They Said No to Nixon: Republicans Who Stood Up to the President's Abuses of Power by Michael Koncewicz
Since Richard Nixon's resignation in 1974, scholars have explored the consequences of the abuse of power within his administration. In They Said No to Nixon, Michael Koncewicz, the Cold War Collections Specialist [End Page 250] at New York University's Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, highlights the unique role of the Republicans who refused to politicize their roles under Nixon. Koncewicz argues Nixon was unsuccessful in his effort to institutionalize the abuse of power, in part, because of those civil servants. Simultaneously, the author demonstrates the perceived threat to the non-partisan culture of the federal bureaucracy underscored their resistance while also arguing that Nixon's attempts to politicize the bureaucracy negated his historical image as a moderate.
After a lengthy introduction, Koncewicz focuses on instances where Republicans in Nixon's administration helped to forestall his plans. In the first chapter, he discusses how Johnnie Walters impeded the president's attempts to politicize the Internal Revenue Service. Specifically, he refused, with the backing of Treasury Secretary George Schultz, to conduct audits of people on Nixon's enemies list. In the second chapter, Koncewicz examines how Kenneth Dam, William Morrill, and Paul O'Neill, assistant directors at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), blocked the president's efforts to minimize the influence of the establishment by redirecting federal grants away from Ivy League universities. Simultaneously, he explores Nixon's cultural populism or efforts to encourage voters to distrust the elite. Here again, Koncewicz shows Schultz, the former director of the OMB, playing a role in the resistance efforts.
In the third and fourth chapters, Koncewicz sketches the rocky relationship Elliot Richardson had with Nixon and then looks at his role in Watergate. Richardson's long career in the civil service brought a certain level of credibility and authority to the Nixon cabinet, and yet, his ties to the establishment "made him an uneasy fit within the administration" (p. 115). During his tenure at Health, Education and Welfare, Richardson quietly took positions that countered Nixon's efforts to move domestic policy in a more conservative direction. Despite concerns about Richardson's loyalty, in 1973, Nixon selected him as attorney general because he had the kind of reputation the public would trust given the Watergate revelations. In his new role, Richardson sought to find a middle ground between the position of the special prosecutor and the position of the White House regarding the release of the audio tapes. However, given the failure to find a compromise, he opted to resign rather than fire Archibald Cox. Richardson believed he had made a commitment to Congress to support the special prosecutor's efforts in his confirmation hearings. Resignation was the only course of action for him, but the same was not true for Robert Bork, the solicitor general who eventually fired the special prosecutor. [End Page 251]
Koncewicz seeks to use "the White House tapes and other recently released documents to explore the depths of the Nixon presidency" while also providing enough evidence from those sources to suggest scholars should not ignore Nixon's abuse of power in favor of focusing on the positive aspects of his presidency (p. 22). In keeping with these goals, the author draws heavily from the documentary record of the Nixon administration including internal memos and recordings of conversations as well as the papers and memoirs of the people who figured prominently in the book, though the use of the tapes proves most noteworthy. For example, Koncewicz describes a conversation from September 15, 1972, in which the president expressed dismay over Johnnie Walters's unwillingness to attack his political opponents, with Nixon commenting, "How come we haven't pulled [George] McGovern's file on his income tax?" (p. 59). The author also points to an exchange from May 15, 1972, in which Nixon berated National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger for meeting with representatives from the Ivy League and promised to "finish off those schools to the extent that I can" (p. 91). Finally, prior to the public revelations about the taping system, Koncewicz highlights Nixon's concerns about Richardson's willingness to protect him. On June 13, 1973, for instance, the president indicated "he better start fighting for me or he's gonna be out" (p. 145).
While Koncewicz suggests his focus centered on Walters, Dam, Morrill, O'Neill, and Richardson, the first two chapters in effect talk about the influence of Schultz while the final two chapters talk about the influence of Richardson. Undoubtedly, the individuals who took their concerns to Schultz were important, but they clearly played a less prominent role in the administration. Without the backing of Schultz, they probably would not have been able to carry out their resistance. The greatest strength of the book is the author's use of sources, especially the White House tapes. Koncewicz successfully argues that scholars should not treat the tapes as just rants by the president because what Nixon said led to direct action by people who served him. The greatest weakness of the book comes in the introduction. Koncewicz, in expressing his dismay over the direction the Richard Nixon Library in recent years, unintentionally demonstrates his bias on the subject. His purpose would have been better served if he spent a few paragraphs talking about his experience working there as opposed to several pages.
Overall, Koncewicz successfully argues that, absent Schultz and Richardson, Nixon would have been better positioned to accelerate the politicization of the bureaucracy. He also effectively shows that in each instance of resistance the individuals sought to preserve the nonpartisan nature of the federal bureaucracy. At the same time, Koncewicz [End Page 252] shows how only a handful of individuals had the fortitude to stand up to the president leaving the reader to wonder how much impact these men really had. After all, they slowed rather than completely halted conservative Republican efforts to politicize the bureaucracy to their advantage. Overall, though, They Said No to Nixon adds to the scholarship on the inner-workings of the bureaucracy under Nixon, provides ample evidence of Nixon's malfeasance, and sheds light on the trajectory of conservative influence in the Republican Party since the 1970s.
SARAH KATHERINE MERGEL is an associate professor of history at Dalton State College. She wrote Conservative Intellectuals and Richard Nixon: Rethinking the Rise of the Right and co-wrote History in the Making, an open education resource for use in American history courses. She is currently researching the role of identity politics in the 1920s.