On April 30, 1973, with the Watergate trial well underway, President Richard Nixon announces on nationwide television and radio the resignation of his closest advisers, H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, as well as White House Counsel John Dean and Attorney General Richard Kleindienst.
Nixon Resignation Still Resonates 40 Years After Watergate
Forty years ago on August 8, 1974, Richard Nixon became the only American president to resign from office.
His departure came because of his involvement in the Watergate scandal and subsequent cover-up, which began when Republican campaign operatives broke into Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate office building in Washington in June of 1972.
It is a scandal that left a huge impact on national politics and some of the reforms enacted in its wake continue to reverberate today.
But none of that was apparent on the night of August, 8, when a high-stakes political drama was playing out in the White House that would end in Nixon waving goodbye the next day before stepping into a helicopter on the White House lawn.
Not a 'quitter'
It was on that night that Nixon went before television cameras in the Oval Office and announced he would resign the following day.
“I have never been a quitter,” he said. “To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct in my body. But as president, I must put the interests of America first.”
In an emotional speech to White House staff the next morning, Nixon seemed to touch on one of the reasons for his political downfall, though whether he knew it at the time remains open to interpretation.
“Always remember, others may hate you,” he said. “But those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them. And then you destroy yourself.”
The nightmare is over
Shortly thereafter the new president, Gerald Ford, sought to reassure a nation that had just witnessed the first presidential resignation in history.
The words were simple but eloquent and a tribute to the enduring nature of American democracy.
“My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over,” he said. “Our Constitution works. Our great republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here, the people rule.”
Several Nixon aides went to jail for crimes and abuses of power committed during the Watergate scandal. White House tape recordings implicated Nixon in the cover-up when he ordered aides to tell the CIA to lie to the FBI in an effort to thwart the Watergate investigation.
Ford would later pardon Nixon of any criminal culpability in a move that may have cost him the 1976 presidential election, won by Democrat Jimmy Carter.
Important turning point
American University presidential historian Allan Lichtman said the Watergate scandal remains an important turning point in U.S. political history.
“Watergate remains tremendously significant,” he explained. “It is still, to date, the most comprehensive attempt by a president and his administration to undermine the democratic process.”
The Watergate scandal unfolded over a two-year period, much of it first uncovered and documented by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.
Lichtman said journalists investigating Watergate and the president’s involvement in a political cover-up was crucial.
“Had it not been for the journalism of (Bob) Woodward and (Carl) Bernstein and their inside source, Nixon may well have gotten away with it,” he said. “So the system worked but it did work precariously and you know the lesson is you have got to be ever-vigilant.”
The Watergate scandal also led to congressional reform of the campaign finance system, though some of those reforms have been undone by recent Supreme Court decisions.
Watergate also ushered in a new, more divisive political era that has become even more polarized in recent years.
Norman Ornstein, a political analyst who took part in a recent panel discussion on the Watergate scandal at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington said, “We began to see the tensions increase but they were nowhere near what we have now. What I see now is a level of tribalism, not simply polarization, that is something we haven’t seen in the country pretty much since the period right around the Civil War.”
Americans have changed their minds about one aspect of the Watergate scandal.
In 1974, 59 percent opposed President Ford’s decision to pardon Richard Nixon. But by 2002, an ABC News survey found that 59 percent believed that Ford had done the right thing in granting the pardon as part of an effort to reunify the country in the wake of one of the worst political scandals in its history.
In an evening televised address, President Richard M. Nixon announces his intention to become the first president in American history to resign. With impeachment proceedings underway against him for his involvement in the Watergate affair, Nixon was finally bowing to pressure from the public and Congress to leave the White House. “By taking this action,” he said in a solemn address from the Oval Office, “I hope that I will have hastened the start of the process of healing which is so desperately needed in America.”
Just before noon the next day, Nixon officially ended his term as the 37th president of the United States. Before departing with his family in a helicopter from the White House lawn, he smiled farewell and enigmatically raised his arms in a victory or peace salute. The helicopter door was then closed, and the Nixon family began their journey home to San Clemente, California. Minutes later, Vice President Gerald R. Ford was sworn in as the 38th president of the United States in the East Room of the White House. After taking the oath of office, President Ford spoke to the nation in a television address, declaring, “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over.” He later pardoned Nixon for any crimes he may have committed while in office, explaining that he wanted to end the national divisions created by the Watergate scandal.
On June 17, 1972, five men, including a salaried security coordinator for President Nixon’s reelection committee, were arrested for breaking into and illegally wiretapping the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Washington, D.C., Watergate complex. Soon after, two other former White House aides were implicated in the break-in, but the Nixon administration denied any involvement. Later that year, reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of The Washington Post discovered a higher-echelon conspiracy surrounding the incident, and a political scandal of unprecedented magnitude erupted.
In May 1973, the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, headed by Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina, began televised proceedings on the rapidly escalating Watergate affair. One week later, Harvard law professor Archibald Cox was sworn in as special Watergate prosecutor. During the Senate hearings, former White House legal counsel John Dean testified that the Watergate break-in had been approved by former Attorney General John Mitchell with the knowledge of White House advisers John Ehrlichman and H.R. Haldeman, and that President Nixon had been aware of the cover-up. Meanwhile, Watergate prosecutor Cox and his staff began to uncover widespread evidence of political espionage by the Nixon reelection committee, illegal wiretapping of thousands of citizens by the administration, and contributions to the Republican Party in return for political favors.
In July, the existence of what were to be called the Watergate tapes–official recordings of White House conversations between Nixon and his staff–was revealed during the Senate hearings. Cox subpoenaed these tapes, and after three months of delay President Nixon agreed to send summaries of the recordings. Cox rejected the summaries, and Nixon fired him. His successor as special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, leveled indictments against several high-ranking administration officials, including Mitchell and Dean, who were duly convicted.
Public confidence in the president rapidly waned, and by the end of July 1974 the House Judiciary Committee had adopted three articles of impeachment against President Nixon: obstruction of justice, abuse of presidential powers, and hindrance of the impeachment process. On July 30, under coercion from the Supreme Court, Nixon finally released the Watergate tapes. On August 5, transcripts of the recordings were released, including a segment in which the president was heard instructing Haldeman to order the FBI to halt the Watergate investigation. Three days later, Nixon announced his resignation.
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Washington, Oct. 20--President Nixon, reacting angrily tonight to refusals to obey his orders, dismissed the special Watergate prosecutor, Archibald Cox, abolished Mr. Cox&aposs office, accepted the resignation of Elliot L. Richardson, the Attorney General, and discharged William D. Ruckelshaus, the Deputy Attorney General.
The President&aposs dramatic action edged the nation closer to the constitutional confrontation he said he was trying to avoid. PRIVATE
Senior members of both parties in the House of Representatives were reported to be seriously discussing impeachment of the President because of his refusal to obey an order by the United States Court of Appeals that he turn over to the courts tape recordings of conversations about the Watergate case, and because of Mr. Nixon&aposs dismissal of Mr. Cox.
The President announced that he had abolished the Watergate prosecutor&aposs office as of 8 o&aposclock tonight and that the duties of that office had been transferred back to the Department of Justice, where his spokesman said they would be "carried out with thoroughness, and vigor."
These were the events that led to the confrontation between the President and Congress and the Government&aposs top law enforcement officers:
Mr. Cox said in a televised news conference that he would return to Federal court in defiance of the President&aposs orders to seek a decision that Mr. Nixon had violated a ruling that the tapes must be turned over to the courts.
Attorney General Richardson, after being told by the President that Mr. Cox must be dismissed, resigned.
Deputy Attorney General Ruckelshaus was ordered by Mr. Nixon to discharge Mr. Cox. Mr. Ruckelshaus refused and was dismissed immediately.
The President informed Robert H. Bork, the Solicitor General, that under the law he was the acting Attorney General and must get rid of Mr. Cox and the special Watergate force.
Mr. Bork discharged Mr. Cox and had the Federal Bureau of Investigation seal off the offices of the special prosecutor, which Mr. Cox had put in a building away from the Department of Justice to symbolize his independence. Some members of the Cox staff were still inside at the time.
The F.B.I. also sealed off the offices of Mr. Richardson and Mr. Ruckelshaus.
Mr. Richardson had no comment tonight, but he scheduled a news conference for Monday. Mr. Ruckelshaus said, "I&aposm going fishing tomorrow."
Mr. Cox&aposs reaction was brief: "Whether we shall continue to be a government of laws and not of men is now for Congress and ultimately the American people [to decide]," he said.
The President&aposs decisions today raised new problems.
For one, he must seek his third Attorney General in a year, now that Mr. Richardson has followed Richard G. Kleindienst as a victim of the Watergate affair.
Moreover, he has risked the possibility of a public and Congressional outcry over disbanding the Watergate force assembled last spring under Mr. Cox to allay suspicions that a Justice Department responsible to the President might not have been prosecuting those responsible for the Watergate break-in and cover-up with enough vigor.
In addition, the confirmation of Representative Gerald R. Ford, the Michigan Republican who was designated by Mr. Nixon as his choice for Vice President after Spiro T. Agnew resigned, may run into trouble in Congress. Mr. Ford issued a statement tonight supporting Mr. Nixon&aposs actions.
