Thursday, July 30, 2015

Paranoia and The Presidency: A Story of Richard Nixon

Never have so many owed so much to one president, and you can add University of Virginia researcher Ken Hughes to that list of writers with his book, Chasing Shadows:  The Nixon Tapes, The Chennault Affair and the Origins of Watergate.

The book, published last year, is based mostly on released tapes from Nixon’s Oval Office days and also covers the ’68 election, when he was interfering with President Johnson’s Vietnam policies and, it’s alleged, breaking a number of laws, including ones covering treason.

One of my favorite parts of this book is United Press International.  My old stomping ground is mentioned often and Rox (slang for The Associated Press, as in “dumb as a box of rocks”) doesn’t see the light of day.  Even UPI’s Washington bureau staffer Norman Kempster has a story that’s excerpted in the book – with his by-line.

The book came to my attention recently when it was mentioned by a Rutgers University professor in The New York Times Book Review as one of the best at capturing Nixon’s personality and detailing events leading to Watergate.

Nixon continues to provoke many emotions but Hughes does an outstanding job of keeping his in check, letting Nixon speak for himself, showing how his actions and personality led to his 1974 downfall.

This is one of the gems of Hughes’s book.  You gain insight on Nixon’s personality and thinking – with his own words.

To be certain, Chasing Shadows is far from a complete look at the Nixon presidency.  It focuses on Vietnam, the Pentagon Papers and the beginnings of the Watergate scandal and its ensuing cover up.

At this point, it’s difficult to read an honest assessment of Nixon that neither leans left (he’s the Devil himself) nor right (he just got caught) but this book might be it. 

A question – one that will likely never be answered by historians but is touched on by the author – is, given the other candidates or possible ones in 1968, could the United States have found someone else with the same chops as Nixon for the job?  

Furthermore, did Nixon’s sense of paranoia ultimately take him down?  The author believes so; if that’s the case, should we do a better job of assessing the characters of the people who seek the presidency? 

Nixon’s critics can pan him for Watergate and extending the Vietnam War past the ’72 election, as well as invading Cambodia.

But Nixon is also something that few want to admit – one of our most successful presidents.

He ended U.S. involvement in Vietnam; opened diplomatic relations with China; successfully negotiated a nuclear arms treaty with the Soviet Union; started the Environmental Protection Agency; removed the country’s currency from the gold standard; and desegregated the schools more than previous presidents, to name a few of his accomplishments.[i]

This doesn’t mean he’s a saint.  Far from it!  It means he knew how act like a chief executive officer and get things done.

None of this, of course, excuses Nixon’s very serious and profound breaches of power with the Watergate cover up – and the possibility that he knew and/or ordered the break in to the Democratic National Committee headquarters – and the possibility that his actions were treasonous when he interfered with President Johnson’s attempts to end the Vietnam War.

Those events, combined with his accomplishments, make Nixon what he will likely always be – a very disturbing figure in American history.

Chasing Shadows:  The Nixon Tapes, The Chennault Affair, and The Origins of Watergate, by Ken Hughes, (Charlottesville, Virginia:  University of Virginia Press, 2014)



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