At 9:01 p.m., 40 years ago this Friday, Richard Milhous Nixon sat before a television camera in the Oval Office and announced to the American public in a live broadcast that he would resign rather than endure a humiliating Senate impeachment trial for obstruction of justice.
“I have never been a quitter,” he said in his 15-minute speech. “To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrend to every instinct in my body. But as president, I must put the interest of America first.”
Bearing the dark rings of defeat and exhaustion under his eyes, Nixon, 61, stone-faced and calm, appeared to be resigned to his fate of becoming the first – and to this day, only – U.S. president to step down.
His resignation as the 37th president, 21 months after being reelected with more than 60 percent of the vote, was the culmination of a battle against allegations that he may have covered up a botched burglary two years earlier in which a group of men with ties to the White House had attempted to bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate Hotel in Washington.
Four decades later, Watergate remains the gold standard for other scandals, said Ken Hughes, a historian with the Miller Center’s Presidential Recording Program at the University of Virginia and author of “Chasing Shadows,” a book detailing new revelations about Nixon’s cover-ups.
“The extent of Nixon’s abuses of power remain unequaled,” Hughes said. “Many politicians have been accused of being Nixonian; but with Nixon, we actually know to a great extent what he did.”
Watergate was not only a scandal of domestic politics, but a scandal that extended all the way into foreign policy, into matters of war and peace and life and death, Hughes said.
“And 40 years after the fact we know that Watergate was bigger and much worse than we realized at the time,” he said.
Those who knew the president well agreed in recent interviews that Watergate changed the way Americans looked at politics and the presidency.
“The Watergate scandal certainly added to the truism that if you are dealing with the public business, you can’t hide anything; you better be totally clean and open. It confirmed my natural instincts,” said former Virginia Gov. Linwood Holton, whose years-long friendship with Nixon helped him become the state’s first Republican governor in the 20th century.
A congressman from Virginia also found himself in the center of the biggest political scandal in modern American history: M. Caldwell Butler, a member of the House Judiciary Committee from Roanoke, became the only Virginia Republican to vote to impeach the president less than two years after being swept into office on the coattails of Nixon’s reelection landslide.
“There are frightening implications for the future of our country if we do not impeach the President of the United States,” Butler, who died last week at age 89, said before the committee during the impeachment hearings in July 1974. “Because we will, by this impeachment proceeding, be establishing a standard of conduct for the President of the United States which will for all time be a matter of public record.”
Butler also expressed concern about the pattern of presidential abuse of powers given him by statute and the Constitution – words that some of President Barack Obama’s enemies apply to his presidency in an almost unchanged fashion.
“The manipulation of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Internal Revenue Service … are frightening in their implications for the future of America. The misuse of power is the very essence of tyranny,” Butler said.
Patrick J. “Pat” Buchanan, a three-time presidential candidate, author of “The Greatest Comeback – How Richard Nixon Rose from Defeat to Create the New Majority,” and a trusted Nixon staffer, calls Watergate a “huge scandal” because it marked the breaking of a highly successful president.
“Watergate is huge because of the consequence – a president resigned,” Buchanan said in a recent interview with the Richmond Times-Dispatch at his McLean home.
The biggest political scandal in the nation’s history that would take down a president began in the early morning hours of June 17, 1972, with what White House Press Secretary Ron Ziegler later called “a third rate burglary.”
At 2:30 a.m., police arrested five men who attempted to bug offices at the plush Watergate Hotel at 2600 Virginia Ave., where the DNC occupied the entire sixth floor. Three of the suspects were native-born Cubans; a fourth was said to have trained Cuban guerillas after the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion.
The fifth suspect was James W. McCord Jr., a former CIA official.
A $25,000 cashier’s check, deposited in McCord’s bank account, spelled trouble for the White House – it had been earmarked for the GOP’s Committee to Reelect the President, later famously dubbed CREEP, a fundraising organization headed by former U.S. Attorney General John N. Mitchell that employed money laundering and slush funds.
