Commentary Magazine


Breach of Faith, by Theodore H. White

Breach of Faith: The Fall of Richard Nixon.
by Theodore H. White.
Atheneum-Readers’ Digest Press. 373 pp. $10.95.

With his account of the decline and fall of Richard Nixon, Theodore White, that indefatigable chronicler of national political life, has not only succeeded once more in transforming presidential politics into best-selling nonfiction, but has also demonstrated that the loss of power can be made as fascinating and satisfying a story as its acquisition.

On the face of it, Watergate as a subject would seem to have posed special problems, even to someone of such acknowledged skills as a raconteur as White. It seems safe to say that no political events in human history have been discussed in such detail, at such length, and with such repetitiveness as the burglary of the Democratic headquarters, the cover-up, the hearings, and the tapes. Is there an American so insulated, so ill-informed, as not to recognize the names of E. Howard Hunt and Gordon Liddy, the faces of John Dean and Sam Ervin, the new terms that have seeped into the nation’s political culture, further polluting it with cynicism—“expletive deleted,” “deep throat,” “the limited hangout”? Who does not know the dismal scenario which led Liddy to CREEP and the DNC, Hunt to Miami, Dean to Kalmbach, Mitchell and Magruder to perjury, Nixon to San Clemente, and Gerald Ford to the White House? Yet this is just the tale White recounts in Breach of Faith.

His account adds little to the already voluminous public record on Watergate. Although some participants are quoted as saying things they had not previously said for attribution, there are no surprises in Breach of Faith—only an effort to relate Nixon’s early life to his later achievements and excesses, a plausible if not entirely persuasive explanation of why Nixon and his lieutenants engaged in the bizarre and illegal behavior which ultimately brought their downfall, and a painstaking account of how and when Richard Nixon and his lieutenants slipped across the line of legality without deciding to do it, or even noticing it had occurred. And yet despite the familiarity of the events being narrated, and despite the absence of surprises, one reads this book with rapt attention, and even in a state of suspense.

White sketches with broad, sure strokes the varying contexts—personal, social, and historical—which shaped Richard Nixon’s approach to politics: the gentle Quaker mother and failed father, the penurious childhood and pinched youth, the hostile establishment, California’s distinctive political culture, the progressive centralization of power in the Presidency, the spread of higher education, the rise of ideological politics and of a culture-class struggle, the intensification of domestic strife and foreign pressure, the growing power of adversary journalism. For White, context is not merely background, it stimulates and shapes responses. Nixon’s lawbreaking is seen in the context of a decade of “assaultive politics” (Alexander Bickel’s phrase). His lawbreaking, neither justified nor excused, is presented as part of a process in which violence, leaks, and Daniel Ellsberg are related to the Huston plan, wiretapping, and, finally, to Water-gate. And all of this is seen by White to occur within a context of three decades of expanding presidential power and of casual, nearly universal, campaign violations.

White’s passion for inclusiveness is closely related to two other qualities in his writing: a complex point of view and an insistence on describing characters empathetically, from within. Both these attributes are a source of irritation to his critics. Those who believe that to understand everything is to forgive everything would reproach White for subtly exonerating that which deserves only condemnation. In fact, White’s reporting is not value-free, but his inclusiveness does leave room for a good deal of tacking and trimming from one book to the next. Take, for example, his treatment of Nixon and the press. In a chapter of The Making of the President: 1972 entitled “Power Struggle: President versus Press,” White commented at length on the “institutional hatred” that had developed between Nixon and the “Eastern liberal press,” described the special notions of honor and style of the “baronial press,” and, in a paragraph notable for its rejection of the myth of the neutral media, wrote:

It is [Benjamin] Bradlee and the Washington Post that concern us most here—for the Washington Post hates Richard Nixon and Nixon hates the Washington Post, and they are locked like two scorpions in a bottle determined to destroy each other. It was the Post, more out of zest for the hunt than out of any political malice, that made the Nixon administration its target. With gusto, total dedication, and courage, its reporters made the Nixon administration their prey—and as they cried “Tally-Ho,” the rest of the press pack followed.

Two years later, in Breach of Faith, Bradlee and the Washington Post still figure large, but there is no more talk of scorpions and mutual animosities, no adversary press vying with the President for control of the national agenda, no mention, as in the 1972 volume, that “Nixon has appeared in liberal prose always as if the brand of Cain were on him.” After Water-gate, White concludes, in a passage heavy with apparently unintended irony, “whatever their extravagance, the men and women of the news system could take their absolution from Barry Goldwater’s campaign keynote of 1964—‘Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! . . . Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!’”

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In White’s accounts, opposites are not so much harmonized as assimilated into the ongoing panorama at whose center is that “supreme office,” the Presidency. It is here, in dealing with this office, that the tendency to hyperbole, which is characteristic of all White’s books, becomes a problem of some importance. That White romanticizes the office of the President, delights in its power, enhances its majesty, and exaggerates its importance has long been clear. In this he resembles a generation of liberals who advocated and welcomed the expansion of the power of the federal government and its concentration in the hands of the President. But in Breach of Faith, White’s enthusiasm for the Presidency leads him to assign to that office mystical powers it almost surely does not possess and attribute to the Founding Fathers views to which they did not subscribe. In an unfortunate final chapter White asserts: “Of all the political myths out of which the Republic was born . . . none was more hopeful than the crowning myth of the Presidency—that the people, in their shared wisdom, would be able to choose the best man to lead them.” And there is a “derivative myth”—“that the Presidency, the supreme office, would make noble any man who held its responsibility.”

