- - Wednesday, November 13, 2019

As the Democrats in the House of Representatives march toward the impeachment of President Trump, “experts” are seeking to cash in on their “knowledge” of the last time a Republican president faced the same threat. Among them is Tom Brokaw, whose recent book, “The Fall of Richard Nixon: A Reporter Remembers Watergate,” aims to position himself as the period’s pre-eminent wise man. After closely reading his book, I’d suggest the subtitle should instead be: “A Reporter Misremembers Watergate.” Attempts to compare the effort to impeach President Nixon with the looming impeachment facing Mr. Trump should at least get the basic facts about the Watergate era right. Mr. Brokaw’s deeply flawed reportage does not.

Throughout his book, Mr. Brokaw is reckless with facts and careless with context. 

His sloppiness is evident from the book’s beginning, as he attempts to set the scene in the Nixon White House. He first says that Nixon’s staffers were “members of the white-collar Republican establishment, comfortable in country clubs and fraternity houses.” Yet just 15 pages later, he contradicts himself, this time correctly observing that: “Several of the president’s closest advisers had not come from the traditional East Coast Republican establishment.” It is one or the other; it cannot be both. In fact, most of Nixon’s closest aides were West Coast Republicans.

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Perhaps the most shocking flaw of Mr. Brokaw’s recollection is that of the 8-0 Supreme Court decision on July 24, 1974, in United States v. Nixon Mr. Brokaw writes, “[The Supreme Court] ruled unanimously that Nixon had to turn over to the House Judiciary Committee the tape recordings he had hoped to protect with executive privilege.” In reality, the ruling required the White House to turn the tapes over to the Watergate special prosecutor — not the House Judiciary Committee. For a reporter who claims to have been “on the scene,” this gross misstatement raises red flags about the entire book’s credibility.

The court decided only that the president must turn over the subpoenaed tapes to the prosecutor because the prosecutor was investigating possible criminal acts. The court did not compel the White House to give Congress private presidential conversations protected by executive privilege. Today’s equivalent would be a journalist inaccurately reporting that a court ordered President Trump to turn over documents to Rep. Adam Schiff, when in fact he was told to give them to special counsel Robert Mueller. This distinction is key when considering the battles over executive privilege currently underway.

Mr. Brokaw also erroneously describes events in early 1973 as the pursuit of Watergate began to pick up momentum. Trying to set the scene, he writes, “[Nixon] began the year triumphantly, starting to wind down the unpopular Vietnam War as he launched a second term as president with nearly 61 percent of the American electorate having voted for him.” Nixon was hardly “starting to wind down” the war; he was actually days away from ending America’s involvement. He had reduced the number of combat troops in Vietnam from 540,000 when he took office in 1969, to just a few hundred as 1973 began. It is difficult to understand how Mr. Brokaw could misremember how and when Nixon ended the war.

Perhaps the most bizarre passage in the book was the inclusion of excerpts from an October 1973 New York Times article about a suit brought by the Department of Justice against Donald Trump’s father, Fred Trump, for alleged racial discrimination in renting apartments in New York. This story has nothing to do with understanding Watergate. It seems to be a long-shot attempt to establish a link between Donald Trump and Richard Nixon where none existed.

Today, more than half of the country was born after Richard Nixon left the presidency. They rely on authoritative voices to tell accurate tales of events that they didn’t live through. As an iconic reporter and author, Tom Brokaw owes his readers — and history — a better effort than this error-riddled book. 

I worked with President Nixon during the latter part of his life, I have studied his personal journey and political career for decades. I wrote the original Watergate exhibit in the Nixon Library. No critic found a single factual error in the library’s largest exhibit. My extensive knowledge of the 37th president’s life and career sparked the production of a 19-page document detailing Mr. Brokaw’s many errors that served as the genesis for this piece.

In a time when people are concerned about “fake news,” they should be even more concerned about alternative history. If we allow people, places, events and facts to be distorted by faulty memory, what misleading view of history will students study 50 years from now about the partisan Trump impeachment?

In the coming weeks, we will see no shortage of references to President Nixon and Watergate from those seeking to ride the impeachment gravy train. Fortunately, for those interested in what really happened back then, it is not hard to find books that get the fundamental facts of that period of history straight. Sadly, Tom Brokaw’s is not one of them. 

• Robert M. Bostock is a speechwriter. He served as special assistant to President Richard Nixon.

• • •


By Tom Brokaw

Random House, $27, 240 pages

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