on February 18, 2004
Last time I looked, Woodward & Bernstein's "All the President"s Men" had 58 Amazon reviews; Lukas' "Nightmare" had none. Now, that's a travesty. If you have to read just one book about Watergate this book has no competitor. If you have to read just one book to show what good journalism can be, ditto. We say that journalism at best is "a rough draft" and we need to await "the verdict of history." But Lukas put this together in a matter of months and after 30-odd years, it still stands unchallenged on the shelf.
The fulcrum of this book is, of course, the "third-rate burglary" from which Watergate takes its name. But Lukas is far-sighted enough not to begin with that. He gives us the larger context of the early Nixon years: the internal wiretapping, the fund-raising money machine, the systematic campaign of dirty tricks against the 1972 Democratic campaign, both primary and general.
Indeed, for me perhaps the true pivot point is not the burglary at all, but rather that moment in January, 1972, when Gordon Liddy launched "a well-prepared thirty-minute 'show-and-tell'" to introduced "Project Gemstone" -- intended as "a vast intelligence-gathering and dirty-tricks campaign" against the Democrats and (one would have to say) against the electoral process itself. Here it all is: electronic surveillance and wiretapping; breakins; kidnap squads; mugging squads; call girls; sabotage. John Dean says he found it "mind-boggling." But Attorney General John Mitchell was more restrained: "That's not quite what we had in mind," he said. And Jeb Magruder was more proactive: "Cheer up, Gordon," he said, "You just tone the plan down a little and we'll try again."
For my money, that is the point at which any decent public servant would have stood up and shouted "GET THIS GUY OUT OF HERE! Don't let him come within a dung-fork's distance of any public policy issue any time, anywhere, ever again." Of course we know better now: in fact, Liddy's campaign did go forward largely as he had planned it. And it was not a free-lance operation: rather, it was embedded at the very heart of the Nixon administration.
From the introduction of Gemstone we move on moment by moment through the burglary, the coverup, the coverup of the coverup and finally, Nixon's resignation. By that point, almost any reader will concede that Lukas has documented his case. The denoument is the celebrated "smoking gun" -- the text of the tape of Nixon's conversation on June 23, 1972.
"What made the tape so damaging," says Lukas, "was ... the plain, irrefutable language which showed that six days after the Watergate burglary the President of the United States knew a great deal about the break-in, realized that Liddy and [E. Howard] Hunt had been involved, recognized Mitchell's probable complicity, personally ordered a cover-up of the facts, and used the CIA and the FBI to protect his personal political interests."
Watergate was a tragedy, of course, and any honest account is bound to make pretty sordid reading. But at the end, one can find uplift. For however many people behaved badly, quite a lot of people behaved well: famously Eliot Richardson, who resigned as Attorney General rather than fire Archibald Cox; perhaps more subtly Congressman Peter W. Rodino, Jr., who succeeded (at no small efort) in keeping the House hearings decent and honorable; more surprisingly Congressman Lawrence Hogan, conservative Republican from Maryland who upstaged some of his more liberal colleagues by declaring for impeachment (he was offended at what Nixon had done to the FBI). And I'd even save a kind word for Hugh W. Sloan, Jr., a campaign staffer who did, concededly, take part in some of the money-sloshing, but who in the end refused to go along with the coverup.
Woodward and Bernstein have their place in Watergate history, if not nearly as great as their own (well--Woodward's) self-promotion would suggest. If they did not originate much in the way of real Watergate news, they did a great deal to keep the topic on the agenda. But their project also did a great deal of long-term harm, helping to facilitate the growth of a climate of "client journalism" where reporters get cozy with sources and manipulate the process as much as any active participant. Tony Lukas died far too young (and a suicide). As a monmument, he leaves a body of exemplary journalism, of which this is a capstone.
During a recent current events/political conversation at a barbecue I was asked whether I had read this book. I am embarrassed to say I had never heard of it, which is odd - not the embarrassment - but my ignorance of this volume. Although not a Nixon or Watergate "expert" I have read many books on both the man and the scandal, yet somehow Nightmare slipped through the proverbial cracks. But better late than never, for this monumental work, at least in my humble opinion, is "the book" to read on Watergate - a statement I do not make lightly.
First a note on the genesis of this book. Lukas was assigned the Watergate story as it was happening and two installments appeared in the Sunday New York Times magazine. As the author was preparing the third installment - and as Congress was weighing impeachment - Nixon resigned. The author completed the final installment, combined it with the first two, and published Nightmare in 1975. Sadly Lukas committed suicide in 1997 - and Nightmare was re-released in 1999.
