Monday, June 30, 2014

No. 55: Watergate—The Reissue of a Superb Book on the Subject

August 9, 2014 is the 40th anniversary of the resignation of President Richard Nixon in the wake of the Watergate affair. In those days I followed the news closely, and I read several books on the subject. One book I did not read then was by Elizabeth Drew, a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books and the former Washington correspondent of The New Yorker and The Atlantic. She lives in Washington, is the author of several books, and is a gifted writer.

As Drew explains, on the day after Labor Day in 1973, she and William Shawn, editor of The New Yorker, decided she should write a journal of the period we were entering that Fall. In 1974 her resulting journal ran in The New Yorker "as sets of three parts each," and in 1975 it was published as a book entitled Washington Journal: Reporting Watergate and Richard Nixon's Downfall.

Drew's book has been out of print for many years. Recently, with the anniversary approaching, Drew arranged for a new printing of the book. The new book includes an "Afterword" identifying some things learned in the years after the resignation, and describing Nixon's efforts to rehabilitate himself during the 20 years until his death in 1994.

Drew's book, despite the seriousness of the subject, is laced with humor. One example involved John W. Dean, III, counsel to the President, and John D. Erlichman, assistant to the President for domestic affairs:
Dean has said that Erlichman suggested that he shred the sensitive documents, and "deep six" the other material in the Potomac one evening on his way home to Virginia. Erlichman denied later that he had made either suggestion. He said that he had never in his life proposed to anyone that they shred papers. He said his practice was to burn them.
The book has no photographs, but they are not needed. Drew paints vivid pictures with words. For example, here is a small part of her description of Nixon when he announced his resignation on television the evening before it became effective:
It is hard to believe that this is the last speech Richard Nixon will make as President. Yet there he is, sitting in that familiar scene, at the familiar desk, one flag in his lapel, one by his side, holding white sheets of paper.... He looks bad—the face more creased and drawn. He is wearing a dark suit, a dark tie, and a white shirt....
Drew's 450-page book is superb, but I have a warning. For people who were not around at the time, for people who were around but did not follow developments closely, and for people who are not familiar with the Washington scene, it will be difficult to sort out all the individuals, events, and details. In the front of the book is a five-page list of "Figures in the Events of 1973-1974," but even that is only a small fraction of the people mentioned in the book.

On the other hand, for those familiar with the events and the cast of characters, Drew's book is a delight—a beautifully written page turner. It resembles a diary describing day-by-day developments, and it is extremely difficult to put down. It begins with Labor Day 1973, more than a year after the famous June 1972 break-in, and almost a year after Nixon's landslide reelection victory in November 1972. There are many flashbacks to events that occurred before September 1973.

In the Afterword, Drew refers to the Watergate affair as "the second greatest test of the Constitutional system in our nation's history," implying that the greatest test was the Civil War. I recall others making a similar statement, and I agree with them. If you do not agree, reading Drew's book might cause you to reconsider. I strongly recommend the book.