Ninety-nine years ago today, Richard Milhous Nixon was born in Yorba Linda. For people over 50, may I observe that he isn’t nearly as bad as you think he is in this sense: His abuses of power were certainly paralleled by the two men who preceded him. Arthur Schlesinger’s superb “The Imperial Presidency” shredded Nixon, but it also showed how LBJ created the template for a president who disregarded constitutional precedent and considered himself above the law. As for JFK, as The Atlantic put, he let his bro did some bad things: “On October 10, 1963, U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy committed what is widely viewed as one of the most ignominious acts in modern American history: he authorized the Federal Bureau of Investigation to begin wiretapping the telephones of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.” And for people under 40, Nixon’s probably not what you think he is either. Did you know, for example, that he was the third most liberal president in U.S. history? He made Bill Clinton look like Orrin Hatch.
Expanding affirmative action, creating the EPA, extending federal aid to cities, taking over a big part of the economy by imposing wage and price controls, seeking a bigger government role in health care, pushing a dramatic expanion/overhaul of welfare, I could go on and on. The record is voluminous and indisputable. Just because he fought with liberals over foreign policy and “hippies” doesn’t change that record. When liberal New York Times columnist Tom Wicker wrote a book about Nixon, the title said it all: “One of Us: Richard Nixon and the American Dream.”
So enough of the conventional stuff. Let’s now veer into left field (figuratively, not ideologically). I have long been a Nixon and Watergate buff — it broke when I was a little kid just getting obsessed with politics — and I’ve always wondered why one of the juiciest conspiracy theories I’ve ever encountered — juicy in that it actually has some really crucial angles that have been confirmed — hasn’t gotten more attention.
It was laid out in a 1992 book written by Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin called “Silent Coup: The Removal of a President.” Some of it drove me crazy — the attempts to turn White House aide John Dean from good guy to villain. But some of it was wild and powerful — and sourced!
–The evidence that Bob Woodward, as a U.S. Navy officer, knew Nixon chief of staff/Army general Al Haig very well years before Haig steered Nixon out of the White House amid a crescendo of Woodward-Bernstein scoops.
–The fact that the Joint Chiefs of Staff placed a young officer at the White House to serve as a spy, gathering information on what Nixon wanted to do in Vietnam and in the Cold War, and that the White House wiretapped not just journalists (well-known) but military leaders (not).
The thesis that Nixon was driven from office at least in part because of the desire for revenge from Deep Throat — Mark Felt, the FBI executive who wanted to be director but was passed over — is well known. But “Silent Coup” makes the case for the argument that another powerful D.C. institution wanted him gone. The military-industrial complex was nervous, even terrified by what the unconventional, daring Nixon might do. He pulled the plug on the war in Vietnam, established relations with Communist China, treated the Joint Chiefs with a minimum of respect, etc. They didn’t like him, so they planted a spy — a spy! — at the White House to try to gather information to undermine him.
This is, as I said, crazy juicy stuff.
Now two twists:
The book was annihilated by The Washington Post and many critics, some of whom fixed on the John Dean detour. But Nixon himself praised Colodny. And so did Gerald Ford — who succeeded Nixon and saw all the maneuvering firsthand as House minority leader and then as appointed vice president. He wrote a blurb praising the book.
How many presidents praised the work of Jim Garrison or Oliver Stone in their accounts of JFK’s death?
Several years ago, I had an eye-opening experience at a journalists’ conference. One of the most famous, influential U.S. public officials of the Nixon-Watergate era spoke off-the-record at length with 20 or so pundits and editors. He disparaged Woodward-Bernstein as being a tool of forces who wanted Nixon weakened or removed. He disparaged journalistic initiative in general when it came to Washington D.C., saying he saw the front pages of The Washington Post and The New York Times as barely disguised proxy versions of power struggles between rival Washington bureaucracies and centers of influence.
Such as? Such as the White House and the Pentagon.
I know it’s all thin gruel, but it’s still tasty gruel. Did the military-industrial complex live up to Ike’s warning by doing in his veep 14 years later — after his veep had made it to the White House? Maybe.
Attention, HBO executives: I am available as a script consultant for the miniseries.