Why don’t we remember Watergate?

Posted on October 1, 2014. Filed under: Politics, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , |

Hello and welcome to the final post in our series on the Watergate Crisis, in which we ask the depressing question, Why have Americans forgotten about Watergate? This series has only given an outline of the terrible challenge to our democracy posed by President Nixon’s actions, and those of his top advisors. Their attempt to put the executive branch above the law and create an imperial presidency, if successful, would have allowed the president, any president, to commit any crime s/he felt was necessary to achieve her/his goals. Whether or not the president’s goals were good ones would be immaterial.

The American public’s response to this attempted hostile takeover was spectacular. They rose up almost as one to protest. Network news, newspapers large and small, and the man on the street all knew that the Constitution was being violated and they all refused to sit back and accept that. Nixon was out of office once his criminal activities and determination were clear. Maybe that’s part of the problem. The reaction was so swift and complete, and Nixon out so quickly (and immediately pardoned by Gerald Ford, so there was no long criminal trial after his resignation), and Americans so eager to leave the sordid episode behind them, that Watergate was collectively buried. More Americans today know about George Washington’s alleged infidelity (a complete lie, by the way) or Lincoln’s alleged homosexuality (don’t know, but it doesn’t seem likely) than the actual, open, undeniable crimes committed by Richard Nixon.

But we think the amnesia surrounding Watergate is caused by something far worse than a quick burial. One of the long-term effects of the crisis was a deep mistrust of the federal government. This is so inexplicable. Representatives of the federal government, notably the Watergate special prosecutor Cox, Attorneys General Richardson and Ruckelshaus, the Supreme Court, and all the members of the Senate Watergate Committee heroically resisted efforts to corrupt them. It was men within the president’s inner circle who committed and/or ordered the crimes, not the machinery of the federal government. The federal government rejected the attempt to transgress the Constitution, and the next two presidents after Nixon, Ford and Carter, made strenuous efforts to restore the dignity and honor of the executive branch. Yet somehow, over the 1980s, the message of Watergate became “You can’t trust the government.”

Perhaps the controversial/criminal actions of the Reagan Administration, coming so soon after Nixon’s, became merged with Nixon in the public mind, and led people to believe that the government had not been trustworthy since Kennedy.

Or maybe the steady decrease in civics education from the 1970s on created new generations of Americans who have no idea why Nixon’s actions were criminal.

Or maybe the imperial actions of President George W. Bush, and over a decade of invasion of privacy and other constitutional violations, notably by the Patriot Act, have made Americans forget that the president is not supposed to govern by executive order.

Whatever the reason, it’s bad news to forget about Watergate—what it threatened, who stood up to it, and how the Constitution and good government triumphed. If we begin to believe as a nation that we have “never” had good government, that “all” presidents are corrupt, or that the president is “supposed to” rule the nation like a king, then Nixon wins, corruption wins, and it’s as if Bill Ruckelshaus never stood up to the power of the president who told him he had “no choice but to obey” and said, “I have a choice—I can resign.” We all have the choice to refuse to obey when our Constitution is threatened, whether it’s by the federal government, or by our own ignorance.

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Nixon Resigns… and passes the buck

Posted on September 25, 2014. Filed under: Politics, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , |

Second to last post in our series on the Watergate Crisis; here we follow the crisis to its end, in President Nixon’s resignation on August 8, 1974. The Smoking Gun tape released three days earlier evaporated any support Nixon had left in Congress, and the handful of its members who had voted against impeachment in the House Judiciary Committee said they would now vote for it when the full House voted. The night of August 7, two Senators and a Congressman met with Nixon and told him impeachment in the House and Senate was a certainty. Faced with this, Nixon decided to resign before he could be impeached.

It was a move true to his character. In a way, resigning before he could be impeached was just another form of being above the law—no one would impeach Richard Nixon. He would not submit to Congress in that way. He would get out before the law could be exercised on him, before democratic procedure could be completed.

Nixon gave two resignation speeches that were exemplars of his twisted logic. The first was to the nation, on August 8, 1974, where he said, in part,

In all the decisions I have made in my public life, I have always tried to do what was best for the Nation. Throughout the long and difficult period of Watergate, I have felt it was my duty to persevere, to make every possible effort to complete the term of office to which you elected me. In the past few days, however, it has become evident to me that I no longer have a strong enough political base in the Congress to justify continuing that effort. As long as there was such a base, I felt strongly that it was necessary to see the constitutional process through to its conclusion, that to do otherwise would be unfaithful to the spirit of that deliberately difficult process and a dangerously destabilizing precedent for the future….

