New Nixon book shows need to dig deep into lives of candidates

America Letter: Bob Woodward’s study reveals the corrupt use of war to retain power

Richard Nixon: he is depicted as an isolated and lonely man, consumed with hatred. Photograph:  Ellsworth Davis/The Washington Post/Getty Images)

Richard Nixon: he is depicted as an isolated and lonely man, consumed with hatred. Photograph: Ellsworth Davis/The Washington Post/Getty Images)

 

Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson, the retired surgeon, blew his top last week, venting about how the media had twisted his words when he wrote in his 1990 biography that he was offered a scholarship to US military academy West Point.

He had “no problem with being vetted”, he said during the fourth Republican debate on Tuesday night, but he did mind being lied about and railed against double standards, claiming Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton had not received the same scrutiny, which strains credibility.

If ever there were reasons to pore over the past writings, musings and thoughts of someone who might be the 45th president, they can be found in the latest book about the 37th, Richard Nixon, by Watergate conspiracy-cracker Bob Woodward, who with fellow Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein helped to topple a president.

The Last of the President’s Men tells the story of Nixon’s deputy assistant Alexander Butterfield, who pulled a foundational card from the Nixonian house of cards when he revealed the existence of the president’s secret Oval Office recording system to a congressional investigative panel. It all came tumbling down after that. The tapes showed Nixon, who had denied any involvement in the cover-up of the Watergate burglary, was not only involved but led the cover-up.

Shocking dimension

White House

Among the jaw-dropping revelations in Woodward’s 18th book is Nixon’s response to the 1968 My Lai massacre by US soldiers of Vietnamese villagers, including 282 women and 173 children.

The president focused his attention not on the perpetrators but on the investigative journalists who exposed it, calling for them to be checked out and discredited. William Calley, the trigger-happy lieutenant who led the massacre, was “probably a good soldier”, Nixon told Butterfield. “He may be getting a bum rap.”

Then there is the cringe-inducing helicopter ride from Camp David back to Washington when Butterfield watches the president in effect sexually harass a petrified young White House secretary in a miniskirt, patting her bare legs for what seemed like an eternity.

As the 2016 presidential race heats up, the prevailing thought Woodward’s book raises is whether it would be possible for someone like Nixon to be elected in this highly scrutinised media age.

“That’s the question and as we go into 2016 we need to know who these people are,” Woodward told The Irish Times.

“There is a ceiling on how much you can find out before they become president, but we need to do more and do a better job in the media to thoroughly excavate every stage of these candidates’ lives so we have a fuller picture of who they are, what their value system is and how they operate and make a decision.”

The veteran reporter, with four books on Nixon in his canon, thought he was “done with Nixon” until he ran into Butterfield at a conference a few years ago. The former aide agreed to be interviewed and to let Woodward peruse 20 boxes of documents that he had hauled out of the White House in the back of his wife’s car.

Bizarre actions

“Nixon relied on him to carry out a lot of these totally bizarre and truly sad actions.”

The most stunning disclosure is Nixon’s admission in a handwritten note of January 1972 that the intensive bombing of Vietnam in the first three years of his presidency had achieved “zilch” and was a “failure”, but recognised it was politically popular and carried on with it regardless to secure his re-election.

For Woodward, the whole Watergate story is now known. The question that “pulses through all of this” is the why: why a man who clearly had a brilliant mind allowed “hate, duplicity and incessant plotting”, as Butterfield put it, to become the engine of his presidency.

“This is a haunted man,” Woodward said of Nixon. “The presidency went off the rails because he more or less acted as if he was entitled to be president and should be re-elected, and he then used this sacred power of being commander-in-chief to manipulate and gain re-election. I don’t know of anything that can be done that really is more corrupt.”

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