(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

At first glance, this is a book with no clear audience. The availability of more than three million pages of Nixon-era White House memoranda after a fourteen-year legal battle so far has revealed nothing sensational enough to entice even the most desperate journalist. (As editor Bruce Oudes points out, however, this would probably not be the case had the papers been “leaked” to reporters. Then their very existence would have been thought newsworthy.) Professional historians, on the other hand, will want to wade through the full three million pages of documents rather than settling for the six hundred or so included in this selection.

Nevertheless, this is a profoundly revealing book. Nixon’s obsession with his administration’s treatment in the mass media is shown to have been well established from the moment he entered office. Nor did it diminish with time. Thus, there is a steady stream of memos exploring topics such as the necessity of responding crisply to criticisms in the press both overtly and through an undercover network of “grass roots” letters to the editor, the continuing effort to keep up with the latest news coverage, and means by which to reward friendly journalists while spurning foes.

To be sure, there are countless other matters covered by the memos in this book, from Bob Haldeman’s dissatisfaction with the recreational facilities at Camp David to Nixon’s arrangement for a state visit overseas so that he could comply with his daughter’s request that he not attend her college graduation to a concise and compelling list of administration priorities put together by Daniel Moynihan. Even a mountain of such disparate material, however, is not enough to blunt the pointedness of the concern Nixon and his inner circle had with the way they were being presented to the American people by the mass media.

To some extent, this obsession reflects the character flaws which led Nixon and his men to their involvement in the Watergate scandal, but it also reflects the nature of the American presidency, an office of awesome responsibility and severely limited power. In this context, the inflated concern with “image” shown by Nixon and his cronies was institutional as well as personal. As such, it is a problem that is likely to recur no matter what sort of individual happens to occupy the Oval Office.