The announcement of the President&aposs decisions came at 8:24 P.M. at an unusual Saturday night briefing by Ronald L. Ziegler, the White House press secretary.
By late this evening, some public reaction was already visible at the White House. Crowds of young people gathered at the northwest gate, some shouting anti-Nixon slogans. One youth held up a large sign saying, "Resign."
All evening, the White House switchboard was so swamped with calls that it was almost impossible to get through. Lights in the offices in the West Wing burned late into the night.
All day, newsmen in unusual numbers for a weekend wandered aimlessly through the press area of the White House, waiting for Mr. Cox&aposs televised news conference from the National Press Building, and then for the President&aposs reaction.
What Mr. Cox said when he appeared, relaxed and amiable as he slouched at a table, was that the President&aposs proposal to make an edited summary of the tapes available to the Senate Watergate committee and the grand jury had created "insuperable difficulties" for him in conducting a criminal investigation.
"I think it is my duty as the special prosecutor, as an officer of the court and as the representative of the grand jury, to bring to the court&aposs attention what seems to me to be non-compliance with the court&aposs order," he declared.
Making it clear that he would defy the President&aposs order "not to seek to invoke the judicial process further to compel production of recordings, notes or memoranda regarding private Presidential conversations," Mr. Cox added:
"I&aposm going to go about my duties on the terms of which I assumed them."
But for hours after Mr. Cox&aposs news conference, there was no official reaction from the White House.
During the day, White House sources continued to provide background briefings to small groups of newsmen on Mr. Nixon&aposs reasons for not appealing the appellate court&aposs ruling on the Watergate tapes, but seeking instead to provide a summary that would be verified by Senator John C. Stennis, Democrat of Mississippi.
About 4:45 P.M., Mr. Richardson&aposs limousine appeared in the driveway, and disappeared a half- hour later. But for hours, no one would even confirm that Mr. Richardson had seen the President.
Then, shortly before 8:30 P.M., a grim-faced Mr. Ziegler appeared at the podium in the press room with his deputy, Gerald Warren.
Reading from a prepared statement and later refusing to take questions, Mr. Ziegler reported that the President had discharged Mr. Cox and broken up the special Watergate prosecutor force.
Mr. Ziegler said the President had sought by his move tonight "to avoid a constitutional confrontation by an action that would give the grand jury what it needs to proceed with its work with the least possible intrusion of Presidential privacy."
"That action taken by the President in the spirit of accommodation that has marked American constitutional history was accepted by responsible leaders in Congress and the country," Mr. Ziegler added. "Mr. Cox&aposs refusal to proceed in the same spirit of accommodation, complete with his announced intention to defy instructions from the President and press for further confrontation at a time of serious world crisis, made it necessary for the President to discharge Mr. Cox and to return to the Department of Justice the task of prosecuting those who broke the law in connection with Watergate."
Then, in four brief paragraphs, he announced the resignation of Mr. Richardson and the dismissal of Mr. Ruckelshaus.
Special to The New York Times
Washington, Oct. 20--Archibald Cox, defying limits imposed on him by President Nixon, said today that he would return to Federal court in search of a decision that the President had violated valid orders to surrender nine tape recordings of White House conversations.
The embattled special prosecutor told a news conference that Mr. Nixon&aposs proposal to make an edited summary of the tapes available to the Senate Watergate Committee and the grand jury had created "insuperable difficulties" for him in conducting a criminal investigation.
"I think it is my duty as the special prosecutor, as an officer of the court and as the representative of the grand jury, to bring to the court&aposs attention what seems to be noncompliance with the court&aposs order," Mr. Cox declared.
Resignation Is Barred
Mr. Cox also complained that the President had withheld White House documents he requested and the court had ordered be produced.
The special prosecutor made it clear that he had no intention of resigning in protest over the President&aposs attempt to curb his activity. On the contrary, by ignoring the Nixon instructions he appeared ready to test the President&aposs willingness to accept the political responsibilities for dismissing him.
In fact, Mr. Cox questioned whether anyone other than Attorney General Elliot L. Richardson had the right to give him instructions or to discharge him for failure to carry them out. He indicated that, throughout the last week&aposs controversy with the White House, his relations with Mr. Richardson had remained good.
Mr. Nixon was reported today to have been urged by senior political advisers over recent weeks to dismiss Mr. Cox and face serious political criticism, rather than endure the prospect of a long series of indictments of former White House and Administration aides.
Mr. Cox indicated at his news conference today that he thought the White House had deliberately submitted to him a series of proposals for a compromise on the tapes controversy that were known to be unacceptable to him.
For more than an hour before an unusual Saturday crowd of reporters at the National Press Club, the former Harvard law professor put on a relaxed, low-key performance that belied his new status as a prime Presidential target.
He protested that he disliked confrontations, expressed worry that he was getting "too big for my britches," sidestepped inquiries that invited sharply critical replies and generally assumed the role of a homespun Yankee trying to do his legal duty.
"I&aposm not looking for a confrontation," Mr. Cox said. "I&aposve worried a good deal through my life about problems of imposing too much strain upon our constitutional institutions, and I&aposm certainly not out to get the President of the United States."
But he complained of difficulty in obtaining cooperation from the White House, declaring, "My efforts to get information, beginning in May, have been the subject of repeated frustration."
In a statement issued last night, Mr. Nixon said he would not comply with a week-old Court of Appeals decision requiring him to make the tapes available to Federal District Judge John J. Sirica, who would screen them in private and determine what potential Watergate evidence could be passed on to the grand jury.
The President said he would not appeal that decision to the Supreme Court, and he ordered Mr. Cox, as an employee of the executive branch, to take no further part in that court action and not to attempt any other legal moves aimed to obtain White House documents.
Instead, Mr. Nixon said he would edit a summary of the tapes himself and ask Senator John C. Stennis, as an independent authority, to listen to the recordings and verify the President&aposs summary as full and accurate. Then the summary would go to the grand jury through Judge Sirica and to the Senate Watergate Committee, Mr. Nixon said.
Mr. Cox said that he could not accept the President&aposs plan for the following reasons:
In a criminal investigation, "It is simply not enough to make a compromise in which the real evidence is available only to two or three men operating in secrecy, all but one of them aides to the President and men who have been associated with those who are the subject of the investigation."
The President&aposs procedures would not establish what standards might be used for cutting "national security" information out of the summary and could result in deletion of material such as "that dealing with the burglary of the office of Dr. Daniel Ellsberg&aposs former psychiatrist or the tapping of telephones of White House aides with no foreign affairs responsibilities.
The President&aposs instructions to Mr. Cox were "inconsistent" with pledges made by the Attorney General to the Senate "and through the Senate to the American people" that the special prosecutor would have independence.
It would be "most unlikely" that trial courts involved with any Watergate defendants would accept the Nixon-Stennis summaries as evidence, "and I would be left without the evidence with which to prosecute people whom I had used the summaries, perhaps, to indict."
Prosecution of some Watergate defendants might have to be abandoned if they argued they needed the tapes to make their defense.
Mr. Cox said, however, he had heard that the White House might release some tapes sought by John N. Mitchell and Maurice H. Stans for their defense in the New York trial involving illegal campaign contributions by Robert L. Vesco.
The tapes in questions include private conversations in the President&aposs Oval Office with John W. Dean 3d, his former counsel, and other witnesses who told frequently conflicting stories before the Senate Watergate panel about their involvement and Mr. Nixon&aposs knowledge of the matters.
It was Dean who told the panel that members of the White House staff had been involved in a cover-up of the facts surrounding the June, 1972, burglary of Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex here. His testimony was contradicted by a number of other White House aides.
Mr. Cox said that many White House papers that he wanted had been taken out of their regular files and "put in something special called Presidential files." He said he had been told he would receive other papers he requested but that "the delays have been extraordinary."
Among the documents he mentioned were notes he said had been made by John D. Ehrlichman, former chief domestic advisor to Mr. Nixon, dealing with "every conversation in which he participated." Another was a memorandus he said he had reason to believe had been dictated by Mr. Nixon after his conversation with Mr. Dean about the cover-up.
Nixon and Watergate: By the numbers
Forty years ago, on Aug. 8, 1974, President Richard M. Nixon announced he would resign the presidency the following day, becoming the first American president to do so.
USA TODAY Network looks back at key facts, figures and images from the scandal that changed American history.
The Watergate complex in Washington (Photo: Paul J. Richards, AFP)
There are 3,700 hours of recordings in the Nixon White House tapes. (Photo: AP)
Justice William Rehnquist recused himself from the case. (Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais, AP)
President Nixon meets with Gerald Ford in the Oval Office. (Photo: UPI)
Nixon addresses the nation, explaining he will resign the presidency effective the following day. (Photo: AP)
A photo of the last meal Nixon had as president in the White House. (Photo: National Archives)
How the Watergate Scandal Worked
If you were conscious in the early 1970s, then you know about Watergate. Even if you were only six years old, you know about it. It was a massive news story that played out like a soap opera over the course of several years. It could be that Watergate was the news story to end all news stories.
If you were not conscious during the 1970s, then you have heard the word "Watergate" but may have no idea what it means. One reason for that is the fact that it was a very messy, convoluted, wide-ranging story with lots of moving parts. So let's review.