—That first sentence is breathtakingly deceitful. If Americans had learned anything by August 8, 1974, it was that Nixon was always out to do what was best for Nixon. He goes on to describe Watergate as a cross he has been forced to bear rather than a crime committed in his name that he himself covered up. Nixon then blames Congress for failing to support him, and forcing him to abrogate the “constitutional process” (by which he means serving his full elected term). To hear Nixon lament a breach of the Constitution at this point is, to put it succinctly, pretty rich.

I would have preferred to carry through to the finish whatever the personal agony it would have involved, and my family unanimously urged me to do so. But the interest of the Nation must always come before any personal considerations. From the discussions I have had with Congressional and other leaders, I have concluded that because of the Watergate matter I might not have the support of the Congress that I would consider necessary to back the very difficult decisions and carry out the duties of this office in the way the interests of the Nation would require.

—Again, Congress is the villain here. There is also a veiled threat (something Nixon was good at): there are “very difficult decisions and duties” the president must handle, but now, because of Congress, Nixon has to leave office, and it’s likely that the man to take his place will not be able to do as good a job handling these difficulties as Nixon.

I have never been a quitter. To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct in my body. But as President, I must put the interest of America first. America needs a full-time President and a full-time Congress, particularly at this time with problems we face at home and abroad. To continue to fight through the months ahead for my personal vindication would almost totally absorb the time and attention of both the President and the Congress in a period when our entire focus should be on the great issues of peace abroad and prosperity without inflation at home. Therefore, I shall resign the Presidency effective at noon tomorrow. Vice President Ford will be sworn in as President at that hour in this office.

—Again, no one puts the nation ahead of personal interests like Nixon. Again, Congress is a villain. And again, the nation is in particular peril “with problems we face at home and abroad” and will likely suffer in Nixon’s absence, so in a way we, the American people, are also villains for failing to support Nixon, and we will get our just desserts.

The second speech was given the next day to the White House staff, privately. It was mostly impromptu, and rambling, and in places very weird. Nixon talked about his parents and how saintly his mother was, and he talked about Theodore Roosevelt’s struggle to recover from the death of his first wife. We’ll focus on the parts where he came closest to addressing why he was leaving office:

…I am proud of this Cabinet. I am proud of all the members who have served in our Cabinet. I am proud of our sub-Cabinet. I am proud of our White House Staff. As I pointed out last night, sure, we have done some things wrong in this Administration, and the top man always takes the responsibility, and I have never ducked it. But I want to say one thing: We can be proud of it — five and a half years. No man or no woman came into this Administration and left it with more of this world’s goods than when he came in. No man or no woman ever profited at the public expense or the public till. That tells something about you.

—In defending his staff, Nixon really places blame on them for the first time. No one had thought the Watergate cover-up extended beyond Nixon and his top half-dozen aides. By saying he is proud of them and that “we” have done “some things wrong”, and that as “top man” he has taken responsibility for those wrongful acts, Nixon really seems to be saying he took the fall for his entirely criminal staff. Then he seems to note that none of them ever made any money from their crimes.

Mistakes, yes. But for personal gain, never. You did what you believed in. Sometimes right, sometimes wrong. And I only wish that I were a wealthy man — at the present time, I have got to find a way to pay my taxes — and if I were, I would like to recompense you for the sacrifices that all of you have made to serve in government. We think sometimes when things happen that don’t go the right way; we think that when you don’t pass the bar exam the first time — I happened to, but I was just lucky; I mean, my writing was so poor the bar examiner said, “We have just got to let the guy through.” We think that when someone dear to us dies, we think that when we lose an election, we think that when we suffer a defeat that all is ended. We think, as [Theodore Roosevelt] said, that the light had left his life forever. Not true.

—Again, it’s the staff who committed the crimes—“you” did what “you” believed in, “Sometimes right, sometimes wrong.” And then again the odd swerve into talking about money. And then, after accusing his staff of crimes and of making him take the fall, he comforts them by saying they mustn’t worry about him, that the light has not left their lives forever just because he is leaving office. They will survive their grief at losing him, somehow.

It is only a beginning, always. The young must know it; the old must know it. It must always sustain us, because 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.

