A Flawed Giant

John Robson

The Nixon Conspiracy: Watergate and the Plot to Remove the President. Geoff Shepard. Bombardier Books, 2021.

The last thing we need nowadays is another conspiracy theory. So here you go with The Nixon Conspiracy. Which evidently wasn’t by Richard Nixon but against him, according to former Nixon White House staffer Geoff Shepard’s detailed, sometimes soporific book subtitled Watergate and the Plot to Remove the President that adds modestly to what we know about how the scandal happened but subtracts from our understanding of why, of Nixon the man, and of his place in history. 

Which is considerable. If I were to ask you to list the most important American political figures in the 20th century, you’d surely put Franklin Delano Roosevelt first. As architect both of the New Deal and of victory in the Second World War, and for a winning political style that made the Democrats the dominant national party for half a century, he had a decisive impact whether you like it (and him) or not.

Even Ronald Reagan must be seen as a reaction to Roosevelt and his legacy. But he’s not in second place anyway. That spot goes to “Tricky Dick.” It might seem an odd claim, especially given how many people regard Nixon as something to be scraped from beneath one’s shoe. But he was a dominant figure in American public life in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. He even emerged as a kind of sage in the 1990s to reflect on the Cold War and superpower diplomacy. Back when print magazines mattered [as some still do — ed.], he was on the cover of Time 67 times, a runaway record. 

Domestically he represented the “Silent Majority” in its wholesome solidity and its tendency toward poisonous resentment. Abroad he ended the Vietnam War without defeat, engineered a détente with the Soviet Union, and managed an opening to Communist China all of which were squandered by lesser men. 

To say that someone is important is not, of course, to praise them. If our subject were the most important global political figures in the 20th century you’d have to rank Hitler, Stalin, and Mao near the top. And concede that if Hitler had not had certain strengths, from courage to intuition to artistic flair, we would not be in the unhappy position of knowing his name. Ditto Stalin, even if his “artistic flair” was limited to perfect pitch whereas Hitler’s design of Nazi logos and rallies showed he was wasted as a watercolour painter. As for Mao, any fool can be evil and kill a fellow human being or two; it takes something special to kill millions.

Nixon was not in that monstrously evil category. Though you might not know it to read or listen to some of the commentary about him at the time, including the bit about him putting blacks in concentration camps while cancelling the 1972 elections, both scurrilous left-wing fantasies given considerable popular credence at the time.

He wasn’t even “right-wing” on domestic policy, contemporary rhetoric notwithstanding. And more recent anachronistic rubbish like, “what was so brilliantly malicious about Nixon’s misuse of federal anti-poverty funds is that when the media eventually exposed these scams, the message was that the government ‘shouldn’t throw money at problems.’ … And who did Nixon put in charge of killing programs for the poor? Donald Rumsfeld, the man who thirty years later brought us the Iraq war and Abu Ghraib.”

Wow. What an evil man. Or perhaps it’s just silly caricature.


The actual, complex Richard Milhous Nixon, who died in 1994 age 81, told his last foreign policy assistant Monica Crowley that, “I am unique in that I’m neither left nor right, but I’m also not a mushy moderate. I’ve always stood for something.” But nobody knew what it was. Which ought for starters to put a stop to people babbling about how with stunning originality they’ve finally moved beyond the old left-right dichotomy.

When I say nobody knew what Nixon stood for, I mean it in two ways. On domestic policy, not even he knew. He had this kind of grumpy populist thing about government waste and the common sense of the common people, and though rarely eloquent he did coin, or have the wit to accept from speechwriters, such phrases as “the silent majority.” And though he did not coin “throw money at problems” (it was Senator Kenneth Keating, a Republican from New York back when they had those, in 1961: “Too often our Washington reflex is to discover a problem and then throw money at it, hoping it will somehow go away”) it was emblematic of his attitude.