From the public's point of view, Watergate started on June 17, 1972. On this day, five men got arrested at an office suite in the Watergate Hotel/office facility. The five men looked as though they were burglarizing the Democratic National Committee office, but it turned out they were there to fix some bugs that they had planted a week earlier. The five men were eventually found to be employees of a secret White House effort set up to spy on the Democratic Party.
That, obviously, was bad enough. Then it was discovered that the money to fund this secret effort came by re-channeling campaign contributions in various illegal ways. And the money funded a very large spying organization that also engaged in sabotage.
Watergate Scandal Timeline
There have been many scandals throughout American presidential history, but only one has ever brought down a presidency. To understand Watergate, it is helpful to have an understanding of the culture of the administration, and of the psyche of the man himself. Richard M. Nixon was a secretive man who did not tolerate criticism well, who engaged in numerous acts of duplicity, who kept lists of enemies, and who used the power of the presidency to seek petty acts of revenge on those enemies. As early as the 1968 campaign Nixon was scheming about Vietnam. Just as the Democrats were gaining in the polls following Johnson’s halting of the bombing of North Vietnam and news of a possible peace deal, Nixon set out to sabotage the Paris peace negotiations by privately assuring the South Vietnamese military rulers a better deal from him than they would get from Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey. The South Vietnamese junta withdrew from the talks on the eve of the election, ending the peace initiative and helping Nixon to squeak out a marginal victory.
During Nixon’s first term he approved a secret bombing mission in Cambodia, without even consulting or informing congress, and he fought tooth and nail to prevent the New York Times from publishing the infamous Pentagon Papers (described below). Most striking, however, was Nixon’s strategy for how to deal with the enemies that he saw everywhere. Nixon sent Vice President Spiro Agnew on the circuit to blast the media, protestors, and intellectuals who criticized the Vietnam War and Nixon’s policies. Agnew spewed out alliterate insults such as “pusillanimous pussyfooters”, “nattering nabobs of negativism”, and “hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history”. He once described a group of opponents as “an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.”
The Washington “Plumbers”
But Nixon and his aides also discussed ways in which the President could use subterfuge to undermine his enemies and revenge perceived injustices. This became especially important to the President in 1972, when he was determined to win the election more comfortably than he had in 1968. Nixon had once approved the illegal break-in concept first floated by White House aide Tom Huston, even though Huston specifically told the president it was tantamount to burglary. However, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover refused to cooperate. (Hoover then died in May, 1972, and L. Patrick Gray was appointed acting director in his place). Nixon was especially infuriated by leaks in his administration, and none was bigger than that which became known as the Pentagon Papers, a sensitive Pentagon document that traced the often illicit history of America’s involvement in Vietnam. Nixon tried to block publication of the document, and lost. When Nixon discovered that military analyst Daniel Ellsberg had been the source of the leak, he told White House Counsel Charles Colson, “Do whatever has to be done to stop these leaks and prevent further unauthorized disclosures I don’t want to be told why it can’t be done…I don’t want excuses I want results. I want it done, whatever the cost.” Colson and yet another Nixon aide, John Erlichmann, created a group whose task it was to stop any further leaks. These White House Plumbers, as they came to be known, were tasked with finding a way to get revenge on Ellsberg. Two of the so-called plumbers were ex-CIA officer Howard Hunt, and ex-FBI agent G. Gordon Liddy. The plumbers tried to break into the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist in Los Angeles to get Ellsberg’s confidential treatment records, but the raid was completely botched. In addition to Hunt and Liddy, several other future Watergate burglars were part of this raid.
The Watergate Break-In
June 16, 1972: In room 214 of the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C., seven men gathered to finalize their plans to break in to the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) headquarters, located on the sixth floor of one of the Watergate complex’s six buildings. One of these men, G. Gordon Liddy, was a former FBI agent. Another, E. Howard Hunt, had retired from the CIA. James McCord would handle the bugging, Bernard Barker would photograph documents, and Virgilio Gonzalez would pick the locks. The remaining two, Eugenio Martinez and Frank Sturgis, would serve as lookouts. Several of these men were Cuban exiles who had met Hunt through their participation in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion back in 1961. Although the burglars would be caught in the act, many months would passbefore the enough details would emerge to create a picture of the events leading up to that night. These men had been hired by representatives of President Nixon’s administration to use illegal means to gather information that could prove useful to Nixon winning the 1972 election.
On June 17, 1972, Frank Wills, a security guard at the Watergate Complex, noticed tape covering the latch on the locks of several stairway doors in the complex , allowing them to be closed without locking. He removed the tape, and thought nothing of it. An hour later, he discovered that someone (McCord) had re-taped the locks. Wills called the police, who showed up in plainclothes in an unmarked car, allowing them to pass by the lookout without the alarm being sounded. The burglars then turned off their radio when they heard noise in an adjacent stairwell. The lookout saw several of the police officers outside on a terrace near the DNC offices, but when he alerted Liddy (Liddy and Hunt stayed in the hotel room, in two-way radio contact with the others), the ex-FBI agent was unable to reach them on the radio. Within minutes, the police arrested the 5 burglars. On their possession were wire-tapping equipment, two cameras, several dozen rolls of film, and a few thousand dollars in cash–$100 bills in sequential serial numbers (indicating the money had come directly from a bank, which could possibly be traced). Liddy and Hunt quickly vacated the premises, but the burglars also had two hotel room keys, one of which was for the room where Liddy and Hunt had stayed.
The five burglars were processed at the police station, where several of them gave fake names. Hunt hired a lawyer to quickly bail the men out, but he underestimated their bail amount. G. Gordon Liddy went to his office and commenced a shredding operation to eliminate any evidence of his involvement. Liddy worked for the Committee to Re-elect the President, sometimes referred to pejoratively as CREEP, and his involvement was a direct connection to President Nixon. McCord was the chief security officer at CREEP. Liddy and Hunt had also worked at the White House, which made the Nixon connection more serious. Meanwhile, a simple fingerprint check revealed the burglar’s true identities.
On Monday, June 19, 1972: The Washington Post reported, “One of the five men arrested early Saturday in the attempt to bug the Democratic National Committee headquarters is the salaried security coordinator for President Nixon’s re-election committee.” Shortly thereafter, it was revealed that a search warrant had been executed for the hotel rooms for which the burglars had keys, and that inside one of them were address books that listed Howard Hunt’s name or initials, and included the hand-written notation, “WH,” for White House. Official reaction was swift. From the White House, Nixon’s Press Secretary, Ron Zeigler, dismissed the incident as some sort of petty thievery attempt. John Mitchell, the head of CREEP, denied that the organization had any connection to the event. These public denials were lies. In fact, an elaborate cover-up was already under way. The charge that would stem from the cover-up, “obstruction of justice,” would eventually bring Nixon down.
The Connection to the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP)
On August 1, 1972, a $25,000 cashiers check earmarked for the Nixon re-election campaign was found in the bank account of one of the Watergate burglars. Further investigation revealed that, in the months leading up to their arrests, more thousands had passed through their bank and credit card accounts, supporting the burglars’ travel, living expenses, and purchase,. Several donations (totaling $89,000) were made by individuals who thought they were making private donations to the President’s re-election committee. The donations were made in the form of cashier’s, certified, and personal checks, and all were made payable only to the Committee to Re-Elect the President. However, through a complicated fiduciary set-up, the money actually went into an account owned by a Miami company run by Watergate burglar Bernard Barker. On the backs of these checks was the official endorsement by the person who had the authority to do so, Committee Bookkeeper and Treasurer, Hugh Sloan. Thus a direct connection between the Watergate break-in and the Committee to Re-Elect the President had been established. When confronted and faced with the potential charge of federal bank fraud, Sloan revealed that he had given the checks to G. Gordon Liddy at the direction of Committee Deputy Director Jeb Magruder and Finance Director Maurice Stans. Liddy had then given the endorsed checks to Watergate burglar Bernard Barker, who then deposited the money in accounts located outside the U.S. and withdrew the money in the form of cashier’s checks and money orders in April and May. They did not know that banks kept records of these transactions.
Woodward, Bernstein & “Deep Throat”
Media coverage during 1972 was influential in keeping the Watergate story in the news, and in establishing the connection between the burglary and the Committee to Re-Elect the President. The most notable coverage came from Time, The New York Times, and especially from The Washington Post. Opinions vary, but the publicity these media outlets gave to Watergate likely resulted in more consequential political repercussions from the Congressional investigation. Most famous is the story of how Washington Post Reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein relied heavily on anonymous sources to reveal that knowledge of the break-in and subsequent attempt to cover it up had connections deep in the Justice Department, the FBI, the CIA, and even the White House.
Woodward and Bernstein’s most famous source was an individual they had nicknamed Deep Throat, a reference to a controversial pornography film of the time. Woodward claimed in his 1974 book, All The President’s Men, that the two would meet secretly at an underground parking garage just over the Key Bridge in Rosslyn, usually at 2:00 am, where Deep Throat helped him make the connections. Throughout the protracted investigation, Woodward would signal his source that he desired a meeting by placing a flowerpot with a red flag on the balcony of his apartment. If Deep Throat wanted a meeting, he would make special marks on page twenty of Woodward’s copy of The New York Times. The first meeting took place on June 20, 1972, only 3 days after the break-in. The identity of Deep Throat was the subject of intense speculation for more than 30 years before he was revealed to be the FBI’s #2, Mark Felt.
