Nonfiction Books » Politics & Society » American Politics

The best books on Richard Nixon

recommended by David Greenberg

American president Richard Nixon will be forever remembered for his role in the Watergate scandal and his resignation in 1974, a blow for a man obsessed with his image who hoped to be remembered as a peacemaker on the global stage. Here historian David Greenberg, a professor at Rutgers, recommends books on a man who elicited very strong emotions, both for and against.

Interview by Eve Gerber

Buy all books

Our topic is books about Richard Nixon, America’s 37th president. In Nixon’s Shadow, you write that in his own time, “No one was more admired (he was the most respected man in America four years in a row, Gallup reported), no one more loathed (for six years he ranked among the world’s most hated men in one poll, twice edging out Hitler as number one).”

Even very early on, when Richard Nixon was a congressman then a senator and then Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president, there was something about him that brought out the hatred in liberals and suspicion among his fellow conservatives. Perhaps it went to his personal characteristics. As most politicians are, he was incredibly driven. But unlike most, Nixon did not respect the norms of politics and he ultimately did not respect the rules of American democracy.

You see this in the literature about Nixon. By the 1950s, there is writing about the ways he didn’t respect the rules of fair play. Nixon became known for going after people for communist associations, even when it was totally unwarranted. He was known to make all kinds of underhanded insinuations. He was known for dirty tricks and below-the-belt campaign tactics.

Nixon had enough self-awareness to know that his reputation was turning into a political liability, so he tried to reinvent himself. When he ran for president in 1960, and again in 1968, we heard a lot about the new Nixon. It worked well enough to get him elected. And he managed to win reelection in a landslide in 1972. Yet those impressions of ‘Tricky Dick,’ as he was known, never went away.

Richard Nixon is most readily recalled for his least attractive features, his jowls, his racism, his paranoia, his impeachment. To begin our discussion of America’s 37th president, can you please sketch the salient features which led to his success?

People often forget that Nixon was seen as a clean-cut, appealing, highly competent, up-and-coming figure by his conservative Southern California base early in his career. This is the group that propelled him to the House of Representatives and then to the Senate. It surprised me, when I did research, to discover Nixon was described as handsome in his early years. It showed me that something that you would think of as objective as a person’s physical appearance is shaped by the associations we have with the person. Nixon was a Navy vet, and his family was front and center. Before Nixon’s ugly side was widely seen, there was more of a willingness to treat him as an embodiment of the new postwar generation. He was almost an exact contemporary of John F. Kennedy; they were often paired together, even back in ‘46 when they were both elected to Congress. In retrospect, it sounds funny to apply the word wholesome to Nixon; but his supporters saw in him a wholesomeness that helped propel his success in politics.

Turning to your books, in President Nixon: Alone in the White House presidential biographer Richard Reeves sets out to reconstruct the Nixon presidency as it looked from the center.

I wanted the list to include one book that covered the whole of the Nixon presidency. Watergate dominated Nixon’s presidency but was not the only thing. The problem is that some of the surveys don’t really capture Nixon. They tend to be dry monographs or whitewash his underside. But the Reeves book is a close narrative.

“His supporters saw in him a wholesomeness that helped propel his success”

Reeves tries to show you, day-by-day or month-by-month, life inside Nixon’s White House. But it also has a strong theme. You see that Nixon’s character came into play—his secrecy, his duplicity, his suspiciousness—with respect to his policymaking. In this view, Watergate doesn’t seem like an aberration, it seems like an outgrowth of tendencies that infected all of Nixon’s presidency. It’s a very good introduction to the significant political and policy developments of his presidency, but it’s also a very good introduction to his character.

“Governing by surprise” and “scheming to bypass checks and balances” are the leitmotifs of the Nixon presidency, according to Reeves. What does he mean by governing by surprise? Can you give me an example?

To make a big splash, Nixon announced the opening to China in 1971 without having done much to prepare the public. Kissinger secretly negotiated—in China—to make the announcement more dramatic and redound to their credit more. To be fair, there are elements of diplomacy that do need to be conducted with secrecy or at least discretion. But Nixon reveled in secrecy.

