A Whiter Wash

Breach of Faith: The Fall of Richard Nixon

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

Theodore White
Theodore White; drawing by David Levine

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;…

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