to make peace. This policy turned out to be revolutionary, correct and triumphant.”

It is hard to believe that in 1975 one should have to point out that every government claims that its purpose is to make or preserve peace (as every public official professes patriotism) and that Nixon and Kissinger did not live up to that expressed aim, that they extended and prolonged the war, that it was Congress which, on August 15, 1973, finally ended direct US military involvement in the war, despite shrill protests from Nixon and Kissinger, and that only when Watergate became a scandal did Congress find the courage to do so.

Were it not for the plumbers’ inefficiency, Nixon would probably even now be keeping his secret promises to Thieu, which, more than anything else, guaranteed that the GVN could avoid making peace, and “respond[ing] with full force” to the communist offensive. A battered, bloody ARVN might well still be hanging on, as in 1972, with the help of B-52s. And were it not for impeachment the United States would still be sustaining in Cambodia what the Senate refugee subcommittee described in January as “lingering, senseless…a stalemated war [which] creates a level of suffering that, proportionately, surpasses the waste the world has seen in Vietnam.”

After railing bitterly (as Ford was later to do) against Congress’s eventual refusal to finance that stalemate any longer, Kissinger had the temerity to announce on the “Today” show just last May that “we know that in Cambodia very tragic and inhuman, impoverished things are going on.” Well that may be so, but only as a result of five years of tragic and brutal treatment of Cambodia by the United States, which Nixon called “the Nixon doctrine in its purest form,” and which was begun by the invasion which White describes as one “of the two major achievements of his new administration.”

Cambodia in fact demonstrates most clearly the absurdity of White’s distinction between foreign policy achievements and “underground” crimes. The illegal bombing of Cambodia led to the wiretaps of Washington officials and reporters, approved (at the very least) by Kissinger—and the first White House coverup. The widespread demonstrations against the “successful” invasion precipitated Nixon’s approval of the Huston plan. The need to keep these and other secrets led, inter alia, to the employment of the plumbers, and their handiwork led Congress, eventually, to pass the law of August 15, 1973.

Nixon and Kissinger destroyed Cambodia; the Watergate mentality, which was always present in the way both men sought to govern but which first found a part to play in Cambodia, destroyed Nixon and his Indochina policies and ended the war in a way they both abhorred. There was never any real distinction between abuses of power at home and abroad. At one point White seems on the brink of understanding this. The president’s men, he says, “were making war not just in Vietnam, but all across the home front too.” But as if frightened of the implications of this statement, he backs away and on the last page ponders whether Nixon will be remembered as “The Peacemaker or the Betrayer of the Faith.” He cannot recognize that Watergate was the Vietnamization or perhaps the “destabilization” of American politics, a process which Nixon did not begin but which his mean and narrow mind was beautifully equipped to complete.

White’s praise for Nixon “the peacemaker” is, incidentally, largely confined to a study of Nixon in China (overdue in part because of Nixon’s previous opposition), Nixon in Moscow (arguable, certainly), and Nixon in Indochina (whence all but White would flee). He makes no mention at all of the “revolutionary” policy toward Allende’s Chile, of the “triumphant” support of Yayha Khan or the Greek colonels and their Cyprus adventures, or of the “Nixon shokkus” administered to Japan. White’s understanding of the Atlantic Alliance is embodied in his claim that in October 1973 European states and peoples “loathed America and delighted in the humiliation of its government.”

White is enraptured by what he describes as Nixon’s habit of “juggling with international destinies” and “playing with fate brilliantly across the world,” and he is undoubtedly right in saying that “Henry Kissinger’s mind and the President’s meshed. Both loved to deal in the fixed quanta of power that come packaged in states and sovereignties.” Once again White has mentioned but not seen the truth; the experience of the last six years does indeed suggest that the world has been in the hands of a third-rate magician who, like his assistant, believed that nations are prepackaged, ready-to-use, disposable “units” rather than untidy groups of disparate people with complicated lives and inconvenient histories, to whom, as Justice Douglas wrote when he tried vainly to stop the bombing of Cambodia in early August 1973, “death is irrevocable.”

White must have had a terrible two years. Uncomplaining, he had made the long and humiliating journey from “loathing” the congressman to “respecting” the president (what choice, after all, did his conception of his job allow him?) only to find that he, the kindest of chroniclers, was cynically manipulated. What is sad is that the experience has clearly taught him very little. It is depressing to picture him now sitting by the phone watching for 1976 and waiting for Kissinger, or Kennedy, or Reagan, or Jackson, or Ford to call to discuss “the grand design” or just to talk about football, the way Nixon did on that happy, uncomplicated day in 1969 when men first landed on the moon.

  1. *

    In March 1974 Cecil Emerson, James St. Clair’s senior legal assistant, resigned and said, “Nixon is probably the most unique client in the world and he runs his own case. You could tell him to get another lawyer but you just can’t do that to the President. So when Haig and Nixon say ‘We want to do it this way,’ Jim has got to figure out an honorable, ethical, moral, legal way to do it.” (Congressional Quarterly, April 13, 1974).

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