Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Mimsy Review: The Palace Guard

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, May 29, 2012

“The Yellow Submarine never surfaced again.”

This is an amazing account of the rise of Nixon’s White House staff: Mitchell, Haldeman, and Erlichman. It’s also interesting seeing clear media bias, from one of the media’s then-leading lights, over thirty years after he wrote it, and eight years after his own self-made demise.

AuthorDan Rather
Length331 pages
Book Rating6

The Palace Guard is not about Watergate so much as it’s about the rise to power of the people behind the scandal. From across thirty years, Dan Rather’s bias is clumsy and obvious. It’s too bad, because if it were even slightly better written it could serve as a study in how relatively normal people, concerned with their place in history, could progress to such a poorly-conceived and blatantly illegal act of breaking into private offices for opposition research.

The copyright on this is 1974. That’s the same year that Nixon resigned—he resigned in August of 1974. There is no mention of the book already being in the works beforehand, leaving at best five months to research and finish it. And while Watergate is mentioned occasionally, there is very little information about it. This is a book about the rise to power of the White House Staff over the Cabinet. In fact, the first several pages go over that shift in power from FDR through Truman, Eisenhower, JFK, and Johnson.

The Palace Guard really starts out as a book about the policy of running the White House as if it were its own government. The real power in the White House has shifted to the staff, because they’re the President’s friends, and they don’t need approval from the Senate. There are bits of that scattered throughout the book, such as the decision to create an intelligence service within the White House to avoid dealing with the FBI and CIA. It was that decision which led directly to the Watergate break-ins.

In that respect, this is a fascinating book. Unfortunately, it’s also marred heavily by bias; you can’t ever really know whether Dan Rather is speaking from the facts or from what he wishes the facts to be.

The Palace Guard is almost as much a wish for the return of the sixties—if not of JFK than at least LBJ—as a journalist’s report on Nixon’s staff.

… the Age of Aquarius was fading into the sunset. By the early Nixon years, the Beatles had lost the magic that held them together, and The Yellow Submarine never surfaced again.

In that respect, Rather is also often contradictory. For example, “Richard Nixon came into office as a minority President.” This is true: George Wallace of Alabama took 13.5% of the vote, leaving Hubert Humphrey with 42.7% and Richard Nixon with 43.4%. It was just circumstances that “overwhelmed them [Democrats] during Lyndon Johnson’s last year in the White House.” Those circumstances were “the war in Vietnam”, “LBJ’s dramatic abdication”, Robert Kennedy’s assassination, and “riots on the streets of Chicago”. Three of four of those circumstances were under the control of Democrats. They weren’t things that just happened.

Nixon used, in Rather’s phrasing, “code words” like “law and order”, “low-income housing”, and “school busing” to appeal to racist voters. But the reason Nixon’s victory was a minority one is because a racist Democrat stole votes from the Democrats as a third-party candidate. Rather shows a little of this himself. As he describes Nixon’s cabinet as all-white, he mentions that Nixon had wanted Massachusetts Senator Edward Brooke and describes him parenthetically as “the Republicans’ showcase Negro”.

Rather also, in an attempt to showcase Nixon’s extreme racism, denigrates Irishmen to oppressed minority status when he points out that there were no Irish Catholics in the mix. Nixon did in fact have Catholics in his Cabinet, but they weren’t Irish Catholics. He also had the grandson of a Scots coal miner, but David Kennedy was a Mormon. Whether Kennedy had Irish background, I don’t know, but with a Kennedy, a Laird, a Hardin, and a Mitchell there’s a good chance of it.1 Nixon’s later cabinet included definite Irishmen, such as Peter Flanagan as Labor Secretary.

In other words, Rather is clearly writing this section, at least, from the standard Democrat fixation on identity politics. It isn’t enough to have Catholics, you need to have Irish Catholics.

Rather has a tendency for odd—and arguably inappropriate—metaphors. For example, Kissinger’s political maneuverings were compared to the Nazi war machine:

In short, he was steadily moving his panzers into position so that when the time came to strike he would be ready.

Kissinger’s family fled Nazi persecution in 1938. That’s why his family came to New York.

Even more odd, though less inappropriate, is this mixed metaphor, about how Democrats saw Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s decision to join the Nixon administration as a “sellout”:

This was the cross that Moynihan had to carry into battle.