In some sense he was Archie Bunker, or seemed to be, to anyone who remembers “All in the Family.” Including that liberals thought Bunker a pathetic hateful relic while Middle America saw him as their beleaguered, earnest, misunderstood champion. Actually Nixon was very enlightened on the race issue, especially for a man of his generation. (Born in 1913 to an alcoholic failed lemon farmer, Nixon characteristically served in the Second World War but in a non-glamorous administrative job, while John Kennedy commanded a pt boat.) He was no conservative. But he was an outsider representative of the common man.

Shepard captures this view in claiming that “Democrats never forgave Nixon for his [partisan] role as Eisenhower’s Vice President nor for his past sins against the establishment. He was pilloried and demeaned — by the media, by Ivy League elites, by Hollywood movie stars, and by Democrats in general” (p. 20). And the Establishment did loathe Nixon, not least for his dogged pursuit of Alger Hiss who, we learned definitively many years later, was indeed a Soviet agent. Like the divide over the truckers’ convoy today, one’s view of Hiss in the 1960s and 1970s was as much a test of one’s social position or aspirations as of one’s ideas.


Still, the Establishment hated and mocked Reagan and it bounced off. Nixon was different, and not in a good way. His chronic outsider status, the clod who didn’t know which fork to use, gnawed at him. Typically, the keen debater and hapless athlete improbably named for Richard the Lionheart was rejected by what passed for the upper crust even at humble Whittier College, the Franklin literary society, so he typically created the rival Orthogonians (squares). 

He later served as President of the Law Society at Duke University, a tribute to his persistence and intelligence if not his social graces. Between serving as VP and President he actually became a “Wall Street lawyer” and revelled in it. And when he became President he revelled in implementing liberal policies in quest of applause that never came, including for his notorious 1971 declaration, on abandoning the Bretton Woods system in which the United States had essentially taken responsibility for global financial stability, that he was “now a Keynesian in economics.” He also, lest we forget, implemented wage and price controls. 

Nixon was no free marketeer, and no theoretical “social conservative” even if he was so “square” in his personal life and attitudes that a photographer seeking a relaxed seaside 1968 campaign photo supposedly remarked in frustration, “he’s the kind of guy who wears shoes on the beach.” And if Nixon exploited the collapse of patriotism among American liberals, whom Jeane Kirkpatrick would later dub the “Blame America first” crowd at the 1984 Republican National Convention, he didn’t create it. But it won’t do to depict him as an innocent victim.


Like Brian Mulroney, his status anxiety was a chronic dangerous weakness in his political career. Including that Nixon didn’t just engage in dirty politics, he indulged his resentful desire for revenge on the snobs through it. There’s no way to make it sound attractive, or separate it from the Watergate debacle. 

That others, including the Kennedys, engaged in dirty politics does matter. The 1960 election almost certainly was stolen from Nixon, who in one of his statesmanlike moods insisted when several journalists wanted to pry into it that the matter not be pursued because it would “tear the country apart” and also badly tarnish America’s reputation abroad during the Cold War. But “Tricky Dick” had a deep dark side that extended to persistent and plausible rumours of excessive fondness for strong drink. He was both Dr. Richard and Mr. Dick and what Shepard does not concede, except obliquely, is that on Watergate Mr. Dick made too many of the calls.

On foreign policy nobody knew what Nixon stood for either. But for very different reasons. Here he was such a deep and methodical thinker that people who despised him as a sewer-dwelling primitive were not willing to explore his ideas no matter how often he expressed them or how well they worked. 

Here Dr. Richard was almost always in charge, even when undertaking very tough actions, and liberals unhelpfully and sneeringly mistook him for Mr. Dick. The one notable exception was Harvard professor and arch-Establishment intellectual Henry Kissinger, who said of Nixon, “[t]he man is unfit to be President” during the 1968 campaign, and was then offered a senior national security job which to his own considerable surprise he accepted because he realized that Nixon shared his detailed, articulate understanding of Realpolitik.

