Watergate: A New History
By Garrett M. Graff.
Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster, 2022.
Hardcover, 832 pages, $35.

The Nixon Conspiracy: Watergate and the Plot to Remove the President
By Geoff Shepard. 
Bombardier Books, 2021.
Hardcover, 384 pages, $30.

Reviewed by John C. Chalberg.

Here we are, already a half century removed from the original “gate” scandal. That, of course, would be Watergate, meaning the actual forced entry into the headquarters of the Democratic party in the Watergate complex, as well as the much murkier story of the actual and alleged cover-up of the crime by the Nixon administration.

To commemorate the fifty year mark we now have not one, but two, new books to add to the ever-mounting bibliography of Watergate-related tomes. In this case one of the two is without question a tome. That would be Garrett Graff’s doorstopper of a volume that plows familiar ground, even as it fails to answer the key questions that have never been answered: Just what were the burglars after and why?

Near the end of his painstaking effort Graff concedes that it is more than likely that we will never really know the full truth of the Watergate story. What certainly does remain true for Graff is that there “remain big unanswered questions—and perhaps now forever unknowable—questions even about the central Watergate break-in itself.”

After nearly 700 pages of prose Graff shrugs his hunched over shoulders, throws his hands in the air, and asks: “What was (italics added) the actual purpose and target of the burglars?” Was the goal “political intelligence” or “blackmail material?” Or was it something else entirely?

Graff is not alone among the mystified. The whole thing thoroughly puzzled Nixon aides H. R. “Bob” Haldeman and John Ehrlichman.  No one Haldeman could “identify” knows who ordered the break-in or why. This includes Ehrlichman: “The break-in itself made no sense to me; it never has.”

But no matter. Graff’s original goal was “not to re-investigate, not to re-plow every furrow of Watergate.” Furthermore, he “purposefully chose” not to bother with “fresh interviews” of the dwindling number of key players who are still among the living. Chief among those possible targets would have been John Dean, but then Dean‘s willingness to be candid and truthful about his role in Watergate has never been his strong suit, whether at the time or at any point during the half century since then.

Instead, Graff decided simply to rely on “existing primary,” but mainly “secondary sources.” The result is a history that portrays the usual suspects as they have been usually portrayed. If you are old enough to recall that era, as I am, and if you were then inclined to regard Richard Nixon with a fair—or unfair—measure of suspicion, as I was, the original bad guys are still the bad guys, save perhaps for John Mitchell. And the original good guys, plus a few good girls (one Hillary Rodham among them), are still the good guys and gals, whether they be prosecutors, journalists, judges, or politicians. Numbered among the last category would be Democrats generally, plus Attorney General Elliott Richardson, whom Geoff Shepard dismisses as an “odd duck” with “no backbone,” as well as a few Ervin Committee Republicans (think Senators Lowell Weicker and Howard Baker).  

Neither Weicker nor Baker is quite in the Liz Cheney or Adam Kinzinger mold, but each of them might easily be regarded as Cheney-lite or Kinzinger-lite. 

In other words, this is a book that could have been written a long time ago. Heck, a good chunk of it was written a good while back. The original Watergate story as told by Woodward and Bernstein is frequently referenced by Graff.

To be sure, the Graff story has been fleshed out—and flushed out—here and there. It also has been Felt out, since Mark Felt has long since been outed.

The Graff story also includes the full panoply of Nixonian era dirty tricks and “plumbers unit” escapades. In many respects it is less a “new history” of Watergate alone than it is a general catalogue of everything from the Ellsberg psychiatrist’s break-in to Nixon’s Obama-like use of the IRS and much more. But the Watergate portion of the story essentially remains the Woodward and Bernstein story. To be sure, Graff acknowledges their work. More than that, he applauds these two “pioneers” whose brand of journalism has somehow “set the tone for today’s confrontational press.”

As can be expected, the leading bad guy is a paranoid Richard Nixon, who practiced his own version of tone setting for his underlings. On occasion, Graff does attempt to take a stab at treating our thirty-seventh president as a tragic figure, albeit a tragic figure who drank too much in the midst of this crisis. He also gives us glimpses of a self-aware Nixon who occasionally regretted his own tone-setting, but who was only trying to do what his enemies were doing to him.

