On Aug. 8, 1974, President Richard Nixon went on national TV to announce his resignation effective at noon Aug. 9. No president had ever been forced from the White House, because no political scandal had ever destroyed a president’s ability to lead the nation. Nixon’s Watergate scandal did.
This week, the 40th anniversary of Nixon’s departure, is a good time for reflection, because many Americans interested in political issues are too young to have experienced the shocking realization that their president lied to cover up wrongdoing. Yet they, like those among us who do remember, must contend with Watergate’s ugly and profound legacy of cynicism toward public office.
And so, especially to readers of the generation who get their news digitally and converse in social media hashtags:
When Nixon stepped down, to be replaced by Vice President Gerald Ford, he did not admit guilt or apologize. He didn’t say he was quitting to take responsibility for the debilitating scandal that began with a bizarre burglary of high-level Democrats by Republican operatives.
Instead, Nixon offered up with equal parts candor and calculation that he had lost political support in Congress. He was acknowledging that he expected to be impeached and removed from office. Fighting to save himself, he declared, would hurt the nation: “America needs a full-time president.”
The closest Nixon came to admitting culpability during his 15-minute Oval Office address was to express regret at the “injuries” he had caused. “I would say only that if some of my judgments were wrong, and some were wrong, they were made in what I believed at the time to be the best interest of the nation,” he said, reading from a script.
That antiseptic description of events seems unsurprising today because, unfortunately, we hear it frequently in politics. It’s the evasive answer to a hard question ― the non-apology apology. Mistakes were made. If I’ve offended anyone. Even three years after resigning, when grilled by British personality David Frost during a series of TV interviews, Nixon struggled to confess. The closest he got was admitting, “I let down the country.”
This gets at the crux of Watergate’s lasting impact: how a deceitful president obliterated trust in high office. By corrupting the presidency, Nixon destroyed an assumption about leadership and how people in authority should behave. There had been scandals previously, but nothing on this scale. And his guilt was evident because his complicity in the cover-up was caught on tape ― by a recording system he had installed in the White House.
What actually happened was this: In May and June 1972, at the time Nixon was running for re-election, members of his campaign committee bankrolled a strange criminal escapade as part of what became known as a Republican “dirty tricks” campaign. A motley crew of five burglars, including several Cuban exiles and former CIA agent James McCord, were tasked with breaking into and bugging the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. They bungled the assignment, were arrested during their second burglary, and soon were connected to the Committee for the Re-Election of the President, notoriously mocked as CREEP. The trail of crumbs led straight to the White House.
In the end, dozens of Nixon aides and others would be implicated or convicted of Watergate-related crimes such as obstruction of justice, perjury and conspiracy. As details of the scandal leaked and tumbled out over a two-year period, Nixon denied knowledge of any illegal activity. He was lying. There is no evidence he knew about the break-ins in advance, but he soon became aware and actively participated in subterfuge to contain and derail investigations.
Nixon held out hope he could save his presidency even into the summer of 1974, until he lost a Supreme Court ruling and was forced to release transcripts of White House recordings. Among them was the so-called “smoking gun” conversation in which he plotted to persuade the CIA to persuade the FBI to tamp down its investigation.
Part of the credit for Nixon’s downfall goes to two Washington Post reporters and to other journalists who bravely pursued the story. In that we have a silver lining and another legacy of Watergate: the recognition that our open system of government is flawed but ultimately self-correcting, especially because of our vigorous free press. Today, in the digital era, it’s all the more vigorous.
What does it all mean?
You could say Watergate represents one point on a continuum in which Americans became more skeptical and questioning of authority. Opposition to the Vietnam War already had pushed Nixon to end it. Maybe the nation previously had been too trusting, and the duopoly of war and Watergate delivered a necessary correction. By that light, we’d be the better for it all.
But there’s a difference between skepticism, which is healthy, and cynicism, which corrodes. Interestingly, Nixon acknowledged this in his conversation with Frost. “I let down our system of government ― dreams of all those young people that ought to get into government that will think it’s all too corrupt,” he said.
It’s not a far leap from there to the world we live in today, where ugliness in politics abounds, and where it’s too often smart to assume the worst, not the best.
This is the lesson Nixon taught the generation of Americans who remember August 1974. The lesson he bequeathed to their children and grandchildren as well.
(MCT Information Services)