The obsession with secrecy led him to set up the plumber’s unit, which was so called because they were supposed to stop leaks. This was an illegal White House intelligence unit that committed burglaries to find out who was leaking from the White House and how to stop it. Leaking is something other presidents have been concerned with, but none went so far as to set up a private intelligence unit in the bowels of the White House.

Next you name All the President’s Men, surely one of the most consequential books ever written, by the Washington Post reporters who helped break news of the Watergate scandal. The book came out just a couple months before Nixon resigned. Time claimed it “brought down a presidency” and called it “perhaps the most influential piece of journalism in history.” Tell us about it and why we ought to read it.

All the President’s Men is a dramatic story of how dogged reporting exposed the Watergate scandal and kept public focus on it at a time when a lot of the press corps was ready to move on. I almost didn’t put All the President’s Men in because Nixon himself is not really a character. The book was later made into a very successful movie. It became iconic as a representation of our understanding of what investigative journalism can and should be.

It’s the wonderfully written story of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. They were young metro reporters who were assigned to Watergate when it was seen as a local burglary that happened to be at the Democratic Headquarters in DC. Recall, reports about Watergate didn’t deter Nixon’s reelection by a landslide in 1972. But the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein did catch the attention of senators and the judge in the trial of the burglars who were apprehended during the Watergate break-in. So, their reporting was influential and consequential.

Fred Emery’s Watergate is your next recommendation. Tell us about it and what it adds to the picture of Nixon.

While All the President’s Men is primarily the story of uncovering the scandal, for a basic narrative of Watergate it doesn’t get better than this book by Fred Emery. How did Watergate start and who was involved? The great New York Times journalist Anthony Lukas’s Nightmare has unsurpassable character sketches of key Watergate figures, but it dates to the early seventies. In the 1990s, Fred Emery wrote this concise, fast-paced narrative of the whole Watergate scandal. It’s the book I recommend as an intro to Watergate.

On to Nixon and Kissinger by Robert Dallek. Tell us about the book and why the partnership between Nixon and his national security counselor Henry Kissinger was so pivotal.

Kissinger was a long-time foreign policy guy who had worked for Nelson Rockefeller, among others. Nixon and Kissinger had this very crazy relationship. On the one hand, they worked closely together, but there was also a lot of acrimony and distrust.

Apart from Watergate, what people tend to remember about Nixon’s presidency, and often respect—despite debate and controversy—is his foreign policy. Nixon really did care about foreign policy, more than anything else. He always wanted to be known as a peacemaker as his legacy.

Get the weekly Five Books newsletter

There were three big areas of his foreign policy record. One was his attempt to end the Vietnam War. He did end it, but only after several more years of American involvement, which was not what was expected when he had been elected in 1968. The second most important aspect of his foreign policy regarded the Soviet Union. Whatever you think of the long-term ramifications of détente, he did start the process. Thirdly, the opening to China. Communist China had been isolated from the family of nations and had no engagement with the United States when Nixon moved to reintegrate it.

Robert Dallek is one of our leading presidential biographers. He did great books about LBJ and John F. Kennedy. Dallek decided to blend Nixon’s story with Kissinger’s story, mainly focusing on these three arenas—the Soviet Union, China, and Vietnam. There’s other stuff about the Middle East and Latin America. There are several good books on Nixon’s foreign policy, William Bundy wrote one called A Tangled Web. There are a few others I was tempted to name. Dallek’s Nixon and Kissinger is readable, enjoyable, and comprehensive.

In Nixon’s Shadow, your brilliant book, which I insisted we discuss as one of the five, you make clear that Nixon’s public image was that of a political chimera. You write, “his historical importance lies partly in having helped to foster our current image-obsessed political culture.” Please tell us about Nixon’s Shadow.

There was a lot that was shadowy about Nixon. For one, he was known for his five o’clock shadow. Some argue that his dark stubble was one reason he lost the 1960 televised debates to John F. Kennedy when he was first running for president.

