- Hardcover: 438 pages
- Publisher: E P Dutton (May 1977)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0803738579
- ISBN-13: 978-0803738577
- Package Dimensions: 8.1 x 5.8 x 1.1 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
- Average Customer Review: 10 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,626,917 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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It Didn't Start With Watergate Hardcover – May, 1977
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Victor Lasky, a conservative columnist, provides a brief guide from the "everybody does it" perspective. Lasky explores the slippery slopes where "hard ball" politics merges into the illegal underworld, the underside of American federal politics. And it didn't start with Watergate.
"In May 1973...Bob Considine asked John Roosevelt, the President's youngest son, what he thought about the scandal. John Roosevelt responded, "I can't understand all the commotion in this case. Hell, my father just about invented bugging. Had them spread all over, and thought nothing of it." (P.168)
Lasky discusses the Kennedy's questionable election victory over Nixon in 1960, their surveillance of Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy's "gloves off" (and maybe illegal) campaign against Jimmy Hoffa, JFK's "mysterious fortune", the "Murder Incorporated" (to use LBJ's words) the Kennedys were running in the Caribbean, the bugging campaign against Goldwater (that seems to have been a lot more effective and better run than anything the Nixon campaign attempted), LBJ's tactics at the 1964 Democratic Convention and other incidents. The reader gets the impression the Nixonites were if anything second raters in this game. Lasky certainly portrays the Establishment liberals as the masters of this murky world. At least they were then. To my mind, maybe a more accurate reading is that the Nixonites had the bad luck to get caught at a time when the balance of political power, both in Congress and amongst the key Washington media organisations was already running against them.
Lasky, writing in 1977, argues, and I think quite reasonably, that Nixon didn't destroy the tapes, not because of any deep character flaws but because he really didn't know about Watergate before hand. He didn't feel guilty and, perhaps more to the point, didn't assume he was under sufficient legal risk to warrant deep sixing his personal archive. This could of course be hubris or arrogance, characteristics that seem to be part of the Presidential job description, or maybe he was thinking like a lawyer rather than a politician. The Congressional investigations against him and the associated media circus, at least as portrayed by Lasky, didn't meet the standards of judicial behavior and professionalism that the average person would expect. They leaked like a sieve, partisan agendas and media sensationalism ran rife and the countdown to the end of the Congressional term was looming. Maybe Nixon thought he would get either a fair trial or just beat the rap.
In Lasky's estimate Nixon generated visceral hatred from much of the liberal community, even before Vietnam. This went back to Nixon's role in the trial of Alger Hiss but also, at least among the heaviest power brokers, may have represented scape goating. A new rule on the tit for tat game. Get caught and we all come for you. His prosecutors (perhaps with at least some justification) took great pains to keep the focus on Nixon and Watergate alone, there was no attempt at general house cleaning. Let "Tricky Dick" carry the can for everyone's dirt. Or as a friend says, "open a can of worms and you'll need a bigger can to get them all back in."
It's interesting reading this today (2009). Some have argued that a still mysterious covert campaign by the military chiefs against Kissinger and Nixon's detente was lurking behind Watergate. Who knows? We do know FBI Assistant Director Mark Felt, who Nixon and Halderman discussed on the (over-rated) "smoking gun" tape "as ambitious" and more or less willing to 'play ball', was actually "Deep Throat". Lasky's comments about FDR's covert activities against his "enemies list" have been substantially confirmed by Freedom of Information Act releases (see "J.Edgar Hoover and the anti-interventionists" by Douglas Charles) and the subsequent Verona file declassifications in 1996 put another twist on the long running political struggle between Nixon and the liberals.
Reading Lasky I certainly felt some increased sympathy for the sorrows of Richard Nixon. He seems flawed but not evil, and he operated in a world full of flawed characters and underhand tricks, not all of them his. Still, and Lasky doesn't see this, Nixon lived and thrived in that world, and at least for a time, was it's king. Was he the worst before or since? Probably not. He was certainly not the lone ranger of dirty tricks. But can the ordinary reader ever hope to make a definitive, realistic and fair assessment of all the accusations and counter-accusations? Do we really know if Watergate even slowed down the dirty side of the power game? Who knows? Maybe we should really be sorrier still for America.
Lasky writes about Watergate: "Everything went wrong - as if by design. The walkie-talkies malfunctioned; the lock-picker had difficulty picking locks; and the burglars bugged the wrong phones, cut themselves on broken glass, and practically invited discovery. When apprehended, they were found to possess incriminating address books as well as large sums of currency easily traceable to the Nixon reelection effort. It was almost as if they had been deliberately dropping clues....leading Democrats and at least one prominent journalist knew well in advance that something of the sort was in the works. As for the Democrats, they took no extra precautions to guard against the break-in."
One thing JFK and Nixon had in common was a very poor relationship with the CIA. One area of investigation done by congressional Republicans during the Watergate hearings "had to do with exactly what the CIA knew - and when. The investigation came up with no hard answers, only more questions, the main reason being the obvious unwillingness of the CIA to come clean on what it knew. And apparently the Agency knew plenty....raised the question whether the CIA had sabotaged the Watergate break-in in order to weaken the White House and strengthen the Agency. After all, the CIA had done jobs like that before." "But even more startling was the frenzied effort by the CIA to mislead the FBI about the incident; when the Bureau inquired about a [Lee] 'Pennington' in August 1972, the CIA furnished information about a former employee with a similar name who - as [Howard] Baker later noted - 'was obviously not the man the FBI was interested in.'...Information about the 'real' Pennington was provided to Watergate probers in February 1974...only after a low-echelon CIA employee protested an order to remove the material from the Agency's Watergate files to prevent its disclosure." "When the senator [Baker] first began digging into the CIA's mysteries, the question was raised in the press whether Baker was looking for facts or for an alibi for Nixon. And in their syndicated columns, Tom Braden, and old CIA agent himself, as well as Evans and Novak, both friends of [Richard]Helms, assailed Baker for seeking to advance his own political aims..."
For Nixon haters, the tack was always to ignore all of this, because it can't be disputed. Maybe they aren't aware of the book or the history; or, maybe they just don't want to know, being so completely blinded by their own partisanship. The battle is still being waged today, on the fortieth anniversary of Nixon's resignation from office. The haters are still out there, holding tight to their shrillness against a president of such great accomplishment.
I suspect such people are really angry not so much at Nixon but the American people for choosing Nixon and Nixon's view of the world, over their own. In 1972 these people, the liberal brahmins of America and fellow travelers, found out that the election of Richard Nixon wasn't just a fluke. But they decided they would get Nixon if they could: and so it happened that the Democrats in Congress and the media elites colluded in what amounted to a media coup de etat, the first and so far the only one in American history.