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When democracy triumphs: Nixon’s Final Days

South Africa

South Africa, World

When democracy triumphs: Nixon’s Final Days

The resignation (and pardoning) of President Richard Nixon in 1974 is an increasingly popular trope for the way forward in South Africa. What actually happened and does it necessarily offer a path? J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a walk down history’s tangled path.

These are the days of miracle and wonder
This is the long-distance call
The way the camera follows us in slo-mo
The way we look to us all
The way we look to a distant constellation
That’s dying in a corner of the sky
These are the days of miracle and wonder
And don’t cry baby don’t cry
Don’t cry…

– from The Boy in the Bubble, by Paul Simon and Forere Mothoeloa

To listen to some pundits – or dreamers, perhaps – Tuesday was supposed to be Jacob Zuma’s day of reckoning, a truly South African day of miracles and wonders, well beyond the slo-mo movement in The Boy in the Bubble. It was going to be a very real, concrete step as the president walked along on his own very personal Via Dolorosa.

Or, perhaps not. Or at least, not yet, anyway. But, over the past week, the entire spectacle has continued to unfold in front of millions with the Constitutional Court judgment, then that nonapology of a presidential apology, some earnest (albeit confusing) spinmeistering by ANC Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe, and then, most recently, as an unprecedented parliamentary vote to take down a president lurched forward, live on television.

At this point, while the outcome of that vote was never in doubt, the legitimacy and reputations of president and Parliament alike have been zeroed out. Late Tuesday evening the actual vote went strongly in support of the president – although an interesting, albeit smallish, number of ANC MPs appear not to have voted for him.

But, if it has not yet been those actual final days as predicted by some and prayed for by many, the country may have entered the preliminaries for such an event. All of this may well be a prelude to the nationwide local elections that will take place just a few months ahead. That is, of course, unless the government pulls the plug on these elections on the grounds of growing civil disorder, or if the courts end up ruling the voting roll is in such shambles that an election can’t legitimately be held. (Of course that would truly set the cat among the pigeons – with all the uncertainties and imponderables such a decision would certainly generate.)

Nonetheless, President Zuma’s growing difficulties and embarrassments internationally cannot but help nudge observers to reflect closely on the death agonies of the Nixon presidency in its final days nearly 42 years ago – even if South Africa’s travails may well stretch out for rather longer than Nixon’s did. So, it is back into The Daily Maverick’s time machine and slip back to the White House in the summer of 1974.

By that summer, the Nixon presidency was being buffeted from many sides, but there was still the feeling inside the White House that it was just possible he might manage to survive until the end of his second term of office – albeit as a savagely diminished president. There was a siege mentality among many staff who argued that as long as Nixon’s administration gave in here and there, tossed the occasional aide overboard or under a truck, admitted to this or that indiscretion, and generally continued to bull forward, the Watergate scandal would be a distraction – but not fatal.

But then, on 24 July, the Supreme Court rendered a unanimous decision that the president must turn over to federal Judge John Sirica – for passing along to Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski, after a review and removal of irrelevant material – all tapes and any other records of some 64 White House conversations that might bear upon the guilt or innocence of the defendants in a Watergate case. Eight hours later, Nixon’s lead Watergate attorney (by then that tribe had become fruitful and had multiplied on the pickings of Watergate), James D. St Clair, announced that Nixon planned “to comply with that decision in all respects”.

The problem, of course, was there were some dreadful comments in those recordings, totalling about six minutes, in three extensive conversations he had had with former aide HR Haldeman, on 23 June 1972, right at the beginning of the whole mess. These words would prove Nixon had participated in the first cover-up of the original break-in at the Watergate offices of the Democratic National Committee. These, obviously, were not the kinds of things presidents do when they are remaining faithful to their oath of office, let alone the law more generally. And here among those tapes was that “smoking gun” that had been beguiling investigators and Nixon’s critics, as well as the fatal answer to the questions that had been asked by Senator Howard Baker, a Republican member of the special Watergate Committee in the Senate, “What did he know and when did he know it?”

After the court decision, Nixon’s staff counsel (yes, yet another lawyer), Fred Buzhardt, reviewed the tapes to determine the level of damage they held for Nixon. Buzhardt told Nixon (then out at his equivalent of Nkandla on the beach at San Clemente, California) that he had listened to the tapes and that the Watergate passages would finish Nixon as president.

By that point in the crisis, the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee was already moving towards its first votes on calling for Nixon’s impeachment and the words on tape would have proved Richard Nixon to be both a liar and an early participant in decisions that had led to the indictment of former Attorney-General John Mitchell, Haldeman, and five other Nixon aides.

Nevertheless, at first, Nixon’s Chief of Staff, Alexander Haig, Communications Director Ken Clawson and Press Secretary Ronald Ziegler launched an ultimately useless counterattack on the House Judiciary Committee. Then, on 27 July (or 10 days before the end) Ziegler issued a written statement that disingenuously read, “The President remains confident that the full House will recognise that there simply is not the evidence to support this or any other article of impeachment and will not vote to impeach. He is confident because he knows he has committed no impeachable offence.”

As the clock moved on, and as the tapes were being duplicated and transcribed in order to follow the court’s order, the seriousness of their contents gradually became more apparent. But it was only on 5 August that the full contents of those 23 June 1972 tapes were published. As the three articles of impeachment had by then been voted on by the congressional committee, the beleaguered Nixon White House set up teams of lawyers to deal with each of them in order to deflect them, diminish them or ridicule them.

