“The one duty we owe to history,” said Oscar Wilde, “is to rewrite it.” By this admirable standard, no non-fiction writer of the 20th century fulfilled his duty to history – to the record of our times – more fully, more brilliantly, than Jim Hougan.
When Secret Agenda: Watergate, Deep Throat and the CIA was first published by Random House in November 1984 – more than a decade after the resignation and pardon of Richard Nixon – it presented such a large volume of new and revelatory information about a subject so widely considered exhausted that the book was greeted with the staggered astonishment typically reserved for apparitions.
“If even half of this is true,” wrote J. Anthony Lukas in the New York Times Book Review, “Secret Agenda will add an important new dimension to our understanding of Watergate.” Lukas’ was an important voice. A Pulitzer Prize-winner, he had covered Watergate for the New York Times Magazine and wrote Nightmare: The Underside of the Nixon Years in 1976. This critically acclaimed book was the first comprehensive account of Watergate. “But,” Lukas added, “it may be months before reporters can sort through this material, check Mr. Hougan’s sources and decide which of these revelations is solid gold, which dross.”
Now, 40 years after Secret Agenda appeared, the verdict is in. While some of Hougan’s analytic conclusions have come under challenge – including by me, an avowed acolyte of the author – the wealth of new facts and documentation he presented has stood the test of time. Where once it seemed impossible to reckon with the contribution Secret Agenda made to Watergate, it is now impossible to reckon with Watergate, even after the release of thousands more tapes and documents, without reference to Hougan.
Introducing his findings, Hougan described Secret Agenda as “an attempt to correct the record … and to suggest avenues of further investigation.” Several authors over the ensuing decades, including me, took him up on that challenge, and a couple of epic lawsuits unfolded, with the result that the book’s central thrusts were only strengthened.
Reckoning with Secret Agenda is hardly an academic matter. If Hougan and the other Watergate revisionists are correct, then the scandal that toppled Richard Nixon from power was about much more than a third-rate burglary attempt, the wiretapping of the opposing party, or even a series of covert crimes ordered by a paranoid president. Secret Agenda and its progeny force us, instead, to conceive of Watergate as a Cold War-era power struggle between a duly elected president and the national security state, with Nixon as much a victim in the affair as he was a perpetrator. In a time when legions of Americans believe in the existence of a “deep state,” getting the history of Watergate right takes on new urgency.