I am in the process of reading John Dean’s newest book about Richard Nixon and Watergate. The book is entitled The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It (New York: Viking, 2014). I am about 4/5 done, as I write today’s post.
Dean, who was chief counsel during the Nixon era, arranged for transcription of all of the audio recorded tapes, and has painstakingly listened to and interpreted them to write this book. Some tapes were of very poor quality and Dean professes to have spent hours trying to decipher them with the most sophisticated equipment available. The book is a well-written, although not always well-proofed (there are typos), account of the major events and players in this infamous era. His first, and most famous book, was Blind Ambition (New York: Simon and Schuster), written in 1976, which Dean frequently cites in this book.
I listened to some of these tapes before they were made available to general public. Once on a trip to D.C., in the early ’90’s, I spent most of a day at the National Archives selecting sessions of interest to me. At the time I did this, many of the tapes that are available today on the Internet were still classified. This book reinforces the startling reality that we had an American president who stumbled and rambled in an inarticulate manner, presenting himself in front of others as confused, disorganized, and uninformed. He adapted well to whom he was speaking, but in a manipulative and unethical manner. What I did not know until I read this book was that he was also horribly sexist, racist, and anti-Semitic. The tapes reveal that he was no fan of women, African-Americans, or Jews, in spite of any presidential appointments that he awarded them.
The most interesting portions in the book to me are the reflections that Dean includes from a perspective 40 years later. He frequently explains what he was thinking then, and what he thinks now. He provides corrections and updates to what he heard on the tapes. This is not a book that simply includes transcriptions, but rather, that weaves in information and accounts from multiple sources that correspond with those transcriptions.
People criticize Jimmy Carter as president for surrounding himself with the wrong people. They were no match for “all the president’s men.” I always thought that Nixon’s chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, was machiavellian and controlling. I never believed Charles Colson back then, or when he found Jesus Christ in jail and wrote books for personal profit, or now as I read what he said in these transcriptions.* Until I read this book, I never thought that John Ehrlichman, the counsel and Assistant to for Domestic Affairs, was so stupid. The tapes reveal how often he spoke before thinking, how limited his knowledge of civil and criminal law was, and how dismissive he was of alternative positions that were not aligned with his own. Without doubt, the great unraveling of the Watergate cover-up as well as the Nixon presidency was the gradual interest each person had in protecting himself by twisting facts and spinning tales to fit individual concerns. At one point, Ehrlichman, in a meeting with Haldeman and Nixon, actually provides word-for-word false testimony that he wanted Dean to recite under oath. At another, with the same audience, he assumes a broadcaster’s voice, and provides the content of a potential news story that he thought could play out in the media. In so many conversations, all of these men provided Nixon partial information about damaging circumstances, omitting any content that could implicate themselves. That is even true when they spoke about each other with Nixon while one or more were not present. Dean was brave for bolting the scene and baring himself to prosecutors, but why did it take him so long to do so?
But the president himself was the problem. If you read this book, you may be amazed how much time Nixon devoted to Watergate-related business. He devoted entire days and weekends to gathering facts about it, creating scenarios, providing instructions, and examining options. How many times he asks the same questions and gets the same answers from the same people – again and again. He forgets, or pretends to forget, facts received from the same person, sometimes in the same conversation. I wonder how the rest of our national affairs could possibly have progressed with this much attention paid to Watergate in the Oval Office. His subordinates purportedly were trying to distance the president from their own involvement, but they could not do that, due to his own. Ultimately, I believe it was not John Sirica, or Sam Ervin, or Leon Jaworski, or any other characters who brought down Nixon. I think it was the American people. They could not tolerate, nor trust, a man in this office who once implored the country to put Watergate behind them. Nixon’s picture on the cover of Dean’s book is extremely sinister.
I find myself constantly returning to two sections in this book. First, I find the footnotes informative. These are both print sources and recording references. I occasionally will listen to a tape after reading about it in the book. Maybe that is why I have not finished this yet. Second, I like to go back to the list of the cast of characters. There are many, and I always want to refresh myself on a person’s exact title. Interestingly, there are no photographs, and I presume Dean knows they are readily available to readers elsewhere.
