Watergate Warhorse
Elizabeth Drew rides again, against the ghost of Nixon.

(National Archive)


Conrad Black

Elizabeth Drew, an antique of the Washington press corps and a foaming-at-the-mouth partisan Democrat, has dusted off and inflicted on America yet again, for the third time in 40 years, her diary of the Watergate affair. Her proffered excuse for scraping up and reloading and firing this soggy, poisonous projectile is her “hope that those who go through this for the first time and those who relive it will realize . . . how we almost lost our democratic system.” As the narrative grinds, with malice aforethought, toward Richard Nixon’s premature departure from the White House, Ms. Drew quotes approvingly an unnamed friend who declares that he “hates Richard Nixon, not only for what he has done to this country, but for what he has done to politics.” And as the febrile chronicle ends in a crescendo of collective Washington-media self-praise, the author does her pedestrian, self-serving simulation of the end of Camus’s The Plague (which predicts the return of the virus of treason and cowardice) and asks, “Do we have a screen adequate to prevent such a person from again gaining power? That is not clear.” And, so, at last, it ends, except for a dedication “to the beloved Haynes Johnson” (beloved, that is, to left-wing Democrats).

I could not wade shoulder-deep through Drew’s 438 pages of bile again, but looked through it diligently enough to confirm that she is still unable, ever, to concede Nixon anything, except the most grudging and almost imperceptible doffing of the cap to “some graceful things” about supporting his chosen successor, Gerald Ford, and the fact that he “doted on his grandchildren.” It is, as I had remembered it, an abominable book. There is not a hint of the fact that Nixon, in his one full term, despite being the first president inaugurated without the support of either house of Congress since Zachary Taylor 120 years before, had one of the most successful terms in the country’s history. The America Richard Nixon inherited from Lyndon Johnson in 1969 was riven by race and anti-war riots almost constantly and throughout the country. There were 550,000 draftees in Vietnam in an undeclared war and 200 to 400 were returning in body bags every week, and there was no exit strategy. Ho Chi Minh had rejected Johnson’s offer in 1966 in Manila of joint withdrawal of all non-indigenous forces from South Vietnam. Ho could have taken the offer and, three months after the departure of the last American, invaded the country and taken it over without reprisal, but he wished to defeat the United States and turn the great Cold War tide, regardless of casualties. This was the horrible, apparently hopeless mess Nixon found. In addition to riots, there were assassinations, skyjackings, and no relations with China or the major Arab powers, and nothing under discussion with the USSR after that country’s suppression of Czechoslovakia after the Prague Spring of 1968.

Four years later, Richard Nixon was reelected by 18 million votes, still the greatest plurality in history although the electorate has increased by 70 percent. The United States had departed Vietnam while preserving a non-Communist government in Saigon, and the South Vietnamese had defeated the Communists on the ground in April and May 1972 with no help on the ground from the United States (albeit with heavy air support). The draft had been abolished, segregation ended, the Environmental Protection Act passed, relations opened with China, a peace process begun in the Middle East, and the greatest arms-control agreement in history signed with the Soviet Union. There were no riots or skyjackings or assassinations and the crime rate had been appreciably reduced. Nixon proposed comprehensive health-care, welfare, tax, and campaign-finance reform, though the Democratic Congress approved none of it. The Nixon term was rivaled only by Lincoln’s and by the first and third terms of Franklin D. Roosevelt as the most successful presidential term ever, which prompts the question of why Elizabeth Drew, who has been festering and reporting in Washington more than 50 years, now, in the midst of one of the most unsuccessful presidencies in the country’s history, following one of its few rivals in that sweepstakes, would ask for assurance that America never again have such a president as Richard Nixon. Most Americans and most non-Americans who wish the country well would prayerfully wish his return now, and for the last four terms.