As a freshman in college, I devoured Newsweek every week from 1972 to 1976, but it took James Robenalt’s excellent January 1973 for me to realize exactly how much happened in just one month. Briefly, there was the first Watergate trial, the conclusion of the Vietnam peace negotiations and the Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade, the landmark abortion decision. Additional drama was created by the deaths of former Presidents Truman and Johnson, and Richard Nixon’s second presidential inauguration.
Fortunately, Mr. Robenalt has the advantage of access to all those incriminating tapes, and he makes excellent use of them to build a compelling case that Richard Nixon broke the law repeatedly. That is the big point of the tapes, but Nixon’s awkward and unpleasant personality really competes for the reader’s attention. It is hard to imagine how anyone that socially inept could get so far in public life. Of course these tapes have not been edited to provide a rounded picture of Nixon, and it does come across that he loved his family and even had some friends. What doesn’t come through is how he did some of the good things, like create a relationship with China, and of course much of his social agenda was a lot more liberal than what many Democrats advocate today. But this book focuses on his cynicism and win-by-any-means strategy, and there is a lot of material there. In the “What was he thinking category,” it is still hard to wrap your head around the notion of Nixon creating and maintaining all of these incriminating tapes in the first place. Talk about being hoisted by his own petard!
Added to the Watergate saga, there are the Vietnam peace talks. It is pretty clear that Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger didn’t like each other and that they certainly didn’t trust each other. The peace agreement looks like a clumsily orchestrated capitulation, but the back and forth is still interesting. On the other hand, it is embarrassing to read about how much their respective egos needed stroking. What an odd relationship between two men who got things done and shared mutual respect and loathing for each other.
My favorite parts of the book were the sections on Roe v. Wade and the stages by which the Supreme Court got to this decision. The parts played by Justices Blackmun and Powell are particularly interesting. From a president’s point of view, apparently it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Nixon had so many vacancies on the Court and his initial nominations generally had such obvious fatal flaws, that he ended up just going with whichever candidate got pushed under his nose at the appropriate time. He got careless, and from his point of view he paid. The Court’s internal negotiations on the abortion question makes one nostalgic for a time when courteous discourse and persuasion could prompt so many of the justices to think outside the box and even change their minds.
Whether you are a student of this period or a newbie trying to put it all together, this book is a helpful and fascinating recounting of a remarkable time.