In their view, international politics was very much like chess. Not just in being a strategic contest aiming at ultimate victory but in being a “game” where players are constrained by a common set of rules. Not Marquess of Queensberry ones about fair play: Nixon’s ruthless side was even more visible abroad than at home. Rather, in the Realpolitik vision the elements of power are objective realities like knights moving in an L. And while less intelligent players would misread positions and blunder pieces, grandmasters from Prince Metternich to shucks Kissinger were playing exactly the same game despite differing circumstances both abroad and at home.

An important part of this vision, on which I wrote my doctoral dissertation with respect to the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, is that Nixon did not think the internal structure of a regime had any more impact on geopolitics than, say, Bobby Fischer’s unstable personality had on the situation on the board. Obviously if the opponent is stupid, drunk or distracted, or chronically overoptimistic or aggressive, their play will suffer. But the fact that the Communists would do terrible things if they won the Cold War was not, in his and Kissinger’s view, a relevant consideration in trying to find the best moves to prevent them from winning it.

This approach led many people to regard Nixon’s foreign policy as amoral. And in terms of method it was, up to a point, which he would have pushed further if he could have. That the democratic setting in which he operated limited his choices is actually an important qualification to his “black box” view of international actors that very much matches the sensible economic vision of people as coming into the marketplace with set wants and desires that we cannot reach into their minds and rearrange even if we think they are silly. (A lot of governance, from Stalinism to “nudge theory,” explicitly takes the opposite view. And fails badly in direct consequence.) 

Nixon had no hope of converting Brezhnev or Mao to liberalism and wasn’t going to waste time trying. Nor would he mistake them for liberals, as many including George McGovern often seemed to. Domestic structure has more impact on foreign conduct than I conceded early in my enthusiastic studies of Nixon’s diplomacy; the Kremlin really could pile up nuclear and other weapons unconstrained by domestic public opinion about war and peace or budget priorities. But especially in short-run crises it is Nixon and Kissinger’s “realities of power” that dictate opportunities and dangers, and aspirations and even legislatures are of no account.

Some of Nixon’s right-wing critics, like Arizona Senator and 1964 GOP presidential nominee Barry Goldwater, and “Cold War liberal” long-time Washington “Senator from Boeing” Henry “Scoop” Jackson across the aisle, thought that domestic structure was even more important in international affairs than it is, and that little or no cooperation was possible with Communist adversaries. But those on the left like Nixon’s 1972 presidential opponent, South Dakota Senator George McGovern, were almost wilfully clueless, which helped push Nixon to extreme measures in the face of witlessly quasi-treasonous domestic dissent without bringing the United States any benefits abroad.


So what has any of this to do with Shepard and his book? Unfortunately, nothing. 

It is true that the Washington Establishment, including much of the judiciary and the executive branch prosecutorial apparatus, had it in for Nixon. And Shepard makes an infuriatingly compelling case that the Watergate proceedings were slanted, even egregious, in many ways, while depicting the clowns who brought Nixon down, including the Pennywise G. Gordon Liddy, as too incompetent to conspire. But he misses the larger point. 

As Nixon himself put it in an interview with David Frost three years after he resigned, “I don’t go with the idea … that what brought me down was a coup, a conspiracy, etc. I brought myself down. I gave them a sword, and they stuck it in and they twisted it with relish. And I guess if I had been in their position, I’d have done the same thing.” Shepard’s own account of the conduct of the principals including the President as the scandal unfolded cannot conceal the self-defeating shabby vindictiveness of much of it. 

His efforts to reinterpret the “smoking gun” tape where Nixon urges colleagues to lie that the CIA wanted the FBI to drop an investigation are totally unconvincing. As Nixon also told Frost about his associates, in the “critical period” he was “acting as lawyer for their defense … not prosecuting the case … under the circumstances I would have to say that a reasonable person could call that a cover-up. I didn’t think of it as a cover-up. I didn’t intend it to cover up.”

Nixon also told Frost “I let down my friends, I let down the country, I let down our system of government and the dreams of all those young people that ought to get into government but will think it is all too corrupt and the rest.” And he did. 