“I was at my parents’ house, it was a Saturday. I got a call from my deputy in the White House and he said that they caught five guys breaking into the National Democratic Committee at the Watergate,” Buchanan said.
“I knew instantly it was our guys. I couldn’t have told you who those people were and I didn’t know any of them, but I knew that it was probably our crowd who did that.”
The burglars were part of a covert GOP-controlled operations unit called “The White House Plumbers” that had started off by going after what the White House considered dangerous anti-war agitators who were undermining Nixon’s desire to end the Vietnam War with peace and honor.
“Once they got away with using the FBI and CIA to undermine Vietnam War protestors, they realized gradually that they could use these agencies to go after their political enemies,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
Former CIA officer E. Howard Hunt and former FBI agent G. Gordon Liddy were in charge of the Plumbers, who were funded by the Committee to Reelect the President.
The Watergate break-in wasn’t the group’s first secret operation. Their initial assignment was the burglary of the office of psychiatrist Lewis J. Fielding in 1971. Fielding’s most famous patient was military analyst Daniel Ellsberg, who had leaked the Pentagon Papers. The Plumbers’ task was to find evidence to discredit Ellsberg – but they failed.
“Nixon’s reasons for creating the Plumbers were not to guard legitimate national security secrets, but to guard illegitimate politically damaging secrets, and also to smear his critics of the Vietnam War,” Hughes said.
The president feared the American public would find out about his secret bombing of Cambodia by air, which led to an escalation of the Vietnam War that backfired badly, “so badly that it destabilized the Cambodian government and prompted Nixon to launch the ground invasion of Cambodia a year later,” Hughes said.
Essentially, the Plumbers were the result of Nixon’s personal paranoia about his political enemies that he suspected to be watching his every move, waiting to strike against him.
“I’m not a psychiatrist, but undoubtedly that was an adept description,” Holton said. “Nixon was afraid of ‘them,’ and whoever ‘they’ were, ‘they’ were going to get him. Paranoia is plainly the major ingredient, (and) when I heard of the break-in, I was not surprised. By that time I had observed who was around (Nixon) and who had influence.”
Nixon counsel John W. Dean III., who was drafted to orchestrate the cover-up and later became the prosecution’s star witness against the president after realizing he would take the fall for the operation, said that the cover-up began on the weekend of the break-in, when Mitchell issued a press statement that the reelection committee had no knowledge of or anything to do with the burglary.
The statement was cleared by the president’s two closest confidantes, White House Chief of Staff H.R. “Bob” Haldeman and John D. Ehrlichman, Nixon’s assistant for domestic affairs.
“They really just locked it right in there, and it became a bunch of strategy sessions as to how they would structure and deal with the problems,” Dean said in a phone interview from his Los Angeles home.
For four decades, it was unclear what Nixon knew and when he knew it.
But after examining thousands of hours of presidential audio tapes for his new book “The Nixon Defense,” some of them previously unreleased, Dean learned that Nixon may not have ordered the break-in, but that he found out about it immediately after the arrests.
“There is no question that Nixon is privy to the cover-up from Day One. He knows what’s going on. What he knows about Watergate, he learns from primarily Haldeman, secondly Ehrlichman, then the newspapers. For the first eight months, that’s where he gets all his information.”
Dean also said the president didn’t think that keeping a lid on the dark actions of his reelection committee would be a violation of the law.
“He’s not looking at it in terms of obstruction of justice; motive and criminal law are not necessarily as combined as people may think. I don’t think there were a lot of evil motives in Watergate, but there were a lot of foolishness and stupidity,” he said.
Buchanan, too, believes that wire-tapping of the DNC was a badly thought out plan by an organization with little purpose and a lot of campaign cash to spend.
“The problem was over there that they had all that money and nothing to do,” he said.
“The way the White House got involved is after these five individuals were caught, some of these people immediately started running to their friends in the White House saying what a problem they had. People made an effort in the early days to help out their buddies. It’s a product of really natural, but misplaced loyalty,” Buchanan said.