…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.

—Nixon’s suffering has made him great; it has purified him to the point where he can end with a parable. To hear Nixon, whom the tapes revealed to be one of the most petty men in public office, constantly pursuing old grudges and trying to harm people for small offenses, loftily telling people not to be petty is remarkable. To hear the man who hated just about everyone he ever met say you should never hate because then “you destroy yourself” is almost funny.

He was right, though; his hatred and pettiness did destroy him, and he lost while most of the people he tried to bring down won. Next time, we’ll go over the legacy of Watergate.

Next time: Why don’t we remember Watergate?

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Watergate: The cover-up begins

Posted on August 22, 2014. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , |

Hello and welcome to part 3 of our series on the Watergate crisis, which ended 40 years ago this year. We left off in part 1 with the conviction of the CRP burglars for conspiracy, burglary, and violating federal wiretapping laws when they broke into the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, DC in June 1972.

One of those burglars was Howard Hunt, a former CIA official who was identified as working for the Republican Party. Hunt was also one of the  White House “Plumbers”, a group created in 1971 to stop the leaking of classified documents to the press. The most notable example of a leak was the publication of the Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg, a military analyst working for the RAND Corporation who had access to top-secret government documents on the Vietnam War that revealed that President Lyndon Johnson had lied to the American public about U.S. military operations in Vietnam, and their success, and that the U.S. had secretly begun bombing suspected Viet Cong bases and suppliers in Cambodia and Laos. Ellsberg had come to question the war before he got access to the secret papers, and once he saw them, he became firmly against the war. He copied the papers and gave them to the New York Times, where their contents were made known. They were commonly known as the Pentagon Papers, and they created deep controversy in the U.S., and gave new momentum to the already growing anti-war movement.

Nixon was furious about the Pentagon Papers, and determined to find a way to smear Ellsberg and make him seem crazy. Nixon’s top advisor, John Ehrlichman, told the Plumbers to break into the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist in Los Angeles, looking for notes that might cast doubt on Ellsberg’s sanity. They did not find anything, and Ehrlichman told Nixon only that there had been an “aborted” operation in Los Angeles. The Plumbers then used some of their members on the Watergate break-in, looking for documents that would reveal the Democratic election strategy, or some damaging evidence against their candidate, George McGovern.

When the FBI investigators on the Watergate break-in found Hunt’s name, Ehrlichman was afraid it would lead back to the Ellsberg break-in, and ordered John Dean, the president’s legal attorney, to open Hunt’s White House safe and burn everything in it. This was done by Dean and by Acting FBI Director Patrick Gray.

Nixon was told about the break-in at this point. He was also told about the attempt to erase Hunt’s connection to CRP, the Committee to Re-Elect the President, a group working to ensure Nixon’s victory in 1972. Nixon approved, and told his other top advisor, H.R. Haldeman, to have the CIA block the FBI’s investigation into the question of who paid the burglars to break into the DNC headquarters.

At a press conference a few days afterward, Press Secretary Ron Zieglar described the Watergate break-in in a phrase that would become infamous: he called it “a third-rate burglary attempt”. This was part of the White House strategy to downplay the event as the bizarre actions of a few unknown nobodies that no one should pay any attention to. On August 29, 1972, Nixon said that attorney Dean had investigated the break-in (which Dean had not) and that the result was that “I can say categorically that [no] one in the White House staff, no one in this Administration, presently employed, was involved in this very bizarre incident.” This was true to Nixon’s pattern of lying to the public; the disclaimer “presently employed” is a strange one: it plants doubt in the listener’s mind by giving them the idea that someone on Nixon’s staff had been involved in the break-in and been fired, so that as Nixon spoke, technically no one still employed by him was guilty. In reality, of course, men presently employed by the White House were responsible. So that addition made no sense, and may have been an indicator of Nixon’s nerves.

John Mitchell, the former Attorney General who resigned earlier in 1971 so he could run CRP, also claimed that he had no idea who had broken into the Watergate (when it was men working for him, who had told him the plan, which he had approved). The Nixon Administration ties to the break-in were being successfully covered up—until a check for $25,000 marked “Nixon re-election campaign” was found in the bank account of one of the burglars. The FBI investigated and found CRP money in all the burglars’ accounts, and also expense reports filed by the burglars and submitted to the CRP.

Next time—following the money trail

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