Garrett M. Graff’s Watergate: A New History is a richly detailed and panoramic account of the greatest political scandal of the twentieth century.
Watergate offers a grim reminder of the tendency of power to corrupt, a lesson just as relevant today as it was when burglars broke into the Democratic National Committee offices in the early morning of June 17, 1972.
Few heroes emerge from the book, released in time for the fiftieth anniversary of the break-in. With his presidency under siege following a coverup, Richard Nixon isolated himself, drank too much, neglected his duties, and learned little from the scandal.
Years later, in an interview with David Frost, he said, “When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.”
Graff intentionally did not do interviews for the book, explaining that “grasping the full story of this scandal didn’t lie in the umpteenth interview, fifty years after the fact, with a key player who had already spent decades telling, refining, and positioning his story.” Instead, he relies “on the voluminous existing primary and secondary sources,” sifting through often conflicting accounts.
He makes a point of praising the work of other authors but offers a less than ringing endorsement of the classic All the President’s Men by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Graff highlights questions about the book’s accuracy, including a scene where the reporters raced back to the newsroom in the rain, holding newspapers over their heads.
It didn’t rain in Washington that day, according to the National Weather Service.
Although Chuck Colson and Jeb Stuart Magruder entered the ministry after their prison terms, Vice President Gerald Ford seems to be the only person from the administration whose actions were guided by Christian principles.
When it seemed likely that Nixon would resign or be impeached, Ford and his wife, Betty, held hands and prayed, “God, give us strength, give us wisdom, give us guidance as the possibility of a new life confronts us.”
When he took the oath of office as president after Nixon’s resignation, Betty held the Bible open to Proverbs 3:5–6: “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart, and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths” (KJV).
Then Ford pardoned Nixon because he thought it was best for the country, even though House Majority Leader Tip O’Neill correctly predicted that it would cost him the 1976 presidential election.
Why Christians should read this book
It’s a case study in the temptations of power. Nineteenth-century British historian Lord Acton may have put it best: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”
The big takeaway
Our democracy proved resilient during Watergate, but Americans shouldn’t take it for granted.
When FBI agents sealed the White House offices of top aides Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman after their resignations, preventing them from taking any of their records, Nixon shoved an agent and cursed at him. He returned to apologize about thirty minutes later, saying he had been under a lot of stress.
Graff manages to tarnish one of the most alluring stories about Watergate. For many years, the identity of “Deep Throat,” a confidential source of Woodward’s, remained a mystery. Mark Felt, the No. 2 man at the FBI during the scandal, revealed in 2005 that he had been the source. Yet Graff reports that his motives weren’t patriotic; he was trying to solidify his position at the FBI, or perhaps even become director.
When the House Judiciary Committee tried to recruit Bill Clinton to join its staff, he declined, saying he planned to run for governor of Arkansas. “How about hiring my girlfriend?” he said. And that’s how Hillary Rodham became one of forty-three lawyers on the committee staff during Watergate.