This is a big, dense, detailed book - yet still a page turner - even though we know the ending. The central act of Nightmare is of course the "third-rate burglary" of the Democratic National Headquarters in 1972 - and just the rehash of the incompetence and ineptitude of that little fiasco is well worth the read. Yet Lukas does not start there, but rather with Nixon's assuming office and the environment/psychology/plans and actions which led to the break-in, i.e. the release of The Pentagon Papers, the FBI wiretaps, the "dirty tricks" and Gemstone. The narrative then follows the cover-up, the investigations, trials, hearings and finally Nixon's resignation, i.e. the "whole story" and it's a complicated one.
What separates this book from the others on this topic - the key to Nightmare - is its coherency. Lukas does an outstanding job in both documenting and tying together all the threads of the complicated web we now know as "Watergate" - by no means an easy task. A couple of examples for this reader include placing John Dean and his actions in the proper perspective/context as well as separating the multiple Watergate investigations.
That Nightmare was written virtually as the events chronicled were happening is amazing. Add to that very few sources in the book are unnamed. And if you are concerned that this narrative may be dated - Lukas more or less names Mark Felt as "Deep-Throat".
Truly an outstanding book - Highly recommended.
on July 3, 2012
...make it this one.
I first read J. Anthony Lukas' Nightmare: The Underside of the Nixon Years, a couple of decades ago. Though details faded as I aged, I retained the impression that it was just about the best book on Watergate I had come across. With my collection now inching towards a hundred volumes, I decided to revisit Lukas's tome and see how it actually stands up.
This book from the two time Pulitzer Prize winning reporter and author grew out of articles which he wrote for the New York Times Magazine (two full issues consisted of only his writings on Watergate): plus a third that was commissioned but scotched when Nixon resigned the Presidency. Lukas sets the stage with the unsuccessful (for the Republicans) 1970 midterm elections and the state of civil unrest in Washington in 1971. Then he leads us into, and out of, Watergate.
Lukas' comprehensive but not overwhelming look at his subject matter is well laid out, as evidenced by the chapter titles: Fear of Losing, State of Siege, Leaks and Traps, Plumbers, Dirty Money, Dirty Tricks, Break-in, Cover-up, Uncover, Houses in the Sun, Tapes, Agnew, Firestorm, Operation Candor, Impeachment and Resignation. Watergate was not simply a `third rate burglary.' It was an event that grew out of the Nixon administration's increasing combativeness and declining respect for the law.
Some books use Nixon's flawed character development to show how the operating culture of his White House evolved. And certainly, other Watergate volumes provide information and theories not included in this book. But Lukas takes a direct path approach, from point A to point B (or to Z) and it works. By the middle of Chapter 3 (Leaks and Taps, which is about the wiretapping of employees and enemies, both real and perceived), you recognize that the Nixon White House viewed governing as one hundred percent "us against everybody who is not with us" and that the end (getting our enemies) justified the means (whatever possibly or blatantly illegal methods we used). While this is serious stuff, there are some Keystone Kops type moments: such as discovering that the Secret Service (presumably at the direction of Bob Haldeman and John Erlichman) wire tapped the President's brother, Donald Nixon because he was a cause of embarrassment.
But things got less amusing as the paranoia and arrogance of power grew. Egil `Bud' Krogh Jr. (who did jail time related to the Plumbers' activities) is quoted in 1971 as saying, "Anyone who opposes us, we'll destroy. As a matter of fact, anyone who doesn't support us, we'll destroy." As Lukas explores the Plumbers unit and campaign finance shenanigans (that's a soft word for unethical, illegal actions), it's clear that the Nixon Administration has lost both perspective and any kind of moral compass (you can argue Nixon lost that years before).
Lukas' narrative leaves the reader wondering if things would have reached such critical proportions if Henry Kissinger hadn't convinced Nixon that the leaking of The Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg was devastating to national security; for Early on, Nixon realized that it was the prior administration of Lyndon Johnson which would look bad on Vietnam, not his. It is in the response to Ellsberg's actions that we see the seeds of Nixon's downfall sprout into towering trees. Though, as you dig deeper into the book, you realize Nixon's flawed personality was as fatal as Achilles' own heel.