The two appendices are also revealing. Appendix A is an account of the Watergate break-in. Appendix B focuses upon the missing 18 1/2 minute gap in a recording, supposedly created by Nixon’s secretary, Rose Mary Woods. You will be surprised about the actual account published here about what happened, especially from expert testimony.
I will post final reflections about this book when I finish. I am interested to see how I feel about this when I can reflect about the entire book.
But, for now, this is an amazing work-in-progress. Why did I not wait until I finish to post this? Because, like many biographies which are careers-in-progress, so is this account for me.
* – I am in a definitive minority about my feelings concerning Colson. Almost everyone I have spoken to thinks Colson genuinely found the Lord in jail, and that his books indicate a sincere revelation of a changed personality. I wish I could also feel that way, but I just don’t. I simply believe he wrote them for profit, knowing that a public hungry for good news from such turnabouts would buy them. I will say, however, that I think Colson’s non-profit agencies and organizations have helped many people, and that overall, he provided a legacy with more good in the last years of his life than he did with the bad during the Watergate years. But, I just can’t shake my opinion that he wrote these books for the wrong reason.
I remember the cover from Sports Illustrated a few weeks into NBA superstar Michael Jordan’s attempt in training camp to play major league baseball. The title was “Bag it Michael.” It infuriated him so much that he never gave the magazine another interview.
The stimulus for my recollection was an article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “The Tedium is the Message” by Michael Moynihan (December 10-11, 2011, p. C6). In the aricle, he talks about some pooliticians who have penned novels. He includes examples from William Cohen, Jimmy Carter, Gary Hart, and Newt Gingrich.
Perhaps more than others, Cohen and Gingrich have done so with “a desire to use the novel to write ideological history.” Cohen’s newest novel (Blink of an Eye, Forge, 2011) teaches a lesson that illustrates his own moral opposition to the war in Iraq. Gingrich’s 2008 novel, Days of Infamy (co-authored with William Forstchen; Thomas Dunne Books), touts isolationism in the context of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Surprisingly omitted from the article, or perhaps simply forgotten, was a novel by former and disgraced vice-president Spiro T. Agnew. In 1976, he wrote The Canfield Decision (Berkley Medallion Books) about a wealthy, handsome, and liberal vice-president who decided to provide Isreal with nuclear arms. How many of those counts described himself?
Moynihan’s conclusion is that “politicians turn to writing novels to create braver, smarter, more powerful versions of themselves. Insisting that you’ve figured how the world works is somehow less pompous – and more easily disavowed – when done by a fictional doppelganger.”
I am unimpressed with these enterprises. Writing novels as purposeful scapegoating activity that replaces solid, visionary thinking and planning seems as if it would fool no one. In the Republican presidential candidate debates, maybe someone will remind Gingrich that he seeks to govern a non-fiction world, and that he cannot craft world affairs in the same way that he can words from the English language.
And, if they are just having fun, maybe to make a little money – that’s fine. But, is that the best use of an aspiring politician’s time and energy? Do we really want to learn what a candidate thinks and how he might govern by reading fictional accounts? Does anyone get insight into future behavior this way?
What do you think? Let’s talk about it really soon!
A new book that has received recent critical acclaim is former President Jimmy Carter’s White House Diary (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010).
You can read this description on Amazon.com: “Each day during his presidency, Jimmy Carter made several entries in a private diary, recording his thoughts, impressions, delights, and frustrations. He offered unvarnished assessments of cabinet members, congressmen, and foreign leaders; he narrated the progress of secret negotiations such as those that led to the Camp David Accords. When his four-year term came to an end in early 1981, the diary amounted to more than five thousand pages. But this extraordinary document has never been made public—until now…..By carefully selecting the most illuminating and relevant entries, Carter has provided us with an astonishingly intimate view of his presidency…. Thirty years after the fact, he has annotated the diary with his candid reflections on the people and events that shaped his presidency, and on the many lessons learned.”
I guess that depends upon how depressed you want to be, and the value you personally place on learning from mistakes so you don’t repeat them.