Speaking of glimpses, while the book is not a biography of Nixon, it does provide the reader with a highly detailed glimpse of the thirty-seventh president in the midst of his seventh and final crisis. Still, Graff wisely stops well short of a full biography of our “almost insanely thoroughly biographized president.” 

Graff goes on to list and generally praise a number of Nixon biographies and Watergate histories, each of which he consulted as he went about the business of semi-biographizing Nixon. Curiously, or perhaps not so curiously, he makes no mention of a Watergate book that was published a year before his own.

Authored by Geoff Sheppard, The Nixon Conspiracy seriously challenges the conventional Watergate corruption story that Graff seeks to perpetuate. Before continuing, a little truth in reviewing is necessary. Geoff Shepard is not exactly a neutral observer. To be sure, the same might said of Graff, but the young Geoff Shepard worked in the Nixon administration. More than that, he is an admirer of Nixon the man and Nixon the president.

Like Nixon, Shepard is a Whittier College graduate. More than that, he met Nixon as a college student during the former vice-president’s wilderness years in the mid-1960s, and in 1969 he won a White House fellowship shortly after graduating from Harvard Law School. After a stint in the Treasury Department he joined John Ehrlichman’s Domestic Council staff. One of his subsequent duties was assisting in the transcribing of the infamous Nixon White House tapes.

That stipulated, the book is not at all a whitewash of Watergate. Shepard concedes that Dean’s “cancer on the presidency” session with Nixon in March of 1973 was “hardly the most noble moment in Nixon’s presidency.” It was then that the two men, while exploring their options in response to Watergate burglar E. Howard Hunt’s demand for hush money, discussed the need to “buy time.” But the only concrete decision made at that meeting was to acquire John Mitchell’s help in determining how to respond to Hunt’s demands.

In Shepard’s view the tapes themselves were “tantalizingly ambiguous.” And, as such, they did “not come close to revealing grounds” for removing Nixon from office. 

His is essentially a detective story told by a lawyer with a detective’s mindset. It asks the reader to examine the case with an open mind. It probes and questions. It examines the evidence and draws tantalizingly tentative conclusions. And along the way, Shepard refuses to assume what Graff readily assumes—and fails to prove: Richard Nixon’s guilt in the cover-up.     

The break-in itself is another matter entirely. Here Graff and Shepard are in complete agreement: Richard Nixon knew nothing about the plans for the caper until it took place and failed.

So what else does Geoff Shepard either know or thinks he knows? A lot. And the result is a much more fair-minded, not to mention much more compelling, tale than Graff’s.

In Graff’s telling the leading Democrats in Congress were almost reluctant to go after Nixon and certainly reluctant to go for impeachment. According to Shepard, once the opportunity presented itself, Democrats were out to void the 1972 Nixon landslide and prepare the way for a Ted Kennedy presidency come January of 1977.

This fight was never a fair one. Judge John Sirica was a publicity hound who met with—and conspired with—prosecutors. Nixon’s legal team, led by James St. Claire who got caught up in his fifteen minutes of fame, was a “pick up squad” facing off against sixty special prosecutors, forty-five lawyers on the House Judiciary Committee, and thirty Ervin Committee barristers.  

Maybe there was some reluctance on the part of a few Democratic pols. Not so their cadres of highly politicized underlings. Since there was no trial as such, evidence for the defense could easily (and legitimately?) be withheld. Finally, prosecutors assumed a timeline that was not and could not be proven to be true that the president had approved a pay-off to Hunt.      

Besides, lingering over it all was a strong hint that it was payback time for young Congressman Richard Nixon’s critical role in the alleged persecution of Alger Hiss, not to mention his defeat of Helen Gahagan Douglas for a California senate seat in 1950.

Still, Nixon might have survived it all had it not been for John Dean, whom Shepard characterizes as “loyal to no one but himself.” After all, it was Dean who had hired Gordon Liddy in the first place. It was Dean who initially began to orchestrate the cover-up. And it was Dean who “switched sides” as the cover-up began to collapse.

