Tricky Dick, Tricky Don
Whatever its flaws, Tom Brokaw’s eighth book can’t be faulted for timing. It conjures the impeachment drama, 45 years ago, surrounding a U.S. president. Brokaw’s subject used nefarious means to undermine his opponents, lied promiscuously in his own defense and excoriated the press as the font of his self-inflicted woes.
Who does this sound like? “I have never heard or seen such outrageous, vicious, distorted reporting in 27 years of public life.”
In “The Fall of Richard Nixon: A Reporter Remembers Watergate,” the author doesn’t overplay the parallels between now and then. He doesn’t need to. As Yogi Berra once observed in another context, “It’s like deja vu all over again.”
Brokaw had a front-row seat to the Watergate scandal when, at the tender age of 33, he was named NBC’s White House correspondent in the summer of 1973. The infamous break-in had occurred in June of 1972, and Nixon would resign the presidency on Aug. 9, 1974.
The author, formerly the anchor of "NBC Nightly News" for more than two decades, has written an engaging account of a nation in turmoil. It is a breezy, often gossipy and at times surprising memoir that encompasses more than Watergate.
For example, Brokaw was walking closely behind Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford, during the first of two attempts on that president’s life, both in September 1975. In fact, Brokaw immediately recognized the woman whom the Secret Service subdued from his days as a TV journalist in Los Angeles: Lynne “Squeaky” Fromme, a disciple of Charles Manson.
The author takes the reader not only inside a beleaguered White House, but also into tony Georgetown salons where the political and cultural glitterati mingled with journalists and ruminated on the scandal du jour. It was a glamorous life for a 30-something journalist who hailed from South Dakota.
This book also reminds the reader of how far Nixon fell because of high and foolhardy crimes and misdemeanors. When Watergate’s keystone criminals struck on June 17, 1972, Nixon’s likely reelection opponent was a little-known senator from South Dakota, George McGovern. The incumbent would trounce his hapless challenger in November, winning 49 of 50 states and more than 60 percent of the popular vote. Landslide isn’t a strong enough word for it.
Yet less than two years later, Nixon would be forced to resign when impeachment by the House of Representatives and conviction in the Senate became a foregone conclusion.
Among the delicious tidbits herein is that in 1969, future felon Bob Halderman offered Brokaw the job of being Nixon’s press secretary. Also noteworthy is that during Watergate, there were more than a few standup members of the loyal opposition, like Sens. Bill Cohen of Maine and Howard Baker of Tennessee, who were willing from the get go to follow the evidence wherever it led.
Here’s another intriguing historical factoid: It was only two months before Nixon’s resignation – after two years of Watergate coverage – that polls showed for the first time that a majority of American favored impeachment. That popular milestone has nearly been reached with regard to our current president: A 55 percent majority of registered voters said they approved of the impeachment inquiry, according to a recent Quinnipiac University poll.
In addition to chronicling Nixon’s misdeeds, Brokaw also touches on his accomplishments, which were often overshadowed by Watergate, among them his swift and steadfast support of a beleaguered Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
A note of caution is warranted. While this slim book leaves the reader wanting more pages, it also suffers from choppy prose and lax editing in places. Often dates and pertinent details are left out, such as the year and month when the Arab oil embargo began.
That said, this book should be required reading inside the Beltway, and beyond.