A false dawn: Reagan wasn’t a new start but more the continuation of Nixon

When Reagan was elected six years after Nixon’s ignominious fall from grace, he tapped into a growing American attitude that preferred to ignore the nation’s faults and his predecessor’s crimes.

Richard Nixon, left, and Ronald Reagan, centre, in California in August 1971. Bettmann / CORBIS

“So this has been another spectacular for you, Mr President.” Henry Kissinger, national-security adviser and apple-polisher extraordinaire, is heard on tape lauding his boss, the United States president Richard Nixon, at the tail end of 1972 for bombing the North Vietnamese into returning to the negotiating table. The success came at the end of a year full of foreign-policy successes: the war in Vietnam was nearing a conclusion, a summit with the Soviet Union bespoke a new era of open communication and muted rivalry, and best of all, the president had visited China, moving towards re-­establishing diplomatic relations with the country after a quarter-century of silence.

The previous month, Nixon had been elected to a second term as president by a landslide, winning 61 per cent of the national vote over the Democratic Party's candidate, George McGovern. It had been, by most measurements, a remarkable year; and yet we pore over The Nixon Tapes [Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk], edited and annotated by Douglas Brinkley and Luke Nichter from recordings of the president's secret White House taping system, like homicide detectives watching intently for the first signs that the victim realised he had been fatally wounded.

“There’s no question there’s a double standard here,” Nixon groused to his chief of staff, H R Haldeman, back in June 1972. “They’re all doing it! That’s a standard thing. Why the Christ do we have to hire people to sweep our rooms?” The source of the president’s dissatisfaction was the arrest of five burglars, caught breaking into the Democratic National Committee’s offices, located in the Watergate Building.

The operation was a botch, but the damage initially appeared to be distinctly limited. The five burglars would be happily sacrificed to protect the higher-ups, and the matter would be closed. “Goldwater put it in context,” argued Nixon, referring to the senator Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican presidential candidate. “‘Well, for Christ’s sake, everybody bugs everybody else. We know that.’”

“The press is playing it just as we expect,” Nixon’s lawyer John Dean observed, when they returned to the subject in September.

This is less a précis of the discussion of Watergate in The Nixon Tapes than a complete summary. Watergate was a blip on the horizon, a lone cloud in a bright sky. It occupies, incredibly enough, approximately four of the book's 733 pages.

The Nixon Tapes is a fascinating document that does not much make for enjoyable casual reading; the tapes' lack of audio clarity leaves numerous gaps in the transcript, and the conversations themselves, often staccato and disjointed, are frequently less than scintillating. And yet it is abundantly worthwhile to read through The Nixon Tapes, the product of Brinkley and Nichter's heroic labour, in order to find, studded among the exhaustive (and exhausting) discussions of bombing missions and summits and the rainy season in Laos and the inevitability of impending North Vietnamese collapse, hints of the hubris that would result in Watergate.

Rick Perlstein's brilliant 2008 book Nixonland had been a psychological biography of the president, pitting Nixon's Orthogonians – the name of his college fraternity, composed of earnest, socially awkward strivers – against the classier, wealthier Franklins. National politics was just fraternity life writ large, with the Kennedys standing in for the Franklins as the golden boys Nixon could never vanquish.

Perlstein's new The Invisible Bridge [Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk], picking up where Nixonland left off, offers a tantalising piece of evidence, courtesy of aide Pat Buchanan, that hints at just why Nixon, coasting to a landslide victory, might choose to risk his presidency on a criminal endeavour of limited utility. Buchanan testified before the senate Watergate committee that Nixon was hoping to sabotage potentially threatening Democratic candidates like Edmund Muskie and Ted Kennedy in the hopes of leaving the terminally unelectable McGovern as the last man standing. Without confirming Buchanan's account, The Nixon Tapes amply demonstrates the frame of mind that may have led the president to direct his "plumbers" to break in to the Watergate.

Nixon, beset by earth-shaking diplomatic and military crises, looked around and trembled for the future of the country in his absence. Democratic presidential contenders were not just rivals; they were threats to the continued stability of the United States. “I frankly feel, Mr President,” Kissinger argued on one White House tape, “at this point, that to keep the Democrats out of office next year…” – Nixon completed his thought: “Is the main thing.” Nixon believed his strength and foreign-policy skill – “can’t we get across the courage more?” he complained to an aide about press coverage – had kept the country safe: “If a Kennedy, or a Muskie, or a Humphrey had been sitting in this chair, the United States today would have [Soviet foreign minister Andrei] Gromyko looking right down our throat.”

