When it comes to past American presidents, none is so intriguing as Richard Milhous Nixon. Paranoid, uncharismatic, vindictive and viciously hated by the liberal establishment, he was a politician with a very long and controversial career. At the same time, he was inarguably one of the most effective American leaders of the 20th century who, on both the foreign and domestic policy sides, succeeded in unprecedented and lasting ways. To wit: he ended the Vietnam War, opened the door to China, and instigated Détente while easing nuclear tensions with the Soviet Union through the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks. On American soil, according to the Richard Nixon Foundation Library and Museum website, he was no less effective, introducing measures that put an end to the worst of organized crime, founding the Environmental Protection Agency and initiating and overseeing the peaceful desegregation of southern schools.
Personally, I credit Nixon, and those famous Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, for my career, which began with my entering university in 1977 as a political science major – my honours thesis was called "Nixon Versus the Press: A Study of Inadvertent Aggression" -- and then going back to school in 1981 as a journalism student. But my interest in American politics began earlier, coming to me by osmosis at a young age, since my American mom and informed dad were close watchers of that national scene. I’ll never forget my mother’s carefully laid plan to pack up her family and race all of us to Parliament Hill to die with Canadian MPs during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Her week of crying after President Kennedy’s assassination is etched on my six-year-old brain. When I was older, I observed as my parents were fascinated and argued over Nixon’s long political life.
They were both against him during the McCarthy era, which ended before I was born, though I clearly recall them talking about it historically when I was a child. They laughed at Nixon when he quit politics after he lost the 1962 California gubernatorial race, quipping to journalists, “You won’t have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore.” And I listened in amazement as they fought vigorously over whether there was in fact a “New Nixon” when he ran for and captured the presidency in 1968.” My mom insisted, “No – he’s the same ol’ tricky Dick.” We all know who went down to defeat in that parental argument.
Nixon’s political career began in 1946 -- when he won the Republican seat of California’s 12th Congressional District by exploiting a tactic he would come to use in successive campaigns, i.e., communist-baiting his opponents – and ended when he resigned as the 37th president in 1974, about 28 months before his historic second term was constitutionally scheduled to end. Indeed, his entire life history, from 1913 to 1994, is well known by devotees to the Nixon file, and has been poured over, picked apart, analyzed, torn asunder and, yes, laughed at in countless books, essays and news articles. Though virtually each individual volume and piece of course has its own slant on the facts and misinformation of his complicated and extraordinary story, none deviates quite so far from the standard fanatically-ambitious-Nixon-being-his-own-worst-enemy line as Silent Coup: The Removal of a President, by Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin.
It probably doesn’t hurt to know that the authors of Silent Coup – a small print, 500-pager written in 1991 and revised in 1992 – are both liberal Democrats. As stated on the book’s jacket, Colodny is “an investigator and political analyst” and Gettlin is “a national reporter… involved in investigative reporting.” They take the position that Nixon was the victim of a multi-layered conspiracy involving none other than Watergate celebrities John Dean, Alexander Haig and Bob Woodward.
As detailed in the book, John Dean, when he was White House counsel, became intensely involved in all events surrounding Watergate, including the planning of the June 1972 crisis-instigating break-in at the Democratic National Committee Headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington, and later the cover-up, including helping to arrange hush money payments for the burglars. Dean eventually pleaded guilty to a single felony count of obstruction of justice in return for being a key witness for the prosecution. His testimony alone was largely responsible for convicting five major Watergate conspirators, among them Nixon’s “Berlin Wall” top advisers H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman as well as former attorney general John Mitchell. For his cooperation, Dean’s sentence ended up being only four months instead of potentially four years.
In a nutshell, the authors claim that Dean orchestrated the burglary in order to find and destroy information on his future wife, who allegedly worked as a call girl for the DNC. What tends to throw at least a cup of sand on this argument is the fact that Dean successfully sued Silent Coup publisher St. Martin’s Press as well as author Colodny, though the results of both lawsuits are subject to non-disclosure agreements, saving everyone some embarrassment. Dean, however, is quoted as saying he was happy with the outcome.
Alexander Haig’s US army career was distinguished and honourable, his political career, not so much. A general who earned more than 40 medals – including 24 air medals that are awarded for single acts of heroism – he served in both the Vietnam and Korean wars before he entered presidential politics in various positions that saw him constantly involved in one controversary after another. He served under three presidents, including as chief of staff for Nixon after Haldeman unceremoniously left. If he sometimes had delusions of grandeur, Haig gets high marks for keeping the government running while Nixon was preoccupied with Watergate. Haig was reportedly instrumental in getting Nixon – and effectively himself – a pardon once Gerald Ford took office. Haig worked for only a couple of months under Ford and years later was named secretary of state for Ronald Reagan. Laughingly, Haig ran for the Republican nomination for president in 1988.
The authors of Silent Coup argue that Haig – who unintentionally invented Haigspeak, a language, according to a dictionary or neologisms, “characterized by pompous obscurity resulting from redundancy, the semantically strained use of words, and verbosity” -- was the infamous Deep Throat source for Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein. These were the nobody journalists who quickly became world-renowned and are credited with starting the government/press avalanche that ended in Nixon’s downfall. Colodny and Gettlin make much of the fact that Haig knew Woodward when the latter was a Naval officer. That conspiracy has also been somewhat muted since, in 2005, former FBI deputy director Mark Felt revealed he was indeed the devastating Deep Throat leak.
In a C-Span interview in 1991, Robert Gettlin admits that the pair never intended to write a book about Watergate, but rather, about Woodward as a journalist after Watergate when, as Post editor, he was involved in the Janet Cooke affair. Cooke won a Pulitzer Prize for a fantastic story that turned out to be fabricated. Gettlin and Colodny wanted to analyze Woodward’s supposedly unethical journalistic methods based on Cooke and other issues. “It was only once we learned about Woodward's military background,” says Gettlin, “[and] his relationship with Haig, that the whole string began to unravel, and we found this incredible story about what was really happening during the Watergate period.”
In reviewing the book – which I read several years ago – I am reminded of the cornucopia of characters, secret connections and surreptitious acquaintances among Washington and New York insiders, from Pentagon officials and White House aides, to big name journalists and everyone in between. Even for non-Nixon enthusiasts, Silent Coup is a fun, detailed read, and most of the facts are believable on their face, but overall the book is too complicated to make a proper summary. I would conclude, if there truly was a subversive coup to remove Nixon years before the final act, it was not a carefully planned or coordinated effort. The book fails to pull all the loose ends of any conspiracy together.
This book, like almost all books reviewed on Lynne's Likes, is available on Amazon.ca