Yet so foreign to the Founding Fathers was White’s “crowning myth” that instead of vesting the election of the President in the people they proposed an electoral college, whose composition, “transient existence,” and “detached situation” were carefully planned institutional safeguards against human frailties and iniquities presumed to be ubiquitous. It is true that Hamilton anticipated “a constant probability of seeing the [Presidency] filled by characters preeminent for ability and virtue” (Federalist 68), but this expectation is remote from a faith that the office would render noble any incumbent.

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Richard Nixon did not betray a mystical Presidency; his “true crime” was not that “he destroyed the myth that binds America together” and it was not for this that he was “driven from office.” To pretend so is to obfuscate Nixon’s actual offenses. Nixon condoned and committed crimes, that is, breaches of the law which, once known, were intolerable. White himself says as much elsewhere. The system does not require that all Presidents be noble, only that they uphold the law, or, at minimum, that they not be exposed as having broken the law. More than the tendency to hyperbole may be involved in White’s reluctance to settle for holding Nixon to account only for that of which he has been proved guilty—though this seemed quite enough for such staunch friends and defenders of Nixon as Senators Tower and Goldwater. It may be that to White, however, breaking the law does not seem adequate grounds for driving a President from office.

The opposites which White tries hardest to accommodate in Breach of Faith are his conviction that Nixon’s lawlessness had to be punished (“If such practices had occurred before, they had occurred secretly. Now they were public. If they were to be accepted publicly and not repudiated then all future Presidents would be free to break the same laws Nixon had broken”) and his equally strong conviction that ordinary standards are neither appropriate nor binding for Presidents. After all, not only have other Presidents and presidential candidates broken laws, but politics itself involves “passion, manipulation, prejudice, greed, interests,” and a President “must inescapably be something of a hypocrite, promising all to all, knowing that, if elected, he must inevitably sacrifice the interests of some for others.” Even more vividly than the events themselves, Breach of Faith suggests that Richard Nixon and the men who served him were victims of the myth of the supreme Presidency and the supreme President. If the events of Watergate have dealt this myth a mortal blow, as White feels they may have, then Richard Nixon’s excesses apprehended may prove of benefit to the nation.

And yet—like White, I am overcome by the impulse to equivocate. It is a fact that expansion of executive functions is a hallmark of 20th-century politics and that today powerful executives dominate the governments of all modern nations, democratic and non-democratic. Perhaps a contemporary nation which desires to be autonomous cannot do without a leader in whose hands are gathered great but not necessarily irresponsible power. Should this be the case, then the effort to reduce executive power is an exercise in futility or self-destruction, and White may be right in saying that if Nixon has “destroyed the power of a President to lead,” “that will end in disaster worse than sin or crime.”

These words dramatize White’s conviction that a nation requires a powerful President, and his rejection of a moralistic conception of politics. What is worse than sin or crime? For him, destruction of the nation, the end of America, the end of the democratic project. Now, the idea, common enough in other times and places, that the survival of the nation and its government supersedes issues of ordinary morality implies that a President’s moral character is to be measured according to a special yardstick and balanced against his ability to lead. White tacitly addresses this issue when he suggests that the same character trait—toughness—which was responsible for Nixon’s greatest successes in international politics was also the source of his impulse to illegal behavior:

For six weeks prior to the break-in Nixon had been accepting such invitations to toughness and performing as the tough guy, gunslinger, riverboat gambler of global politics. On May 8, 1972, he had faced an enemy offensive in Hanoi and had toughed that one out with a brilliant decision—mine Haiphong, if necessary challenge both China and Russia at once in the gamble of war and peace. He had won the gamble. He had gone on, two weeks later, to Moscow—and toughed it out with Brezhnev and Kosygin. . . . And thus now, after such immense and successful gambles on the world scene, there came to him this apparently trivial thing—this break-in at the Democratic headquarters.

“His streak of machismo surfacing,” Nixon is over the line in five minutes. “Play it tough,” he tells Haldeman, “that’s the way they play it and that’s the way we are going to play it.”

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Can a bad man make a good President? Does the moral quality of a leader derive from his private life, or from his public deeds? Must a President be, as White suggests, something of a cynic, hypocrite, and demagogue? Do the moral failures of leaders necessarily harm the nations they lead? Which did greater harm, the unconstitutional excesses of Nixon, Ehrlichman, Krogh, and company, or the revelation of those excesses, followed by the resignation of Nixon and the emasculation of the Presidency? And how do we decide? Is the exposure and extirpation of wrongdoing a good in itself, or does everything depend on consequences? Were the invasion and collapse of Cambodia and South Vietnam a consequence of the collapse of the Nixon administration? And if so, was that too high a price to pay for the restoration of respect for law in the highest places? Or is no price too high? All these questions are relevant to a judicious assessment of the decline and fall of Richard Nixon. It is to White’s credit, and the ultimate source of the book’s fascination, that, although he does not address them directly, his account points us back from the topical to such questions as these—the perennial questions of politics.

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About the Author

Jeane J. Kirkpatrick was Leavey Professor of Political Science at Georgetown University and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Scholar, diplomat, loyal friend of Commentary and champion of liberty, Kirkpatrick died on December 7, 2006. Her seminal essay, “Dictatorships & Double Standards,” published in Commentary’s November 1979 issue, led directly to her appointment by Ronald Reagan as United States ambassador to the United Nations.




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