Close up black-and-white photo of Nixon's face. He looks evil -- scheming and plotting

As Hunter S. Thompson put it, “for people with seriously diminished attention spans,” the death of J. Edgar Hoover

led inevitably to the disaster of Watergate. It meant hiring a New Director — who turned out to be an unfortunate toady named L. Patrick Gray, who squealed like a pig in hot oil the first time Nixon leaned on him. Gray panicked and fingered White House Counsel John Dean, who refused to take the rap and rolled over, instead, on Nixon, who was trapped like a rat by Dean’s relentless, vengeful testimony and went all to pieces right in front of our eyes on TV.

The longer story — from the moment Nixon’s White House tapes started rolling until they were switched off — is contained in John Dean’s [book: The Nixon Defense], and it is almost intolerably gripping. Within days of the Watergate break-in, Nixon was actively planning the cover-up, even as he was warning all and sundry that the cover-up is always worse than the crime. On June 23, 1972, Nixon instructed his men (H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman) to tell the FBI that their investigation of the break-in was intruding on some secret CIA work, and that they had to stop. It didn’t work, and the FBI kept investigating. It seems like the real reason they wanted to keep the FBI away is that they would eventually stumble on the White House “plumbers”, who among other things broke into the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist to find information damaging to Ellsberg. Oh, and Nixon himself ordered a break-in at the Brookings Institution.

The Nixon Administration was rotten to its very core, as anyone who’s read [book: The Final Days] well knows. Watergate wasn’t just the story of a “third-rate burglary”; Nixon’s obsessive desire to cover it up, and then cover up the cover-up, is almost prima facie evidence that there was more to it than that.

Nixon went all the way to the Supreme Court to resist turning over his Oval Office recordings. When the “smoking-gun tape” of that June 23rd conversation came out, everyone — the White House staff, Congressional Republicans, and Nixon’s own counsel — realized they’d been duped, and Nixon was out of the White House days later. I’m mostly inclined to say that Nixon’s refusal to turn over the tapes was, again, prima facie evidence of his guilt. The only thing that stops me from saying that wholeheartedly is that it’s the same sort of argument made about people who claim their Constitutionally granted Fifth Amendment rights, and it’s deeply wrong when it’s made in that context.

Nixon’s argument for refusing to turn over the tapes is that it would set a dangerous precedent: as he said in his address to the nation on August 15 of 1973,

The Presidency is not the only office that requires confidentiality. A Member of Congress must be able to talk in confidence with his assistants; judges must be able to confer in confidence with their law clerks and with each other. For very good reasons, no branch of Government has ever compelled disclosure of confidential conversations between officers of other branches of Government and their advisers about Government business.

When he wasn’t making that argument, he was trying to cover the White House recordings in the mantle of “national security”. Indeed, that was the basis of the cover-up from the beginning: the FBI was about to tread on national-security matters, and had to be stopped.

These are all fair arguments on their own terms; they’re obviously tarnished by Nixon’s having used them. Offhand, it seems like the 1996 agreement which ultimately led to the release of the tapes is a good model for how these sorts of releases should happen while presidents are in office:

[W]e also are sensitive to the concerns of the Nixon family about material that is legally personal and private, and we recognize the need to treat materials not related to ‘abuses of power’ as we would treat materials of any other President in our Presidential library system, consistent with the law that specifically governs the Nixon materials. We believe that this agreement protects both the Nixon privacy rights and the public interest as defined by law.

Had Nixon actually been concerned to strike an appropriate balance among the public’s right to know, the president’s need for confidential conversation, and the government’s need for discretion in national-security matters, he would have landed on a solution like the 1996 agreement while he was in office. The tapes that John Dean so scrupulously transcribed explain exactly why Nixon didn’t want to strike this balance: he was a crook and a liar.

What makes Dean’s book such a nail-biter is that it’s practically an account from inside of Nixon’s own head. You’re watching a man dismantle himself and his administration. You’re watching as his aides filter in and out, telling Nixon what he wants to hear and hiding the true depth of the crimes from him. By the end, you’re watching his aides all turn their knives on each other, and then eventually — with a really shocking degree of uniformity — turn them all on Dean as the fall guy.

As the years go by, more and more things fall into the memory hole. We’re not long out of the nightmare of the Bush years, yet it’s still easy to forget what a criminal undertaking that was; in a better world, our former president and vice president would be in shackles in The Hague, on trial for crimes against humanity. It’s easy to remember Watergate as some minor crime that unfairly impugns the memory of an otherwise good man. It’s harder to remember that Nixon scuttled the peace talks that might have ended Vietnam, and that LBJ said Nixon had “blood on his hands”. It’s hard to remember the paranoia that gripped Nixon, a man of many hatreds.

The memory hole has consequences: maybe we care a little less the next time the government tries to use “national security” as an excuse. The only defense I can think of against the memory hole is to read and remember. So on my shelf now, I have Jane Mayer’s [book: The Dark Side] and Barton Gellman’s [book: Angler], both about the Bush administration. Dean’s [book: Nixon Defense] deserves a permanent place on the shelf of anyone who wants to remember our country’s nightmares.