The veteran newscaster turns in a swift-flowing narrative of the decline and collapse of the Nixon administration.
“As we experience another chaotic time in the American presidency, it is worth remembering what we went through before.” So writes Brokaw (A Lucky Life Interrupted: A Memoir of Hope, 2015, etc.), recalling a time in which chaos reigned in the White House, where he served as NBC’s correspondent during Nixon’s final months in office. The facts of the matter are fairly well understood, thanks to books such as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s All the President’s Men and The Final Days, but Brokaw brings a more searching, controlling question to the enterprise: “Who was Richard Nixon?” That’s a question to which answers are both tentative and still forthcoming. The author’s narrative spans several years of Nixon’s life, taking in such critical moments as his appointment of Henry Kissinger as his secretary of state. Brokaw focuses closely on the last six weeks of his presidency, a period marked by a Supreme Court decision ruling that Nixon did not have the legal right to shield tape recordings from a Congress that was in full-tilt investigatory mode, a decision that would “amount to a political death sentence to a sitting president.” The author illuminates such turning points as Nixon’s explaining away the missing 18-odd minutes of tape that so excited Watergate investigators, concluding that he wished he hadn’t recorded in the first place, and the soon-to-follow declaration, infamous to this day, that “I’m not a crook.” The mood in the White House turned ever more erratic thereafter, with Nixon becoming oddly aggressive—understandably, because, as Brokaw observes, “the best defense for Nixon was always a strong offense.” The book is understated and even-tempered, without the fire of Woodward and Bernstein, Timothy Crouse, Hunter S. Thompson, and other chroniclers of the Nixon era; the calmness is welcome, though, for a narrative that seeks clarity in that time of torment.
Not the first book to turn to when reading about Watergate but still a useful overview of long-ago events.