‘King Richard’ Finds Fresh Drama in Watergate

This circumscribed frame allows Dobbs to deploy his observational gifts to full effect. He has taken the vast literature about his subjec...


This circumscribed frame allows Dobbs to deploy his observational gifts to full effect. He has taken the vast literature about his subject, along with the 3,700 hours of Nixon’s tape recordings that were released to the public in 2013, to recreate the daily dramas of an increasingly paranoid Nixon and his increasingly paranoid co-conspirators. Out of this raw material, Dobbs has carved out something intimate and extraordinary, skillfully chiseling out the details to bring the story to lurid life.

Credit…Miriam Lomaskin

The book starts cozy, with Nixon sitting in his favorite room of the White House after his inauguration, having won a landslide victory and basking in an approval rating of 68 percent. He was about to secure a peace agreement with the North Vietnamese. The break-in at the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate, which took place seven months before, seemed to be loosening its grip on the public imagination.

But if you looked closer, the cracks were starting to show. The elaborate secret taping system that Nixon had installed in 1971 worked so efficiently that he “no longer gave any thought to the fact that he was recording himself,” Dobbs writes. Nixon was obsessed with his legacy, and the tapes were supposed to help him write his memoirs — but they also happened to record him and his aides chatting and gossiping and plotting, which would prove to be a boon to investigators and to writers like Dobbs.

“King Richard” makes vivid use of the tapes to convey a White House that seemed to be an unholy combination of the grimly determined and aggressively puerile. We have Nixon chortling at his own jokes and railing against the media, gloating about having “really stuck ’em in the groin.” His special counsel, Chuck Colson, listening to Nixon prepare for a speech, “emitted a moan of pleasure down the phone line.” Bob Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, speculated that the White House counsel, John Dean, must have been taking out “all his frustrations in just pure, raw, animal, unadulterated sex.” And then there’s the national security adviser Henry Kissinger kissing up, effusively praising Nixon’s Vietnam speech: “The overwhelming reaction is ecstasy.”

But Nixon wasn’t the only one taping conversations. After the Senate voted 77-0 in February 1973 to establish a committee to investigate Watergate and other “illegal, improper and unethical” campaign activities, the people surrounding the president started to turn on one another, using their own recording devices. Each man seemed to believe that he could be the hero of his own story — or could, at least, present himself that way. Dobbs catches Haldeman at one point feigning ignorance “for the benefit” of his own hidden recorder; two pages later, Dobbs has John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s domestic policy adviser, insisting on his own ignorance “for the benefit of his hidden tape machine.”

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Newsrust - US Top News: ‘King Richard’ Finds Fresh Drama in Watergate
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