The bungled break-in at the Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate office building on 17 June 1972 and the subsequent sprawling cover-up were as a single episode in Richard Nixon's long and productive life, as the tributes that followed his recent death have shown. Given the range of his achievements, Watergate will eventually be looked upon as just a footnote to Nixon's public life. But what a footnote it is. As Fred Emery makes clear, what happened 20 years ago was surely a transformative moment in American politics. The train of events from the break-in to Nixon's resignation in 1974, in the face of sure impeachment, brought into sharp focus all that is good and bad in American politics. The country and its politics have never been quite the same.
Two decades provide a high ground from which to view it all, and Fred Emery uses it to full advantage. Immediately after the resignation of the President and the imprisonment of his closest aides there was a flood of books; no one involved in the scandal missed the chance to tell - and sell - his tale, although one would be hard-pressed to claim objectivity for any of them. All of this is sorted out and drawn upon to telling effect by Emery, but he offers more than a mere rehash of what has already been written. As a result of Emery's original research we now know a great deal more than we did before. For example, it is clear that the White House was involved in a programme of 'dirty tricks' to a much greater degree and much earlier than originally thought. Moreover, there is little doubt that those at the highest levels of the White House - John Ehrlichman and H R Haldeman - were aware of, and provided financial backing for, the break-in itself. That the cover-up began instantly and deliberately, and with Richard Nixon's full support, can no longer be doubted.
Watergate: The Corruption and Fall of Richard Nixon is an important book at several levels. First, it is, pure and simple, a great story powerfully told. The cast of characters, from a brooding and defensive President to G. Gordon Liddy (the former FBI agent ready to have John Dean's men gun him down for bungling the burglary) to Martha Mitchell (the wife of Attorney General John Mitchell and, to the despair of her husband and his friends, loquacious telephone pal of the press) is more absorbing and interesting than one can find in a work of fiction. Emery writes with grace and nuance, drawing us into the plot of this strange tale and keeping us there.
Second, this is history written as it should be. While the title gives away the author's view, he resists the temptation to pontificate; for the most part, he keeps his political views closeted. He lets the story unfold, and it is all the more compelling because he does.
Finally, the book is important for what it teaches between the lines. It gives a glimpse of how American politics works, and shows why, in the end, Watergate was a vindication of the American constitutional order. By the time Nixon waved goodbye on 9 August 1974, the system designed by the founders of the American republic nearly 200 years before had worked. Wrongdoing was found out; the political processes inherent in the American scheme of separated powers reacted; and the written constitution of limited and enumerated powers prevailed.
This may be the most enduring lesson to be learned about American history from this excellent book. The misadventures of the Nixon administration in Watergate would no doubt have disappointed, but surely would not have shocked those who wrote and ratified the American constitution. They had no delusions about popular government. James Madison, writing in The Federalist, for example, warned that: 'enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm'; and the bets were safe that there would always be 'those who would practise with success the vicious arts by which elections are too often carried'. As a result, they built their constitution to be sturdy enough to take all democracy could give it. When they sought to separate the powers of governance - the legislative, the executive and the judicial - they did not assume the moral superiority of those who would come to hold office. They aimed lower. To their way of thinking, the best way to make sure that the great departments of government would check and balance each other was to make sure that 'ambition must be made to counteract ambition', that the 'interests of a man must be connected to the powers of the place'. Nothing better describes the political turmoil known as Watergate - the courts, the Congress and the presidency locked in mortal combat, each pursuing its own institutional interest.
The ultimate dilemma revealed by the Watergate scandal is the constant tension between the high and the low in politics. This has never been the preserve of America, and every nation that is dedicated to the rule of law must deal with it. It is for this reason that Emery's book is not merely an account of dirty politics long ago and far away; it is a book for our time and place. One of its great achievements is the way in which the author lays out the small steps by which otherwise good and decent men (with one or two exceptions) shuffled knowingly down the dark and shady path of criminality. The lessons of this history are universal.
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