President Carter was an expert in energy and initiated programs in that field that are still developing today. He boldly worked toward peace in the Middle East, and we will not forget the images of himself with Menachem Begin and Andwar Sadat.
However, my guess is that most Americans remember his errors more. We did not return him to the White House for a second term. In fact, he almost lost his own party’s nomination in 1980 when challenged by Senator Ted Kennedy, which would be a remarkable event if attempted today.
For all he did well, he also presided over extreme inflation and massively high interest rates. He did not win fans from the sports world by removing American athletes from the opportunity to compete in the Olympics. He unsuccessfully tried to level the office with the working American by wearing blue jeans in the White House, and using a photograph instead of an oil painted portrait for his official picture. He redefined the American motto, “give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” by opening our borders to Cubans who were criminals and mentally ill. He angered the Iranian people by toasting the Shah at a New Year’s Dinner, then he could not successfully obtain the release of American hostages, who were held for 444 days.
Every United States President has had accomplishments and also has made mistakes. Carter was no different. Some consider him the worst American President we have ever had. I don’t know about that. Who am I to make that judgment?
Perhaps you will consider this book insightful, or perhaps you will find it self-serving. Regardless, I just don’t know that we need or want to be reminded. It will be interesting to watch how well it sells.
What do you think? Let’s talk about it!
Why Not The Best?
“In your life was there ever a time in which you did less than the best?” If the answer was “yes,” the follow up question was: “Why not the best?” – asked by Admiral Hyman George Rickover (Admiral Rickover would ask this of all Naval Cadets, and the story was oft re-told by Jimmy Carter).
Good enough is good enough
“When good enough gets the job done, go for it. It’s way better than wasting resources (And, remember, you can usually turn good enough into great later”).
Fried and Hansson, ReWork
Think “good enough.” By “good enough” we mean absolutely, definitely, not our very best, not perfect. We are actively encouraging you to perform occasionally below standard… Men are better at saying, “OK, this is good enough in my eyes.”
Claire Shipman and Katty Kay, Womenomics
Six Sigma seeks to improve the quality of process outputs by identifying and removing the causes of defects (errors).
“Zero Defects” is Step 7 of “Philip Crosby’s 14 Step Quality Improvement Process”
Good enough is good enough – until it is not. Then good enough is a disaster.
I’ve thought about this a lot over the last few days. The thoughts were prompted by a couple of news items, with some numbers buried within the stories that have deeply bothered me, and a whole lot of other folks.
Consider these numbers:
Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve chairman, said Wednesday of his two-decade career in government: “I was right 70 percent of the time, but I was wrong 30 percent of the time. And there were an awful lot of mistakes in 21 years.” (read about this here).
“86 percent of mines are safe.” (I heard this stated in an NPR interview by a spokesman defending mine safety – I don’t have a link).
The list is pretty long that describes business decisions, practices, “quality control” issues, where good enough is not good enough. The airplane safety was not good enough when the President of Poland and a plane load of others died in a crash that, at first reports, may have been caused by an unsafe airplane and pilot error.
Alan Greenspan was clearly not practicing the right levels of “good” when he was only right 70 percent of the time. In fact, when Greenspan said it, here was the response by the committee chair:
That prompted Phil Angelides, the commission’s chairman, to say Thursday that he would consider himself a success if he was right just 51 percent of the time. “I don’t aspire to reach what Mr. Greenspan thinks he has reached,” he said, in a sardonic tone.
And a mine safety figure of 86 percent mines deemed safe is clearly not good enough – just ask the families of the twenty-nine dead miners, as they labored for a company with an abysmal safety record and an attitude that clearly placed profits over human safety and even human life.
One of the true business and society and life challenges is this one: when is “good enough good enough” vs. when is “my best” critical?
I agree with the “good enough” movement – except when I don’t. I don’t mind a “good enough” free pen in a conference center. I don’t mind receiving a text message with a spelling error. But I would like the very best airline safety, if you don’t mind. And when Alan Greenspan argues that his 70 percent right was good enough (that is a “C-” in most grading systems), I think it is time to dust off Admiral Rickover’s question.