Watergate: A scandal, and a bargain, to remember

Watergate: A scandal, and a bargain, to remember

It is difficult to believe that this year marks the fortieth anniversary of the apex of the Watergate scandal and the resignation of Richard M. Nixon, the only American president effectively forced to resign while in office. Watergate was a watershed moment in American politics and American life. It helped prove to even congenital optimists that senior officials could lie, cheat and prevaricate, channel gouts of cash to dubious characters for nefarious purposes, and to pervert heretofore trusted organs of state in an attempt to cover it all up and keep their crimes undiscovered. J. BROOKS SPECTOR looks back at this astonishing political crisis. Perhaps we can all learn something from it.

In 1972, America was in the midst of a presidential election in which incumbent Richard Nixon was facing off against Senator George McGovern, the increasingly hapless Democratic candidate. McGovern had been a decorated World War II hero in the Army Air Corps, a widely-respected senator, and then an increasingly strong, single-minded opponent of what seemed to be the never-ending war in Vietnam that was tearing the country’s social fabric apart.

A man of deep personal rectitude, McGovern had selected fellow Senator Thomas Eagleton as his running mate, until it became known that Eagleton had undergone electroshock therapy for depression years earlier. The ensuing uproar meant Eagleton would have to be dropped from the ticket, to be replaced in turn by Sargent Shriver, the former Peace Corps director and one of the remaining touchstones from the Camelot magic of the Kennedy administration. But McGovern was overwhelmed by the task of trying to unseat Nixon – despite (or perhaps because of) the youth rebellion against the war and the continuing racial turmoil of the inner cities, all seemingly symbols of the country’s imminent collapse as a result of forces apparently aligned with the Democratic Party.

By this time McGovern’s defeat as a presidential candidate had become a virtual lock – Nixon’s campaign organisation, infelicitously named Committee to Reelect the President, or as it became universally known as uncontrolled CREEP, had become a legendarily well-oiled machine. It raised a vast wave, a tsunami even, of contributions, its televsion appearances were carefully scripted to make Nixon appear statesman-like, their campaign events were organised with near-military precision, and – more darkly – teams of disinformation and disruption experts were tasked with throwing McGovern’s faltering campaign into even further disarray.

Regardless of the inevitability of their electoral win, however, the Nixon administration saw itself as a small cabal of the righteous, quite literally besieged by dark forces of chaos bent on overthrowing the legitimate government. (In fact, when demonstrators protesting the war marched in the direction of the White House, as they were wont to do, their chants of “One, two, three, four, we don’t want your f–king war” apparently could sometimes be heard inside the Oval Office.)

White House political staffers came up with a plan – codenamed Co-intelpro – to unhinge the radical community generally and anti-war protest organisations most specifically. Along the way, the White House developed what was termed an “enemies list” and the job at hand was to hobble such people with tax audits and various other forms of bureaucratic entanglements.

Among the operatives’ activities was a raid on the office of the psychiatrist seeing Daniel Ellsberg, to see if they could uncover any damaging documentation on Ellsberg that would compromise his anti-war activism, Among other efforts. Ellsberg had been fingered as having leaked the Pentagon Papers, the distinctly unflattering study of the origins of the Vietnam War. (The unauthorised release of these documents became the centre of a major Supreme Court case on freedom of the press before they could be printed in the New York Times and the Washington Post.)

In the presidential campaign itself, this increasingly fear-driven climate (Nixon’s Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s adage that sometimes even paranoids can have real enemies comes to mind about now), together with that great gushing oil well of campaign contributions, and the availability of some occasional second-story men (veterans of the unfortunate Bay of Pigs invasion of Castro’s Cuba a decade earlier) under the loose control of a White House security consultant, all came together, in the service of a burglary of the Democratic National Committee’s offices in the Watergate building, a mixed residential, larney stores and offices complex about eight blocks from the White House.

This burglary never actually made much sense. In American politics, the official party offices have not been the locus of power in a presidential campaign – that honour goes to the purpose-built committees and structures set up around a particular presidential candidacy. As a result, the DNC had virtually no secrets to surrender – and in any case, the Democratic Party was already well on the way to meeting its maker in the 1972 election already. (Nixon did, in fact, win the election in a near-landslide, burying McGovern’s challenge. Along the way, he famously went to China and left an indelible mark on US foreign relations.)

