Reconstructing the Dark Period Of Nixon and Watergate

FEW citizens of the world, living anywhere within reach of a radio or television set, can forget the momentous events of the summer of 1974, just 20 years ago.

In Washington, the House Judiciary Committee, which this reporter was then covering for the Monitor, was edging closer to a formal vote recommending impeachment of President Richard Nixon for the coverup of the break-in at the Watergate offices of the Democratic National Committee. On Aug. 9, Nixon, accompanied by Vice President Gerald Ford took his final walk out to a helicopter that was to transport the 37th president away from Washington and almost certain impeachment.

Nixon's flight from high office was to have major repercussions throughout the American political system. Congressional inquiries into Watergate led the way to investigations into abuses by United States spy agencies, and spurred enactment of laws tightening covert and US military operations abroad.

The subsequent pardoning of Nixon by President Ford helped lead to the election of Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1976 and the shifting of the Republican Party away from its moderate wing, the branch that had elected most Republican presidents in this century, including Nixon. Instead of a politically moderate successor to Nixon, the GOP instead turned to its conservative faction and tapped Ronald Reagan in 1980, ushering in an era of economic laissez faire at home and foreign intervention (in the Caribbean, Latin America, and Middle East) abroad.

Joan Hoff, in ``Nixon Reconsidered,'' and Fred Emery, in ``Watergate: The Corruption of American Politics and the Fall of Richard Nixon,'' have performed yeomen work in reconstructing the dark Watergate period of the early 1970s, as well as attempting to put both Nixon and Watergate into clearer focus. Neither book can be called revisionist, since both authors accept the Watergate burglary as an attack on American political liberties and values. But both books add valuable insights into the legacy of Richard Nixon and the meaning of Watergate.

While no definitive evidence has yet surfaced proving that Nixon knew of the Watergate burglary before it happened, there is, writes Emery, a former executive editor of the Times of London, circumstantial evidence. A White House ``talking paper'' dated April 4, 1972, 2-1/2 months before the burglary, describes a meeting between H.R. Haldeman, Nixon's chief of staff, and Attorney General John Mitchell, Nixon's political manager in the 1972 presidential campaign. The paper discusses approval of an intelligence operation that might have involved the Watergate burglary. According to Emery, John Dean, the president's legal counsel, says that if Haldeman knew about the burglary, then Nixon knew. Haldeman was Nixon's administrative alter ego.

Hoff, a historian at Indiana University, accepts the premise, based on information available to her at the time of writing, that Nixon did not know of the burglary in advance, although she agrees that he participated in the coverup. But one of her objectives is to understand why the break-in occurred. She raises the better-known theories, such as a possible White House desire for political information.

Still, Hoff finds the most interesting argument to be one advanced by Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin in their 1991 book ``Silent Coup: The Removal of a President,'' (St. Martin's Press). Colodny and Gettlin link Watergate not to politics, but sex; they argue that Watergate resulted from John Dean's desire to retrieve a notebook possibly associating his then girlfriend, and future wife, with leaders of a prostitution ring believed to be operating out of an office of the Democratic National Committee.

It is not Watergate so much as Nixon's presidential legacy that engages Hoff's attention. And it is this focus that makes her book so useful. Nixon's greatest achievements, she suggests, were not his foreign-policy victories - detente with the Soviet Union, the diplomatic opening to China - but his efforts to reform welfare and health care, civil rights, and economic and environmental policy. Nixon, she argues, was clearly politically progressive regarding domestic issues.

IT times Hoff's analytical process and academic jargon can be annoying. She takes readers through endless choices to reach a conclusion. Emery, whose prose-style is lean, would surely never have allowed such a sentence as this one by Hoff: ``The megastate and media politics constitute a form of pseudodemocracy in which citizen participation in the form of discussion and voting has become obsolete, because democracy stands in the way of modern centralized and monopolized power.''

Nevertheless, Hoff's thesis is provocative and her book advances our understanding of the 37th president.

She also has an excellent bibliography. Her book, and Emery's account, are reminders that the real Richard Nixon still remains largely hidden from sight, and will be the subject of exploration for many more historians down the road.

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