EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay has been adapted from chapters 1 and 22 of Tim Weiner’s new book, One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon, with the kind permission of Henry Holt and Company.
Richard Nixon saw himself as a great statesman, a giant for the ages, a general who could command the globe, a master of war, not merely the leader of the free world but “the world leader.” Yet he was addicted to the gutter politics that ruined him. He was — as an English earl once said of the warlord Oliver Cromwell — “a great, bad man.”
In Nixon’s first State of the Union speech, he said that he was possessed by “an indefinable spirit — the lift of a driving dream which has made America, from its beginning, the hope of the world.” He promised the American people “the best chance since World War II to enjoy a generation of uninterrupted peace.”
But Richard Nixon was never at peace. A darker spirit animated him — malevolent and violent, driven by anger and an insatiable appetite for revenge. At his worst he stood on the brink of madness. He thought the world was against him. He saw enemies everywhere. His greatness became an arrogant grandeur.
By experience deeply suspicious, by instinct incurably deceptive, he was branded by an indelible epithet: Tricky Dick. No less a man than Martin Luther King Jr. saw a glimpse of the monster beneath the veneer the first time they met, when King was the rising leader of the civil rights movement. “Nixon has a genius for convincing one that he is sincere,” King wrote in 1958. “If Richard Nixon is not sincere, he is the most dangerous man in America.”
Unscrambling the Whole Omelet
That spring was a dark season for Richard Nixon. Each week brought deluges of bad news. The downpours turned to floods, and the rising torrents slowly eroded the stone wall surrounding the White House. The wars of Watergate consumed every waking moment.
“Vietnam had found its successor,” Nixon wrote, underscoring every word.
Friday, April 13, 1973: The president’s legal counsel John Dean relayed inside information from federal prosecutors to the White House, and his news was dismal, befitting the day. Dean had served as a kind of human switchboard in the cover-up, conferring with every central participant. Now he was using his lawyers to winkle information out of federal investigators, even as he dangled a promise of becoming a witness for the prosecutors.
Watergate burglary overseer Howard Hunt was set to appear Monday afternoon before the Watergate grand jury; he had blackmailed the White House by threatening to reveal “seamy stories,” and he knew several. Up next was deputy director of the Committee for the Re-Election of the President Jeb Stuart Magruder, whose will to continue committing perjury was weakening. If Magruder testified truthfully, he could incriminate John Mitchell — the “Big Enchilada,” as adviser John Ehrlichman called him, the nation’s chief law enforcement officer from 1969 to 1972, and of late the president’s raiser of hush money. And if Mitchell were indicted, “that’s the ball game,” Nixon said.