Meanwhile, back in mid 1972, a young reporter for the Washington Post, Bob Woodward, first got wind of the White House’s faint tendril of a connection with the burglars who had been caught by virtue of the alertness of a night security guard and their own sloppiness in that June evening in 1972. At first, the story was just a minor irritant to the triumphal Nixon election narrative but Woodward, now paired with Carl Bernstein, and, over time, eventually supplemented by a regiment of reporters from the Post, the New York Times, LA Times, the three national broadcast TV networks and yet other journalists, picked apart the excuses of plausible deniability from a White House now truly under siege. Phrases like “follow the money”, “it’s always the cover-up not the crime”, “what did the president know and when did he know it”, and “I am not a crook” entered the country’s political lexicon.

As the news coverage grew increasingly rancorous, various White House staffers were called to testify before a special committee of the US Senate that held widely watched, televised hearings from 17 May to 7 August 1973. The chairman of this committee was North Carolina’s Sam Ervin and he developed a reputation during his committee’s televised hearings for an avuncular but dogged persistence, despite his soft southern accent, his jovial, television-friendly manner and his wily, disingenuous insistence he was just an old country lawyer so he needed things explained simply and clearly.

And then lightning struck. One of the White House underlings, offhandedly, mentioned at Ervin’s committee hearings that the White House had routinely been taping all the conversations that took place in the Oval Office. Taping was not unknown in previous administrations (partly to ensure an accurate record of agreements was prepared for later) but the Nixon administration had gone to great lengths to record virtually every moment the president and his aides were in the Oval Office.

But this meant that every presidential discussion had been taped and transcribed – including astonishing conversations with key aides about how to stop further investigations or sidetrack them by manufacturing a story that the Watergate burglars were somehow under the direction of the CIA for some purpose that could be plausibly described as a sensitive national security issue. The Nixon administration continued to stall on the release of the contents of the White House tapes, ultimately doing so under great and growing pressure, including a Supreme Court ruling, but with a mysterious seventeen minute gap that further enraged Congress.

Then on 5 August 1974, the White House released a previously unknown audio tape from June 23, 1972, just a few days after the original break-in with what has come to be called, a smoking gun. Documenting the initial stages of the coverup, it actually revealed Nixon and one of his top aides, Bob Haldeman, formulating that plan to block investigations by having the CIA falsely claim to the FBI that national security was involved. On the tape, Haldeman had said,”…the Democratic break-in thing, we’re back to the–in the, the problem area because the FBI is not under control, because Gray doesn’t exactly know how to control them, and they have… their investigation is now leading into some productive areas […] and it goes in some directions we don’t want it to go.”

On that same tape, after explaining how reelection campaign money had ended up with the burglars, Haldeman explained to Nixon, “the way to handle this now is for us to have Walters [CIA] call Pat Gray [FBI] and just say, ‘Stay the hell out of this …this is ah, business here we don’t want you to go any further on it.'” President Nixon approved the plan and told Haldeman: “All right, fine, I understand it all. We won’t second-guess Mitchell [the attorney general] and the rest.” He then instructed his aide, “You call them in. Good. Good deal. Play it tough. That’s the way they play it and that’s the way we are going to play it.” The country had never heard anything like it.

By this point, following the country’s constitutional arrangements, the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives began consideration of a bill of impeachment. As the committee proceeded to move forward in its task, it became clear that such a bill of impeachment would be reported out of committee, something it then did for three charges at the end of July 1974. It was similarly clear by then, too, that the full House of Representatives would vote in favour of the three charges and the Senate would then convict the president for what the Constitution called “high crimes and misdemeanors”.

Nixon would lose. Badly.

A week later, on 7 August, two senior Republican senators and one of the party’s top congressman met Nixon and told him it was all over. There was no alternative. The senate would vote to convict him. The next day, on 8 August 1974, Nixon went on national television to announce, “I have never been a quitter. To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct in my body. But as President, I must put the interest of America first. America needs a full-time President and a full-time Congress, particularly at this time with problems we face at home and abroad. To continue to fight through the months ahead for my personal vindication would almost totally absorb the time and attention of both the President and the Congress in a period when our entire focus should be on the great issues of peace abroad and prosperity without inflation at home. Therefore, I shall resign the Presidency effective at noon tomorrow. Vice President Ford will be sworn in as President at that hour in this office.”