Hughes said that Nixon had no choice but cover up the break-in, because an investigation of the two men who had planned the operation – Hunt and Liddy – would have led back to the president’s creation of the Plumbers.
“As president, Nixon consciously and deliberately prolonged the Vietnam War to prevent South Vietnam from falling before the election of 1972. These are much more atrocious abuses of power than breaking into the National Democratic Party headquarters,” Hughes said.
The purpose of the Watergate break-in is still unknown. And 40 years later, there are more theories than ever.
“The obvious theory is that they wanted to tape the chairman of the DNC and see what he knew about the 1972 race,” Sabato said. “But the theory that has taken hold in recent years is that some of the people in the DNC were part of a high level call girl operation and that they were providing prostitutes to the key members of the Democratic Party and (Republicans) were trying to get the goods on that. There is some evidence that this is true.”
For much of the summer of 1972, the Watergate scandal bubbled below the surface of Nixon’s reelection campaign, mainly through a series of stories about Mitchell’s secret campaign funds by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, about which the former attorney general commented as follows:
“All that crap, you’re putting it in the paper? It’s all been denied. Jesus. Katie Graham (Katharine Graham, publisher of The Washington Post) is gonna get … caught in a big fat wringer if that’s published.”
In October, the FBI reported that the Watergate break-in was part of a massive campaign of political spying and sabotage on behalf of the Committee to Reelect the President.
Despite the allegations, Dean managed to keep the White House involvement under wraps.
“I became an intermediary,” he said. “There were deep personal problems between Mitchell and Ehrlichman. These were two men who could barely speak to each other; there was a long time personality clash. I became something of a desk officer of the cover-up, where I’m getting instructions from Mitchell, Haldeman and Ehrlichman and I become their communication link and information gatherer.”
But Dean said that it didn’t dawn on him until later that his actions constituted a criminal offense.
“There was no question to me that it was a cover-up, but the question is when did I realize it was criminal? I think that was pretty late and that was true for everybody, not withstanding all the lawyers who were involved,” he said.
“These are pretty vague crimes; conspiracy to obstruct justice is not a bright line crime, it’s pretty vague stuff.”
Dean’s efforts helped secure Nixon’s reelection victory in November. The president defeated his Democratic opponent, George McGovern, in one of the largest landslides in American political history.
But the president’s reelection honeymoon didn’t last long. In January 1973, Liddy and McCord were convicted of conspiracy, burglary and wiretapping in the Watergate break-in. Soon, federal investigators traced leads that led to Nixon’s inner White House circle.
Dean said that he was trying to warn the president.
“I had 37 conversations with Nixon,” he said. “When I started dealing with him, I didn’t know what he knew, what he did not know. I was not sure what he was seeking from me because he had up to the point dealt exclusively with Haldeman and Ehrlichman on Watergate. I virtually knew nothing at the time. Had I known, I would have gone in on day one and told him ‘You’re in deep trouble, Mr. President.’ I hinted that in the early meetings, but I’m trying to find out how to deal with that situation. When you’re 30 years old, dealing with the leader of the Free World, you take small steps.”
In March, Nixon first realized that he may be in serious trouble.
“His antenna clearly goes up after I tell him there is a cancer on his presidency,” Dean said. “That gets his attention.”
Fearing that the White House would make him the scapegoat for the cover-up, Dean eventually went to prosecutors and offered them a deal in exchange for immunity.
“That really blew it up. Dean was implicating Haldeman and Ehrlichman,” Buchanan said. “I said, if they were involved, and they can’t survive, they have to resign. But Nixon didn’t act on that for a number of weeks. I said they all have to go. That’s when I recommended to the president that Haldeman and Ehrlichman can’t survive and they ought to go now. And Dean had to be fired.”
On April 30, Nixon accepted the resignations of Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Attorney General Richard Kleindienst. And he fired Dean.
“Nixon was crying, not just because he appreciated Haldeman’s and Ehrlichman’s loyalty,” Sabato said. “He was crying because he knew what they knew. And he knew the federal prosecutors were going to try to get information out of them which could bring him down. That was really the moment that Nixon realized the jig was up.”
