Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Nightmare: The Underside of the Nixon Years

1976, possibly first edition, from Viking Press
J. Anthony Lukas
Nightmare: The Underside of the Nixon Years
Original price unknown, purchase price $9.00
Good condition hardcover with dustjacket falling apart

Lukas brings together the various strands of Watergate and other corruption in the Nixon administration.  He also has mini-profiles of key figures, including investigators in the press and government.  The book is very detailed, and at times overwhelming.  I'd like to give it a B+ because the material is sometimes fascinating, but I found the first five chapters a bit slow, though things pick up with the pre-Watergate "dirty tricks" of the 1972 campaign.

As I noted in the review of The Fireside Watergate, there is much that is ridiculous or even surreal-- Hunt's red wig that fooled no one, the compulsion to bug everyone including Nixon's brother, the Disneyworld speech, and so on-- and Lukas is adept at bringing that out.  But he also addresses larger issues of ethics, and he is at times compassionate even towards Nixon.  The book began as a series of articles in The New York Times Magazine, and I think that may be part of why it feels so unwieldy, although that's also due to the length (600+ pages).  It's not entirely Lukas's fault that the book doesn't quite feel like one cohesive, coherent whole.  He's dealing with a lot of chaos (and CHAOS, the domestic espionage program whose name is ironic to anyone who watched Get Smart), and there's only so much order that can be made of it.

I have a clear memory of being 5 or 6 and annoyed at my father watching the Watergate hearings all the time.  I thought, "It's just like the World Series.  They have this every year."  Of course, when the Iran-Contra hearings came along, I listened on the radio as much as I could.  (I was away at college, without a TV.)  I started buying books on Watergate not long after, partly because Reagan didn't get removed from office.  Reading this book now, I'm struck by all the familiar names, not necessarily involved in the scandal and some mentioned only in passing.  Among them, McGovern aide Gary Hart, Kansas Senator Bob Dole, Minnesota Senator Walter Mondale (on the Enemies List), Oregon Senator Bob Packwood (saying in part, "All of us, Mr. President, whether we're in politics or not have weaknesses....For still others, it's women"), Texas millionaire H. Ross Perot, and of course future Presidents Reagan and Bush, Sr.  Conspicuous by his absence is the Governor of Georgia, but he wasn't yet a national figure.  Being "Jimmy who?" was to his advantage. 

Of course, when Reagan defeated Carter in 1980, he hired some people who'd served Nixon, including Alexander Haig, who'd helped convince Nixon it was time to resign.  So that made this book really weird to read in the late 1980s.

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