40 years after the fall, revisiting Nixon in ‘Washington Journal’

In the 1975 book “Washington Journal: Reporting Watergate and Richard Nixon’s Downfall,” author Elizabeth Drew examined the players and the political upheaval behind Nixon’s fall from power. Now nearing the 40th anniversary of Nixon’s resignation, this classic piece of political journalism is being re-released. Judy Woodruff talks to Drew about the politician at the center of the infamous scandal.

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    Finally tonight, 40 years after President Nixon left office in disgrace, another look at that tumultuous period and Mr. Nixon's post-presidential life.

    Judy Woodruff recorded this book conversation earlier.


    That perspective comes from veteran journalist Elizabeth Drew, the long-time Washington correspondent for "The New Yorker" magazine.

    In 1974, she wrote the book "Washington Journal: Reporting Watergate and Richard Nixon's Downfall," which captured the players and the political upheaval of that scandal as it unfolded. The book was re-released this movement to mark the 40th anniversary of President Nixon's resignation.

    Elizabeth Drew has written an afterward, which looks at the man and his path to political rehabilitation.

    And she joins me now.

    Elizabeth Drew, it's good to see you again.

    ELIZABETH DREW, Author, "Washington Journal": Nice to see you, Judy. Here we are.


    So this book, the original book stands as a classic of American political journalism, the story you tell.


    Thank you.


    Why put it out again?


    It's not really done for the anniversary. It coincides with, but it was out of print.

    And I felt very strongly that this is a book that should be kept alive. My great mentor, John Gardner, advised me when I had this dream assignment William Shawn, the editor of "The New Yorker"…


    Back in the 1970s.


    And Labor Day, 1973, he said, what are you thinking of writing about? And I said, I think we're going to change vice presidents and presidents within a year.

    Now, this was a way-out thought then. So, we agreed I would keep this journal. And Mr. Gardner said to me, write it so that, 40 years from now, people can say, so that's what it was like, because you cannot go back and recapture that extraordinary period.


    And it's still — every bit of it captures what happened in those days that last year before the president, President Nixon, resigned.

    But you write — the afterward is all about Richard Nixon after he resigned. And he lived another 20 years. And you write about how he was determined to redeem himself.


    I don't that very many people would have survived the crushing blow that he suffered.

    Here, he had worked all those years to be president. He finally got there, and he ruined it. He kind of knew he did. There's a wonderful soliloquy in there where he says, you learn early how to be tough and how to fight back. And he was always in combat. He always felt people were looking down on him and he had to show them and you had to fight.

    Well, he wasn't going to give in again. And so he made a plan, a secret plan called "The Wizard," and it was how he was going to get respectability back.


    Which was entirely in character for him, you write, to try to do that, to try to make a comeback.


    He said, a man is never defeated unless he quits. I am not a quitter. And he never was a quitter, and he wasn't going to be a quitter then.

    And that was very innate to him. But he had a long way to go to come back from this great disgrace.


    At a couple of points, you write, Elizabeth Drew — you said, "Sometimes, it seemed that Nixon never had a chance. He was trapped in a character that wouldn't permit him to be content."

    You also write, "One can almost empathize with the man who was a prisoner of his own resentments, suspicions, hatreds."

    Did you almost empathize with him?


    Yes, because he was — thank you for that quote. That's a good one to pick.

    He was trapped in his own character from a very young age. He didn't have friends. He felt that the other boys were — they were stronger than he was, and so he went out for football just to show them that he could.

    He wasn't invited into the right clubs. And so he was filled with resentments, and he was a loner. It's a very strange kind of figure to go into politics, much less succeed at the level that he did, because he didn't have friends. He didn't like people particularly, and people didn't like him, but he just kept striving. And he wasn't going to quit now.


    Did he succeed in redeeming himself to any — in any regard in that 20 years?


    I think, in his own terms, yes, he did. He would have loved his funeral, Judy.

    We — he had an acting president. President Ford was there. Four ex-presidents were there, all sorts of statesmen, a lot of senators and congressmen. He would have thought, OK, I won. I showed them. Now, he worked very hard at this several — several years. And there are some very funny stories about the ways that he did work at it and conned people, or blackmailed people, whatever it was that he did.

    But, in his own terms, yes, he got it back. Now, is he a national hero now? I don't think so. He would be amazed to find that he's a cult figure now.


    And for those younger generations and even older generations who really don't remember or don't know what Watergate was, what was it, finally?


    This was a constitutional crisis. Was the president accountable to the Congress, to the courts?

    Nixon was trying not to be by not obeying a court order to turn over the tapes, by not obeying subpoenas for information from the Congress. And the House Judiciary Committee did draw up three articles of impeachment, which would have passed had there not been another tape found that really incriminated him.

    It was very scary. The other thing was — I realized I wrote about it at the time, but I didn't focus on it as a subject. You have the party in power decide in the White House who they did or didn't want him to run against — against him in 1972.

    And he had — he confused opponents with enemies. He had them tailed. He had them — he had them wiretapped. The break-in of the national committee was just one of many, many things. So there was a very — it was a semi-hilarious, but very scary time.


    Forty years later, it's every bit as riveting, "Washington Journal: Reporting Watergate and Richard Nixon's Downfall."

    Elizabeth Drew, thank you.


    Thank you, Judy.

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