During the height of the Watergate controversy, vast amounts of information, official and unofficial, reliable and unreliable, factual and conjectural, tumbled forth into the public view by way of the visual and printed media. J. Anthony Lukas was assigned by the New York Times Magazine first in April, 1973, and again in January, 1974, to sift through the excess of detail and distill it into a readable and accurate account. As a former member of the paper’s Washington bureau, among many other assignments, Lukas had recorded the domestic turmoil of the previous decade, gaining the Pulitzer Prize and several other of journalism’s top awards as a result. Each of his accounts of the unfolding story encompassed an entire issue of the magazine, and together they piqued his curiosity sufficiently for him to pursue the story on his own.
In this study of the Nixon years, Lukas weaves the various symptoms of a decadent political climate together with succinct and insightful profiles of the actors in the drama. The scope of the work covers more than only the Watergate era. Lukas believes that those explosive events were natural progressions evolving from the attitudes rooted in the earliest days of Nixon’s political career. The uncovered events which were to bring about the resignation of President Nixon were the result of faults of character and perception on his part that radiated as an implicit attitude throughout his White House staff and into other political areas.
An obsession with the image of the event rather than its substance is the recurrent theme throughout the work. Nixon feels that his primary enemy is the press. Although early in his political career he exploited the press coverage of the Alger Hiss case to bring himself to the foreground in those hearings, Nixon’s relationship with the press deteriorated during his tenure as Vice President in the Eisenhower Administration, and fell to a new low during his campaign for the Presidency against John F. Kennedy in 1960. When he finally became President, he surrounded himself with aides who had extensive background in public relations, foremost among them H. R. Haldeman, the White House Chief of Staff, who had for years pursued a successful career with the mammoth J. Walter Thompson advertising agency before being tapped by Nixon to serve as the chief advance man for the 1960 campaign.
Lukas successfully proposes that it was this obsession with appearance and distrust of the media that led Nixon and his staff toward assuming that the news coverage of any event would be slanted so as to show the Administration at its worst. Using excerpts from the tapes made in the White House by Nixon, Lukas shows that the first reaction to an event, in particular to many events of marginal legality, was not whether it should or should not have occurred or whether or not it was legal, but how it would be depicted by the press and whether or not it would “sell” to the American people. These considerations focused the Administration’s efforts on preventing the media from learning any facts that were not approved by the President or his men. Anything that might tarnish the President’s image was suppressed, or a more “operative” version of the story was told in the hopes that it would be believed. Thus the importance of an event was subsumed in an effort to provide a plausible story for release to the public. A total distortion of reality grew out of this passion to reconstruct the “truth.”
Although Lukas does not claim that Nixon’s actions were entirely paranoic, nonetheless his portrayal of the man depicts evidence of such a problem. With such an attitude, it would be inevitable that one would perceive many individuals and groups as enemies. Lukas claims that Nixon’s three primary enemies were the press, Daniel Ellsberg, and ultimately John Dean.
Lukas’ assumption that the press was the primary enemy is indisputable. Richard Nixon had treated the press with something closely resembling contempt for many years. He felt it had unfairly favored John F. Kennedy in the Presidential campaign, and had otherwise been a detriment to his career. At one time Nixon even claimed that he taped Oval Office and other conversations so that the truth about the greatness of his Presidency would be preserved, being sure that the press would deny him his rightful place in history. The infamous Plumbers group was formed to stop leaks of information to the press that might be damaging to Nixon’s reelection, although they ultimately were involved in many extralegal and illegal activities that were beyond the original intention of their formation.
Lucas places Ellsberg as the second...
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