Author Q and A
What makes your book different from other Nixon books?
The blessing--but also the curse--for any Nixon biographer is the extraordinary primary source material. It's ironic that this most secretive of presidents left behind the most detailed and revealing of historical records. Thanks to his tapes, we can follow him on an hour-by-hour, sometimes minute by minute basis, as he plots grand strategy, rages at people who have crossed him, holds unguarded conversations with his aides, and has affectionate moments with his wife and daughters. It's difficult to do justice to the richness of this material if your focus is too broad. In this case, I believe that less is more. I haven't attempted to tell the entire story of Nixon's life, or even the entire story of Watergate, in King Richard. By choosing a narrower time frame--the hundred days that followed Nixon's second inaugural--I am able to capture him close up. My theme is a large one--the fall of a president--but the approach is exceptionally intimate. The reader and I are flies on the wall observing Nixon at the moment of his greatest crisis.
Why did you choose this particular slice of history?
Nixon began his second term with a 70 per cent approval rating, coming off one of the biggest electoral landslides in American history. Watergate seemed to be largely behind him. A hundred days later, he was fighting for his political life and contemplating resignation or even suicide. The journalist-historian Theodore White wrote a series of acclaimed books titled The Making of the President, but how often does one get to witness the unmaking of the president, from the inside, as it happened? It's an extraordinary episode in American history, in addition to being a wrenching personal story.
Please explain your choice of title.
Nixon was named after the English crusader king, Richard the Lionheart. His Quaker mother, Hannah, whom he regarded as a saint, expected great things from all her boys. After two of them died in childhood from tuberculosis, Richard became the focus of her hopes. He rose from poverty to become the most powerful man in the world. The story of how he made himself--and then destroyed himself--is Shakespearean in its drama and intensity. I agree with Gerald Ford, who declared that Nixon's downfall had the makings of "an American tragedy." The allusion to King Lear is deliberate but, as you'll find out if you read King Richard, there's a uniquely American twist at the end.
Praise for King Richard
New York Times
"A gripping story...Dobbs skillfully quotes from the tapes to paint colorful, nuanced portraits of White House yes-men, a manipulative Henry Kissinger, and a Nixon who is vulnerable, melancholy, paranoid, and vengeful...An indelible study of a political antihero."--Publishers Weekly starred review.
"Spellbinding...Masterful...A riveting portrait of ambition, hubris, betrayal, and the downfall of an American president."--Kirkus starred review.
"A compelling, moment-by-moment narrative, psychological as much as political, offering a sense of intimacy with the beleaguered Nixon."--Booklist starred review.
"Michael Dobbs is a master at narrative history. By focusing on the most critical 100 days of Watergate, and by sticking closely to the written and spoken record, Dobbs is able to bring to life the tragedy of Richard Nixon in a way no one else has. A truly gripping read and a moving portrait."--Evan Thomas, author of Being Nixon
"The potent research and narrative skills of Michael Dobbs reach new heights in King Richard, his Shakespearean study of the endlessly compelling self-inflicted fall of Richard Nixon...Illuminating and addictively readable history."--David Maraniss, author of Barack Obama: The Story
How did you get interested in Nixon?
As a reporter for The Washington Post, I assigned myself the "history beat." Other reporters were focused on "the first rough draft" of history: I sought out the second draft, the story that only emerges thirty or forty years later after we get access to a much wider range of records. I became fascinated by the Nixon tapes, and the insights they provide into the functioning of the modern-day presidency. They offer a glimpse behind the scenes that is much truer to real life than any newspaper story or campaign biography. They're also unique. No future American president is ever going to compile the kind of record of his innermost thoughts and actions on a minute-by-minute basis that Nixon did.
Did you become more or less sympathetic to Nixon during the course of your research?
Sympathy is probably the wrong word for my feelings about Nixon after completing this project. A better word might be empathy. As I followed in his footsteps, I was forced to step into his shoes, to make an effort to understand him better. The cardboard villain of liberal imagination was transformed into a real human being, with his own unique way of dealing with life's trials and opportunities. I gained an appreciation for his enormous talents along with his equally enormous flaws. I write in the book that Nixon possessed the virtues and defects of regular Americans, only more so. He worked harder than anyone else, hated his enemies more intently, took bigger risks, and dreamed bigger dreams. It's hard not to feel at least some empathy for a man whose dreams turned to nightmares as a result of his own mistakes.
Do you see any parallels between Nixon and Trump?
There are some striking similarities, but also important differences.There are passages in King Richard that could be descriptions of the last four years. Nixon's so-called southern strategy, the exploitation of racial grievances in order to build a new political coalition, is an obvious example. His tirades against the mainstream media and the East Coast establishment. His outsider self-image. His propensity to turn everything into a fight. On the other hand, Nixon had qualities that Trump completely lacks, and vice-versa. He was a strategic thinker, who remade the world with his inventive diplomacy toward China and the Soviet Union. He read widely and deeply and had a sophisticated appreciation for history and international affairs. For all the dirty tricks, he respected the time-honored ground rules of American democracy. He waged an all-out battle against impeachment, but never attempted to overturn an election. Unlike Trump, who inherited a fortune, Nixon had to claw his way up from the bottom. He lacked Trump's gaudy showmanship and found it very painful to fire anyone. Along with the vaunted toughness, there was a tenderness and vulnerability in Nixon that seems absent in Trump. To sum up, I see Nixon as a more complicated, more substantial, and ultimately more tragic figure than Trump (in the Shakespearean sense of a ruler whose fall inspires awe and pity.) In thinking about the two presidents, I am reminded of Karl Marx's dictum that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.
He rose from poverty to become the most powerful man in the world. The story of how he made himself--and then destroyed himself--is Shakespearean in its drama and intensity.
Nixon calls Chuck Colson the night before his second inauguration, January 20, 1973. They discuss the Inaugural concerts, Nixon's speech later that day, the Vietnam War, and Colson's campaign to punish the Washington Post for its coverage of Watergate.
Click here to listen to some of the other tapes cited in King Richard.