On August 9 1974, Richard Milhous Nixon strode across the White House Lawn to a waiting helicopter, climbed the steps, gave the victory wave and his tragically flawed Presidency was over. But as Ruin and Recovery, the title of the third volume of Steven Ambrose’s biography of Nixon suggests, Nixon worked assiduously and partly successfully to restore his battered reputation by the time he died on April 22 1994.
The resignation of Richard Nixon, the US’s 37th President, 30 years ago, brought to a close that extraordinary chapter in American public life known as "Watergate". Even those too young to remember Nixon or Watergate know something about this complex man and his times.
Richard Nixon, like his larger-than-life predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, was at once brilliant and visionary, and venal and vengeful. Unlike Johnson, Nixon was a loner, a man obsessed, even by the standards of US Presidents, with his place in history. A man surrounded in a climate of mistrust and loathing by a bizarre combination of manic court jesters such as the Watergate break-in organiser Gordon Liddy, young opportunists such as White House Counsel John Dean, vengeful obsessives such as key staffers HR Haldeman and John Erlichman, and of course, Henry Kissinger, the Iago to Nixon’s Othello.
As Richard Reeves notes in his 2001 book President Nixon: Alone in the White House: "most politicians, good and bad, are men who can’t stand to be alone. Nixon did not like to be with people … He was always a man alone." Nixon’s extraordinary awkwardness and shyness with people led the former US Senator and 1996 Republican Presidential contender, Bob Dole to wonder that the “most extraordinary thing about [Nixon’s] presidency was not the way it ended, but that it happened.”
In stark contrast to today’s incumbent in the White House, George W Bush, Nixon was much more than a one-dimensional character. In a weird sense, Watergate proved that point.
The break-in of the Democratic Party’s Washington headquarters in June 1972 and Nixon’s involvement in the cover-up of it when the media got hold of a White House link was in the realm of unreason and the absurd. Three weeks before the burglary, opinion polls across the US had Richard Nixon leading his Democratic opponent George McGovern by unbeatable margins of up to 20 per cent. Barring a miracle, Nixon was a shoo-in to win the 1972 presidential election and he and his men knew it.
But for Nixon, such a cool and rational analysis of the weakness of his opponents was overtaken by his irrational belief that the end did truly justify the means. In addition to the Watergate break-in, on June 13 Nixon ordered one of his toughest staffers, Chuck Colson, to organise 24/7 surveillance of McGovern. Cover “the sonofabitch like a blanket,” Nixon barked!
Watergate and the other "dirty ticks" the Nixon White House indulged in were a testament to the President’s belief that the success he was enjoying as President could be snatched away at any moment – just as he had lost the 1960 Presidential election by the narrowest of margins to John Kennedy.
The troubled Nixon persona was exacerbated by the relationship with his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. Kissinger fed Nixon’s delusions and ruthlessly played with the President’s vulnerabilities and insecurities to achieve his own ends.
When the secret Pentagon Papers, chronicling the intimate involvement of the US in Vietnam, were published in the New York Times on June 13 1971, Nixon hit the roof. His obsession with secretiveness in foreign policy had been undermined by the public release of these "top secret" documents.
Kissinger wasted no time in exploiting Nixon’s rage. He told Nixon the leaks, by a former military analyst and student of Kissinger, Daniel Ellsberg, “are slowly and systematically destroying us”. And added for good measure, the leaks show “you’re a weakling, Mr President”.
This manipulation of Nixon was designed to ensure that Nixon followed through with his plan for Kissinger to take solo, top secret trips to China and the Soviet Union to pursue arms limitation talks and the recognition of mainland China.