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The Wars of Watergate.

The Wars of Watergate Stanley I. Kutler. Knopf, $24.95. The Library of Congress lists 229 "Watergate" books. So who needs another one? Thank heavens University of Wisconsin historian Stanley Kutler has gathered in 620 pages most of what you need to know about Watergate and Richard Nixon just at the moment when Nixon, who has spent a lifetime concocting alibis, is at it again.

In his latest memoir, the former president writes, "I played by the rules of politics as I found them. Not taking a higher road than my predecessors and my adversaries was my principal mistake." In other words, Nixon is still blaming other people.

Indeed, almost every chapter of Kutler's book reminds the reader of one consistent thread in Nixon's anxiety-ridden life--reaching for the least-principled option, based on the rationale that others did as bad or worse. When Nixon ordered the IRS to harass White House "enemies," he insisted he was only doing what the Democracts did. He called vote fraud and dirty tricks familiar stuff. When the Supreme Court scolded his Justice Department for unlawful wiretaps, Nixon responded that his administration had reduced wiretaps, by 50 percent from the all-time under former Attorney General Robert Kennedy.

Kutler doesn't mention other examples that come quickly to mind. When the hidden White House taping system was revealed, Nixon said Lyndon Johnson's was far better than his. Actually, Johnson had only a dictating machine, while Nixon used a seven microphone, automatic mixing and switching system. When Nixon got in trouble for taking huge illegal tax write-offs on the presidential papers he donated to the public, he said he got that idea from Johnson. But in fact, Nixon had taken tax write-offs long before he became president.

Kutler's compendium has flaws. For example, he states that the CIA must obtain court approval for domestic wiretaps, when in fact the CIA is barred from surveillance activities within the United States. Kutler's biggest handicap may be that he was not present at the events he describes. The drama and turbulence are missing. I recall vividly being NBC's White House reporter the night Nixon fired the special prosecutor and accepted the resignations of the attorney general and his deputy. Standing on the White House lawn, struggling to describe the enormity of the moment, all I could think of to start my story was "President Nixon tonight jumped from the frying pan into the fire."

Kutler succeeds in giving context to the events of Watergate. Perhaps too much context. He describes Nixon as "the last casualty" of a haunting decade of war, unprecedented social protest, and assassinations.

Those events did not end the Nixon presidency. Lies toppled Nixon, as Kutler observes in the book's final pages. Americans, who cheerfully presume that all politicians lie, are nonetheless outraged when one is caught doing it. Listening to a Nixon press conference at Disneyworld in late 1973, I counted 14 false or misleading answers Nixon gave to 17 questions.

Deception became a way of life in the sweaty atmosphere of the White House. There was no matter too mundane to be covered up. In May 1973, when the press office was asked how much public money had been spent on the president's private homes in Key Biscayne and San Clemente, it put the sum at $39,525. In the face of persistent skepticism, the figure was twice revised and finally set at $1.3 million. Eventually, the House Government Operations Committee reported that subpoenaed records showed the true figure exceeded $10 million.

Kutler resists psychoanalyzing Nixon, saying little about the personal demons that led him to break into the dean's office at law school to look for his grades or to conspire with H.R. Haldeman to use bogus and misleading mailings in his 1962 California gubernatorial campaign. A look at my own Nixon files reminds me that as far back as 1938, when Nixon was a young Los Angeles lawyer, he was accused of deceptive misconduct in the sale of a home, although the trial judge did not hold him responsible.

Nixon may be right in at least one respect. He might have been justified in believing "everybody does it"--travels the low road--when none of his staff vigorously opposed his darker choices. Their political and moral instincts were as bad as his.

I have long thought one document was a tip-off of Watergate to come. So does Kutler. In 1969, when Jeb Magruder joined the White House staff, he was given a Nixon memo which said, "P.O., not P.R." Nixon didn't want public relations. He wanted a "Presidential Offensive." He had in mind penetrating the camps of political enemies, such as that of Senator Edward Kennedy, so that the White House "attack group" could plan in advance to undercut and counter their moves. In light of that, does the Watergate break-in seem surprising?

The midnight of the "Saturday night massacre," as I walked toward my car to go home, two of Nixon's senior aides emerged from the White House's west wing. "Wasn't it masterful?" one of them asked, referring to the president's firing of Archibald Cox and his order to close the special prosecutor's office. "The president has finally cut off the hemorrhage of Watergate."

I shook my head, and said, "You guys are crazy," and headed off into the night.
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Author:Stern, Carl
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1990
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