Gerald Ford, a former congressman from Michigan, had himself been appointed to the vice presidency to replace the previous vice president, Spiro Agnew, who himself had earlier resigned because of some modest, nagging little charges of bribery and tax evasion while he was a local official in Maryland, years before he was even elected vice president in 1968 and then again 1972. Whew.

In one of his first remarks after being sworn in as president, Ford had famously told the country that its long national nightmare was over. Nixon meanwhile was in exile in California, awaiting word as to whether a lifetime of courtroom appearances awaited. Or was he?

In Ford’s autobiography A Time to Heal, he wrote about a meeting he had had with Nixon’s last Chief of Staff, Alexander Haig, while Ford was still the vice president. Haig explained what seemed to be Nixon’s only remaining options – riding out the impeachment and fight against conviction in the Senate all the way, or accepting reality and resigning. His options for resigning, though, seemed to be to delay it until further along in the impeachment process and thus bid for only a censure vote in Congress, or even to issue himself with his own pardon and then resign (the president’s power to pardon, per the Constitution, is essentially unlimited). Haig said that some of Nixon’s staff were already whispering about a deal: Nixon could agree to resign and in return Ford would pardon him.

As Ford wrote in his memoir, “Haig emphasised that these weren’t his suggestions. He didn’t identify the staff members and he made it very clear that he wasn’t recommending any one option over another. What he wanted to know was whether or not my overall assessment of the situation agreed with his… Next he asked if I had any suggestions as to courses of actions for the President. I didn’t think it would be proper for me to make any recommendations at all, and I told him so.”

But within a month, on 8 September, President Ford issued a full and unconditional pardon of Nixon, immunising him from prosecution for any crimes he had “committed or may have committed or taken part in” as president. Ford told the nation that he felt the pardon was in the best interest of the country and for Nixon’s family’s situation. This “is an American tragedy in which we all have played a part. It could go on and on and on, or someone must write the end to it. I have concluded that only I can do that, and if I can, I must.”

And so, was there a formal, handshake of a deal or not? Or just a wink and a nod? Or even a quiet moment of a grim, tightlipped smile. No one really knows, and almost certainly anyone who did know has since passed away. But all the players seem to have played their parts. The Republican graybeards told Nixon he had to go, Haig set out the case for a resignation/pardon, Ford heard him out, Nixon resigned and then, a month later, Ford pardoned him.

Photo: Ben Bradlee (R), a former Washington Post executive editor and Bob Woodward (L), a former Post reporter take a tour of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library with director Timothy Naftali before their discussion about the Watergate Hotel burglary and stories for the Post, in Yorba Linda, California April 18, 2011. (REUTERS/Alex Gallardo)

The country was saved years of appalling court actions and was rid of Richard Nixon. Over a dozen Nixon aides were convicted of various crimes related to the original crime – or the coverup. But Watergate became ground zero for a sense that the government – or at least some of its highest officials – could, and would, lie, cheat and attempt to steal on behalf of an effort to retain or exercise power. It solidified a sense that the media and the president were near-mortal enemies and that the press’ job was to ferret out misdeeds – if they looked hard enough they would surely find them.

The country had never seen anything like it in the living memory of anyone (Yes, Andrew Johnson had been impeached but not convicted, and there was a real sense even at the time that intra-party rivalries were at the heart of his travails, similar to Bill Clinton’s impeachment in 1998.). But Nixon’s agonies played out for nearly two years with increasing ferocity as more and more ugly, startling revelations came out from under more and more rocks.

America is not a parliamentary democracy, of course. Congress doesn’t just elect a different party leader like Britain, where there is an occasional party rebellion against its sitting prime minister. Margaret Thatcher’s replacement by John Major comes to mind, of course, or perhaps the more frequent replacements of Japanese prime ministers from within the ranks of the usual rule of the Liberal Democratic Party. But when political power, money and opportunities for corrupt, lawless behaviour merge together, as they did within Richard Nixon’s administration, the result is almost inevitable. Almost. DM

Read more:


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox

Feeling powerless in politics?

Equip yourself with the tools you need for an informed decision this election. Get the Elections Toolbox with shareable party manifesto guide.