Nixon was petrified at the thought of another, weaker man failing at the task of protecting the country: “I have to leave this office in a position as strong as I possibly can because whoever succeeds me, either because of lack of experience or because of lack of character or guts, heading a weaker United States would surrender the whole thing.” Nixon is forever congratulating himself on the “big plays” he has created, and is sure that pretenders to the throne would, to continue the football metaphor, be unable to play “the big game” of global politics. Making the argument would not be enough. “The American people were suckers,” Nixon ruefully observed, and the scale would have to be leant on to ensure that he could continue protecting the country for another four years.

As recorded in The Nixon Tapes, Nixon is mostly self-confident and assured of the rightness of his mission, even as he remains intent on the misguided and bloody strategy of bombing South East Asia into submission. But his self-­confidence, borne aloft by the endlessly submissive Henry Kissinger, who is his primary conversational companion here, led him to believe that the country would founder in his absence. Watergate was the product of this toxic mixture of hubris and paranoia.

The Nixon Tapes compiles the most compelling conversations recorded by Nixon's secret recording system, from its installation in February 1971 through the end of 1972. The Invisible Bridge picks up where The Nixon Tapes leaves off, documenting the rapid disintegration of the Nixon administration's indomitable facade following the 1972 triumph. Daily, the president and his advisers were revealed to be duplicitous, amoral and callous. A memo from the White House counsel John Dean concerning potential manipulation of the US's Internal Revenue Service to audit prominent liberals summarised the administration's blundering-gangster approach: "How can we use the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies?"

Perlstein assumes our familiarity with the Watergate story and concomitantly avoids the familiar beats of the Woodward-Bernstein All the President's Men narrative. There is little mention of The Washington Post's investigations, or of the famous 18-and-a-half-minute gap in one recording, supposedly erased by Nixon's secretary Rose Mary Woods. The Invisible Bridge is revisionist history, its emphasis less on the Watergate crisis than on the conflicted national response, with the White House tapes coming to play a central role in the crisis.

Nixon argued that executive privilege – the special powers accorded the President of the United States – trumped all other concerns and that the privacy of future presidents to discuss matters of state behind closed doors would be forever threatened if anyone listened to the recordings in question. Nixon was the man who had tumbled over a cliff and was grasping at every tree branch and sprig of grass in the hopes of arresting his fall. This initial foray did not meet with approval anywhere outside the West Wing of the White House. “Not even a President can be allowed to select some accounts of a conversation for public disclosure and then to frustrate further grand jury inquiries by withholding the best evidence of what actually took place,” argued special prosecutor Archibald Cox.

Nixon then suggested that a single respected Washington elder be appointed to listen to the tapes and put together summaries for the public to peruse. He suggested senator John Stennis of Mississippi, who, among other deficiencies, was almost entirely deaf. (Let no one say that Nixon did not have a perverse sense of humour.) He lost again and turned over the tapes, hoping that this would be the end of the furore. It was not. A paperback transcription of the conversations recorded on the White House tapes became a bestseller, even with all its expletives deleted and many of Nixon’s comments mistakenly rendered unintelligible: “The public simply immersed themselves in the astonishing privilege of listening to these intimate moments of the powerful.” Nixon still believed he could survive, until – who could make this up? – senator Barry Goldwater, one-time conservative flame-thrower turned respected Washington elder, quietly told the president that he lacked the votes to prevent impeachment. The end was here.

The downfall of Nixon in August 1974, 40 years ago this month, marked the arrival of a mature electorate intent on policing its politicians and institutions, and the demise of unrepentant, muscular conservatism. Sane, sensible Gerald Ford – “A Ford, not a Lincoln,” as he joked after being sworn in as vice president – was the balm that would soothe a wounded nation. With his enemies’ lists and secret bombings and team of White House-employed thugs, Richard Nixon had spelled “The End of Backlash Politics”, as one newspaper headline had it.

Or so the pundits said. Perlstein uses the misguided musings of newspaper columnists and television newsmen as a counterpoint to the main thrust of the narrative. He is building a counter-narrative, in which the tardy maturation of the American people after the bruising revelations of Watergate was a false dawn, promising an era of enforced accountability that never arrived.

The California governor Ronald Reagan, meanwhile, was peddling the wrong message to the wrong people at the wrong time. Reagan had been among the dead-enders defending Nixon long after the time that anyone could have believed him to be innocent of involvement. Watergate was illegal, but not criminal. The Senate hearings were a “lynching” and a “witch hunt”. Reagan’s sympathies appeared to be with the crooks employed by Nixon and not the country whose democratic governance they had subverted.