On September 15, 1972, Hunt, Liddy, and the 5 Watergate burglars were indicted by a federal grand jury.
On September 29, it was revealed that Attorney General & Nixon campaign chairman John Mitchell had controlled a secret Republican fund used to pay for spying on the Democrats. On October 10, the FBI reported that the break-in at the Watergate was part of a massive campaign of political spying and sabotage on behalf of the officials and heads of the Nixon re-election campaign. Despite these revelations, Nixon’s re-election was never seriously jeopardized, and on November 7 the President was re-elected in one of the biggest landslides ever in American political history.
Watergate Burglars’ Trial Begins
On January 8, 1973, the five burglars plead guilty as their trial began. On January 30, just ten days after Richard Nixon’s second inauguration, Liddy and McCord were convicted on charges conspiracy, burglary, and wiretapping. Nixon had dodged a bullet in the months between the break-in and his re-election, but the Watergate Scandal did not die out after the burglars were tried.
White House Linked to Cover-Up
On February 28, 1973, Acting FBI Director L. Patrick Gray testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding his nomination to replace J. Edgar Hoover. Committee chairman Sam Ervin, referencing newspaper articles, questioned Gray as to how the White House had gained access to FBI files related to the Watergate investigation. Gray stated he had given reports to White House counsel John Dean, that Dean had ordered him to give the White House daily updates on the FBI’s investigation, that he had discussed the investigation with Dean on many occasions, and that Dean had “probably lied” to FBI investigators about his role in the scandal. Subsequently, Gray was ordered not to talk about Watergate by Attorney General Richard G. Kleindienst. Gray’s nomination failed, and now White House counsel Dean was directly linked to the Watergate cover-up.
On March 19, 1973, convicted Watergate burglar and ex-CIA agent James McCord, still facing sentencing, wrote a letter to U.S. District Judge John Sirica. In the letter, McCord stated that he had been pressured to plead guilty and remain silent, that he had perjured himself during the trial, that the break-in was not a CIA operation, and that other, as yet unnamed government officials, were involved. Judge Sirica urged McCord to cooperate fully with the Senate Watergate Committee, which was about to begin its investigation. On March 23, as the burglars were sentenced, Dean hired an attorney and began to quietly cooperate with Watergate investigators. He did this without informing the President, and continued to work as Nixon’s Chief White House Counsel, a clear conflict of interest.
Senate Watergate Committee Begins Investigation
On March 25, 1973, Senate Watergate Committee lawyer Sam Dash told reporters that he had interviewed James McCord twice, and that McCord had “named names” and had begun “supplying a full and honest account” of the Watergate operation. Dash refused to give details, but promised that McCord would soon testify in public Senate hearings. Shortly after Dash’s press conference, the Los Angeles Times reported that two that McCord had named were White House Counsel John Dean, and Nixon campaign deputy director Jeb Magruder. The White House denied Dean’s involvement, but said nothing about Magruder. Republican sources on Capitol Hill ominously confirmed the story, with one stating that McCord’s allegations were “convincing”. When Dean’s lawyer learned of a follow-up story planned by the Washington Post, he threatened to sue the newspaper if they ran the story. The Postprinted the story anyway, along with the threat from Dean’s lawyer.
On March 28, 1973, James McCord testified before the Senate Watergate Committee in a closed 5-hour session. There were so many leaks to the press that committee leaders decided to conduct all future hearings in public session. The most significant leak was that fellow Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy had told McCord that the burglary and surveillance operation was approved by then-Nixon campaign chairman & Attorney General John Mitchell in February 1972, and that White House Special Counsel to the President Charles Colson knew about the Watergate operation in advance (Colson had just quit his post to return to private practice). The next day, Colson told a National Press Club audience “I had no involvement or no knowledge of the Watergate, direct or indirect.”On April 8, 1973, White House Counsel John Dean told White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman that he planned to testify before the Senate Committee. Haldeman advised against it, saying, “Once the toothpaste is out of the tube, it’s going to be very hard to get it back in.” Dean compiled a list of 15 names, mostly lawyers, who could be indicted in the scandal, and showed then showed the list to White House counsel and Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs, John Ehrlichman.
Washington Post Connects Break-In to the Cover-up
April 9, 1973: The New York Times reported that James McCord told the Senate Watergate Committee that the cash payoffs for the burglars came directly from the the Republican Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP). When trying to confirm whether or not the “slush fund” continued to operate after the arrests (presumably as payoffs to keep the burglars silent), a CREEP employee exploded over the phone to Bob Woodward. He was apparently emotionally distraught over how the ignorance of former CREEP official John Mitchell and others has undermined the presidency. Woodward then called Hugh Sloan, and, using information he had gotten out of the other CREEP official, wrangled out of the former CREEP Treasurer that about $70,000 in CREEP “slush fund” money was used to pay off the burglars. The Washington Post reporters now had linkage between the bugging and the cover-up.
On April 17, 1973, President Nixon made a brief statement before the White House Press Corps that his White House aides and staff would appear before the Senate Watergate Committee if asked. He announced his own ongoing investigation, and promised to reveal “major new developments” in the future. He stated, “Real progress has been made in finding the truth.” Nixon also said that his concerns about separation of powers had been resolved, and that any person in the executive branch who was indicted would be discharged that no one would be given immunity from prosecution. Nixon concluded, “I condemn any attempts to cover up in this case, no matter who is involved.” After the president left the podium, the press corps proceeded to hammer Press Secretary Ron Ziegler about whether the President’s statement contradicted the position previously articulated. Finally, Ziegler said to the press, “This is the operative statement. The others are inoperative.” Later in the day, the White House issued an official statement saying that the President had no prior knowledge of the Watergate Affair.
On April 22, 1973, Nixon requested that White House Counsel John Dean write him a report about everything he knew about the Watergate matter, and he sent Dean to Camp David to write it. Dean suspected he was on the cusp of becoming the Watergate scapegoat, and so he went to Camp David, but did not write the report.
On April 24, Attorney General Richard Kleindienst met with President Nixon to inform the President that White House counsel John Dean had testified about the white House having ordered the break-in at the office of Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist. Because Ellsberg’s was then on trial over the Pentagon Papers business, Kleindienst said that this new information must be transmitted to to the trial judge. The Attorney General told Nixon, “We have to do it could be another goddamn cover-up, you know. We can’t have another cover-up, Mr. President.” Nixon replied, “I don’t want any cover-ups of anything.” They briefly discussed the possibility of immunity for Dean, but quickly ruled it out. Later in the day, in another conversation, the despondent President told Kleindienst, “What the hell, you know. People say impeach the President. Well, then they get [Vice President Spiro] Agnew. What the hell?” Kleindienst replied, “There’s not going to be anything like that, Mr. President.” These conversations and many others of relevance were recorded on an oval office tape machine, which would be a major component of the investigation. Nixon also learned that Dean had testified about acting FBI Director L. Patrick Gray’s involvement in destroying files from White House “Plumber” E. Howard Hunt’s safe. Nixon says that Gray has to go. Gray resigned on April 27.
Haldeman and Ehrlichman Implicated & Resign
Further leaks about Dean’s discussions with investigators next implicated John Ehrlichman (White House counsel and Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs) and White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman. On April 30, 1973, left with little choice, Nixon summoned the two men to Camp David and, in what’s been described as a very emotional meeting, asked for their resignations. Attorney General Kleindienst also resigned. Nixon also asked for the resignation of White House counsel Dean, whose Senate testimony had, and would continue to be so damaging. He then issued a public statement announcing their resignations.
Nixon’s 1st Primetime Address on Watergate (April 30, 1973)
Later that evening, the President took to the airwaves in his first primetime oval office address to the American people on Watergate. He explained that the resignations were not an admission of guilt, but were carried out in order to restore the confidence of the American people. Nixon announced that he had replaced Attorney General Kleindienst with Elliot Richardson, and that he had given him the authority to designate a special independent counsel to investigate Watergate. Nixon took responsibility for the behavior of CREEP, and said, “I will do everything in my power to ensure that the guilty are brought to justice and that such abuses are purged from our political processes in the years to come, long after I have left this office.” He then explained that, henceforth, he would return to the larger duties of his presidency.
Senate Watergate Committee Hearings Begin
The televised Senate Watergate Committee hearings began on May 17, 1973. The three major networks (ABC, CBS, NBC) agreed to rotate coverage, with each network broadcasting the proceedings every third day (until their completion on August 7). The witness list began with minor players from CREEP. On the fifth day, President Nixon again made a public statement about Watergate. He said, “I had no prior knowledge of the Watergate operation. I took no part in, nor was I aware of, any subsequent efforts that may have been made to cover up Watergate.” Nixon also affirmed that he would not use executive privilege to impede testimony or the presentation of evidence.”
On May 18, 1973, Watergate Burglar James McCord testified before the Senate Committee.