The cross you carry into battle helps you. It’s the cross you bear that burdens you.2

The Moynihan/Nixon story is an interesting one; not because Moynihan was a Democrat—Nixon appointed John Connally to the cabinet, as well—but because of how Rather ends up describing their relationship. Rather goes into a long digression about Disraeli because Rather can’t accept Nixon doing anything he thinks of as good. And Rather considered Nixon’s welfare program to be very good, except when he doesn’t. Because Nixon can’t have done something good, especially in domestic policy. Either his welfare plan needs to be a bad plan, or he needs to have been tricked by Moynihan into proposing it. Nixon can’t receive any credit for welfare reform. But in so writing, Rather ends up arguing for both of these: that it was a good plan that Moynihan tricked Nixon into proposing, and that it was a bad plan.3

Rather did not share Moynihan’s condescending view that Republican politicians were “very nice people with a perfectly dreadful constituency”. While he probably agreed about the constituency, he didn’t like the politicians all that much either. For all that he disliked Nixon, Rather really disliked “the Goldwater crusade” and was glad that “there were no Bill Buckleys and no Ronald Reagans brought on board.” One of his strangest turns of phrase, to point out how Nixon’s cabinet was sort of a country club, is that “two of them, Blount and Hardin, were bona-fide Rotarians”. They were probably card-carrying Rotarians, too.

Rather’s view of centrism, conciliation, and togetherness is that conservatives remain silent, or at least “low-key”; Nixon’s appeal to the “silent majority” did no more than “drive a wedge between Americans”. In Rather’s view the silent majority should have remained silent.

In this respect, Dan Rather was, I suspect, ahead of his time. Just like any modern journalist for the New York Times might describe a conservative, Nixon was combative; his opponents, even George Wallace, “feisty”. Moynihan’s drinking problem was not really a problem, because Moynihan was on the left. If, however, it had been Haldeman “staggering out of Georgetown bars late at night and hollering, rather coarsely, for his government limousine” I doubt Rather would have described it as “moderation” and “getting better by the glass”.

And if Moynihan had been the one whose advertising firm took on a snail pesticide account rather than Haldeman, would Rather have described “l’escargot” as an advertising-created problem to gardeners? He talks about them as if garden snails in California didn’t start eating plants until after J. Walter Thompson took on the Snarol account. His whole argument there reads like a sixties pean to pre-advertising days:

Of all his triumphs at J. Walter Thompson, the most memorable, perhaps, was the advertising campaign he put together for a product called “Snarol.” Snarol, it was promised, would do to snails what Black Flag was reputed to do to roaches and such. Now, up to this time, it is true, hardly anyone realized that snails, of all things, were worthy of such attention; they were not exactly perceived as your everyday sort of pest. But, since the whole point of advertising is to alert us to perils we might otherwise fail to heed (bad breath, antisocial armpits, and the like), Haldeman’s campaign made it clear that snails were prolific in warm climates, like California’s, and that they could be quite a nuisance, especially for people with gardens. This was a melancholy moment in the long and tranquil history of l’escargot, for soon Snarol took its place on scores of shopping lists, right up there with the other essentials.

From the “it is true” construction to the “was reputed to do”, as if Black Flag did not actually do anything to roaches, to the standard bad breath and underarm odor only existed after advertising pointed them out, this is pure sixties disdain for modernity.

Rather wields his disdain as clumsily as his metaphors. Besides complaining about snail-killers, he describes George Schultz’s successor at Labor as “someone named Hodgson”. Rather, as a White House reporter of that time, would have known who James Day Hodgson was when he wrote this book.

Or it might just be that Rather sees the world only from his rarefied height in DC. Snails can’t be a problem for gardeners, because they’re escargot, and who doesn’t like escargot? He has a knee-jerk reaction to people who think Washington might be out of touch. When Haldeman complains about how those who “pursue a government career in Washington” need to “be prepared to defend your sense of values” because DC culture “scoffs at patriotism”, Rather counters with all of the statues in DC. It reminds me of Hunter S. Thompson’s observation that people in DC “ get very insulted when somebody calls it [the DC lifestyle] weird”.

I’d go mad if I had to live in all the weird shit I write about. A typical Washington dinner party, for instance, is just part of the daily routine for most political writers. They do that five nights a week, and get very insulted when somebody calls it weird. What passes for everyday social reality in Washington strikes me as very peculiar and baroque. — Hunter S. Thompson (Songs of the Doomed)

There were also some funny things reading this book now, nearly forty years later.

It is no accident that since Roosevelt no man has gone from a statehouse to the White House; except for the special case of War Hero Eisenhower, Congress has been, and continues to be, the principal breeding ground of Presidents…”

Except for Eisenhower? I’m assuming he means Franklin Delano, because Teddy was followed by Taft and Wilson, who came straight out of the Supreme Court and New Jersey Governorship, respectively. But there were only six presidents following FDR when Rather wrote this: Truman, who got in because he was Vice President when FDR died; Eisenhower, who came in from the military; JFK, who came in from the Senate; Lyndon Johnson, who came in because he was Vice President when JFK was killed; Nixon; and Ford, who came in because Nixon resigned.4

Of the six presidents following FDR, three of them came in because they were Vice President when the President died or resigned and only one came in directly from Congress—Nixon, after all, had last held the office of Vice President. This is just bad statistics. It was meant to back up Rather’s view that the United States was entering a “progressive era” where the federal government held sway. In fact it was just a handful of data points that required ignoring real facts in order to make a prediction that just didn’t hold up. Following Ford, our next five presidents were (1) a governor from Georgia, (2) a governor from California, (3) the vice president, (4) a governor from Arkansas, and (5) a governor from Texas.

