The 40th anniversary of the fall of Richard Nixon still has the power to amaze and astonish. J. BROOKS SPECTOR looks back at the 37th president’s fall from grace and its impact on contemporary politics.
This past week, American news programmes have focused on the legacy of Richard Nixon, the country’s 37th president, and the only president ever to resign during his term of office – forty years ago on 9 August 1974. Well, actually, it was more like he was driven from office, just ahead of a constitutionally approved tarring and feathering, once it had become clear from secret tape recordings of Oval Office conversations that Nixon – despite his vociferous protestations of innocence – had been intimately involved in a criminal conspiracy to cover-up the 17 June 1972 Watergate break-in during his re-election campaign. The Watergate office building was the site for the headquarters of the Democratic Party’s National Committee, as the Nixon White House seemed to be after secrets on the opposition’s campaign strategy. This took place just as the hapless South Dakota Senator George McGovern was poised to gain his party’s nomination for a race for the White House that was doomed as a result of the divisive splits in his party – as well as his own stumbles as a candidate as the campaign wore on.
Watching these TV broadcasts looking back at the collapse of the Nixon presidency, it was a moment of astonishment to see former Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein, now white haired and elderly. Bernstein – along with another young reporter, Bob Woodward – had doggedly followed the first breadcrumbs that built into a trail that ultimately led to Nixon’s resignation. In these recent broadcasts, Bernstein was looking more and more like a village elder, telling old war stories just one more time to youngsters who could scarcely believe their ears.
At the Watergate break-in, back in 1972, the bungling burglars had put tape over a door lock so it wouldn’t latch at the Democratic Party’s offices in the Watergate building complex and lock them in, thereby allowing them to enter and leave the premises sans difficulty. It was a matter of luck that night security guard Frank Wills had found the tape on the door, noted the presence of the intruders, and summoned Washington police to arrest them. After they had been arraigned in court, cryptic inscriptions in an address book carried by one of the burglars, Gordon Liddy, eventually led back to White House staffers in a growing scandal that eventually consumed Richard Nixon’s presidency, ironically less than two years after he had been re-elected in a landslide victory.
Now, forty years later, three new books – Ken Hughes’ Chasing Shadows: the Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate, The Nixon Tapes 1971-1972, edited by historians Douglas Brinkley and Luke Nichter, and The Nixon Defense – What He Knew and When He Knew It by John Dean (a former Nixon aide who himself eventually was criminally convicted for his role in the mess and spent four months in the jail) – have re-opened a national conversation about Richard Nixon’s legacy with some new ideas and evidence. This time, the contents of numerous tape recordings, not previously publicly available, offer a fascinating window on the possible origins of the Nixon administration’s Faustian yen for political end-runs for short-term gain but long-term disaster.
In this view, original sin came in 1968, while presidential candidate Nixon was locked in a tight race for the presidency against then Vice President Hubert Humphrey. At that time, then-President Lyndon Johnson was trying to chivvy America’s recalcitrant ally-satrapy, South Vietnam, to the conference table with North Vietnam in Paris for negotiations to end the long-running war. It seems that at the behest of Nixon or one of his close aides, Anna Chennault, a Chinese-American Republican activist apparently told officials in the office of South Vietnam’s president to hold back on joining the negotiations, until the Nixon team won the election whereupon they could gain a better deal and more support.
Three years later, the Nixon White House had learned about what they believed to be leaks of some secret data on Vietnam, including transcripts of taped conversations from South Vietnam that would have betrayed this involvement by a private citizen in influencing the management of foreign policy at the behest of the Nixon presidential campaign (a violation of the Logan Act that prohibits private Americans from freelancing on the country’s foreign policy). In response, the Nixon White House apparently contemplated a break-in of the Brookings Institution, a highly regarded Washington think tank to have a look at this data. Then, of course, there was the illegal effort to secure Daniel Ellsberg’s patient files from his psychiatrist’s office, in order to gain a hold over him as another likely whistle-blower in the release of secret information. It turned out that Ellsberg actually was a part of an actual Pentagon study of US decision-making on Vietnam and he, ultimately, did leak that massive multi-volume study to newspapers, what became known as Pentagon Papers.
