Though it’s been eclipsed in the minds of many Americans by the turmoil surrounding Donald Trump’s dual impeachments, the Watergate scandal continues to reverberate in the nation’s political consciousness nearly five decades later. Michael Dobbs’ King Richard: Nixon and Watergate: An American Tragedy is a balanced but frank account of a critical period in Richard Nixon’s downfall and a valuable addition to the literature of this dramatic era in American political history.
Dobbs draws extensively on material from the infamous White House taping system, not fully made public until 2013, and focuses on the 100-day period between Nixon’s second inauguration—following his reelection in one of the greatest landslides in American political history—and the end of April 1973. That turbulent interval, which Dobbs meticulously documents on an almost day-by-day basis, featured frantic, failing efforts to hide the roles Nixon and his inner circle played in the illegal political intelligence operation that surfaced with the arrest of the Watergate burglars on June 17, 1972. It culminated in the departure of Nixon’s most powerful aides, H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, which signaled the collapse of the cover-up that ultimately resulted in Nixon’s resignation on August 8, 1974.
Nixon was a complex figure, and Dobbs offers a relatively sympathetic portrait here, summing him up as a “self-made man with a loner’s disposition” who was “personally responsible for both his rise and fall.” There are no heroes in this story of lawlessness and corruption, but it’s clear that White House counsel John Dean’s decision to cooperate with prosecutors, if only out of a savvy instinct for self-preservation, was indispensable in finally exposing the cover-up, “an edifice of lies, evasions, and half-truths incapable of sustaining serious challenge.”
Whether readers share Dobbs’ view that “only the most hard-hearted of critics will fail to feel any empathy for the pain of a man whose dreams turned to nightmares as a result of his own mistakes” may depend on their political ideology. Whatever their conclusion, it will be better informed after reading this engrossing book.