On May 18, the Senate Watergate Committee begins its nationally televised hearings – and Americans followed the proceedings live from their living rooms.
“For the average American, who had no real conception of this, it was just one bombshell right after another. You couldn’t take your eyes of it. It was like watching a slow-motion disaster,” Sabato said. “There were so many side controversies, so many tentacles that you almost had to study it full time to keep up with it.”
Woodward and Bernstein kept reporting for the Washington Post. Woodward had a source high up in the government who would feed him confidential information, a mysterious informant dubbed “Deep Throat,” whom he met several times in an Arlington parking garage.
“It had the essence of a spy story and that’s why people were fascinated with that part of it,” Sabato said.
Woodward kept his source’s true identity a secret until 2005, when the source was revealed as W. Mark Felt, the number two in the FBI.
For decades, speculations about Deep Throat’s identify kept circulating. Even Nixon-loyalist Buchanan made the list.
“The charge was absurd,” Buchanan said. “Anyone leaking like that to destroy Nixon was an opportunist or an enemy, or both.”
In July 1973, former presidential appointments secretary Alexander Butterfield stunned the nation with his bombshell revelation before the committee: since 1971 Nixon had recorded all conversations and telephone calls in his offices.
Dean said that Nixon ran the tapes because he wanted to keep a very good historical record of his presidency. “He was also a president who had a high degree of paranoia about some of his staff. He didn’t want anybody to walk out of the president’s office and claim that he said something that he hadn’t said,” Dean said.
Buchanan said that Nixon’s desire to keep an audio record of every conversation was foolish.
“You should do that in foreign policy, those are things you need. But when you’re there just gassing around in the afternoon, and that tape is running – that was foolish. He should have had a switch to just turn it on and off,” he said.
Nixon knew that the tapes included confidential conversations showing that he had ordered the cover-up of the Watergate break-in and others that would be potentially dangerous for his presidency. Within days, he had his White House taping system disconnected.
“I told him to burn the tapes,” Buchanan remembered. “Had he followed my advice, I think he would have survived.”
But Nixon refused.
He also refused to turn over the complete recordings to the Senate Watergate Committee or the special prosecutor. Instead, he pleaded with Americans on national television, insisting that he was “not a crook.”
In April 1974, the White House released more than 1,200 pages of edited transcripts of tapes to the House Judiciary Committee. But the committee insisted that the tapes themselves must be turned over.
The transcripts still stunned America – and the recordings left little doubt in the nation’s collective mind that the president was guilty of the cover-up.
“When you heard this in Nixon’s own words, it hit you and you knew it was true,” Sabato said. “You were shocked at the amoral quality of the man in the Oval Office. In Nixon’s defense, we now know, a fair number of other presidents were also amoral. But we didn’t know that then.”
Hughes said people only knew the president from his well staged public appearances – until the tapes offered an unparalleled look behind the scenes.
“Presidents are very good at managing their images,” Hughes said. “The public Nixon and the private Nixon were in such great contrast that this still remains fascinating 40 years out. The tapes really do show us the dark side of a presidency.”
On July 24, the Supreme Court ruled that Nixon had to turn over the tapes of 64 White House conversations, including recordings that would serve as undeniable evidence for his role in the Watergate cover-up.
“It’s unlikely that Nixon would have been in serious trouble without his taping system. Why did he tape his own conversations – and should he not have known better, considering the often explosive nature of these conversations?” Buchanan said, still wondering.
Three days later, the House Judiciary Committee passed the first three articles of impeachment, charging the president with obstruction of justice.
One of those who voted to impeach Nixon was Virginia Rep. Butler.
Richard Cullen, who briefly served as Virginia’s attorney general in 1997, was Butler’s press secretary during Watergate.
His boss was a loyal Nixon Republican, Cullen said. But he was also a man of principles.
