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The Wars of Watergate

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Stanley I. Kutler, The Wars of Watergate: The Last Crisis of Richard Nixon, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990.

Stanley I. Kutler’s examination of Watergate illustrated the complexities of political espionage and obstruction of justice, and Nixon’s visceral hatreds of his political opponents, Congress, the press, and other enemies. It was those hatreds, Nixon’s belief that life was conflict and not accommodation, and that Nixon surrounded himself with loyal, like minded aides such as H. R. Haldeman (his Chief of Staff) and John Ehrlichman (his advisor on domestic affairs), which created an atmosphere where such abuses of power were commonplace. Kutler concluded that the underside of Nixon’s Presidency that Watergate exposed was more important than the burglary itself.

Kutler analyzed both primary and secondary sources including Richard Nixon’s papers pertaining to Watergate, which were preserved by Federal law in the care of the National Archives, Nixon’s memoirs, available White House tape recordings, and FBI records. Additionally, Kutler conducted numerous interviews with important participants such as White House Counsel John Dean, Spiro T. Agnew Nixon’s Vice President, and director of the CIA Richard Helms, among others; all of which added to the book’s vivid and disturbing illustration of unparalleled presidential abuse of power, and aided Kutler’s construction of a compelling argument.

Kutler constructed his argument in three stages. First, Nixon's personality and his 25-year political career shape much of the activity during his presidency and created a climate in which the abuses of Watergate could occur. Next, the Watergate break-in itself eventually diminished in importance as the nation discovered what John Mitchell (Nixon’s former Attorney General and director of the President’s reelection committee) labeled as the White House horrors and the clear patterns of presidential abuse of power (200). Lastly, revisionism of Nixon's history overlooks the fact that lied to his family, his friends, his political supporters in and out of Congress, the nation, and the world (620).

Kutler described Nixon's early political career, which was marked by his successful campaigns for the House and Senate, and his nomination as Eisenhower's Vice President in 1952. Additionally, Nixon's close loss to Kennedy in 1960 deeply wounded Nixon. Kutler maintained that during the process of second-guessing that accompanied Nixon's defeat; Nixon believed that Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and the Democratic machine had stolen the election for Kennedy (52-53). However, Kutler made clear that there was no evidence to substantiate such charges, and that Illinois alone would not have given Nixon an Electoral College majority. Nixon's narrow election victory in November 1968, Kutler argued, reflected his innate capacity for survival. Nixon had survived eight grueling years as Eisenhower's Vice President; Nixon survived the shattering defeat for the presidency in 1960, and the humiliating defeat in the California governor's race in 1962. He endured the 1968 primary season and the convention--largely due to default. But also due to his resolve and stamina, and through a combination of perseverance, luck, and the self-inflicted wounds of his opponents (74).

As Nixon assumed the presidency, he was serene. However, that serenity did not run deep. Kutler made clear that just under the surface were alternating moods of anger, suspicion, and hostility, which eventually governed his behavior as President and the behavior of those who served as the instruments of his feelings (77). Additionally, Kutler illustrated that Nixon believed enemies fought his good intentions, and must be confronted, contained, and eventually defeated. That belief was shared by his aides and led to the implementation of several illegal programs such as domestic intelligence gathering and the formation of a special investigation unit run from inside the White House known as the Plumbers. The Plumbers came into existence in 1971 after the leak and publication of the Pentagon Papers. Kutler made clear that their activities were known to Nixon, Haldeman, and Ehrlichman.

The Plumbers’ purpose was to stop leaks, for the White House believed that the regular investigative agencies were not completely reliable. Their most notorious assignment was to determine the causes, sources, and ramifications of the Pentagon Papers leaks. Kutler asserted that assignment led to the break-in of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office, which was approved by Ehrlichman and the President (114). However, the break-in was so poorly handled that Ehrlichman ordered all such covert activity ended. Nevertheless, Nixon’s aides such as H.R. Haldeman and John Dean continued to carry out the President’s directives and compile a list of his enemies. At the top of that list was the press. Kutler argued that Nixon had an instinctive hatred for the news media and a compulsive desire to manipulate them (161). Thus, Jeb Stuart Magruder an aide for the Committee to Reelect the President (CREEP one of the most unfortunate, yet descriptive acronyms in American History) devised a plan to use the FCC and the IRS to control the news media.

Given the above, Kutler’s argument that the break-in of Democratic National Committee Headquarters on June 17, 1972 itself was not as important as the illegal activities that preceded it or the cover-up that followed it, was convincing. Kutler maintained that the Watergate break-in, the investigations, and the prosecutions that followed exposed the underside of the Nixon administration, and its efforts to cover-up its activities. That obstruction of justice was overseen by Nixon and Haldeman and run by their project manager White House Counsel John Dean. Kutler illustrated that Dean was able with the assistance of Acting FBI Director L. Patrick Gray to stall the FBI investigation. However, Kutler maintained that by March 1973 not even Nixon’s and Haldeman’s efforts to use the CIA to obstruct the FBI’s investigation were effective, and the cover-up began to unravel with Nixon’s aides either defecting were going to jail and Nixon’s resignation on August 9, 1974, due in part to the President’s taping system becoming public knowledge.

In the years since his resignation, Nixon, his former aides, and family members have attempted to downplay the importance of Watergate by focusing on the burglary itself. Kutler argued that revisionism of Nixon’s history overlooks the fact that Nixon obstructed justice and committed other illegal acts. Through his examination of the underside of Nixon’s presidency, Kutler provided a fuller understanding of the Nixon administration by placing its foreign policy successes in context with its domestic failures, abuses of power, and obstruction of justice. Kutler has made a valuable contribution to the study of the presidency of Richard Nixon.