The Watergate story has been told many times before, most expertly in books by J. Anthony Lukas, Stanley I. Kutler, Fred Emery and of course Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. But since the last of those books was written — Emery’s “Watergate” in 1994 — new historical materials have continued to be made accessible: about 4,000 hours of Nixon’s secret tape recordings; extensive diaries of H. R. Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff; a final wave of memoirs, including the indispensable “The Nixon Defense” by the former White House counsel John Dean; and much more. Dobbs hasn’t examined everything — no one could — but he has taken in and digested an enormous amount and turned it into a book that will introduce younger readers and reintroduce older ones to Watergate’s undiminished drama and significance.
It is no slight to “King Richard” to say that it doesn’t bristle with shocking new revelations or challenge familiar understandings of Nixon and Watergate. It’s what historians call a work of synthesis — a blending of years of others’ journalism and scholarship with one’s own research to create a reliable and authoritative overview for our times. Within those limits, it succeeds admirably. Dobbs has a talent for you-are-there description and a fondness for including dialogue (which the tapes furnish in spades), and he’s diligent about not keeping the spotlight on other characters too long before returning it to Nixon. Taking his cue from both the historian Barbara Tuchman and the New Journalism trailblazer and theoretician Tom Wolfe, he uses novelistic techniques that make his story vivid and fun.
One slightly puzzling decision is Dobbs’s choice to narrate only the 100 days between Nixon’s second inaugural, in January 1973, and the fateful date of April 30, when Nixon purged four of his senior-most White House conspirators to try to save his presidency. (A brief epilogue touches on some later dates.) A more satisfying Watergate chronicle would begin, if not with the first inaugural, then at least with the illegal wiretaps Nixon placed on journalists and underlings in early 1969. It would end, of course, with Nixon’s resignation. Such a history would entail a longer book, but Dobbs’s agreeable prose style would surely keep readers engrossed.
The only other false note worth flagging in “King Richard” is the idea, hinted at in the subtitle and the section headings alluding to Greek drama (“hubris,” “catharsis”), that Nixon’s fate was tragic. In some strictly classical sense, it is true that the same qualities of ruthlessness and hatred of his enemies that fueled Nixon’s rise also brought him down. But the trope of the tragic — previously used by scores of Nixon-watchers from Henry Kissinger to Evan Thomas — has also typically implied a potential for greatness, which the protagonist’s fatal flaw, an ingrained character trait, inevitably undoes.
Nixon had no such potential for greatness. He had intelligence and political skill and deserves credit for a creative foreign policy (albeit one that also entailed prolonging the Vietnam War for four years). But in the end he was a shabby man without a moral compass, pinched of heart and cramped in spirit. He was abundantly more interesting and rich in character than the cartoon portraits, to be sure, but wholly unlike a truly tragic president like Lyndon Johnson or Woodrow Wilson — men who aspired in many respects to the noblest goals (the Great Society, an end to all war), only to have their own deep-rooted deficiencies trip them up. In fact, the president Nixon probably resembles most, I dare say, is none other than Donald Trump.