I CONFESS to having opened this superb book with no great expectations. I had lived though the Watergate crisis, watching closely as the president's men were indicted, convicted, sentenced; as John Dean's plausibility gave way on television to John Ehrlichman's arrogance and Alexander Haig's slipperiness; as we heard ominous phrases like ``the Saturday Night Massacre'' and ``the smoking gun'' and - above all - ``What did the President know and when did he know it?'' What, I wondered, could another book tell me?
A great deal, I now realize. Not that Stanley Kutler brings us juicy tidbits or revelations. He is a sober, academic historian (University of Wisconsin), not a sensation-hunting popularizer. It is balance, breadth of vision, documentary research, historical context, and insight that Kutler provides - lucidly, gracefully, and far better than anyone before him.
So there is perspective in his pages: not only the obvious significance of the Vietnam War in spurring White House skulduggery, but also the intensely bitter, vengeful visions that possessed Richard Nixon - and Lyndon Johnson before him.
There is historical depth: not merely isolated remarks about, say, the Federalist Papers or the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, but a rich, precise understanding of the constitutional and judicial history in which Kutler has long specialized.
And there is lucidity: not simply a chronological narrative of events, of history as one thing after another, but a sense of proportion and periodization, of turning points and decisive moments.
Kutler tacitly demonstrates that, no matter what Nixon may have accomplished internationally, his leadership of the Watergate coverup constituted a direct attack on the Constitution and the rule of law on which the republic stands.
Hence this book should be regarded as the definitive reply to Nixon's attempts at rehabilitation, attempts that some Americans accept out of partisanship, moral/intellectual slovenliness, or indifference to the historical record.
Kutler demonstrates, however, that history is in us and around us. It surfaces whenever Nixon asserts again that Watergate was unimportant because neither graft nor bloodshed were involved; or that it was no worse than other political crimes such as the - as yet unproven - theft of Illinois for Kennedy by the Daley machine in 1960; or that it occurred only because Howard Hunt, Gordon Liddy, and other adventurers were poorly controlled by John Mitchell; or that it was blown out of all proportion by a ruthless Eastern establishment, out to get Nixon by any means and at all costs.
What actually happened? Unlike those writers who strive for drama by beginning with the break-in of June 1972, Kutler digs deep into background, into the various ``wars of Watergate,'' which, beginning under Lyndon Johnson in 1965, grew more destructive after Nixon's election in 1968, creating a battlefield atmosphere in a White House that knew no restraints.
Vietnam obviously came first, but there were also the no-holds-barred campaigns against the antiwar movement, the civil rights movement, the congressional opposition, and the mass media. Less obvious but hardly less vital, was the ``War of the FBI Succession,'' to determine who would succeed J. Edgar Hoover.
Finally, there was the war within Nixon's soul, between ``the good Nixon,'' striving for agreements in Vietnam, with China, and with the Soviet Union, and ``the bad Nixon,'' constantly musing to his confidants about retaliation, and indeed revenge, against all his American enemies, real or imagined.
The result was a painful irony: As the tumultuous '60s made civility, consensus, and healing ever more vital, the republic was saddled with two successive presidents - Johnson and Nixon - who epitomized suspiciousness, double-dealing, and lust for power. Certainly, Vietnam would have tried the most saintly of presidents. But both men embodied dark forces that divided the nation still further.
And these we find in Kutler's fascinating account of the White House coverup of 1972-73. It was orchestrated by John Dean but warily supervised - the data Kutler provides are convincing - by Nixon himself.
Here Kutler switches from the telescope to the microscope, using the White House tapes to convey the mood and actions of a conspiratorial band straight out of ``The Maltese Falcon.''
The language is all too similar - ``set up,'' ``fall guy,'' ``take the fall,'' ``twisting slowly in the wind'' - as all trust and cohesion vanished, and everyone scuttled for cover while Nixon searched frantically for someone (Mitchell? Ehrlichman?) to throw to the wolves.
It didn't work. The machinery of the law began focusing on Nixon himself from mid-1973 onward, a process Kutler describes with a clarity and precision that should appeal even to those who ordinarily find legal battles tedious and confusing.
Kutler is different: While not ignoring the importance of personalities or public opinion, he also has a firm grip on legal procedures and the key issues that help us define right and wrong.
In the final analysis, this book is about ethics, ends and means, and the dangers of an imperial presidency.
The republic owes Kutler a reward. It need not be elaborate: Americans need only to read him - and take his book seriously.