Nixon mounted the steps to the helicopter. When he reached the top, he turned and jerked an awkward wave with his right arm. He was fighting back the tears. His mouth was turned down at the corners, his jowls sagged, his eyes narrowed.
In pain, but a proud man, he lifted both arms. He spread his first two fingers in his familiar “V-for-Victory” sign. His eyes opened, his head came up, his jowls lifted, and he broke into a huge smile. It was a moment etched forever into the memories of the millions who watched.
The Watergate scandal dominates this third and final volume of Ambrose’s praiseworthy life of America’s thirty- seventh president, the only one to resign his office. As the author demonstrates, the labyrinth known as Watergate is “a story of high drama and low skulduggery, of lies and bribes, of greed and lust for power, of abuse and misuse of power.” In office, Nixon’s fatal miscalculation was believing that the American people would tire of its details. Out of office, his campaign to recover his reputation rests on that same assumption. Ambrose’s book is a clear rebuttal to Nixon’s ongoing claim, most recently made in his book In the Arena: A Memoir of Victory, Defeat and Renewal (1990), that he did not commit any impeachable offenses but resigned for the good of the country because he had lost the support of Congress and therefore could not govern while in the dock defending himself.
Nixon saw himself as comparable to Benjamin Disraeli and Theodore Roosevelt, who in their times boldly proposed new initiatives while preserving conservative values. Following his 1972 landslide reelection victory over Democrat George McGovern, Nixon could take pride in such diplomatic achievements as the opening of relations with the People’s Republic of China, the establishment of Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) with the Soviet Union, and the phased withdrawal from the war in Vietnam. Walter Lippmann, the dean of American journalists praised America’s realistic retrenchment during Nixon’s watch from “the exaggerations of the romantic period of U.S. imperialism and inflation.” While there were no comparable domestic achievements, the pragmatic, nondoctrinaire Nixon ended the military draft, imposed an emergency wage-and- price freeze and unveiled revenue sharing as the lynchpin of a “New Federalism” designed to reduce the scope and activities of the central government.
Nevertheless, Nixon’s popularity, and hence his power, rested on shaky ground. He faced a Democrat-controlled Congress and a hostile press. He was basically an unlovable public personage, much like his predecessor Lyndon B. Johnson, whose political fortunes had dropped precipitously between 1964 and 1968 once a “credibility gap” developed, chiefly over the unending war. Vietnam was not yet behind Nixon: “Peace with Honor” was an illusion, bound, as it was, to a dubious secret pledge to resume bombing should the North Vietnamese launch another offensive against the Saigon regime. Worse, the seeds of political destruction had been planted in the Watergate cover-up, in which the president had personally participated.
Nixon’s postelection mood was combative and vindictive as he prepared to implement what he called a “New American Revolution.” National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger noted: “It was as if victory was not an occasion for reconciliation but an opportunity to settle the scores of a lifetime.”
Ambrose faults the Democratic administrations of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson for having helped create an “Imperial Presidency,” even though some of its architects, including historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., sanctimoniously bemoaned its existence. There were precedents aplenty to the buggings, dirty tricks, and wiretaps unraveled in the Watergate investigations. Electronic surveillance had extended not only to motel rooms where civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., was staying but even to Nixon’s 1968 campaign airplane. Ambrose concludes, however, that Nixon’s abuses of power were more ruthless and reckless than those of the Democrats. Furthermore, in the author’s opinion, “to say that the Democrats started it was true but irrelevant.” By deceitfully denying any personal role in the cover-up, Nixon, to exculpate himself, had to do more than denigrate his predecessors. He needed to avoid being proved a liar at a time when his credibility was being eroded by a plethora of ancillary revelations about illegal campaign contributions, expensive renovations on his California and Florida properties, and questionable income tax deductions.
Had Nixon destroyed the White House tapes (an oversight he later regretted) or admitted his guilt, he might have escaped impeachment charges being brought against him. Confessions, however, were not his style, a trait he shared with his 1940’s adversary Alger Hiss, whose perjured testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities became the then California congressman’s springbroad to national fame. Nixon’s television address of April, 1973, announcing the resignations of John Ehrlichman, Bob Haldeman, John Dean, and Attorney General Richard Kleindienst, was so self-pitying and factually misleading that, rather than closing the book on Watergate, it left the president more open than ever to attack. Likewise, the Saturday Night Massacre (the ousting of special prosecutor Archibald Cox, Attorney General Elliot Richardson, and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus) was a colossal public relations failure. Legal and necessary in the short run to protect the confidentiality of incriminating tapes, it caused such a firestorm of public outrage that Nixon ultimately felt constrained to accept a second Special Prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, whose staff of eighty far outmatched the President’s paltry three-man legal team....
(The entire section is 2406 words.)