The Fall of Richard Nixon

A Reporter Remembers Watergate

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On Sale 2020-11-10

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Bestselling author Tom Brokaw brings readers inside the White House press corps in this up-close and personal account of the fall of an American president.

In August 1974, after his involvement in the Watergate scandal could no longer be denied, Richard Nixon became the first and only president to resign from office in anticipation of certain impeachment. The year preceding that moment was filled with shocking revelations and bizarre events, full of power politics, legal jujitsu, and high-stakes showdowns, and with head-shaking surprises every day. As the country’s top reporters worked to discover the truth, the public was overwhelmed by the confusing and almost unbelievable stories about activities in the Oval Office. 

Tom Brokaw, who was then the young NBC News White House correspondent, gives us a nuanced and thoughtful chronicle, recalling the players, the strategies, and the scandal that brought down a president. He takes readers from crowds of shouting protesters to shocking press conferences, from meetings with Attorney General Elliot Richardson and White House Chief of Staff Alexander Haig, to overseas missions alongside Henry Kissinger. He recounts Nixon’s claims of executive privilege to withhold White House tape recordings of Oval Office conversations; the bribery scandal that led to the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew and his replacement by Gerald Ford; the firing of Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox; how in the midst of Watergate Nixon organized emergency military relief for Israel during the Yom Kippur War; the unanimous decision of the Supreme Court that required Nixon to turn over the tapes; and other insider moments from this important and dramatic period.

The Fall of Richard Nixon
allows readers to experience this American epic from the perspective of a journalist on the ground and at the center of it all.

Advance praise for The Fall of Richard Nixon

“A divided nation. A deeply controversial president. Powerful passions. No, it’s not what you’re thinking, but Tom Brokaw knows that the past can be prologue, and he’s given us an absorbing and illuminating firsthand account of how Richard Nixon fell from power. Part history, part memoir, Brokaw’s book reminds us of the importance of journalism, the significance of facts, and the inherent complexity of power in America.”—Jon Meacham, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Soul of America

Under the Cover

An excerpt from The Fall of Richard Nixon

Chapter 1

For all of 1973 and most of 1974, America and the world watched as the fate of the most powerful nation on earth and its familiar president played out on the screen of history and daily journalism. By all expectations, 1973 should have been the beginning of a glorious conclusion to the public life of Richard Milhous Nixon, the poor boy from Southern California who fought his way into the highest offices in America with a brilliant mind, a deep dark streak, and a personality constantly in conflict with the demands of his calling.

He began the year triumphantly, starting to wind down the unpopular Vietnam War as he launched a second term as president with nearly 61 percent of the American electorate having voted for him, a victory for this durable, familiar, and yet enigmatic son of Quaker parents. He had crushed the liberal establishment.

What could go wrong?

It had already gone wrong back in the summer of 1972, when a bumbling gang of burglars working for the Nixon reelection campaign were caught in a clumsy attempt to rifle through files at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate Hotel.

Two gifted rookie reporters from The Washington Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, were assigned to look into the burglary, and as they began to unravel the details, it became clear that this was no ordinary breaking and entering. Piece by piece, they constructed a case that traced the break-in from low-level Nixon acolytes to the highest levels of President Nixon’s staff. Nixon’s closest advisers, cabinet members, and fundraisers were already enmeshed in a spreading scandal that went beyond that botched burglary.

It would forever be known simply as Watergate: the web of lies, payoffs, and toxic tape recordings, followed, finally, by the first resignation of an American president. All of it demanded closer examination.

To this day, the essential question defies a rational answer: Why did the president’s men organize a nighttime invasion of the Democratic Party headquarters when they were so far ahead of George McGovern in all the polls?

Later we learned that during his first term, Nixon had made a shady deal with milk producers, supporting higher prices in exchange for campaign contributions. Also, Nixon’s fundraisers had blatantly violated new laws designed to provide transparency to campaign contributions. Other Nixon acolytes had written phony letters maligning the character of prominent Democrats.

Nonetheless, Nixon had survived massive demonstrations against his Vietnam policies in his first term, polls showed strong support for the law-and-order tenor of his campaign, his opening to China was widely praised, and the United States and the Soviet Union were negotiating new limits on nuclear weapons.

All the indicators showed Nixon was poised to crush McGovern.

The most tantalizing questions, however, remained: What was President Nixon’s role, if any, in the burglary? And were there other dirty tricks yet to be exposed?

The reporting of Woodward and Bernstein continued to raise questions about the involvement of Nixon aides in the nefarious activities, and that went unnoticed by neither the feisty federal judge, John Sirica, who presided over the initial Watergate trials, nor the Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate.

Partly as a result of Sirica’s warning that not all the facts had been revealed, the Senate voted unanimously on February 7, 1973, to establish a special committee to investigate Watergate. It was led by Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina, the very model of a folksy, shrewd, good ol’ boy southern lawyer. His Senate Republican counterpart was another southerner, the equally shrewd and likable Howard Baker of Tennessee.

