Tom Brokaw: The Fall of Richard Nixon

The subtitle is: A Reporter Remembers Watergate.   A subtitle to the subtitle might be: Who is Richard Nixon, a question Brokaw tries to answer.

Retired news anchor Brokaw has written several books including The Greatest Generation, a huge bestseller. Brokaw returns with a subject quite familiar to him, Richard Nixon.

Brokaw traces events of 1973 and 1974, the period from when the Nixon Presidency began to unravel and Nixon found himself a disgraced ex-President.  Brokaw was a young news reporter for NBC News, who, like Dan Rather, Woodward & Bernstein, and others, rode Watergate to bigger careers.

brokaw1
Brokaw today

Brokaw is 79 now, and fighting bone cancer, his long career winding down.  The urbane Brokaw, was recently interviewed by former his former Today co-host Jane Pauley for CBS Sunday Morning.

During Watergate, Brokaw was White House Correspondent, and he had a front-row seat to Nixon and his administration.  Brokaw doesn’t directly answer the “Who is Richard Nixon” question, but he does remind us of what we already know about Nixon.

Brokaw writes of Nixon: “Brillian but insecure.  Physically awkward but able to manage the choreography of a very public figure for more than half a century.  A global visionary with myopia about his own shortcomings.”
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Reporter Brokaw

The events of Watergate are well-chronicled in history. Here, Brokaw provides the key events during the period, adding his personal memories and interactions with Nixon and his staff. Brokaw did not seem to have the same combative relationship with Nixon that Dan Rather did, although he crossed swords with various Nixon aides on what he reported. Remember, if you weren’t friends you were the enemy.  Even with that, Brokaw seemed able to fly below the hostility created by Rather and The Washington Post reporters.

Brokaw is reflective on the differences between politicians then now, the media, then and now, and doing the honorable thing, then and now.  You can draw your own conclusions, but the differences between then and now are striking.  

Here are two significant examples.  First, during Watergate, when the evidence began to emerge that Nixon’s fingerprints were indeed on the attempted coverup and dodging the release of information sought by the special prosecutor, Republicans chose the country over the false claims of innocence by Nixon.  Even staunch conservatives looked at the evidence and concluded that Nixion was done.  Second, reporters generally found the spine of the story and their organizations published or broadcast it with fairness.  They didn’t dance on Nixon’s political grave or seek to spin facts to conceal Nixon’s guilt.  The battleground seems more like ground zero today.

There are a number of themes familiar to today that Brokaw notes as he tells this story.

Nixon, and his people, heavily criticized the media.  Nixon withheld files and tapes sought by Congress and the special prosecutor.  He enlisted the help of sympathetic members of Congress to attack the attackers.  Nixon also attempted to deflect bad news coverage with manufactured “good news” events, generally foreign visits and friendly rallies, to re-balance the daily news feed.

Nixon fired the first special prosecutor and pressured those around him to resign, members of his team or agencies like the Justice Department who refused to hinder the Watergate investigation.  The list is long of those he could throw under the bus.

Nixon used executive privileged to withstand efforts to have access to the tapes.  The issue went all the way to the Supreme Court, who ruled that Nixon had to hand over the tapes. Nixon tried to mollify the special prosecutor by providing edited transcripts of the tapes and offer only some of the documents requested.  Nixon sought to keep the tapes that clearly showed that he directed intervention and a halt to the Watergate investigation.

Brokaw reminds us of other Nixon activities that whether illegal or unethical, showing the Nixon who was willing to bend the law for his own benefit.  There certainly are other actions by Nixon, not mentioned by Brokaw that speak to Nixon’s character, including Presidential candidate Nixon, who interjected himself in Vietnam War peace negotiations, clearly illegal, which Lyndon Johnson discovered, but did not have the Justice Department intervene.

In 1968, as a presidential candidate, he (Nixon) ordered Anna Chennault, his liaison to the South Vietnam government, to persuade them to refuse a cease-fire being brokered by President Lyndon Johnson. Nixon’s interference with these negotiations violated President John Adams’s 1797 Logan Act, banning private citizens from intruding into official government negotiations with a foreign nation. -by ,

Clearly, Watergate brought out the worst of Nixon’s character traits. For Nixon, politics and public life were everything. He bruised easily and held a grudge. Known for his foreign policy, his domestic policy efforts produced some notable improvements for Americans. On the flip side, his hawkish and intractable policies inflamed anti-war tensions and widened the generation gap.  It was Nixon who is responsible for turning health insurance in carnivorous greed machines that put profit over patient health.

The sight of Nixon leaving the White House to board the Marine helicopter after his resignation, was both sad and hopeful, after two years of agony for the country.   Richard Nixon might have fallen with Watergate, but he rose again, edging back into public life, as author and advisor to Republican Presidents. He had to eat some crow, in his famous interviews with David Frost, but he reaped a huge payday that stabilized his finances. Nixon somewhat admitted some errors in judgement, but in typical Nixon fashion, he deflects most of the damage and is able to pull the victim card, trying to gain as much sympathy as possible.  Always the Checkers speech.

It is 45 years after Nixon’s resignation.  I am unsure why Brokow chose now to publish the book, perhaps because of the Trump impeachment inquiry and the similarities I noted above.  Perhaps feels the grains of sand are running out.

Brokow does not really answer the question he poses about who Nixon was. Watergate is a footnote in history to the non-Boomer crowd.  A politician recently dismissed the reflection on history, because history is passed, gone. Like it has no value.  To me, the failure to know history, to understand its meaning, and the familiar arc of similiar events, is as Spock might say, illogical.


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