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King Richard: Nixon and Watergate, An American Tragedy

By Michael Dobbs. (Alfred A. Knopf, 396 pages, $32.50.)

Hannah Nixon named all her boys after British kings, but it was her second son — Richard — who got the most Shakespearean name of the lot. It's a point that journalist and author Michael Dobbs makes in the title of his engrossing study of the Watergate scandal, the latest in his hinge-of-history series that includes a well received 2008 book on the Cuban missile crisis.

This one covers the first six months of 1973, as the White House moves from the triumph of President Nixon's landslide re-election victory and second inauguration into the quicksand of coverups, expletive-laden tapes and deepening paranoia. Nixon still has a year left in his presidency by the end of the book, but limiting the time frame enables Dobbs to wield details and dialogue with cinematic flair.

For instance, one scene: It's mid-evening in Nixon's office hideaway, and the president is railing about a turncoat aide while clumsily trying to push away his playful Irish setter: "Whatever they think of me, they've got to realize that I'm the only one at the present time in this whole wide blinking world that can … keep it from blowing up."

The tragedy of Richard Nixon was not so much that he lost his office as that he saw it coming from the start and only made it worse. He told one aide early on that during his youthful pursuit of alleged Soviet spy Alger Hiss, what hurt the Truman administration was not Hiss' guilt but the attempts to cover it up. Yet within days of the Watergate break-in (of which it still seems he was unaware) Nixon launched a coverup that would destroy both his administration and historical reputation.

Those unfamiliar with Watergate will learn a lot from this book, and those who know the story will still enjoy this behind-the-scenes look at one of the most inexplicable chapters in American history.