In April 1973, Nixon reluctantly dismissed two of his closest aides, H. R. “Bob” Haldeman and John Ehrlichman; they would soon perjure themselves before the Senate committee by denying their roles in the break-in cover-up. White House counsel John Dean was fired as well, after describing to the Senate investigators what the president knew about the burglary, saying the president was in the room on thirty-five occasions when the Watergate break-in was discussed.

The Senate committee hearings started in May 1973 and quickly became must-see TV for the nation as the cast of once-powerful White House aides struggled to explain how and why the White House, the very symbol of American strength and prestige, could have been involved in such a tawdry enterprise.

Daytime television audiences watching the Senate Watergate Committee during the summer of 1973 were riveted by the country-judge charm of Chairman Sam Ervin and by Howard Baker, who asked, “What did the president know and when did he know it?” While the president was trying to wind down the Vietnam War, strike up a new relationship with the Soviet Union, and capitalize on his historic opening to China, his closest aides were being questioned on Capitol Hill by the Senate committee, igniting time bombs on his future.

One presidential aide, Alexander Butterfield, was called to describe how the White House offices were organized, and he disclosed the unexpected news that an elaborate taping system had been installed to capture historic moments for future archives. It also recorded presidential conversations on subjects Nixon and his advisers presumably didn’t expect to become whatever metaphor you like—smoking gun, noose, trapdoor. The recordings quickly became the prize in the investigation. Sam Ervin and his fellow senators were determined to get them.

So were Attorney General Elliot Richardson and the special prosecutor Richardson had brought on board, Archibald Cox, both Harvard men, the kind Nixon privately detested. They had been appointed as the scandal was heating up.

John Mitchell, Nixon’s former law partner and original attorney general, portrayed himself as Mr. Law and Order, but when he moved over to chair the President’s reelection campaign he became deeply involved in the Watergate cover-up. He knew about the burglaries and approved of efforts to get the CIA involved as a cover, claiming national security. Eventually Mitchell was convicted of perjury, obstruction of justice, and conspiracy.

Richard Kleindienst, Mitchell’s successor at Justice, had failed to tell authorities about President Nixon’s order to ignore an antitrust investigation of the manufacturing conglomerate ITT when Kleindienst was an assistant AG. Later, after Kleindienst had been elevated to attorney general, he refused a request from G. Gordon Liddy to intervene in the Watergate investigation to protect CREEP, the President’s reelection campaign, which was deeply involved in the break-in. Kleindienst resigned as attorney general and returned to his home state of Arizona to resume his law practice. His replacement was Elliot Richardson, who would come to play a major role in the President’s demise.

By August 1973, several of Nixon’s top advisers had lied their way into certain jail time. The bungled Watergate break-in was symptomatic of a larger criminal conspiracy run out of the White House, the aim of which was to crush political enemies.

The fabric of the presidency was unraveling, and constitutional law was under assault. That we’ve known for some time. What is worth examining again, in light of today’s political climate, are the day-to-day developments, decisions, and delusions, as well as the actions of the president, that led to the historic disgrace of the man who came so far and fell so hard.

On August 15, 1973, the president took his case to the American people. He opened his speech with a note of contrition, saying that because the abuses had taken place in his administration he accepted “full responsibility” and the right of the Senate committee to investigate the charges. His most emphatic statement was in his defense:

I state again to every one of you listening tonight these facts—I had no prior knowledge of the Watergate break-in. I neither took part in nor knew about any of the subsequent cover-up activities. I neither authorized nor encouraged subordinates to engage in illegal or improper campaign tactics.

That was and that is the simple truth.

We now know that if there had been an electronic truth meter in the studio at the time, sirens would have been wailing, horns honking, lights flashing, and an offscreen voice bellowing, “Are you kidding?”

The president went on to describe what he insisted were his many efforts to uncover the facts about the break-in, and then got to the heart of his speech: the right of a president to protect confidential conversations and memoranda.

His speech was designed to advance the case for presidential authority and to proclaim his innocence, arguments that would be central to his defense for the next year. He argued on national television that the Oval Office tapes were “privileged.” In doing so, he invoked, without using the term, the concept of executive privilege, which is reserved for the chief executive of the United States; the concept has evolved with the presidency, and is designed to protect the executive branch from raids, subpoenas, and other interventions by the legislative or judicial branch.

- About the author -

Tom Brokaw is the author of seven bestsellers: The Greatest Generation, The Greatest Generation Speaks, An Album of Memories, Boom!, The Time of Our Lives, A Long Way from Home, and A Lucky Life Interrupted. A native of South Dakota, he graduated from the University of South Dakota, and began his journalism career in Omaha and Atlanta before joining NBC News in 1966. Brokaw was the White House correspondent for NBC News during Watergate, and from 1976 to 1981 he anchored Today on NBC. He was the sole anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw from 1983 to 2005. He continues to report for NBC News, producing long-form documentaries and providing expertise during breaking news events. Brokaw has won every major award in broadcast journalism, including two DuPonts, three Peabody Awards, and several Emmys, including one for lifetime achievement. In 2014, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He lives in New York and Montana.

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The Fall of Richard Nixon

A Reporter Remembers Watergate

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