The Marx Brothers directed by Kubrick

Books: ABUSE OF POWER: The New Nixon Tapes ed Stanley T Kutler, Free Press pounds 20 NIXON IN WINTER by Monica Crowley I B Tauris pounds 17.95
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE NAME Richard Nixon will always connote Watergate. The 37th President of the United States desperately wanted to be remembered for his foreign policy initiatives and for ending two decades of hatred between the USA and China, but could never escape the taint of the infamous break- in by his "plumbers" at the Democratic HQ in Washington in 1972. Is it time for a reassessment, and is political rehabilitation possible? Two new books raise the issue, but their impact is ultimately devastating for Nixon's reputation.

Stanley Kutler is a Wisconsin professor and Watergate buff who has undertaken the arduous task of listening to the unpublished Nixon tapes in the National Archives (whence they cannot be removed) and making his own transcription on the spot. His Herculean labours make it clear that Nixon knew all about Watergate from the very beginning. As Kutler puts it, "they expose a level of culpability far greater than that imagined 25 years ago." Included as a bonne bouche is the previously published "smoking gun" tape of 23 June 1972 when Nixon, in conversation with his aide Bob Haldeman bruited the idea of using the CIA to thwart the current FBI investigation into Watergate. But the new tapes are just as hair-raising, as much for their persistent anti-semitism as for Nixon's other wild schemes, like his plan to use the leak of the Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg as a pretext for reviving the notorious House Committee on Unamerican Activities.

People like Mao and Zhou Enlai who described Watergate as a storm in a teacup missed the point: it was not the burglary that was so intensely criminal as the subsequent presidential cover-up. The main impression of the many conversations transcribed here - with Haldeman, Al Haig, Kissinger and others who were in on the dirty little secret of the break-in - is a sub-Marx Brothers black comedy directed by Stanley Kubrick in Dr Strangelove mood. The ingenuity with which Nixon and his aides concoct new lies and new "spins" is breathtaking, especially when one realises that from May 1973 to his resignation in August 1974 Nixon was involved in that ultimate absurdity: a cover-up of a cover-up.

If Kutler's book is essentially the case for the prosecution, Monica Crowley's book is ostensibly the defence brief. A graduate student in political science, she wrote a fan letter to Nixon in 1989 and was then taken on as his research assistant, in which capacity she became his confidante and accompanied him on trips to France, Poland, Japan, China, South Korea and the former Soviet Union and Czechslovakia. Crowley attempts to portray Watergate as a blip in an otherwise brilliant presidential record, but her project is constantly subverted by Nixon himself, who condemns himself in his talks with her even more effectively than on the Nixon tapes. Among other propositions in the Nixonian world-view we learn the following: a woman's place is in the home; Castro is the devil incarnate; the UN should be expelled from American soil; the IRS and the media have been stuffed with Democrats whose only purpose in life is to persecute him; most American academics are Marxists; the Peace Corps should be dismantled; NATO should be expanded to include every European nation (to fight whom?).

It gets better. On the four students shot dead at Kent State in 1970: "Those kids were communists and the National Guard was defending itself." On events in Russia: "Yeltsin had to suspend democracy in order to save it." On the worst fascist state of World War Two whose atrocities revolted even the SS: "Democratic, independence-minded Croatia". And, my particular favourite, which reveals so much about the cynicism and arrogance of the man: "The only collective body that ever worked was NATO, and that was because it was a military alliance and we were in charge."

At times her mentor's arrogance and spectacular ignorance rub off on Crowley. "At the beginning of the century," she writes, "when Friedrich Engels refined his theory of communism, he set out to change the world." As he died in 1895, Engels was presumably doing his refining from beyond the grave. She also seems to think that Yugoslavia had "been forcibly and artificially brought together by communism", apparently unaware that Yugoslavia predated Tito.

Both books, however, do help towards a solution of the $64,000 Watergate question: why didn't Nixon just destroy the tapes? There seem to be three answers. Nixon felt that he could stall until the storm blew over if he released selected snippets to the opposition. Also, he thought that in time the tapes would have a great monetary value and that eventually he could make a killing. But ultimately, and incredibly, Nixon thought that the tapes would vindicate his presidency and give him the place in history he so fervently wanted. There is no liar so impressive as the one who lies so habitually that he comes to believe in the truth of his own fabrications.