Treating politics as a blood sport, he disregarded the protocols and proprieties of the executive branch, putting himself above the law. Beyond suing The Times, he recruited a team of former F.B.I. and C.I.A. operatives for clandestine operations intended to plug the Pentagon Papers leak. On Sept. 3, 1971, that team — nicknamed “the plumbers” — broke into the Los Angeles office of Dr. Lewis Fielding, Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, seeking evidence to discredit the whistle-blower. They found nothing, but the file cabinet they pried open is now on display at the Smithsonian.
As Nixon’s 1972 re-election effort gained steam, one of those plumbers, G. Gordon Liddy, was transferred to the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP), where he obtained approval from Attorney General John Mitchell for a wide-ranging plan of espionage. On May 28, 1972, Liddy’s men staged their first break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at Washington’s Watergate complex, bugging the telephones of staffers. During a subsequent incursion on June 17, they were discovered and apprehended — touching off the scandal that would ultimately take down the administration.
A lively writer, Graff explores the dramatic scope of the Watergate saga through its participants — politicians, investigators, journalists, whistle-blowers and, at center stage, Nixon himself: power broker extraordinaire, five-time fixture on Republican presidential tickets between 1952 and 1972, and holder of the record for most appearances on the cover of Time magazine, at 55 issues. For all his accomplishments, the 37th president was a man of deep contradictions: a law-and-order candidate who flouted the law, an insecure man with a deep reservoir of hubris, a traditional-values president who drank to excess and cursed like a sailor.
While Nixon’s predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, thrived amid disorder, Nixon maintained a clean desk and kept his circle of advisers small. “Just one dinky little phone to keep in touch with his people,” a flabbergasted Johnson scoffed after dining with Nixon. “That’s all — just three buttons and they all go to Germans!” — those being the chief of staff, Haldeman; the domestic policy chief, John Ehrlichman; and the national security adviser, Henry Kissinger. Reporters variously referred to this team as the German Shepherds, the Berlin Wall, the Fourth Reich and “the King’s Krauts.”
Graff ably recounts the tense interactions between Nixon and his people in the aftermath of the Watergate break-in. After a 16-minute telephone talk with Senator Sam Ervin, who wanted to send the attorney Samuel Dash to the White House to study files, Nixon abruptly hung up. “There ain’t gonna be no papers that come out,” Nixon vented to Kissinger and Al Haig. “Let him sue, Christ, they — if the Supreme Court wants to decide in its wisdom to help destroy the presidency, the Supreme Court destroys it. I’m not gonna destroy it.” Nixon launched into a tirade about immediately finding the “toughest, meanest, right-wing nominees” to appoint as federal judges. “No Jews,” Nixon barked. “Is that clear? We’ve got enough Jews. Now if you find some Jew I think is great, put him on there. Put a Black Jew?”