President Obama is our first President to come from Congress in the nearly forty years since Dan Rather wrote that.

Another darkly funny incident that was meant to show how paranoid Haldeman was is that Haldeman thought that continued self-selection of college organizations, such as boards of editors on school newspapers, would mean that the boards were vulnerable to being overtaken by hard leftists. So he tried, but failed, to institute direct elections for the board of editors on the school newspaper at UCLA. I don’t know what’s happened since at The Daily Bruin, but in general Haldeman has been proven right about state colleges as FIRE has discovered.

Haldeman was also proven right about Alger Hiss:

On those occasions when his hero seemed to falter, to doubt and second-guess his past decisions, Haldeman would be quick to give him a boost, to offer reassurance that he had been absolutely right in all he had done; that in such endeavors as chasing down Hiss or standing up to Khrushchev in the Moscow kitchen Nixon had brought honor to himself, his party, and his country.

It was common knowledge, along with advertising forcing us to smell better against our wills, that Alger Hiss had been railroaded. We now know that Hiss was, in fact, a Soviet Spy, and we have seen Khrushchev’s Soviet empire fall.

Some of the funniest anecdotes and phrases, though, are best viewed against the election and administration of President Barack Obama. President Nixon’s desire to “spend long hours by himself” was “obsessive”, because “to respect a politician’s privacy is almost to deny him his existence.”5

Other problems Rather had with Nixon is that excessive bowing (in Nixon’s case, to WWII hero Charles DeGaulle) is “obsequious”, and that “the few seconds there the bowing and scraping were so pronounced that a shudder of discomfort went through some of the Americans looking on”.

Nixon also had to contend with comparisons to JFK, who had “the grace of a natural athlete” as one of his presidential talents.

Well, journalists like who they like to be just plain generally better than everyone else regardless of its relevance. And they like to pawn the flaws of their friends onto their enemies. Being an FDR of the right would have been okay, if he hadn’t shown “a lack of sensitivity to constitutional limits”. FDR, of course, is infamous for his fights with the Supreme Court—even to the point of wanting to increase its size so that he could appoint a majority of justices.

Perhaps the oddest example of this is when Rather talks about Nixon’s takeover of the private economy: freezing prices and wages to combat inflation6. Rather actually approves of that. He’s a progressive, after all, and he wants the government to take over the private sector. What he doesn’t like is that Nixon then ended them; after ending them, above-board prices shot up again, and “the price of food and fuel soared”.

But what Rather doesn’t mention is that controls on fuel continued. That was why we had fuel shortages during the Carter administration.

Only when President Reagan finally lifted the controls on oil and gasoline in 1981 did the specter of short supplies finally disappear.

Nixon himself re-instituted price controls in some industries later, and we then saw shortages everywhere instead of just at the pump.

By the time Nixon reimposed a temporary freeze in June 1973, Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanislaw explain in “The Commanding Heights: The Battle for the World Economy,” it was obvious that price controls didn’t work: “Ranchers stopped shipping their cattle to the market, farmers drowned their chickens, and consumers emptied the shelves of supermarkets.”

I can’t really recommend searching out this book; it’s unavailable except in used book stores. It could have been a great history of too-concentrated power in the Nixon White House, and analogized to the dangerous concentration of power in the Presidency in general. Unfortunately, Dan Rather prefers concentrated power, just not in administrations he doesn’t like. If you’re interested in the history and worldview of Dan Rather, this is a great read. Otherwise, the clumsy bias makes it difficult to know what to trust and what not to trust. I’m sure that some of it is true; I’m just as sure that some of it is, at best, a misrepresentation. I don’t know which is which.

  1. Nixon itself is more likely to be a name of Irish origin than anything else, according to ancestry.com, and his wife, Patricia Ryan, was of Irish heritage. Nixon was also Quaker.

  2. Rather would later talk about people bearing crosses, as well, using the standard metaphor.

  3. The Nixon plan was a lot like Charles Murray’s plan in that it contained a guaranteed income.

  4. FDR himself was governor of New York before becoming President.

  5. Rather attributes this to Murray Kempton, “after years of studying the breed up close”.

  6. Nixon did not institute wage and price controls unilaterally: a Democratic congress had passed The Economic Stabilization Act of 1970 giving the President this power.

The Palace Guard

Dan Rather

Recommendation: Clumsy

If you enjoyed The Palace Guard…

For more about Richard Nixon, you might also be interested in Dick and All the President’s Men.

For more about Richard Nixon, you might also be interested in Should we be pessimistic about good governance going into 2016? and All the President’s Men.

For more about Watergate, you might also be interested in Dick, All the President’s Men, and All the President’s Men.