Shepard had actually met Liddy while working in the Treasury Department. Even then, he was well aware of Liddy’s “loose cannon reputation.” Liddy and Hunt, Shepard rhetorically sighs, were “a pair for the ages.”

A young Pat Moynihan put things a bit differently to a young Geoff Shepard: “This business we’re in, this business of politics, attracts some really strange people.” The real test comes when you first “suspect that you have a nut on your hands.” Here Moynihan faulted Nixon and his “senior staff.” No one reacted “quickly enough when Liddy and Hunt got out of hand.”

The problem here is that the pair essentially got out of hand on their own. But not without significant help from Mr. Dean, who had failed to spot one of Moynihan’s “nuts” when he had the opportunity to do just that. 

Shepard discusses two early 1972 meetings with Mitchell and Dean. At the first meeting Liddy detailed proposals for mugging, bugging and kidnapping, as well as the use of prostitutes at the upcoming Democratic convention in Miami. Such proposals, as Shepard delicately puts it, “exceeded all expectations.” Mitchell agreed. His only spoken reaction at the time was to dead-pan: “That’s not quite what we had in mind.”

A second meeting was held to consider a scaled-back version of Liddy’s original plans. This time only the bugging of possible targets survived. But no final call on any skullduggery was approved. The only decision made was that Liddy should report to Dean, not Mitchell, so as to preserve “plausible deniability” as the Attorney General left that office to head the Nixon re-election effort.

If there was a true villain in this story it was someone who was not for the ages, someone whom Shepard simply describes as “not a good man.” That someone would be the side-switching John Dean.

The list of victims is a little lengthier. Nixon, who was quite capable of being his own worst enemy, still might have survived an actual impeachment trial. Haldeman and Ehrlichman deserved better than dismissal and banishment. But atop this list is John Mitchell. Even Graff agrees: Nixon had “likely incorrectly” come to believe that Mitchell had approved the break-in. Therefore, letting Mitchell hang out to dry was certainly one of the “saddest moments of Watergate.”

Here Graff virtually echoes Shepard: “Mitchell never asked for quarter.  He never gave evidence on co-conspirators, or wrote a book later.” Lastly, he “took his sentence in stride,” saying little more than “it could have been worse. They could have sentenced me to spend the rest of my life with Martha Mitchell.”

At least someone somewhere in all of this had—and kept—a sense of humor. That it was the dour, gruff, blunt, unsmiling John Mitchell is just one more, if admittedly small, piece of evidence that the original Watergate story is not the whole Watergate story. In this respect Shepard has performed a real service, and Graff’s bow to Mitchell provides a nice touch.

In his final chapter, titled “Nixon’s Curse,” Graff might have done a bit more than that.  Borrowing from Theodore White, Graff agrees that Nixon “emboldened his worst enemies.”  So emboldened, the mainstream press then contributed to Nixon’s “curse,” which was to “bequeath” to his presidential successors a “permanently hostile” press.  

If only that were truly the case.  If only the press actually was adversarial and even-handed, our politics would be much the better for it.  

In truth, as Shepard points out, the mainstream media, both print and television, was once both reliably liberal and generally trusted—even, he adds, if it “shouldn’t have been.”  This, after all, was the era of Walter Cronkite.  Shepard reminds us that, in retirement, Cronkite publicly wondered how he had managed to “soft sell his liberalism” (Shepard’s words) for so long: “I thought someday the roof was going to fall in.”

Well, the entire roof has yet to collapse, but the edifice itself is gradually crumbling—and in large measure because it is no longer trusted.  And it is no longer trusted because it isn’t remotely even-handed.

Of course, today there are many media alternatives that didn’t exist during the Nixon years.  These alternatives have both revealed the slant of the mainstream media and further emboldened that media to be even less even-handed.  That Graff fails to see this is both stunning and disappointing.  And his failure to contend with Shepard’s arguments and evidence, while less stunning, is disappointing.

John C. “Chuck” Chalberg writes from Minnesota.

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