He treated politics as a blood sport, ignoring the protocols and customs of the executive, and putting himself above the law. In addition to suing The Times, he recruited a team of former FBI and CIA agents for clandestine operations designed to plug the Pentagon Papers leak. On September 3, 1971, that team — nicknamed “the plumbers” — broke into the Los Angeles office of Dr. Lewis Fielding, Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, looking for evidence to discredit the whistleblower. They found nothing, but the filing cabinet they pry open is now on display at the Smithsonian.
As Nixon’s reelection efforts picked up steam in 1972, one of those plumbers, G. Gordon Liddy, was transferred to the Presidential Re-election Commission (CREEP), where he received approval from Attorney General John Mitchell for an elaborate plan of espionage. . On May 28, 1972, Liddy’s men made their first burglary of the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington, tapping staffers’ phones. During a subsequent raid on June 17, they were discovered and detained – fueling the scandal that would eventually topple the government.
Graff, a vibrant writer, explores the dramatic scope of the Watergate saga through its participants – politicians, researchers, journalists, whistleblowers and, at the center, Nixon himself: extraordinary power broker, stuck five times 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 achievements, the 37th president was a man of profound contradictions: a law-and-order candidate who ignored the law, an insecure man with a deep reservoir of hubris, a president of traditional values who drank too much and cursed like a sailor.
While Nixon’s predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, thrived in the midst of disorder, Nixon kept his desk tidy and his circle of advisers small. “Just one little cell phone to keep in touch with his people,” a stunned Johnson mocked after dinner with Nixon. “That’s it – just three buttons and they all go to Germans!” — that’s the Chief of Staff, Haldeman; the head of domestic policy, John Ehrlichman; and National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger. Reporters referred to this team variously as the German Shepherds, the Berlin Wall, the Fourth Reich, and “the king’s krauts.”
Graff skillfully recounts the tense interactions between Nixon and his people in the wake of the Watergate break-in. After a 16-minute phone call with Senator Sam Ervin, who wanted to send attorney Samuel Dash to the White House to review files, Nixon hung up abruptly. “No more papers coming out,” Nixon told Kissinger and Al Haig. “Let him sue, Christ, she — if the Supreme Court in its wisdom will decide to help destroy the presidency, the Supreme Court destroys it. I’m not going to destroy it.” Nixon started a diatribe about immediately finding the “toughest, meanest, right-wing nominees” to nominate as federal judges. “No Jews,” Nixon barked. “Is that clear? We’ve got plenty of Jews. If you find a Jew that I love, put him on there. Put a black Jew?”