It was 40 summers ago that Richard Nixon’s world finally crashed. On July 24, 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that he must hand over 64 subpoenaed tapes to the Watergate special prosecutor. On August 9, he became the only president to resign from office.
In between, the House Judiciary Committee voted three articles of impeachment, the details of the “smoking gun” tape became public, and senators from his own Republican party told him that he’d lose an impeachment trial. So, with his credibility shattered and his political base shredded, Nixon accepted the inevitable.
But how did such an astute politician get into this jam? Even today, Watergate provokes a kind of bewilderment.
First off, why did it happen at all?
By the time the ill-fated burglary took place in June 1972, it was clear that Nixon’s Democratic re-election opponent would be George McGovern. And it was also obvious that, barring the dramatically unforeseen, Nixon would win handily. So why run any gratuitous risks?
While there were several contributory factors, the most important came down to Nixon’s own personality. Along with his undisputed smarts, there was a large helping of insecurity and resentment, even paranoia.
Never averse to the rough side of politics – and believing that John F. Kennedy had (literally) stolen the 1960 election from him – he wasn’t going to be caught flatfooted again. He’d play just as dirty as he expected his opponents to. In fact, as a veteran poker player, he’d see them and raise them.
Still, for a ruthlessly unscrupulous operator, Nixon was surprisingly inept as the crisis unfolded.
Why, for instance, did he allow Archibald Cox to be appointed special prosecutor? Cox, after all, was a partisan Kennedy Democrat who promptly staffed his operation with similarly inclined lawyers. To put it mildly, their investigation wasn’t going to cut Nixon any slack or show any deference to assertions of presidential prerogative.
Granted, Cox was the personal choice of Nixon’s attorney general designate, Elliot Richardson, and can be considered the price paid for Richardson’s confirmation by the Democrat-controlled Senate. But that merely begs the question of why Nixon picked Richardson as attorney general in the first place.
Whatever his talents, Richardson was a moderate-to-liberal New Englander with impeccable establishment connections. As such, he was hardly “a safe pair of hands” for a guilty president who was widely disliked, even loathed, by that same establishment.
Then there’s the tapes. When their existence was first revealed in July 1973, why didn’t Nixon immediately destroy them on the grounds of protecting executive privilege? Presumably, he knew what story they’d tell.
Yes, such an action would’ve generated an uproar, leading to calls for resignation or impeachment. But that’s what happened anyway.
And at least Nixon would’ve been spared the corrosive drip drop of the following 12 months, not to mention the fact that there’d be no corroborating evidence of his attempt to obstruct justice. At minimum, his chances of beating impeachment would have been substantially better than they were a year later.
Perhaps he didn’t believe he’d ever be forced to surrender the tapes. And, incredible as it sounds, it’s even been suggested that he thought they’d be in some way exculpatory.
There is, however, another way of looking at it. With respect to both his political environment and who he was, Nixon was trapped.
For one thing, he always faced opposition majorities in both the House and the Senate. And with 1970s television news coming from just three networks, all of whom took their headline cues from the liberal New York Times, what we’d now call the “national conversation” wasn’t favourably disposed towards him. Thin ice was never more than a major misstep away.
Further compounding this situational weakness, Nixon craved acceptance from his “betters.” He was the resentfully aspirational outsider who desperately wanted to be a member of the club.
So appointing someone like Richardson was an attempt at ingratiation. And the level of defiance that would have been required for destroying the tapes was simply beyond him.
Nixon was guilty of attempting to subvert the law in order to conceal a petty political crime. But the zeal with which he was pursued was driven by more than an abstract search for justice.
When there’s blood in the water, it’s never a pretty sight.
Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy worked in the Canadian financial services industry for over 30 years. Originally from Ireland, he has a degree in history and economics.