Richard Nixon, for all his flaws, has his apologists. Personally, the accomplishment I admire is smaller than détente with the Soviet Union, recognizing China, or Title IX, but it’s not nothing. Nixon didn’t gain a pound while in office, even during the stress of the Watergate hearings and—get this—even though he didn’t stop drinking. (His secret: cottage cheese with pineapple.)

We know so much about Nixon, yet there’s no end to what we want to understand. And for good reason: we are living out his legacy, still. Some people argue that jazz isn’t entirely an American invention, but surely there is consensus that Richard Nixon is the jazz standard of American politics. Like “’Round Midnight,” his saga is so familiar and evocative that it inspires infinite riffs and fugues.

On the day that he announced his resignation, Nixon ordered his usual lunch: cottage cheese with pineapple, and a glass of milk.

The last few decades have been particularly rich, and these are just some of the best re-interpretations: Rick Perlstein’s 2008 account, Nixonland; Thomas Mallon’s fictionalized narrative, Watergate: A Novel, in 2012; Evan Thomas’s mind meld, Being Nixon, in 2015; Leon Neyfakh’s 2020 podcast, Slow Burn: Watergate; and Michael Dobbs’s 2021 narrative history, King Richard.

Now, possibly because Donald Trump’s distortions and lies have dimmed our appetite for poetic license, the Zeitgeist seems to be swinging back to more conventional accounts.

Watergate: A New History, by Garrett M. Graff, is a definitive, exhaustive account of the scandal, a fascinating, horrifying examination of the Nixon presidency up close—enough to scare the record straight.

Also, Dwight Chapin, a young Nixon assistant who served time for perjury, has written a memoir, The President’s Man: The Memoirs of Nixon’s Trusted Aide. Chapin is no hell-raiser—the celebrity he was most excited to meet in the West Wing was Thomas E. Dewey—and he paints a blander, more forgiving portrait of Nixon.

Some people argue that jazz isn’t entirely an American invention, but surely there is consensus that Richard Nixon is the jazz standard of American politics.

The former aide’s effort to rationalize even his boss’s most illegal deeds and foul mouth is almost touching. “The President I knew was not anti-Semitic,” Chapin says, “but some of his taped comments about Jews sure added fire to the charge that he was.” Chapin, now 81, comes off less as an eyewitness than as the deludedly loyal butler in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Remains of the Day.

Together, these two accounts present a rather disjointed portrait of Nixon, but they remind us why our current political system is so corrosively riven and intractable. Like the Bosnians and the Serbs, who trace their clashing versions of history back to the Turkish Empire, Democrats and Republicans harbor irreconcilable grievances that boil down to “You started it.

Take the Supreme Court. Democrats fume over the hypocrisy of the Republican Senate, which refused to consider Obama’s nominee Merrick Garland in 2016, claiming the nomination should not go on with only nine months before the election, then pushed Trump’s nominee Amy Coney Barrett through days before the 2020 election.

Who said Nixon didn’t know how to have fun?

Republicans retort that the Democrats lost all standing on matters of fairness after the original sin of “borking” Reagan’s nominee Robert Bork, a conservative who—back to Watergate—was the one justice official who obeyed Nixon’s order to fire Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. (Biden, mind you, was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee at the time, and led the charge to keep Bork off the Court.)

Many Republicans claim to this day that John F. Kennedy stole the 1960 election, while Democrats focus on Nixon’s red-baiting nastiness during the McCarthy era. (Even Graff mentions Nixon’s relentless pursuit of Alger Hiss for treason—but without adding that Hiss, as we have since learned, almost certainly had been a Soviet spy.)

For Chapin, Nixon’s enemies were the first to resort to dirty tricks; he focuses on Dick Tuck, an impish Democratic advance man who started playing pranks on Nixon during his 1950 congressional campaign. In 1971, Nixon asked Chapin to help him locate a Dick Tuck of his own, and Chapin came up with a U.S.C. fraternity brother: Donald Segretti, who preferred the term “ratfucking” to “pulling pranks,” helped push Edmund Muskie out of the 1972 primary and went to prison for campaign-related misdeeds.

For Graff, Watergate didn’t begin exactly with the leak of the Pentagon Papers; Nixon himself was not implicated in those documents. But Daniel Ellsberg, the former RAND analyst who leaked them, as well as The New York Times and The Washington Post, which published them, enraged Nixon. Even the Supreme Court, which upheld the newspapers’ right to publish the papers, stoked his paranoia and passion for underhanded revenge.

Nixon was worried mostly about other Pentagon papers, which he thought were locked in a safe at the Brookings Institution. He believed these documents could show that, during the 1968 campaign, he conspired to sabotage Johnson’s peace negotiations and hurt his Democratic rival, Hubert Humphrey. Nixon, Graff says, directly ordered his closest aides to break into the Brookings safe and snatch the papers. They tried half-heartedly and never did, but Nixon’s disregard for the law set the tone for the break-in at Democratic National Committee Headquarters in Washington’s Watergate complex, and other crimes.

Graff has no soft spot for Nixon, and he is pretty tough on everyone else. Nixon and his cronies are front and center, but there are sidebars on the perfidy of “Deep Throat,” who was revealed by Vanity Fair in 2005 to be Mark Felt, a top-ranking F.B.I. man, who had thought he would succeed J. Edgar Hoover and, when passed over, leaked to Bob Woodward. (Graff also maintains that Woodward and Bernstein have been a tad overrated by history.)

The one thing Graff and Chapin agree on is the under-examined culpability of John Dean, the White House counsel who was for break-ins until he was against them, and whose turncoat testimony before Congress helped seal Nixon’s fate.

A lot else happened during the Nixon years, but Graff’s lens stays on Watergate—Henry Kissinger darts in and out of the Oval Office, usually in a rage, but Nixon’s other preoccupations (Vietnam, Salt talks, China, the gold standard, the Environmental Protection Agency) are mentioned glancingly, mostly through the prism of how those issues intruded on the West Wing’s pursuit of illegal campaign funds, enemies lists, cover-ups, and multiple other forms of corruption.

Chapin’s version is the opposite: Vietnam, China, Russia, social unrest, the economy, and a biased press corps are in the forefront while Watergate is cast as an unfortunate misstep.

Is it any wonder the country is so divided on Trump and his insurrection, coronavirus vaccines, voting rights, and abortion?

Fifty years on, we still can’t agree to disagree about Nixon.

Watergate: A New History, by Garrett M. Graff, and The President’s Man: The Memoirs of Nixon’s Trusted Aide, by Dwight Chapin, will be published on February 15

Alessandra Stanley is a Co-Editor of Air Mail