The President, the Attorney General, the White House Chief of Staff, special counsels, the Domestic Policy Advisor, staffers at all levels; all the president's men broke the law and/or acted unethically time and time again. It's shocking to read, decades later. Lukas paints a picture of all the president's men doing everything they could to make sure the truth of the Watergate break in did not come to light. And this was in large part due to all the other illicit and embarrassing activities that would be exposed to the light of day. And that includes his lack of ethics regarding his personal taxes and willingness to spend public money on his private properties.
Richard Nixon had three priorities, from least to greatest: the American public, the presidency and himself. Nightmare paints a vivid picture of an administration that believed it could do anything it wanted, however it wanted. After his resignation, Nixon famously said, "Well, if the president does it, then it's not illegal." That's a pretty good epithet for his presidency. Nixon did not have a disdain for the law: he had an utter contempt for it. And he was willing to betray his oath of office and sacrifice the office of the President for his own interests.
If you buy into the misleading mantra, "it wasn't so much the crime, it was the cover-up," you need to read this book. It was a staggering combination of both. Thirty-nine years after its first publication, Anthony Lukas' Nightmare remains perhaps the finest account of Watergate and the events surrounding it.
on October 19, 2006
Nightmare, by J. Anthony Lukas
In April 1973 J. Anthony Lukas was assigned to write an article on Watergate. This was followed by a second article; then a third. This book covers the whole story of Richard Nixon's abuse of his presidential powers. Chapter 1 starts with the 1970 election, which was not favorable to Nixon's hopes. He wanted a big victory in 1972. Attorney-General John Mitchell was a state and municipal bond lawyer who new about back-room deals. Protests in May 1971 Washington were met with Nixon's public disdain; privately he was worried (p.10). Nixon chose young men who had no independent judgment (p.8). Nixon felt threatened by the Establishment: "Wall Street, Cambridge, Georgetown" and others (p.13). A private security entity was created to investigate Nixon's enemies. [Was Nixon's problems due to an inferiority complex "lifelong sense of powerlessness" (p.18)?] Chapter 2 describes the insecurity of Nixon. The Huston Plan was killed by J. Edgar Hoover; but it seems to have gone forward (p.37). Sophisticated officials don't discuss secrets over a telephone, but in person in a private place (p.55). You never know who is listening to you.
Nixon's 1972 campaign raised an unusually large amount of corporate money; often from companies that had problems in Washington (p.127). [Is creating problems for corporations a way for government to raise campaign contributions?] "Most contributions from the business community ... are made in response to pressure ..." (P.128). [The more business is regulated, the more money that can be extracted by the officials in Washington. "They all do it."] Nixon also raised money from the wealthy who wanted to be appointed ambassadors (p.134). Page 142 shows how a company backs the twin-party system. There are no witnesses on a golf course. [Could Nixon's greediness have caused the Establishment to turn on him after the election?] Kevin Phillips' book noted that the lack of a Wallace candidacy would swell the 1972 Republican vote (p.147). Nixon tried to stop Wallace (pp.147-149), and failed. But something happened (p.150). The most famous dirty trick was on Ed Muskie (p.163). Bogus letters to newspapers and congressmen were used to create public support for Nixon, at least 50 a week (p.166). There is a report about Senator Thomas Eagleton's health (p.168). The next step was to stage break-ins (before Watergate).
And so the book continues with so very many pages on the Nixon Presidency. The Note on Sources says there was a glut of information where the difficulty was finding the truth among self-serving and conflicting data. The 45 pages of index to the 569 pages of text make this a reference book on Nixon's Presidency. The Sources list the books, articles, interviews, documents, and remarks used for this book. This is a one-volume book of information this topic. Lukas watched what Nixon did, not what he said. Not much has changed since this 1975 book was published. Lukas' comment that W. Mark Felt, Jr. was believed to be the source called "Deep Throat" has been confirmed (p.273). [The pagination is from the hardcover edition.]
on November 19, 2012
as well as being in better condition than I expected. Anyone interested in Watergate, I would highly recommend this book. Very well written and holds your interest to the very end! The only "surprise" was the two pages missing from the index. It did not detract from the book.
on May 19, 2013
THIS IS ONE OF THE GREAT AMERICAN BOOKS BY ONE OF THE BEST WRITERS OF THE LAST FEW GENERATIONS.O RAYMOND A. Schroth, S.J.
on April 25, 2016
The best book written about the Nixon years.