On May 19, 1973, Archibald Cox was appointed Special Prosecutor to oversee the investigation into possible presidential impropriety. He was sworn in on May 25.
On May 22, 1973, President Nixon issued a statement about the Watergate Investigations.
On June 3, 1973, Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein wrote that John Dean planned on giving testimony to the effect that Nixon was deeply involved in the Watergate cover-up, and that Nixon had prior knowledge of the hush-money used to pay off various conspirators. Dean would also testify that Haldeman and Ehrlichman were present at these meetings where cover-up was discussed. On the veracity of Dean’s information, The Post reported a Justice Department source as having said, “[E]verything we have gotten from Dean that we were able to check out has turned out to be accurate.”
John Dean Testifies, Nixon Claims “Executive Privilege”
From June 25-29, 1973, former White House Counsel John Dean did indeed made these allegations. He began with a seven-hour opening statement in which he laid out his knowledge of the entire campaign of White House espionage. He also revealed that he believed Nixon had tape-recorded some of the oval office conversations regarding Watergate. Dean’s story held up well under cross examination. Ten days later, President Nixon announced that he would not testify before the Senate Watergate Committee, and he would not provide access to White House documents. Despite his earlier pronouncement, Nixon justified this decision as “executive privilege”.
The Nixon Tapes
On July 16, 1973, another former aide to the President, Alexander Butterfield, testified before the Senate Committee that there was an oval office recording system, that it was installed and operated by the Secret Service, and that Nixon probably had it installed to record things for posterity, for the Nixon Library. (A few days later, Nixon ordered that the taping system be turned off). The shocking revelation set off a chain reaction in which samples of these tapes were sought by both the Senate Committee and by Independent prosecutor Archibald Cox. Nixon, however, refused to turn over the tapes, again claiming executive privilege. The Senate Committee and Cox then issued subpoenas for the White House tapes.
Nixon again refused, and instead ordered Cox to drop his subpoena, but Cox would not. Eventually, the Supreme Court would decide the issue. Meanwhile, as former Aide John Ehrlichman testified before the Senate Committee and disputed Dean’s testimony, public opinion was split on whether or not John Dean or President Nixon was the more credible.
Nixon’s 2nd Primetime Address on Watergate (August 15, 1973)
On August 15, as the Senate Committee wrapped up the hearings, Nixon again addressed the nation in primetime about Watergate. The President said, “It has become clear that both the hearings themselves and some of the commentaries on them have become increasingly absorbed in an effort to implicate the President personally in the illegal activities that took place.” He reminded the American people that he had already taken “full responsibility” for the “abuses that occurred during my administration.” Nixon restated his innocence: “I state again to every one of you listening tonight these facts–I had no prior knowledge of the Watergate break-in I neither took part in nor knew about any of the subsequent cover-up activities I neither authorized nor encouraged subordinates to engage in illegal or improper campaign tactics. That was and that is the simple truth.”
The president went on to explain in detail how he did not know anything about the cover-up. Nixon justified his refusal to turn over the Oval Office recordings as “a much more important principle than what the tapes might prove about Watergate.” A president must be able to talk “openly and candidly with his advisers about issues and individuals” without having those conversations ever made public. These were “privileged” conversations, similar to but more important than those between a lawyer and his client or “a priest and a penitent.” The conversations on those tapes are “blunt and candid,” made without thought to any future public disclosure, and for future presidents and their advisers to know that their conversations and advice might one day be made public would cripple their ability to talk freely and offer unfettered opinions. “That is why I shall continue to oppose efforts which would set a precedent that would cripple all future presidents by inhibiting conversations between them and those they look to for advice.” Special prosecutor Cox and the Senate Committee asked the Supreme Court to decide the legal dispute over the tapes.
Spiro Agnew Resigns, Gerald R. Ford to Become Vice President
As the summer of 1973 gave way to fall, another event occurred that would have far-reaching effects on the nation’s presidential history. Vice President Spiro Agnew was under investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s office in Baltimore, Maryland, on charges of extortion, tax fraud, bribery, and conspiracy. In October, he was formally charged with having accepted bribes totaling more than $100,000 while serving as Maryland’s governor. To end the criminal proceedings quickly, a deal was reached. Agnew would plead no contest to a lesser charge of failing to report income to the IRS, on the condition that he resign the Vice Presidency. President Nixon sought advice from Congress on a replacement, resulting in the affable 13-term congressman from Michigan getting the nod, Gerald R. Ford. The U.S. Senate approved the nomination 92-3. The House confirmed by a vote of 397-35. On December 6, 1973, Ford took the oath of office as Vice President of the United States. The press, however, paid little notice. Watergate was all-consuming.
The “Saturday Night Massacre”
On October 19, 1973, Nixon, looking toward a solution to the tape dispute, offered what later came to known as the Stennis Compromise. U.S. Senator John C. Stennis (D-MS) would independently review the tapes and summarize them for the special prosecutor’s office. Cox refused the compromise. The next night, a Saturday, Nixon worked to have Cox removed. He contacted Attorney General Elliot Richardson and ordered him to fire Cox. Richardson refused and resigned in protest instead. Nixon then ordered Deputy Attorney General Ruckelshaus to fire Cox he also refused and resigned in protest. Nixon then contacted the Solicitor General, Robert Bork, and ordered him, as acting head of the Justice Department in the wake of the previous resignations, to fire Cox. Bork reluctantly complied. The firing of Special Prosecutor Cox, and the flurry of high-profile Justice Department resignations over the weekend caused the press to dub this event, the “Saturday Night Massacre.”
Congress was infuriated about the Saturday Night Massacre. Numerous resolutions to impeach him were introduced in the House. Nixon, feeling the pressure, agreed to release some of the tapes to District Judge Sirica. A few days later at a nationally televised press conference, Nixon also announced that he was instructing Acting Attorney General Bork to appoint a new Special Prosecutor for the Watergate matter. On November 1, The Justice Department appointed Leon Jaworski its new special prosecutor.
Nixon “I am not a crook” Remark
On November 17, 1973, the President gave another televised press conference, this time from the Contemporary Hotel in Disney World, where the President was attending the Annual Convention of the Associated Press Managing Editors Association. At the end of a lengthy response to a question about his personal finances, the President famously said, “And so, that is where the money came from. Let me just say this, and I want to say this to the television audience: I made my mistakes, but in all of my years of public life, I have never profited, never profited from public service–I have earned every cent. And in all of my years of public life, I have never obstructed justice. And I think, too, that I could say that in my years of public life, that I welcome this kind of examination, because people have got to know whether or not their President is a crook. Well, I am not a crook. I have earned everything I have got.”
The 18 1/2 Minute Tape Gap
On November 21, 1973, the White House reported that two of the subpoenaed tapes were missing, and that one that was dated just 3 days after the Watergate burglary contained an erasure of 18 1/2 minutes during a conversation between the President and H.R. Haldeman. Haldeman’s personal notes on the meeting indicate that the break-in was the subject under discussion. Nixon’s secretary, Rose Mary Woods, in initial testimony about the tape, said, “The buttons said on and off, forward and backward. I caught on to that fairly fast. I don’t think I’m so stupid as to erase what’s on a tape.” Later she tried to explain that she had accidentally re-recorded 5 minutes of the tape, while transcribing it, but only 5 minutes, not 18 1/2. She demonstrated how she probably had recorded over the tape with her foot on the transcription pedal located beneath her typewriter as she reached awkwardly for the phone. Suspicions arose that Nixon was destroying evidence.
On February 6, 1974, the House voted to authorized the Judiciary Committee to investigate grounds for impeaching president Nixon.
On March 1, 1974, indictments were handed down for what the press dubs “the Watergate Seven”: Former Attorney General and Nixon campaign manager John N. Mitchell, former White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, former Nixon aide John Ehrlichman, former White House counsel Charles Colson, White House Aide to Haldeman Gordon C. Strachan, aide to Mitchell and CREEP counsel Robert Mardian, and CREEP counsel Kenneth Parkinson. Former White House Counsel John Dean had taken a plea bargain back in October. Nixon was named an “unindicted co-conspirator” by the grand jury.
On April 16, 1974, Special Prosecutor Jaworski issued subpoenas for sixty-four more Nixon tapes.
Nixon’s 3rd Primetime Watergate Address
On April 29, 1974, President Nixon addressed the nation responding to the House Judiciary Committee’s Subpoena for Additional Presidential Tape Recordings.
On April 30, 1974, the White House released edited transcripts of the Nixon tapes and promises 1,200 pages. The House Judiciary Committee insisted that the actual tapes be turned over. The public is shocked by the course language used in private by the President, even though the phrase “expletive deleted” is used in place of the actual words used.
On May 9, 1974, the House Judiciary Committee began impeachment hearings.