Then, following the actual Watergate break-in, efforts to squelch normal police investigations eventually resulted in campaign cash contributions illegally washing through to the defence of “the plumbers” (as the burglars were colloquially known among the White House cognoscenti for their responsibilities to stop leaks of secrets). The longer the scandal wore on, the more all-encompassing it became as one after another, White House aides found themselves consumed by the original scandal, either in efforts to cover-up any connection to the break-in on the part of the White House or the Republican Party – and then, simultaneously, in efforts to spend yet more campaign funds illegally to clean-up the resulting mess.
By the time Richard Nixon’s presidency came crashing to an end on 9 August 1974, forty-three officials and campaign aides had been charged with criminal activities, a sitting president had resigned in disgrace, and the new president, Gerald Ford – himself appointed to replace a similarly disgraced vice president, Spiro Agnew, over a different scandal – would be sworn in to take up the tattered government’s reins. A month later, President Ford gave Richard Nixon an all-encompassing presidential pardon to draw a line under the debacle in an effort to ensure, as Ford had said when he took office, that the country’s “long national nightmare” was finally over. The country did not forgive quite so quickly as Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter defeated Ford in 1976, partly on promise that he would never lie to the country.
By the time Nixon fled Washington in disgrace back in 1974, he had been in the American public eye since shortly after World War II. A man from a family of distinctly modest means, like so many others, he had joined the war effort and enlisted in the navy, just like his later rival, John F Kennedy. Nixon quickly made a name for himself as congressman and then senator who was a staunch hard-liner on communist influences in America, even as he also became a willing practitioner of unsavoury practices to gain an electoral victory, helping him earn the epithet “Tricky Dicky”. Meanwhile, Nixon was picked by Dwight Eisenhower as his vice presidential running mate in 1952 to inject youth, energy and vigour into Eisenhower’s campaign for the presidency. By the time he ran unsuccessfully for president in 1960, Nixon seemed to have found his natural rival in Kennedy; but, along the way, Nixon gave vent to a deep-seated irritation at and envy of Kennedy’s easy public charm and obvious charisma that seemed to set the stage for worse to come. To some, this seemed like a window into Nixon’s troubled soul.
Beaten for the presidency – and then for the governorship of California in 1962, Nixon had angrily told reporters (and thus the nation) in his post-defeat press conference that this would be his last public appearance; that the press would never again have Richard Nixon to kick around anymore. Until 1968, that is.
In that election, his campaign managers took advantage of the considerable racial animosities in the country to evolve the infamous “Southern Strategy”. This became a keystone of the Nixon campaign that was a significant boost for his electoral success, even as his campaign simultaneously launched the “New Nixon” – this time around as the wise, experienced international statesman and thinker, beyond grubby politics, who could lead the nation out of its travails, as he offered his “secret plan for peace” in Vietnam.
Back in 1964, when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law, he had famously told his aides that while the law was certainly the right thing to do for the nation, its passage and signing into law would lose the South for the Democrats for at least a generation of elections at the national level. Taking advantage of this opening, Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign (together with the still cruder avowedly racial appeals by arch-segregationist candidate George Wallace of Alabama), made use of a seductive, below-the-line appeal to white working class voters, and white voters in the South more generally; thereby peeling them away from their generations-long support of the Democratic Party, and adding yet more force to the racialization of American politics.
This Southern Strategy created an enduring realignment of American politics – circumstances that still form a significant part of the American political landscape. The Nixon political revolution fundamentally reshaped the Democratic Party as well – driving it to the left until the Clinton counter-revolution of liberal Southern politicians took hold.