Reagan had been a baseball announcer and a second-tier movie star – “the Errol Flynn of the Bs” – turned union head and General Electric shill. Representing GE, he made regular appearances on the radio, telling stories about government waste and abuse – the bureaucrat who stopped a man’s social security payments because the paperwork said he was dead, the welfare queens living in deluxe New York City apartments.

“It was hard to see what such tidy fabulism could accomplish politically,” Perlstein observes, echoing the consensus at the time, but it was the wise politician who could see beyond the crisis at hand: “One of the things at which brilliant politicians are better than mediocre ones is smelling new public concerns over the horizon before they are picked up by polls – before the public even knows to call them ‘issues’ at all.”

The laughable actor with his neat bromides had remade himself as a political force by speaking to a segment of the population that felt itself beset by a government intent on assisting minorities and the poor at the expense of the white middle- and working-classes. “No, no, Jimmy Stewart for governor,” Jack Warner famously corrected someone who told him about Reagan’s political plans, “Ronald Reagan for best friend.” Warner’s concerns notwithstanding, Reagan was elected governor of California in 1966. He constructed an imaginary world that others strongly preferred to the one we had.

His 1976 presidential run, taking on Ford, was a quixotic endeavour at best, pitting a genial extremist against a pillar of the Republican establishment. "The notion that Ronald Reagan can get the Republican presidential nomination," wrote The New York Times's James Reston, "is patently ridiculous unless you suspect the Republicans of suicidal tendencies."

Perlstein is a synthesist and his narrative pins the primary clash between Reagan and Ford against the “map of the dreads of the nation”, in which the New Right, supposedly devastated after Nixon’s dismal end, “registered in the streets and the hollers instead – where the electoral analysts in the media could safely ignore them, or dismiss them as crazies if they did not”. Anti-school-busing advocates in Boston and school-textbook ideologues in West Virginia and anti-abortion activists across the country, chasing disparate goals, were coagulating, beneath the nose of the national media, into a new electoral force, propelled by fear and mistrust and a powerful sense of outrage at the liberal elite’s “insidious attempt to replace our periods with your question marks”, as one textbook activist put it. Reagan channelled the inchoate sensation of embattled conservatism fighting back.

Reagan created his own reality, discussed the issues of his own choosing and ignored unpleasant or ill-fitting details. Everyone insisted that the right would have to moderate after Watergate’s excesses; Reagan observed that “sometimes I think moderation should be taken in moderation”. Reagan was not peddling a differing take on the political situation in the United States in 1976; he was peddling an entirely different America.

Reagan believed America had nothing to apologise for and nothing to fix, other than a lone, omnipresent villain: bloated government and bureaucratic ineptitude. Reagan rewrote history to render it less disheartening, less alienating. He told Americans a story they preferred to hear, rather than the truth. “A bereft nation had just lost its first war, change was everywhere,” Perlstein observes, “and, quietly, Americans were hugging any excuse not to change.” The war in Vietnam was now a brave rescue of tortured prisoners of war by righteous American forces. Watergate was an attack on patriotic conservatives by callow liberal troublemakers.

Watergate and the Reagan Revolution are often treated as disparate phenomena, propelled by disconnected forces. Perlstein’s stroke of genius is to see the fall of Nixon and the rise of Reagan as a single, unified political moment. Nixon’s hubris brought him crashing down to earth only a few short years after being reelected in a landslide. Surely the nation was ready to face its own failings – its presidential malfeasance, its woefully misguided war in Vietnam, the gap between its ideals and its tawdry reality. Reagan, ahead of the curve, realised that Americans simply preferred not to. “Just this sort of performance of blitheness in the face of what others called chaos was fundamental to who Ronald Reagan was,” Perlstein observes. “It was fundamental to why he made so many others feel so good. Which was fundamental to what he was to become, and the way he changed the world.”

Perlstein grasps that Reagan was at the forefront of the desire to deny American reality, to craft an alternate country in which presidents did not break the law and the social changes of the 1960s had magically been erased: “Reagan’s refusal to wax morose about Watergate was not an impediment to his political appeal. It was central to his political appeal.” In 1976, Reagan set himself in front of the nation’s cameras, positioning himself as the country’s improbable saviour from the horrors of moderation. That year, he would grudgingly accept the country’s caveats about his leadership. Four years later, he would begin in earnest.

Saul Austerlitz is the author of Sitcom: A History in 24 Episodes from I Love Lucy to Community.