Review: Lessons of Watergate: Tom Brokaw brings historic perspective to impeachment drama
As the drumbeat to impeach President Trump grows louder, Tom Brokaw — a dean of American broadcast journalism — has stepped forward to recall the only time Congress successfully compelled a commander in chief to resign rather than be ousted.
Actually, you could say the 79-year-old Brokaw was similarly compelled by his Random House publishers to pen “The Fall of Richard Nixon, A Reporter Remembers Watergate.” He writes that he was reluctant to take on the project until editors “persuaded me that the current political climate is a reminder that history provides context for large issues and small.”
They even pushed up the publication date to catch those political winds.
While this memoir doesn’t break new ground on the historic scandal that gripped the nation 45 years ago and brought about Nixon’s resignation, it delivers a variety of scenes and reflections that only Brokaw could provide as a relatively young — 33 — White House correspondent for NBC News.
He arrived in Washington in summer 1973, just as the president’s men began falling like dominoes. He had landed the plum White House job after anchoring KNBC’s 11 p.m. newscast in Los Angeles. He writes that some in the grizzled press corps quietly wrote his boss to complain he was “not qualified” to replace the esteemed veteran Richard Valeriani, who was heading off to be the network’s chief diplomatic correspondent.
As it turned out, Brokaw already knew someone who would become a key Watergate figure: When H.R. Haldeman ran the L.A. office of the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, he had been hired by KNBC to produce an ad campaign touting Brokaw as the face of local election coverage. During the Republican president’s first term, Haldeman, as Nixon’s chief of staff, even offered Brokaw the job of daily White House press secretary. Nixon had approved it but Brokaw declined.
Brokaw recalls those years as a different time, to say the least. The White House press corps was made up mostly of newspaper and magazine men — there were only three women — and a few broadcasters for the national networks. There was no internet, no relentless 24-hour cable news cycle.
“We did not feel forced … to react to every ‘omigod’ from the vast universe of social media — factual, mythical, malicious or fanciful. In contrast to President Trump, President Nixon was seldom seen and rarely heard,” he writes.
Brokaw and his wife, Meredith, developed many friendships and connections on the Georgetown dinner-party circuit. “Guests were usually a mix of Democratic VIPS — Senators Gaylord Nelson, Hubert Humphrey, Ted Kennedy or former defense secretary Robert McNamara, or Bob Strauss, the Texas power lawyer, along with Georgetown pundits like Joe Kraft,” he writes. Not that dinners like that don’t continue today, but many in Congress leave Washington on the weekends and do fundraising back home — such is the thirst for campaign money. As a result of that lost social contact, politicians may know less about what unites them than what divides them.
The basic ins and outs of Watergate are briefly explained as Brokaw tells how he gained footing in his job and how even though Nixon had a big lead over George McGovern in 1972 — he eventually won in a nearly 61% landslide — his campaign sought to gather dirt on his opponent by breaking into Democratic National Headquarters, housed in the hotel and office complex overlooking the Potomac.
The book gains pace as investigators and a federal grand jury begin closing in on Haldeman and others on the president’s staff, and it became known that Nixon had recorded hundreds of potentially incriminating conversations on a secret Oval Office taping system. Court battles arose over “executive privilege” when Nixon claimed he was not required to reveal the private conversations. (That same privilege is now being invoked by President Trump.)
As the pressures mounted, Nixon ordered the firing of Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, but not before two top Justice Department officials resigned — the so-called “Saturday Night Massacre” — rather than carry out the deed. Then the president launched an aggressive campaign to “take his case to the public,” Brokaw writes. In a televised news conference in October 1973, Nixon said he was innocent and offered this aside:
“I have never heard or seen such outrageous, vicious, distorted reporting in 27 years of public life,” Brokaw quotes the president. The author adds, “(Sound familiar?)”
CBS correspondent Robert Pierpoint asked a follow-up: “What is it about the television coverage … that has so aroused your anger?”
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Nixon responded, “Don’t get the impression you arouse my anger.… You see, one can only be angry with those he respects.”
When a unanimous Supreme Court eventually ordered Nixon to turn over the tapes, transcripts placed a new term into the nation’s lexicon. “Expletive deleted” was inserted whenever Nixon or someone else had used a foul word. Today, most of the terms would seem commonplace to anyone who watches HBO or follows President Trump’s more profane tweets.
Brokaw notes that in his last speech to his White House staff, Nixon — the president who opened relations with China, signed the first nuclear weapons treaty and had a political career spanning nearly 30 years — emphasized that “he was preserving the political expectations of the office.” And Nixon acknowledged the need for a president to have the support of Congress in very difficult decisions.
“I have never been a quitter. To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct in my body,” Nixon said. “But as president I must put the interests of America first.”
The Fall of Richard Nixon, A Reporter Remembers Watergate
Random House: 226 pages, $27
Nottingham is a Southern California writer and former Times editor.