“He never told us, he never talked about what he was thinking, what he was going to do,” Cullen said. “He was more like a judge than a politician during that period.”
When Butler voted in favor of impeachment, Cullen was not surprised.
“I suspected it, but I didn’t know that’s how he was going to vote. Butler wasn’t viewed as a wise hero until later, when the smoking gun tape was released. Then everybody got on board.”
Former Gov. Holton said that he was proud of Butler’s vote.
“There is no person who has a higher sense of ethics and courage than Caldwell Butler,” Holton said. ‘His vote encouraged a certain amount of animosity from Nixon supporters. But how can you be critical, when after all, Nixon lied to all of us.”
After a meeting with Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, Nixon knew that he could not avoid impeachment in the Senate.
“Goldwater told the president that he was through, that he no longer had the votes to stay in office. And that’s when Nixon understood he had to go. If he were convicted in a trial, he would have lost the presidential pension,” Sabato said.
Nixon first informed Vice President Gerald Ford to prepare to assume the presidency. Between Aug. 7 and 8, Nixon told his closest aides and family members that he would resign.
Before stepping in front of television cameras on the evening of Aug. 8, the president wrote his resignation letter to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. It simply read:
“Dear Mr. Secretary, I hereby resign the Office of President of the United States. Sincerely, Richard Nixon.”
While several dozen White House and GOP officials were convicted and served prison time, Nixon never faced any legal consequences after leaving office.
Just a month after the resignation, President Ford granted Nixon a full pardon – a decision that angered most Americans.
“My feelings at the time were that it was quite unjust, and my feelings in the longer and bigger picture are that Ford did the right thing,” said Dean, who was sentenced to one to four years in a minimum-security prison but ended up spending just four months in a safe house.
“But I think the idea of a former president being prosecuted is just awful,” Dean added.
Buchanan also believes that Ford did the right thing.
“He had to end it, for Heaven’s sakes. What was going to be served by indicting Nixon and going through all these procedures again? I think most people came to believe that, too. Trying the president and sentencing him to something, how would that have helped the country?”
What’s left is Nixon’s legacy, which will forever be tainted by his resignation and the scandal that forced him to step down – Watergate, the mother of all political scandals.
To compare modern scandals to Watergate by using the suffix -gate, is just short-handed, Hughes said. “It’s part of the inflation of political rhetoric whenever something bad occurs, people seize on it for political gain. It doesn’t mean much, it’s been used so much, it lost its power. But for some reason, people don’t stop doing it.”
Dean said that with Watergate, there was fire, not just smoke.
“But Benghazi, the IRS, – the current effort to create scandals there – those are really not scandals. The Republican and conservative media are doing their best to make Benghazi a scandal, but the mainstream doesn’t share that with good reason – that’s pretty phony stuff.”
Buchanan cited a number of scandals that came after Watergate that had a huge impact on political culture in America.
“Bill Clinton was impeached and tried in the Senate and he escaped and stayed in office. Everybody remembers that scandal, but it is all considered a joke now,” Buchanan said.
“At the bottom of (all these scandals) is the civil war that’s going on inside the soul of the American people, which is utterly unresolved. When one side, especially the left, sees one of those in power it can take down because it controls various institutions, it moves on you. I think one of Nixon’s great mistakes was not realizing the malice of his enemies.”
On the morning of Aug. 9, 1974, just hours before Ford was sworn in as 38th president, to serve out the 895 days remaining in his predecessor’s second term, a smiling, but teary-eyed president Nixon said farewell to his White House staff and members of his administration.
Standing on a small podium in the East Room between portraits of George and Martha Washington, Nixon admitted to mistakes, “but for personal gain, never.”
In what may be his most powerful speech, the president left his supporters with words of inspiration.
“The greatness comes not when things go always good for you, but the greatness comes and you are really tested, when you take some knocks, some disappointments, when sadness comes, because only if you have been in the deepest valley can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain,” he said.
“Always give your best, never get discouraged, never be petty; always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself. “
And then, before boarding Marine One, he flashed his victory sign one last time.
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