On August 22, 1973, an embattled President Richard Nixon held a rare press conference in San Clemente, California. The main subject was the exploding Watergate scandal in which burglars in the pay of the Committee to Re-Elect the President (widely known as Creep) had broken into the Democratic National Committee headquarters, but other subjects came up too, including one a reporter raised towards the end of the session: "Mr President, in your Cambodian invasion speech of April 1970, you reported to the American people that the United States had been strictly observing the neutrality of Cambodia," the reporter began. "I am wondering [in the] light of what we now know - that there were 15 months of bombing of Cambodia previous to your statement - whether you owe an apology to the American people?"
Nixon promptly shot back: "Certainly not, and not to the Cambodian people, because as far as this area is concerned, the area of approximately 10 miles which was bombed during this period, no Cambodians had been in it for years."
Don Fulsom was that reporter, and even while he was congratulating himself on putting a thorny question to a notoriously evasive president, one of Nixon's deputy press secretaries came over and shook Fulsom's hand, smiling with pride at the job his boss had done with fielding this question. It was a smug little gesture, and it stuck with Fulsom, prompting him to put a rejoinder in his latest book, Nixon's Darkest Secrets, even though his opponent is long dead ("How did so many Cambodians die from bombings in areas 'totally occupied' by North Vietnamese troops, Mr President?") As Fulsom himself tells us, "I covered the White House during the Johnson and Nixon presidencies, and although I went on to continue covering the White House during the Ford, Reagan and Clinton administrations, I never quite got over Richard Nixon."
That sense of personal involvement is the strongest element of Fulsom's book. Unfortunately, its weakest element is its extensive reliance on the fuzzy, angry, and gossipy recollections of lots of other people who "never quite got over Richard Nixon". Fulsom is a former UPI Washington bureau chief with decades of experience reporting on national politics; he was the first reporter to link the Watergate burglary with Nixon's re-election campaign, and he's talked at length with virtually all the surviving key players from those years. He had the tools and the knowledge to produce a better book than this one, and considering the penchant for smear and innuendo exhibited by the very man he's trying to expose, he had the moral obligation to do so as well.
Instead, Nixon's Darkest Secrets far too often amounts to nothing more than reheated hearsay. Readers are treated to a horror-show of recited villainies on the part of America's 37th president - ties to organised crime, physical abuse of his staff and his wife, allegations of a clandestine homosexual affair, repeated anecdotes of alcoholism - but as often as not, these villainies have no grounding in any facts that can be verified. Many of the notes at the end of the book wouldn't pass a rigorous secondary schoolteacher's scrutiny.
Take as an example the story of how Nixon's final White House chief of staff Alexander Haig wanted to know if Nixon's "spies and bagmen" Jack Caufield and Tony Ulasewicz had "travelled to the Far East and brought back huge stacks of cash for Nixon". According to Fulsom, Haig ordered Russell Bintliff, from the army's Criminal Investigations Command, to investigate, and Bintliff reported "that Caufield and Ulasdwicz 'probably had gone to Vietnam, and I considered there were strong indications of a history of Nixon connections with money from organised crime'." Fulsom writes, "This bizarre and overlooked tale of the president's top aide mounting a secret criminal investigation against his boss didn't surface until 1976, when it was disclosed by Jerry O'Leary, a Washington Star reporter with tight ties to US Intelligence."
But even if we give any credence to what O'Leary claims Bintliff said to Haig, Bintliff's "report" as quoted here is nothing but a vaguely phrased opinion - and a glance at Fulsom's note for all of it reveals that the whole story (including whether or not Haig ever made such an investigation) comes from the 1982 memoir Lost Honor by convicted Watergate criminal John Dean.
Or take Fulsom's repeated insinuations that there was a homoerotic element to Nixon's friendship with reputed mob figure Bebe Rebozo. Time writer Bonnie Angelo was part of the press pool that accompanied Nixon on his 1972 trip to Key Biscayne soon after his re-election. On December 1, Angelo and other reporters tagged along while Nixon and Rebozo went to dinner in Miami, where, according to Angelo, she'd "never seen two men hold hands for as long and as fondly as Nixon and Rebozo proceeded to do". Jim McManus, another reporter on the same trip, "vividly recalls her reaction" - but Fulsom's note tells us that vivid recollection was made to Fulsom via email in 2010, almost 40 years after the event. McManus goes on: "As one who observed Mr. Nixon up close for six years, I have my own opinion. For now, I can only confirm Bonnie Angelo's story." But of course McManus can't confirm a story he didn't see, and a decades-old recollection of anything is suspect, and Fulsom should know both those things well enough to leave the whole sloppy mess out of his book.
There's much more along the same lines in Nixon's Darkest Secrets - up to and including implications that Nixon was somehow involved in the assassination of President John F Kennedy. "Was Nixon capable of ordering a Mafia-style hit on an enemy?" Fulsom asks. "The answer is yes."
In his book's most embarrassing chapter, Fulsom aligns himself with "assassination theorists" who maintain that up to 50 trained marksmen were assembled in Dallas to kill the president and frame Lee Harvey Oswald.
Citing a book by convicted Watergate felon HR Haldeman, Fulsom writes: "In his book, Haldeman added that the CIA pulled off a "fantastic cover-up" that "literally erased any connection between the Kennedy assassination and the CIA". Haldeman never revealed his source," Fulsom admits, before predictably adding, "but evidence points to Nixon." And as flimsy as a lying Haldeman might be, he's marginally better than Fulsom's next "source": "Was Richard Nixon really in Dallas on November 22 for a PepsiCo convention, as he said," he asks, "or could his presence have been some sort of signal to his friends in the Mob and the CIA and among the Cuban exiles - the eventual chief suspects of JFK assassination conspiracy theorists? Chicago Mob boss Sam Giancana proudly told relatives that, as the mastermind of the JFK assassination plot, he and Nixon had a preassassination meeting there to discuss the plot."
At another point, when discussing various "revelations" by convicted Watergate felon Frank Sturgis, Fulsom is forced to admit the obvious: "Sturgis's declassified testimony has gone mostly unexamined by scholars and historians. And with justifiable reason: This burglar, spy, and self-confessed killer was not a reliable witness - mostly because he was all too willing to spread obvious disinformation for the CIA." But then, incredibly, Fulsom adds," ... Nonetheless, even habitual liars sometimes tell the truth."
Shoving aides, kicking car seats, getting drunk at dinner, having his picture taken with mobsters ... the greatest disappointment of Nixon's Darkest Secrets is how minor those secrets come across as being when measured against the full evil of the man. When Nixon went before the nation on August 8, 1974, and announced his resignation - only a few days after a White House tape recording surfaced proving beyond question that he'd known everything about the Watergate break-in - something unspoken and completely vital to the nation cracked along its entire axis. And three years later (during a 1977 interview with David Frost), when Nixon said, "When the president does it, that means it's not illegal," that crack shattered open and has never been closed since. It was an inky stain on the nation, and it spread forward in time even to the present, with the United States launching two wars, one of them illegal, mainly at the urging of two former Nixon acolytes, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, the vice-president and defence secretary under president George W Bush. The real Nixon was far darker than the bumbling cartoon villain Fulsom paints here - perhaps the sharpest irony of them all.
Steve Donoghue is managing editor of Open Letters Monthly.