United States v. Nixon, Articles of Impeachment, and the “Smoking Gun” Tape
On July 24, 1974, the Supreme Court unanimously decided United States v. Nixon. The President’s argument was rejected. Nixon was ordered to turn over the tapes to investigators. He reluctantly complied. Meanwhile, the House Judiciary Committee pressed ahead. Between July 27 and 30, the Committee adopted three articles of impeachment against the president: Obstructing the Watergate investigation, Misuse of power and violating his oath of office, Failure to comply with House subpoenas. On August 5, in an effort to soften impact of the inevitable disclosure, Nixon voluntary made public three of the subpoenaed tapes. One of these would become known as the “Smoking Gun” tape, a conversation recorded six days after the Watergate break-in. In that tape, Nixon orders Haldeman to use the CIA to hold back the inquiry by the FBI. Haldeman introduces the topic as follows: “…the Democratic break-in thing, we’re back to the–in the, the problem area because the FBI is not under control, because Gray doesn’t exactly know how to control them, and they have… their investigation is now leading into some productive areas […] and it goes in some directions we don’t want it to go.”
After explaining how the money from CRP was traced to the burglars, Haldeman explained to Nixon the cover-up plan: “the way to handle this now is for us to have Walters [CIA] call Pat Gray [FBI] and just say, ‘Stay the hell out of this …this is ah, business here we don’t want you to go any further on it.'” President Nixon approved the plan, and he is given more information about the involvement of his campaign in the break-in, telling Haldeman: “All right, fine, I understand it all. We won’t second-guess Mitchell and the rest.” Returning to the use of the CIA to obstruct the FBI, he instructs Haldeman: “You call them in. Good. Good deal. Play it tough. That’s the way they play it and that’s the way we are going to play it.” The President of the United States was caught on tape, attempting to obstruct justice. Following this revelation, several Republican on the House Judiciary Committee who had voted against the articles of impeachment indicated they would vote for impeachment when the vote was taken in the full House.
President Nixon Resigns
On August 8, key Republican Senators informed the President that, once impeached, enough votes existed in the Senate to convict the President in the trial and remove him from office. That night, Richard Nixon addressed the nation from the Oval Office. He informed the American people that he no longer had a base of support in Congress. Therefore, he would not see the impeachment proceedings through to their conclusion. The nation needed a full-time president. In the interests of the nation, he would resign. The President said, “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.”
Nixon Departs, Gerald R. Ford Takes the Oath of Office
The next morning, President and Mrs. Nixon said their goodbyes to the White House staff in the East Room. The Nixons, accompanied by the Fords, walked across the White House lawn to Marine One, where the President turned and gave one last farewell. As the helicopter disappeared from view en route to Edwards, where the Nixons would depart for California, Gerald Ford returned to the East room and took the oath of office. Afterward, he said, “I have not sought this enormous responsibility, but I will not shirk it. Those who nominated and confirmed me as Vice President were my friends and aremy friends. They were of both parties, elected by all the people and acting under the Constitution in their name. It is only fitting then that I should pledge to them and to you that I will be the President of all the people.” He also stated, “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over. Our constitution works. Our great republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here, the people rule. But there is a higher power, by whatever name we honor Him. Who ordains not only righteousness but love, not only justice, but mercy…. Let us restore the golden rule to our political process and let brotherly love purge our hearts of suspicion and hate.”
Few presidents are as well known for coming to the brink of impeachment as Richard Nixon.
Richard M. Nixon ran for the White House in 1968 as someone long familiar to American voters as the Republican Congressman from California who attacked Alger Hiss as an agent of the Soviet Union, as the Senator who won office by claiming his opponent, Helen Gahagan Douglas, was “pink down to her underwear,” and as the dour Vice President to the smiling Dwight D. Eisenhower (as well as a losing candidate for the presidency and the California governorship.) He ran as a “new Nixon,” a man who had matured out of his old roles of Red-baiter and attack dog, a once-fierce Cold Warrior who now promised “an honorable end to the war in Vietnam.”
In pursuing that campaign promise, Nixon reverted to his old ways even before winning office by seeking to ensure that the outgoing administration of Lyndon B. Johnson would fail in its efforts to negotiate its own peace treaty to end the war in Southeast Asia. Once in office, Nixon — without congressional warrant — first secretly and then openly expanded the Vietnam War into neighboring Cambodia.
In the face of growing protest and in response particularly to military analyst Daniel Ellsberg’s unauthorized release in 1971 of the Defense Department’s internal studies of the Vietnam War (the series of documents better known as “the Pentagon Papers,” which revealed the analysts’ conviction that the war could not be won), Nixon established a team of operatives devoted to stopping such leaks by criminal means. Throughout the Nixon administration, recourse to illegal behavior became not only an available option but central to the President’s conception of the office of chief executive of the United States.
Watergate Break-In, Cover-Up, Exposure
In mid-June 1972, police discovered evidence of one part of the Nixon administration’s many illegal programs. The break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in a Watergate complex office building that day was actually the second Watergate burglary. The first occurred in late May 1972, when a team of former CIA agents secretly entered DNC headquarters and placed wiretaps on two phones. When one of the taps failed to work and perhaps also to search for documents that could damage or help Nixon’s campaign, the team returned to replace the defective wiretap.
During the burglars’ second trip, a security guard discovered evidence of the illegal entry and alerted the police. Reporters jumped on the story when they realized that one of the burglars was James W McCord, Jr., the chief of security for the CRP, although Press Secretary Ronald L. Ziegler dismissed the incident as a “third-rate burglary attempt.”
Nixon and his advisers immediately understood that if they let the investigation proceed, their many illegal activities would be revealed. They thus embarked on a cover-up, seeking to delay or altogether stymie an investigation lest it reveal the creation of the Plumbers, the break-in at Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office, the Huston Plan, the Cambodia wiretaps, the Enemies List, the espionage and sabotage efforts against several Democratic presidential candidates, the bribery and extortion committed by the campaign’s fund-raisers, and other embarrassments. To avoid exposure, Nixon and his aides began to consider how to foil investigators and ensure that the burglars refused to cooperate with prosecutors.
On June 23, 1972, Nixon met with Haldeman to discuss how to handle the break-in. The White House taping system recorded the President ordering Haldeman to use the CIA to pressure the FBI to drop its investigation.
Nevertheless, the FBI continued its inquiry, and one bureau official, Associate Director W. Mark Felt, began to leak information about the inquiry to the Washington Post. The Post’s reporters, especially Carl Bernstein and Robert U. “Bob” Woodward, who would soon be celebrated for their coverage of the entire scandal, dubbed Felt “Deep Throat.” His leaks kept the story alive in the press. The President, however, stated categorically that “no one in this administration, presently employed, was involved in this very bizarre incident.” A federal grand jury indicted the five burglars, Hunt, and Liddy, but no other administration officials.
A break-in at the Watergate Complex in Washington, D.C. spawned the crisis that led to Nixon's resignation.
In January 1973, the trial of the “Watergate Seven” opened in federal district court in Washington. Although the defendants continued to play along with the cover-up during the trial itself, the presiding judge, John J. Sirica, doubted that the trial had exposed the real truth about Watergate. He threatened the defendants with long prison sentences if they did not tell all they knew. McCord then shocked the court and the rest of the country by writing a letter to Sirica claiming that the witnesses had perjured themselves and that unidentified “others” were involved in the Watergate conspiracy. After McCord chose to reveal his role in the cover-up, other conspirators soon followed.
Senate Democrats and Justice Department lawyers insisted that Nixon’s incoming Attorney General, Elliot L. Richardson, appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the break-ins and cover-up, and they forced Richardson to promise that he would fire the prosecutor only if there were “extraordinary improprieties on his part.” Richardson chose Archibald Cox, Jr., a Harvard Law School professor who had served as Solicitor General in the Kennedy administration, as Special Prosecutor.
In addition, the Senate established a select committee to investigate any “illegal, improper, or unethical activities” that occurred during the presidential election of 1972. The committee’s nationally televised hearings would command the nation’s attention.
The most dramatic moment in the hearings came when Alexander P. Butterfield, Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman’s chief assistant, revealed in July 1973 that Nixon had been taping conversations in the White House since early 1971. The voice-activated tapes could potentially prove whether the President was telling the truth about the Watergate cover-up — or, in other words, what the President knew and when he knew it, in the memorable phrase of Republican Senator Howard H. Baker, Jr., of Tennessee.
The Senate Watergate Committee subpoenaed several tapes — the first time in history that Congress had issued a subpoena to a president. Cox also issued his own subpoenas.
Entering battle with the Senate Watergate Committee and Cox over control of the tapes, the President resisted these subpoenas. He claimed that he could withhold the tapes on the grounds of executive privilege. Cox, however, insisted that the tapes contained evidence of crimes and therefore must be turned over to investigators.
Nixon proposed a compromise in which Senator John C. Stennis, a conservative Mississippi Democrat known to be hard of hearing, would listen to the audiotapes and report on their contents. When Cox declined this dubious compromise, Nixon decided to fire him. Attorney General Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William D. Ruckelshaus resigned rather than carry out the President’s order. Ruckelshaus advised Solicitor General Robert H. Bork, the next in command at the Justice Department, to carry out the President’s order “if his conscience would permit." It did Bork finally fired Cox, and the press dubbed the episode the “Saturday Night Massacre.” The incident galvanized opposition to the President, as newspaper editorial boards around the country called for his impeachment or resignation. Public support for impeachment doubled to 38 percent.
