Our book today is George V. Higgins’ scathing, white-hot 1974 scrawl of rage, The Friends of Richard Nixon. The name of the book is a play on the title of Higgins’ 1972 cult favorite (and gradual best-seller) The Friends of Eddie Coyle, which had by ’74 become well enough known to give the later book’s title a little extra resonance. And the subject, of course, is Watergate – a term some of you may know from the brief Ancient History class you took in high school, but which was once upon a time the watch-word for an entire generation, an entire society. The President of the United States was caught in the commission of a baker’s dozen crimes, and they were petty little crimes, which made them somehow far, far worse than, say, starting two unprovoked and open-ended wars in distant lands. I’ve spent a long time trying to figure out exactly why those petty little crimes feel worse than the much bigger and more brazen crimes that were to follow in the Oval Office, and the answer I always come up with is personal: Nixon himself – small, twisted, venal – is the reason.
Whatever the reason (or even relative seriousness), Watergate tore a big rift in the American psyche, and more to the point book-wise, it generated mountains of exquisitely angry prose in response. Probably the most magisterial (although still hopping mad) was Ted White’s 1975 book Breach of Faith (we’ll get to all of White in due time here at Stevereads), but there’s no explicit competition here – Higgins is going for entirely different effects. If White’s book is an attempt – however pre-ordainedly doomed – to place the whole scandal in the court of history, Higgins’ book is going for an arraignment in the court of law. Higgins was a lawyer himself, and it took this mother of all prosecutions to tempt him away from the realm of fiction, where he achieved a degree of narrative mastery that’s enormously underappreciated today (he made one other foray into this kind of political writing – an oddly uneven quasi-attack on Boston mayor Kevin White, but re-reading The Friends of Richard Nixon makes me want to pull it down off the shelf and look for the merits I must have missed the first time around).
In this book he seeks to do justice upon that lord of the dark lands, Richard Nixon, a man he calls “perilous to trust, and perfect folly to protect” and whom he characterizes from the very first in the harshest terms possible, telling us, “It is difficult to pinpoint the day when President Nixon, like the driver of a troika kicking passengers off to deflect pursuing wolves, began to sacrifice his henchmen to the perpetuation of his presidency.”
This is a supremely angry book, and when Higgins was very angry, he would retreat behind an iron wall of crystalline prose and steep intellect, he would assume an awful exactitude of point and sentiment, and he wouldn’t come out from his battlements while his foe was still anywhere on the field. It could make disagreeing with him extremely disagreeable, but now that he himself is gone, that cold fire gives a surprising warmth:
The statute which prosecutes perjury before grand juries and courts also provides for perjury before congressional committees, and every other body conducting proceedings in which the law authorizes the taking of testimony under oath. You can’t commit perjury by accident. The statute says the liar has to do it on purpose. He must hear a question which asks for subject matter … material to the investigation underway. He must swear to the contrary, and know he is swearing to the contrary, and intend to swear to the contrary, and sit there (it’s not necessary for the offense, but it’s sure as hell necessary for the fellow who plans to prove the offense was committed) barefaced, hoping to goodness that the interrogator swallows the whopper, because the witness or some buddy of his will be in serious trouble if the questioner starts laughing.
Everywhere in The Friends of Richard Nixon we are treated to that perfectly-honed Higgins prose, that long-standing mastery of the rhythm of prose:
None of them [the Justice Department] suspected Mr. Nixon of obstructing justice. Consequently, they did not suspect his lawyer, Mr. Dean.
There were, as a matter of fact, plenty of people who said, or strongly implied, that the President was doing exactly that. And he was. But the people who said it could not prove it, and the people who could have proved it were busy helping him do it …
But ultimately this book – all books written about Watergate while Watergate was still a fresh wound – boils down, as noted, to anger. Anger that the man in the White House had so thoroughly divorced himself from his duty that he saw the presidency as a grab-bag opportunity, rather than a sacred trust. Anger that such a man (and his Nazgul, who are still among us, racking up body-counts) could create the precedent where even the occupant of the highest office in the land – especially that occupant – is solely concerned with the perpetuation of this own power, and everything else – honor, law, the whole damn country – can go to hell. Anger even that the good man who came after him decided to pardon him, to spare the nation the further ordeal of watching this SOB lie and wheedle on the witness stand. Ultimately, all those first-generation Watergate books are born of this anger, and even when Higgins is at his most steely, that anger gets the best of him, reduces him to interrupting even his own transcriptions:
He was lying. And the best he would manage, even under the guns of virtually certain indictment by the Special Prosecutor, secluded in disgrace and bailed out, intemperately soon, by President Ford, was this: “I can see clearly now … that I was wrong in not acting more decisively and more forthrightly in dealing with Watergate … I know that many fair-minded people believe that my motivation and actions in the Watergate affair were intentionally self-serving and illegal.” Felonious, as a matter of fact, vicious, unprincipled, deceitful, corrupt, malicious, spiteful, vengeful and dead wrong. “I now understand how my own mistakes and misjudgments” – surely the most delicate phraseology ever employed by a President of the United States to describe a conspiracy to obstruct justice – “have contributed to that belief and seemed to support it.” Seemed, my lord? If this is seeming, what the hell is fact? “That the way I tried to deal with Watergate” – by paying hush money, and sacrificing friends, and lying to loyalists, and watching subalterns go off to jail while lying some more – “was the wrong way is a burden I shall bear every day of the life that is left to me.” My God, he wanted sympathy.
The accused gets no sympathy in this thrilling book, and he deserves none. But such writing has its own rewards, even when sprouted from a dung-hill.