The Wars of Watergate is an examination of a president and an event that profoundly, lastingly eroded public trust in both the Executive branch specifically and the US Government in general. It was the culmination of a decade of challenge to traditional authorities, as well as the undeniable proof that suspicion of those authorities was warranted. While Watergate stands alone as a worthy subject of study, a most readers during the Trump presidential era who choose to learn about this period are doing so with attention to their own era. Watergate provides comparative background information on the process of investigating or dissolving a purportedly corrupt presidency.
Stanley Kutler organized his book as a historically evidential, rather than a politically partisan, assessment of an affair. He begins with the formative information of Nixon’s life and career from his childhood, to his first years in the Senate, through his bids for the presidency and his first term. Only then does he recount the crisis itself. The historical continuity does not end there; this writer provides extensive post-Watergate analysis of its impact up to the end of the 20th Century.
There is a meticulousness to this study which readers will find alternately gratifying and frustrating. Frustrating, for example, is Kutler’s depiction of the House Judiciary Committee. He evaluates not only each of the congressional members (which is useful), but even some of Majority Special Counsel John Doar’s staff, who are nothing more than office functionaries. While trudging through such compulsive sections, one should keep in mind that a historian must consider more than simply informing their audience. More important, especially for one writing about fairly recent event, is to create as complete a historical record as possible. Who knows what bits of information will aid future historians in their research? However, Kutler’s thoroughness pays-off for a reader when he presents White House interactions among Nixon and his staff. He has carefully perused the White House Transcripts, offering extensive excerpts. Here, the inner workings of an administration steeped in constitutional violations and cover-up is a fascinating glimpse into a once hidden history.
There is little chance that non-fiction bibliophiles, reading The Wars of Watergate while living through the crises of Trump’s administration, could ignore the important similarities between Trump and Nixon. Both lied with frequency and ease. Both attacked the news media for exposing their indiscretions. But more significantly, both failed The Two Part History Test: To paraphrase Mark Shields, Lesson One of Washington scandals is that the cover-up, not the initial crime, causes presidents the most legal trouble. Lesson Two is that they always forget Lesson One. For Nixon, the break-ins at DNC headquarters and Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office were crimes; but neither was as great a violation of the Constitution as the Obstruction of Justice charge with which he was eventually hounded out of office. For Trump, the picture may be slightly different. If it is true that he personally colluded with an enemy foreign power attempting to undermine our democratic elective process, that’s more serious than a simple break-in. However, it is unlikely that US citizens will ever have the truth there. What we do have is a bold, repeated, unapologetic admission that the President fired an FBI Director who would not stop an investigation against him. In an interview with Lester Holt, Trump claimed that “he had been planning to fire Comey even before he received Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein's recommendation to do so.”^^ In a May 2017 meeting with Russian officials, Trump stated "I just fired the head of the FBI...I faced great pressure because of Russia. That's taken off."^^^ Both Trump’s and Nixon’s inability to absorb Lessons One and Two caused them to commit Obstruction of Justice. Our best hope, for maintaining the integrity of our Constitution, is that Trump’s presidency follows the same course as Nixon’s. But that is far from certain. During our troubled period, Kutler’s careful examination can be a useful, calm source of information regarding the anatomy of administrations that break the law and how justice is subsequently pursued.
Kutler, Stanley I. The Wars of Watergate. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1990.