The President suffered other reverses and accusations of misconduct in the fall of 1973. Vice President Spiro T. Agnew was forced to resign after he pleaded no contest to charges of accepting bribes and failing to pay taxes on those bribes as Governor of Maryland. Members of Congress also raised questions about Nixon’s personal finances. He had made questionable, backdated deductions on his tax returns which allowed him to avoid hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxes.
The scandals regarding Nixon’s personal finances were not directly related to the story of misconduct in the 1972 election, but revelation of them in the middle of the Watergate investigation contributed to the growing consensus that the President could not be trusted.
In March 1974, the federal grand jury investigating Watergate crimes indicted seven top presidential aides, including Haldeman and Mitchell, along with more than thirty other people. Ultimately more than forty individuals associated with the Nixon scandals would plead guilty or be convicted of crimes. Jaworski asked the jury to name Nixon as an unindicted co-conspirator, rather than charge him with crimes, because the prosecutor doubted that a president could he indicted while in office. An impeachment process should be finished first, he believed.
As Jaworski continued to demand more tapes, the President offered another compromise. Instead of releasing all the actual tapes, he would give the special prosecutor edited transcripts of some of them. In April 1974, he announced his delivery of these transcripts in a nationally televised address in which he was flanked by stacks of blue notebooks representing the conversations. Rather than ending the controversy as Nixon had hoped, the transcripts only emboldened the President’s critics.
The transcribed conversations quickly became a cultural phenomenon. Some television and radio shows staged dramatic readings, newspapers ran them as special inserts, and paperback editions sold over a million copies. The transcripts laid bare the vulgarity of the Oval Office conversations, with “expletive deleted” becoming a Watergate catchphrase.
Impeachment Debate and Resignation
The Judiciary Committee opened its formal impeachment hearings against Nixon on May 9, 1974. Library of Congress
The House Judiciary Committee began to consider articles of impeachment against Nixon in May 1974. After a brief public session, the committee met behind closed doors for the next two months as its members studied the massive factual record of Watergate that had been prepared by the committee’s staff members. As they read through the documents, seven Southern Democrats and moderate Republicans — soon dubbed the “fragile coalition” — began to support removing Nixon from office. The President tried to demonstrate his mastery of foreign policy by embarking on a major diplomatic journey in June 1974, traveling to Egypt, Syria, Israel, and the Soviet Union. But critics argued that he was just trying to distract Americans from Watergate, and momentum for impeachment continued to build.
On the committee’s first day of public deliberations on impeachment, July 24, 1974, the Supreme Court announced its unanimous ruling that Nixon must turn over all the subpoenaed tapes to the special prosecutor. Without knowing the content of those conversations, the committee members began to debate and vote on articles of impeachment. Strong majorities approved articles for obstruction of justice (27-11) and abuse of power (28-10). A third article on contempt of Congress also secured a majority (21-17). One-third of all committee Republicans voted for at least one of the three articles.
Articles that the committee considered on the secret bombing of Cambodia and Nixon’s failure to pay his taxes did not win majority support. The decision by some Southern Democrats and moderate Republicans to vote for impeachment signaled that a majority of the entire House would almost surely follow suit. But Nixon still had a chance of retaining the support of one-third of the senators, which was all he needed to stay in office. Even at this late date, some Republicans—mostly conservatives who saw Nixon as a victim of the “liberal media” — fiercely defended the President.
Nixon’s support all but evaporated on August 5, when the White House released the transcripts of the other subpoenaed tapes, including one that Nixon had thus far withheld even from his own lawyers and top aides. The tape recorded on June 23, 1972, provided what became known as the “smoking gun”: evidence that the President had been involved in the Watergate cover-up from the beginning. The entire country could now read how the President and Haldeman had tried to use the CIA to end the FBI investigation of the Watergate break-in.
The revelation of the smoking-gun tape destroyed the President’s last chance of staying in office. Even his strongest defenders on the House Judiciary Committee said they would support impeachment for obstruction of justice, and key Republican senators said they would vote to convict. On August 7, a delegation of prominent congressional Republicans led by Senator Barry M. Goldwater of Arizona visited Nixon in the White House and told him that he would almost certainly be removed from office if the Impeachment Inquiry followed its likely course.
To avoid impeachment and removal, on August 9, 1974, Nixon re-signed, the only president in American history to do so. Shortly before he boarded a helicopter to depart the White House, he delivered an impromptu speech to staff in which he offered, perhaps inadvertently, a clear summation of the reasons for his downfall. “Always remember, others may hate you,” he said, “but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.”
Copyright © 2019 by The New Press. Adapted from a longer essay which originally appeared in Presidential Misconduct: From George Washington to Today, edited by James M. Banner, Jr. Published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.
Nixon Announces Watergate Resignations - HISTORY
August 8, 1999
Web posted at: 7:30 p.m. EDT (2330 GMT)
LOS ANGELES (AllPolitics, August 8) -- Twenty-five years after President Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace during the Watergate scandal, the debate continues over the true legacy of one of the century's most controversial political figures.
|Nixon told the nation, "I shall resign the presidency effective at noon tomorrow"|
Nixon was forced to resign after secret tape recordings he made revealed that he tried to thwart an investigation of the break-in at the offices of the Democratic National Committee during the 1972 presidential campaign.
He announced his resignation on August 8, 1974. It took effect the next day, when Gerald Ford assumed the presidency.
"To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct in my body," Nixon said in announcing he would step aside. "But, as president, I must put the interests of America first."
In the years that followed, Nixon tried hard to establish himself as an elder statesman. While he was embraced by many world leaders before his death in 1994, many Americans who had lived through the constitutional crisis spawned by Watergate saw the rehabilitation quest as an attempt to downplay his complicity.
|In later years, Nixon sought to establish himself as an elder statesman|
"One of the things that happened is, after he left office, he began gradually taking back the notion that he had done anything wrong," said Carl Bernstein, a journalist who helped break the Watergate story for The Washington Post.
"We know from the tapes that have come out since his death that Watergate was just a small part of a truly criminal presidency," Bernstein said in an interview Sunday on NBC's "Meet The Press."
To a large degree, the people of the United States appear not to have forgiven Nixon. The public was asked to judge the performance of five recent presidents in a 1998 Gallup poll. Nixon not only had the lowest approval rating among the five he was the only one whose rating went down from a previous poll in 1993.
And a just completed CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll shows that a quarter century after Nixon left the White House, 72 percent of those polled think Nixon's actions regarding Watergate were serious enough to warrant his resignation.
"Nixon's resignation was about corruption of the worst sort in a democracy," said Richard Dallek, a presidential historian. "It was an assault upon a presidential election."
Indeed, Bernstein's partner in breaking the Watergate story, Bob Woodward, argues in his new book "Shadow" that Nixon's behavior during Watergate was such a monumental event that it altered the very nature of the presidency for his successors.
But Nixon -- who served in both houses of Congress and as vice president and who thawed relations with China and Russia -- has his defenders. Curators at his presidential library in Yorba Linda, California, try hard to counter the Watergate caricature of Nixon by showing the 145,000 annual visitors both his defeats and triumphs.
Nixon biographer Irwin Gellman says that many people in the media and academic world "simply don't want to reflect on the positive side of this man and basically look upon whatever he did that was anything more than negative as irrelevant."
Ray Price, who helped write the speech that Nixon used to end his presidency, believes that "eventually he will be viewed as one of our great presidents."
"But this will not be until the commentators and historians who have either invested their reputations or built their reputations on the 'devil theory' are no longer doing it," Price said.
That was an irony Nixon apparently understood. Twenty-five years ago, as Nixon prepared to hand over the presidency to Ford, then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger reportedly told Nixon that history would remember him well.
Ever the astute politician, Nixon reportedly replied, "Well, that depends on who writes the history."
Correspondent Charles Feldman contributed to this report.
Nixon announces his resignation (1.1MB QuickTime)
". sometimes I have suceeded, sometimes I have failed." (1.1MB QuickTIme)
"I have never been a quitter. "(1MB QuickTime)
". if some of my judgments were wrong, and some were wrong. " (832K QuickTime)
". those who hate you don't win unless you hate them. " (1.2M QuickTime)
The Resignation of Richard M. Nixon
Richard M. Nixon’s presidency was a tempestuous mix of stunning foreign policy achievements (his trip to China) and shameful lapses in morality and judgment (the Watergate scandal). After the host of criminal activities (bugging the offices of political opponents, harassing activist groups, and breaking into the Democratic Party headquarters) came to light, Nixon faced impeachment. On August 9, 1974, Nixon became the first and only President to resign. Later, President Gerald R. Ford granted Nixon a “full, free, and absolute pardon,” though Nixon always maintained his innocence.
Stephen M. Chaplin shares his experience from Romania, where people saw Nixon’s resignation as a weakening of the American system that could give the USSR the upper hand. He was interviewed in 2001. James E. Goodby (interviewed 1990) describes seeing Nixon just prior to his resignation at the U.S. Mission in NATO in July ’74 and later being given a pep talk by a distressed Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who recounted the good Nixon had done in foreign policy.
Dr. William Lloyd Stearman (1992) worked in the White House as part of the National Security Council staff and notes how Chief of Staff Alexander Haig was the de facto President at this time and describes the emotional Nixon as he famously departed the White House in a helicopter and Gerald Ford’s swearing-in. They were all interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy.