Nixon was capable of exceptionally generous gestures, like his note to the son of McGovern’s first 1972 running mate, Sen. Thomas Eagleton, after Eagleton was forced to step down from the ticket by revelations that he’d had electroshock therapy for depression. But Nixon was also a festering mass of resentments and some of his former aides, most notably those who were “born again” in the aftermath of Watergate, correctly blamed the president for setting a tone, while taking responsibility for having followed his lead.

In the larger sense, if we are to understand Nixon in the long run, we must come to grips with the fact that, in a precursor to Trump, he gave a voice to people who really were despised by their supposed betters. And that those who despised them bear considerable responsibility for the ways in which that voice was destructive rather than constructive. But we must recognize that it was destructive, and that it was so in significant measure because of the considerable darkness in Nixon’s own personality on which Shepard says essentially nothing.

The Nixon period could, like the Eisenhower period, have been a cooling-off time in which Americans absorbed the positive aspects of recent reforms while retreating from the extremes. And while, as with Trump, one ought to regard the condescension and vindictiveness of Nixon’s enemies as a major source of poison in the body politic, one can no more excuse the president for his own role in inflaming rather than soothing tensions nationally than one can avoid a more specific point Shepard does avoid, namely that the President created a poisonous atmosphere within the White House that made both the Watergate break-in and the coverup possible. Including things like telling Kissinger, Haldeman, and Ehrlichman in 1971, “Goddamn it, get in and get those files [from the Brookings Institution]. Blow the safe and get it.” (Incidentally it turns out that the famous “Expletive deleted” from Nixon was almost invariably “goddamn” not what you thought it was; clearly the Bowdlerization made it sound worse than it was, not better.)


As for his foreign policy, its cold-blooded nature had enormous virtues that went unnoticed in ways for which he deserves far less blame. Nixon made considerable efforts to explain publicly that anyone wishing to do well in global affairs had to be able to take a dispassionate view of their own strengths and weaknesses as well as those of their adversaries, to understand the limits of the possible for both, and to find areas in which constructive trade-offs could be made in the context of a fundamentally hostile, even largely zero-sum, contest played by rules both parties understood all too well. 

His management of the withdrawal from Vietnam, for instance, was driven by a recognition that the conflict had become a massive military and public relations liability for the United States, including internally. But he had to get out in a way that did not undermine confidence among friends and foes alike of the solidity of American commitments in the world. He could not, as he characteristically put it, “bug out.”

I say largely zero-sum because Nixon also understood, better than the Soviets or the Chinese Communists, it seemed, that there was a way that everyone could lose, namely a nuclear war. Speechwriter William Safire recounts leaving the President’s office after working on a speech and “as I was on the way out the door he wondered what I thought its impact would be. ‘No news in it,’ I said. ‘Frankly, it’s not going to set the world on fire.’ ‘That’s the whole object of our foreign policy,’ Nixon said, almost to himself, ‘not to set the world on fire.’”

So he sought to obtain Soviet concessions, from restraint of their North Vietnamese and Middle Eastern allies to restraint in the buildup of nuclear arms, in return for American concessions where the Soviets were weaker, some of which were geopolitical but others economic, especially their need to import grain and technology. And when the Soviets did not cooperate, he had to show that he could still hurt them or their allies, including the infamous “Christmas bombing” of Hanoi and Haiphong in late 1972 that all his critics said would torpedo the peace talks and instead brought major concessions and a deal.

Nixon’s liberal adversaries never understood his strategy, even when he tried to spoon-feed them in explanatory speeches, dismissing him as an ignorant savage instead of realizing that, as he lamented during his 1960 presidential campaign against Kennedy “I’m an egg head but no one believes it.” The intricate structure of détente with its linkages and its credibility was an impressive policy and intellectual achievement cast before swine.

As a result his critics were continually stunned by his production of one triumph after another in the world arena using methods they had confidently predicted would bring disaster. But it never seems to have dawned on them that it might mean he knew something they didn’t. And their consistent, even malevolent obstruction of his successful diplomacy helped drive him to desperate measures including breaking into the Pentagon Papers leaker’s psychiatrist’s office.

