The Watergate ­scandal began in 1972 with a burglary of the Democratic Party’s headquarters and ended with the resignation of Richard Nixon two years later. Almost as soon as Nixon had left Washington, the politicians, lawyers, and journalists who had rallied to oust him began recording for posterity an account of why their actions had embodied, not subverted, American democracy. Their account has prevailed. In the half century since, there have been skeptical retellings of this complex story, some of them well documented, some of them big sellers. Historians have tended to dismiss them as crankery. Veteran journalist ­Garrett Graff calls the measures that removed Nixon from office “a success story of how government worked in a moment of grave crisis.” But he doesn’t really believe it. If he did, there would have been little reason for him to write the first major history of the scandal since Stanley Kutler’s The Wars of ­Watergate (1990), and still less reason for us to read it.

Looking at the dozens of White House aides shamed and jailed for their pilfering and dissembling, however, Graff reveals doubts about the official story: “Labeling it all a ‘criminal conspiracy’ implies a level of forethought, planning, and precise execution that isn’t actually evident at any stage of the debacle. Instead, the key players slipped, fumbled, and stumbled their way from the White House to prison, often without ever seeming to make a conscious decision to join the ­cover-up.”

Nixon abused his power. Hundreds of well-trained minds, working in newsrooms and legal chambers across the country, established that beyond any shadow of doubt. But whether he was ­especially corrupt by the standards of American politics, whether he was more corrupt than the people who drove him out of town in disgrace, whether his corruption was sufficient to justify wresting from the American people their right to choose their president, whether corruption was even the reason the presidency was taken from him—these are questions that have grown more troubling as the years have passed.

Nixon was formidably intelligent, with an honorable war record and an obsession with politics. He had a strange combination of ruthlessness and naivete. The latter quality, as much as the former, would be his undoing.

As a congressional candidate in 1946, Nixon bloodied his popular Democratic opponent, Jerry Voorhis, with accusations of complacency about communism. Newly arrived in Washington, armed with files from J. Edgar Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation, he exposed the communist ties of Truman administration diplomat Alger Hiss. This triumph not only made Nixon a national celebrity. It also wrecked the equipoise of an urbane internationalist establishment that had been lifted to power and prestige through American victory in World War II. Call them “the State Department,” or “Georgetown,” or “the Ivy League”—they were unused to being made to account for their views before a know-nothing electorate.

In 1950 Nixon defeated the elegant actress Helen Gahagan ­Douglas in a run for the Senate, after tarring her, too, as a Moscow fellow traveler. “The Pink Lady” was the sobriquet his campaign devised for her. Two years later he came to the attention of presidential candidate Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, as a running mate who might shore up the party base. Nixon was accused (­unjustly) of benefiting from an ­illegal campaign fund but rescued himself in the so-called “Checkers” speech, a half-hour of persuasion before what at the time was the largest television audience in the history of the world. He admitted to having received one gift: a ­cocker spaniel puppy that his six-year-old daughter, ­Tricia, had named Checkers, which he refused to give back under any circumstances. Otherwise he denied the charges, disclosed his personal finances in fine-grained and embarrassing detail, alluded to his youthful poverty, and described the “respectable Republican cloth coat” his wife Pat wore, in a city fonder of mink. Under pressure, Nixon had revealed a conception of his party radically different from that of his fellow Republicans: He intended to vie with the Democrats for the ­allegiance of the middle-­earning American masses. Still in his thirties, he was elected vice president of the United States.

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