As with The Greatest Comeback, Buchanan’s narrative is naturally focused on those episodes where his own imprint, or trove of surviving memos, is most potent. While White House Wars provides an excellent window onto the Nixon presidency, much is missing. Buchanan is silent, for example, on the discovery in December 1971 that the Joint Chiefs of Staff had been spying on Nixon and Kissinger, stealing their classified documents for thirteen months in wartime: the so-called Moorer-Radford affair. Other scholars depict that episode as a signal event in Nixon’s stormy tenure, decisive to his fate.
Likewise, Buchanan’s treatment of Watergate is fascinating, but anecdotal. While he quotes from the work of subsequent scholars on various subjects, Buchanan never grapples with the most important Watergate research published since 1974, the great thrust of which has been aimed at determining who really ordered the break-in and wiretapping of the Democratic National Committee at Watergate and why. Most tantalizing, Buchanan tells us he was personal friends with the target of the operation, a mid-level DNC official named R. Spencer Oliver, and had the man over to the Buchanans’ Watergate residence for drinks, ostensibly to answer his own burning question—“Why was the [Committee to Re-Elect the President] bugging Spencer?”—yet we never learn Oliver’s answer.
Also absent from Buchanan’s bibliography are the landmarks Secret Agenda (1984) and Silent Coup (1991), which provided very substantial answers to both questions, elaborated upon in my own book The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate (2008), which does appear in the bibliography.
But the wit in all the Buchananecdotes, the pungency of his writing—what William F. Buckley, Jr. called the author’s “enormous forensic ingenuity”—renders these deficiencies small by comparison. We even get glimpses into the author’s two-year stint as communications director in the Reagan White House, when he observed the president in private, bedeviled by the Democratic House speaker, spewing in uncharacteristic anger, “That Goddamn Tip O’Neill!”
A final pleasure of the volume is to be found in flashes of the bygone Washington where Buchanan was raised (and once caddied for Vice President Nixon). Some of this ground was covered in his autobiography Right From the Beginning (1988), which remains an important source of information about the rise of conservatism. Buchanan’s latest effort transports us to a time when the University Club was all-male and visitors to the pool swam in the nude; when a couple could purchase their first house, in a tony Northwest D.C. neighborhood, on the strength of a $10,000 book advance (such as Buchanan received for his 1973 manifesto The New Majority); when White House staff aides purchased cigarettes in the basement of the Executive Office Building; and when the Russian ambassador to the United States would think nothing of asking a White House speechwriter to take a photo of him, all smiles, seated in the president’s personal cabin chair on Air Force One.
James Rosen is the chief Washington correspondent for Fox News and the editor of A Torch Kept Lit: Great Lives of the Twentieth Century, a best-selling anthology of eulogies published by the late William F. Buckley, Jr.
Image: President Nixon, with edited transcripts of Nixon White House Tape conversations. Wikimedia Commons/Public domain