Read about Nixon’s historic trip to China and a different perspective on Watergate.
“No one is above the law”
Stephen M. Chaplin, Cultural Affairs Officer, Bucharest, Romania, 1974-1977
CHAPLIN: I arrived there in early August of . This was when Watergate was going on. I got there about two days before President Nixon resigned. The library was closed at the time for August because Romanians, like a lot of Europeans, take the month of August for vacation.
We reopened the first Monday in September or the day after because of Labor Day. The head librarian came to me running one day, and she said, “I have a question for you.”
I said, “Yes, Zonda, what is your question?” She said, “One of our colleagues here wants to know where the condolence book is.”
She said, “Yes when a president has resigned, we want a condolence book to sign showing the American people our solidarity and condolences.”
I said, “Well there isn’t going to be a condolence book. This is the American political process in action.”
But the identification with Nixon had developed. He was the first president to visit. They looked on this as kind of a national tragedy for Americans, whereas we would say the process is washing our dirty linen in public, so be it. No one is above the law. They didn’t quite understand that, and they feared, I think, that our system might be weakened which meant that the Russians somehow might take advantage of it from the Romanian perspective. So we had to explain that.
Before I left in , I showed the picture All the President’s Men. As I did with all of our films, I sent out a notice in Romanian giving a little synopsis of the film because none of these were subtitled. They were all in English. None of these films appeared commercially in Romanian theaters. Then I did an introduction in Romanian to the audience.
I explained this was a film based on the writings of two journalists….The writing of the stories by The Washington Post journalists, Woodward and Bernstein, but that again it was a view from two people.
I showed the film, and talked to a few people afterwards. Some, even some people who admired the United States — we are talking about some fairly intelligent people, not just necessarily the man off the street you ask a question — couldn’t relate to the fact that this was a commercial film.
They were seeing things through their Romanian upbringing…. a leader deposed in their terms, as being government propaganda to discredit the former president put out by the new leadership. I raised the question.
I said, “Well, if this were the case, why was the man he chose to be his Vice President, Gerald Ford, why did he replace him?”
The answer was well, it was the Democrats and the media who were out to get Nixon and this is a temporary thing and so forth. Well, indeed Jimmy Carter defeated President Ford. That probably reinforced their views….
“It was just like a face carved out of wood — no expression”
James E. Goodby, Political-Military Bureau, 1974-1977
GOODBY: I was Chargé at the US Mission in NATO in July of 1974, because the foreign ministers were meeting at that point in Ottawa, there to sign the Atlantic Charter and have one of their summer meetings. And it was at that point that Nixon came through on his last European swing before resigning. He resigned August 9, 1974, and this was July, I believe.
I went out to receive him at the airport and talk to his advance party and so forth and so on. And I was really shocked by his mien. Actually it was the first I’d seen Nixon close-up in quite a while. He had been at NATO headquarters and I’d seen him before, but this time he came through the receiving line and I shook hands with him.
And his face was like a wooden mask. I mean, it was heavily painted, in effect, a kind of orange color, which I guess he liked because it made him look tanned. But it was just like a face carved out of wood — no expression.
And I thought, “My goodness, what this man is going through.” It was obvious that he just was not himself and not sort of the former Nixon who was, as I had remembered seeing him, a much more animated kind of person. But this was a guy that obviously had in mind, you know, “Who is this guy? Is he for me or against me?” And that was kind of the sensation I had as he went through that receiving line.
Anyway, it was a short visit. He gave a talk and went on Moscow and then he went on to resignation. So that was the last time I saw him, and it was quite a shocking experience to see a President of the United States looking like that.
Well, in the summer that I went back, and I arrived back in Washington just a few days before Nixon resigned, I became the Deputy Assistant Secretary, or Deputy Director as it was called then, of the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs….
The day before Nixon announced his resignation, all of us at the rank of Deputy Assistant Secretary and above were called up to the eighth floor of the State Department [the Protocol rooms] by Secretary Kissinger and we were informed that Nixon was going to resign.
Kissinger made a little speech in which he said that the accomplishments of President Nixon in the field of foreign affairs had been very considerable (those were almost his exact words). He then commented about President Ford, who would be taking over, and that he expected to be working closely with him.
It was kind of a pep talk, you know, not to be too upset by this, but also not to be in a mood of gloating or good cheer about this, obviously, that Mr. Kissinger was quite seriously affected by this. Of course, he himself had been going through a bit of personal anguish at this point, as we all know.
It was a very somber meeting, I must say, to be told that a President of the United States is going to resign the next day — the first time in history — and to hear from this man who was now close to the pinnacle of the American government telling us how we should think about it and connect ourselves.
“Al Haig was the de facto President, running the day-to-day operations”
Dr. William Lloyd Stearman, White House, NSC Staff 1971-1976
Q: Did Watergate play at all on what you were doing?
STEARMAN: Oh, heavens, yes. I am glad you mentioned that….It had an enormous effect on Kissinger’s Vietnam decisions because he felt the Presidency had been so weakened by Watergate that the American public, and certainly the Congress, would not continue our support for the Vietnamese forces much longer.
And that is why he was so anxious to cut the kind of deal he did in October 1972, which I felt at the time and feel now was very unfortunate and a big mistake nevertheless, he felt that because of Watergate — and he told me this personally — he just didn’t have any other choice.
Now bear in mind that Watergate hadn’t really come to the fore in late 1972. The whole concern was then overblown, because Nixon was a shoo-in against [Democratic candidate George] McGovern. Nobody was really that worried about Nixon’s losing the election. You had these juvenile lower-level characters, acting without high-level instructions, who thought they could discover some Democratic secrets by breaking into the Democratic Headquarters at the Watergate.
The whole Watergate scandal did eventually have great impact on our policy. The more that came out, the weaker the Presidency became. We all felt that. This was particularly true in 1973.
Another thing one should bear in mind is that for the last sixteen months of Nixon’s incumbency, actually [White House Chief of Staff, later Secretary of State] Al Haig was the President of the United States. He was a de facto President running the day-to-day operations, while Nixon would make some of the major decisions however, Nixon was so totally wrapped up in Watergate that he was a part-time President at best. Haig never told me this, but everybody more or less assumed this was the case. I knew Haig quite well and could see that he was making the day-to-day decisions.
The absolute nadir came when Nixon resigned. We knew about a week ahead of time that he was going to leave office. I then expected the White House to substantially lose authority. This was in 1974.
I was still trying my best to get equipment sent to Cambodia and to the Vietnamese and was meeting increasing resistance from the Pentagon and others, who were no longer interested in what went on in Southeast Asia, despite everything that was happening there. I expected that with Nixon’s downfall I would get zero cooperation from my colleagues in the bureaucracy, but quite the opposite happened. I had never found them to be more cooperative.
I think those people were shaken by the fact that we had a vacuum at the top and felt that those of us who were trying to hold things together at the top deserved support. Now this is just one man’s view, but at least, my own subjective impression at that time was that people were all behind us to a remarkable degree, far more than had been the case before.
“Then we walked out to the South Lawn, and waved goodbye as Nixon got into his helicopter and flew off “
Then we had to experience the sad episode of Nixon’s embarrassing, maudlin speech that he gave just before he departed — we were all forgathered in the East Wing of the White House for this farewell. The poor man sort of rambled on and on. I had never seen him wear glasses before, but he would put them on and take them off. He had notes on some sheets of yellow pad paper in his inside coat pocket, which kept shifting into view across his tie.
The whole thing was terminally pathetic. Everybody was there. I looked toward Kissinger, and saw he was seated with the Cabinet. There were also Members of Congress and others present. We from the White House staff were sort of scattered around. Just about everybody was crying.
I was happy to see him go, in a way, but the thing was so pathetic that you felt sorry for all involved, particularly for his poor family bravely standing up there. Then, we walked out to the South Lawn, and waved goodbye as Nixon got into his helicopter and flew off “into the sunset.”
We walked back through the West Wing, where there were still pictures of Nixon and his family on the walls and then back to the EOB [Executive Office Building].
Later, my assistant, an FSO [Foreign Service Officer] who was a rather forward Irishman by the name of Kenneth Quinn said, “Why don’t we see if we can go down and see Jerry Ford’s swearing in?”
I replied, “We are not invited to that. That is only for the top leadership, the Supreme Court, the Cabinet, Members of Congress. Only the select, the most senior people in The White House can go to that.”
We got in the elevator on the third floor of the EOB and it stopped on the second floor. When the doors opened, there was Jerry Ford and two Secret Service men.
We said, “Oh, Mr. Vice President, we will get out for you,” whereupon Ford said, “That’s okay there is room for all of us.”
So we all went down and marched to the West Wing together. Everyone assumed that Ken and I were part of his entourage so in we went, unhindered.
So I was back again in the same room I had been a couple of hours before watching Nixon’s pathetic farewell. Now it was a different world. Everybody was upbeat and smiling. I saw the same Cabinet members all sitting in the same places they had been, but now all were wreathed in smiles.
Jerry Ford was sworn in and we walked back through the West Wing. Now there were already pictures of Jerry and Betty Ford all over the place. It was fast work on the part of those responsible for such things. It was “The King is dead, long live the King!”