Then, on 3 August, Haig brought aides and lawyers to meet with the president and his family at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains. There the president began his serious wavering about fighting each article of impeachment – or beginning to plan a resignation just ahead of any full House of Representatives vote on a bill of impeachment and then the trial in the Senate.

By 6 August, Nixon had clearly begun to lean towards resignation, as his chief of staff asked Nixon’s lead speechwriter to prepare a draft for that announcement. However, Haig’s instruction had been for the draft to admit nothing more than some “mistakes in judgement” in the draft text.

As it happened, Nixon began to waver again – until Haig summoned three of the most senior Republican legislators in Washington, Senators Barry Goldwater and Hugh Scott, and Congressman John Rhodes, to meet Nixon in order to tell him frankly that the game was over, that his position was hopeless, and that there was no way he would beat further actions in Congress. Thereafter, it was Henry Kissinger’s task, staying with Nixon until midnight on Wednesday (in a scene so memorably depicted in Oliver Stone’s film, Nixon), to assure Nixon that at this point, common sense and the geopolitical universe required a resignation, although even he was apparently unconvinced Nixon would actually go through with it.

After yet another nearly sleepless night, just before midday, Nixon met with Gerald Ford, the vice-president he had appointed to fill Spiro Agnew’s uncompleted term as vice-president, after Agnew had been forced to leave office over bribery charges. Ford would become the president on the following day, once Nixon departed.

That evening, just before 21:00, Nixon was at his chair at his Oval Office desk and when the television cameras went live, began his address: “Good evening. This is the 37th time I have spoken to you from this office, where so many decisions have been made that shaped the history of this nation…. I shall resign the presidency effective at noon tomorrow.”

After the speech, Kissinger accompanied Nixon to the private quarters in the White House for the final time. Kissinger said to Nixon, “History is going to record that you were a great president,” to which, Nixon then replied, “Henry, that will depend on who writes the history.”

Early the next morning, Alexander Haig gave Richard Nixon a single page to sign, his short letter of resignation, addressed to Secretary of State Kissinger, per the 1792 Presidential Succession Act. The letter simply read: “I hereby resign the Office of President of the United States.” Shortly thereafter, after a final meeting with a full complement of White House staffers, the Nixon family boarded the presidential helicopter for the final time, onward to the military base where they boarded Air Force One for the final time as well, en route to California – and a still uncertain future.

Less than a month later, newly ensconced president Gerald R Ford issued Richard Nixon a full pardon for all offences against the United States, in order to allow the nation to finally move away from the scandal and end the “national nightmare” that had seized the country for more than a year. In his television address explaining this, Ford said the pardon was in the best interests of the country and that the Nixon family’s situation was “a 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.”

Right after he issued it, Ford came under withering criticism. Beyond his frequent verbal gaffes and not a few debate stumbles, many analysts believe the pardon had a significant contribution to his eventual defeat to Jimmy Carter in the 1976 presidential election. After thinking about the scandal, Nixon eventually could say of his pain that he was “wrong in not acting more decisively and more forthrightly in dealing with Watergate, particularly when it reached the stage of judicial proceedings and grew from a political scandal into a national tragedy.”

And about the pardon, The New York Times stated it was a “profoundly unwise, divisive and unjust act” and Ford had destroyed his “credibility as a man of judgment, candour and competence” with it.

Had there been an actual bargain between Ford and Nixon to issue such a pardon, made before Nixon actually resigned? According to Bob Woodward, one half of the reporting team at The Washington Post that had originally broken the Watergate story, Alexander Haig had actually proposed such a deal to Ford before Nixon’s resignation, although it seems Ford’s reasons for issuing it actually ran rather more towards the need to move the country away from this all-enveloping scandal and in support of the friendship he and Nixon had shared. Still, the idea that the very real possibility of a pardon was already in the increasingly fevered White House air may well have been the final push needed to convince a now deeply troubled Nixon to resign and trust his future to an old friend.

And is there a lesson for South Africa in all of this? The so-called “Nixon option” has already become something of an increasingly discussed possibility. But, as Adam Habib, VC of Wits University, noted in conversation to the writer, someone has to be the first one to broach such an idea to South Africa’s incumbent leader. While it is easier to imagine who the second, the third, the fourth person might be to nod agreement and push for it, the vision of a current office-bearer in the role of Alexander Haig is rather harder to conjure up, just as it still seems impossible to picture a committee of senior incumbent politicians, equivalent in power and influence to Goldwater, Scott and Rhodes in their party, coming to tell a president that the time has come and that support for him has largely evaporated.

The difference would seem to be in the difference in politics – and the real weight of hierarchical status and the dependence of politicians locally on the president’s networks of influence. Elected American politicians cherish their independence, even within the confines of a party, rather than their obeisance to leadership. If that is the norm in South Africa, it would seem, as one of the author’s old friends – a knowledgeable, experienced businessman with real political savvy – has advised, that perhaps it is best to begin thinking about nurturing a new breed of politicians and leaders for 2019 instead. DM

Photo: Nixon announces the release of edited transcripts of the Watergate tapes, April 29, 1974. (Wikimedia Commons)

Read more:

  • Zuma’s Watergate: When will OUR long national nightmare be over? in Daily Maverick.
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