Nixon’s Shadow is about the man and what he meant to different groups of Americans—from his Southern California boosters to the liberal intellectuals who hated him. And it’s about how different groups have reinterpreted and reconceptualized Nixon. You could say it’s as much historiography as biography.

Nixon was, even more than most politicians, obsessed with his image. There’s a great story about how he wanted to bring in a television advisor to tell him whether he should hold the phone with his left or right hand when photographed. Nixon emerged in an era when politicians were learning to master television and the politics of image, and when the public was coming to see politicians in terms of image. There was interesting interplay between his own obsession with image and the media’s focus on optics.

Now, a great deal of our political discourse is about image, message and talking points. It feels hollow because we’re not really engaging with underlying concerns. But image is not just a distraction, it is an expression of something fundamental. Image reflects the way values surface and express themselves to the public. So, Nixon’s Shadow is both a study of Nixon, but also a study of how image has come to dominate our thinking about politics.

In Nixon’s Shadow you portray your subject as unrivaled in his corruption of the presidency, citing “his unique violations of the Constitution, his unmatched abuses of power, his deliberate direction of a criminal conspiracy from the White House.” Would you write that sentence in 2022? Do you believe Nixon’s abuses of power remain unmatched in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidency?

For many decades after Nixon, people would compare contemporary scandals to those of the Nixon years. Does the Iran-Contra scandal rival Watergate? What about Bill Clinton’s relationship with a White House intern? John Dean, who was Nixon’s White House counsel, wrote a book about the George W. Bush years called Worse Than Watergate, but he later said the title was hyperbolic. Watergate was the benchmark. No scandal came close to it until Trump.

Support Five Books

Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you're enjoying this interview, please support us by .

Although we should await the verdict of history on the Trump years, it’s safe to say that the scandals and corruption of contemporary democracy during the Trump administration match or outstrip what we call Watergate. There are certainly some similarities between the Nixon and Trump administrations, which both tried to chip away at the constitutional constraints of the presidency. After Watergate, there was some legislation that tried to reign in what was being called the “imperial presidency” in the 1970s. Fears remained of what a single individual with extreme will to power might do in the Oval Office.

The echoes of Nixon’s presidency during Donald Trump’s were not a shock. I wrote a few pieces, over the Trump years, drawing on parallels between America’s 37th and 45th presidents. When Trump talked about firing his attorney general and firing Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who was investigating him, people thought about the so-called ‘Saturday Night Massacre,’ when Nixon fired the special prosecutor investigating Watergate and his attorney general quit. These echoes suggest there are recurring dangers emanating from the structure of American government which allow abuses of executive power.

Nixon’s Shadow captures how optics overshadowed reasoned debate in America’s public square after World War II. But from the perspective of the 2020s, an age of nano-celebrity when presidential tweets can be as pivotal as presidential speeches, the Kennedy-Nixon debates during the Golden Era of Television seem quaint by comparison. How have intervening years changed how we look at Nixon?

Although television still has an important role in presidential politics, social media using internet mobile devices has become a more dominant form of media. A lot of politicking is still image-based; but it’s also meme-based and tweet-based, as you say. So future analyses of image in our current politics will have a different starting point.

Twitter was around throughout the Obama presidency, but because Obama wasn’t a Twitter kind-of-thinker he didn’t harness it much. The Twittersphere is about brevity and impulsivity. So, naturally, Donald Trump was drawn to that domain. It wasn’t so much that Trump cracked the code of Twitter, but that Trump was the type to use the unique properties of Twitter to amplify his political image. It doesn’t mean every president thereafter is going to be a Twitter president. Joe Biden isn’t. But having an intrinsic knack or affinity for a newly dominant medium does serve a president or a candidate for the presidency.

Interview by Eve Gerber

August 12, 2022

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at [email protected]

David Greenberg

David Greenberg

David Greenberg is a professor of History and of Journalism & Media Studies at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, and a frequent commentator in the national news media on contemporary politics and public affairs. He specializes in American political and cultural history.

David Greenberg

David Greenberg

David Greenberg is a professor of History and of Journalism & Media Studies at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, and a frequent commentator in the national news media on contemporary politics and public affairs. He specializes in American political and cultural history.