Of course, the famous Nixon rapprochement with China (largely engineered by Nixon’s national security advisor, Henry Kissinger), following decades of Nixon’s coruscating rhetoric over the communists in international affairs, created the potent symbolism of a politician who seemingly feels strongly one way, but who then makes a sudden, unexpected policy initiative to upend the old verities and create a new political reality. Along the way, the reaching out to China (and China’s concurrent opening to the US) provided a window for America to build a much more realistic relationship with the nation that is now the US’ major global economic and political rival and competitor – and one of its largest trading partners.
But there is yet another legacy of Nixon’s disgrace – and a particularly sad one. Somewhat surprisingly, recent surveys seem to indicate a significant minority of Americans – especially younger people – feel that Nixon’s crimes, his traducing of the Constitution, and the whole sad spectacle of Watergate, were not, in the grand scheme of things, all that troublesome. For many people, now, Watergate, and all it implies, was actually just politics as usual – and the whole political world is really just a dirty amoral game that everyone plays the same.
Reporting on a new CNN/ORC poll exploring just this question, the Washington Post has noted, “Over 40 percent of the country, including more than half of people under the age of 35, think the Watergate scandal was just a symptom of political wrangling and mud-slinging — what we might now call politics as usual. But why? Timed to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the resignation of President Richard Nixon, CNN/ORC International released a poll Friday evaluating Americans’ attitudes toward the scandal that led to Nixon’s downfall. And the differentiation on ages jumped out at them. There’s a big generational divide over the significance of the scandal, with a majority of those older than 40 describing Watergate as a very serious problem and those under 40 saying it was just politics.”
And the New York Times, reporting on the same poll, has also noted, “Along with Mr. Nixon’s approval ratings, trust in government in general rapidly dwindled after Watergate. Today, it’s at an all time low, with 13 percent of Americans saying that ‘government can be trusted to do what is right always or most of the time,’ according to a new CNN poll. Just over three-quarters say only “some of the time.” In 1972, by contrast, 53 percent of Americans said the government could be trusted all or most of the time. By 1974, it was 36 percent. ‘Except for a brief period of patriotic sentiment immediately after the 9/11 attacks, it has remained under 50% ever since,’ CNN Polling Director Keating Holland said.” Any number of the critics of America’s role in the world would probably nod their heads in agreement as well – although to be fair, such criticism probably can’t all be placed at the feet of the late Richard Nixon.
Whew. That’s pretty rough stuff. And so a further legacy of the Nixon era must be its signal contribution to a pervasive, compelling cynicism about politics – a sense that the formal rules don’t actually matter all that much. Instead, politicians and their operatives will generally do whatever is needed to achieve their baleful, selfish, ungodly aims. (In the popular conversation, yet another legacy of the Nixon years is to name every major political scandal a “….-gate”, as a shorthand way of categorising its significance as a scandal.)
And so to weigh the Nixon legacy is to be confronted by two widely divergent streams. On the one hand, despite his deadly continuation of the Vietnam War for Americans for yet four more years, his (and Kissinger’s) new relationship with China looms large even now – for America and global geopolitics.
But on the other, the sad cheapening of and damage to the American body politic – with effects that also live on – must weigh heavily in constructing Richard Nixon’s reputation as the amoral 20th century version of Cesare Borgia in American politics. (Borgia was made famous by Machiavelli, of course, as the perfect model of a prince who would much rather had been feared than loved, and was successful because of that choice.) But Nixon’s deep, pervasive angers and prejudices against numerous ethnic groups, his wild rages against his enemies as documented on the tape transcripts, and his fears that “they” were all out to get him will remain a fertile ground for historians, psychologists, and philosophers. Forty years later, he still remains a complex, troubled figure that defined an ugly period of modern history. DM
Photo: Following his resignation, U.S. President Richard M. Nixon flashes the V-for-victory sign as he boards his Marine One helicopter for the last time on the South lawn of the White House August 9, 1974.
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