Here let me concede that Shepard’s depiction of the tragicomic disorder in the White House has salutary value that goes well beyond showing that Nixon certainly did not orchestrate a sustained, complex, carefully considered scheme. On the contrary, people were winging it to an unpardonable degree. (Speaking of pardons, Nixon himself later observed that if he’d wanted to stage a cover-up, he’d only have had to pre-emptively pardon all the accused so they couldn’t be coerced into testifying.) Part of the conspiratorial world-view is that people are so much better at managing their affairs than they actually are that it is possible to fake doing one job while secretly doing another, far more sinister and cosmic one and also hiding it. But to portray Watergate as a plot against Nixon does nobody any good, not least because his adversaries were as prone to follow their own ideological predilections, and as unlikely to conspire successfully, as the president and his associates were.


Shepard is right that the American prosecutorial system is rigged, and in cases like those of Nixon’s associates was rigged not just to convict but to convict Republicans. And that John Sirica was a bad judge, and many of the accused were dealt with unfairly. It is no coincidence that Conrad Black, himself the victim of egregious mistreatment by the American prosecutorial juggernaut, shares the view of Nixon as the innocent victim of an Establishment conspiracy. 

Black recently wrote in the National Post that “The indictment of President Trump effectively announces that the United States, as a society of laws, completes the process of corruption of its legal system that began with the bloodless crucifixion of Richard Nixon. And it arrives at the threshold of completing the deconstruction of its democracy. Fifty-one years after the forced entry at the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate building in Washington, there is still no conclusive evidence that President Nixon committed a crime, though some of his followers did. The articles of impeachment that were approved by the House of Representatives judiciary committee and which aroused such intense antipathy to the president, are bunk and always were.” But prosecutorial misconduct and Establishment scorn don’t mean the scandal was not real, or the cover-up. They were, and they arose from serious flaws in the Nixon administration that came from the top.


If you have just won an election, it is worth reading parts of this book to understand how keener subordinates will run around making a mess unless strictly controlled. During his time in office Nixon’s chief of staff Bob Haldeman and chief domestic advisor John Ehrlichman were disparaged as the “Berlin Wall” because you could not get to the President without their generally unavailable consent. But one has considerable sympathy for both men, especially after reading this book, because they were fighting not just administrative chaos but also the danger of aides who appealed to Nixon’s dark side influencing him unsupervised.

One of the two, and I cannot now trace the reference, commented in his memoirs that they learned early on that Nixon would sometimes issue darkly crazy orders it was best to ignore because arguing would cause him to dig in. If you did nothing, he would generally let it drop, and only if he raised it again a week or so later did you have somehow to talk him out of it. But people like Charles Colson, before his Christian-awakening in prison, would actually carry out these impetuous destructive commands if allowed near Nixon without a chaperone. As Watergate proved.

Nixon’s career is one of Shakespearian tragedy, including a substantial measure of self-awareness come to late. His considerable gifts did less good than they could have, and his flaws a lot more harm, not least because of the mediocrity and malevolence of many of his critics. 

Richard Nixon was in some sense precisely what he warned the United States must not be or seem in the world in his highly effective Apr. 30, 1970 televised address on the American incursion into Cambodia to destroy North Vietnamese military sanctuaries within that supposedly neutral country: a “pitiful, helpless giant.” He was a flawed giant, a political genius dangerously lacking in domestic policy insight and a brilliant geopolitical strategist whose own resentments brought his structure of peace crashing down and left his Middle American supporters feeling used and abused. 

The result was not good for America. Nixon’s failures and successes alike infuriated liberals and often baffled conservatives in ways that failed to advance the theory or conduct of domestic or foreign policy. And the dialogue of the deaf that took place during his presidency was a harbinger of far worse to come in American politics.

All these things are important to our understanding of American history, and of how to conduct public affairs at home and abroad. But what we want and need to know about Nixon is not in Geoff Shepard’s book. 


Originally published in print in the 25th edition of The Dorchester Review, Vol. 13, No. 1, Spring-Summer 2023, pp. 78-84.

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