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Reviews in American History 30.1 (2002) 156-167

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Richard the Bleeding Hearted

David Greenberg

J. Brooks Flippen. Nixon and the Environment. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2000. 256 pp. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, and index. $29.95.

Leonard Garment. In Search of Deep Throat: The Greatest Political Mystery of Our Time. New York: Basic Books, 2000. 280 pp. Index. $25.00 (cloth); $13.00 (paper).

Richard Reeves. President Nixon: Alone in the White House. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001. 704 pp. Notes, bibliographic essay, and index. $35.00.

Melvin Small. The Presidency of Richard Nixon. Lawrence, Kans., Kansas Press, 1999. 388 pp. Photographs, notes, bibliographic essay, and index. $29.95.

Anthony Summers.The Arrogance of Power: The Secret World of Richard Nixon.New York: Viking, 2000. 640 pp. Index. $29.95 (cloth); $16.00 (paper).

First came the Watergate books, then the memoirs, then the big biographies, then the apologias. Now, in the last couple of years, we have seen a new crop of books about Richard M. Nixon. For the most part they can be sorted into two camps.

One camp consists of monographs or broad studies of his presidency, written by academic historians or journalist-scholars. Implicitly or explicitly, these books hold that in the years after Nixon's resignation, attention to his misdeeds unfairly crowded out consideration of his administration's historic reforms, particularly in the realm of domestic policy. Although sometimes skeptical of his motives, they have typically tried to surprise readers with the man-bites-dog conclusion that, far from the reactionary his adversaries imagined, Nixon was a progressive president who passed a raft of laws and regulations that built upon Lyndon Johnson's Great Society.

In contrast, another group of Nixon books has continued to sift through the minutiae of Watergate--the vast array of dirty tricks and abuses of power that culminated with the 1972 break-in and cover-up--and seek to make sense of [End Page 156] its ever-enigmatic architect. Professional historians, perhaps daunted by the prospect of improving on J. Anthony Lukas's Nightmare or Stanley I. Kutler's Wars of Watergate, have largely abandoned the Watergate field. 1 Into the void have rushed various conspiracy theorists, scandal-mongers, axe-grinders and amateurs, who revel in chasing down obscure leads and speculating about perennial parlor-game mysteries, like the exact purpose of the Watergate break-in or the identity of the legendary whistleblower "Deep Throat."

These two camps conduct largely separate conversations. One appears to be a hard-headed discussion among scholars, grounded in documented evidence, devoted to substantive matters. The other is more like a freewheeling session of late-night chatter among incorrigible political buffs. Most of us would agree that these buffs could learn a thing or two from the professionals--about sources, evidence, and what makes a question historically significant. Yet I want to suggest that scholars should not be so confident in their methods that they dismiss the buffs altogether. For the Watergate junkies and the hungry-eyed researchers appreciate, in ways that scholars sometimes do not, what it is that has made Nixon an enduring subject of popular fascination. Intuitively at least, the buffs know that Nixon's importance in American history, like that of all presidents, politicians and public figures, lies not just in the policies he promulgated but also in the feelings and reactions he generated among the populace. The scholars, in other words, could also learn a thing or two from the buffs. Indeed, the strange case of Richard Milhous Nixon--the struggle, seen in these books, to reconcile the character of the man and the policies of his administration--raises questions about how, more generally, to approach the task of writing about politics past.

In keeping with recent trends, Nixon's domestic reforms are dealt with prominently in three new volumes: Richard Reeves's President Nixon, Melvin Small's The Presidency of Richard Nixon, and J. Brooks Flippen's Nixon and the Environment.Before examining these works, however, it is worth tracing briefly how the now-widespread image of Nixon as a steward...


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