Today marks the anniversary of a particularly dark day in American history. It is also of a specific interest to me as it is a focal point of my Undergraduate thesis.
On July 27, 1974, the House Judiciary Committee voted in an overwhelming fashion to pass the the first Article of Impeachment. On July 29 and 30th, the House would pass two more articles for ‘Abuse of Power’ and ‘Contempt of Congress’. This would be only the second time in American history that impeachment of a President was even considered. They recommended that Richard Millhouse Nixon, the 37th President of the United States, be impeached and removed from office.
This move would have set up a Senate hearing leading to the actual removal of the President.
Of course, this story is well known. However, I would be lagging in my duties as an historian if I did not address the demise of Dick Nixon.
What led to these proceedings? It was the series of events in the Nixon administration known as the ‘Watergate Scandal.’
It was on June 18th, 1972 that the story of Watergate would break. American heroes Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein would print a story in the Washington Post titled, “Five Held in Plot to Bug Democratic Offices.” The story reported an event that took place the day before. A team of burglars, known as the ‘plumbers,’ were arrested inside the office of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate Office complex in Washington.
On June 19th, “GOP Security Aide Among Those Arrested” topped the headlines and the Nixon administration was thrown into a frenzy. This story reported that James McCord, who was working on Nixon’s re-election committee, was listed as a burglar.
Nixon would decline any involvement with the break-in. He referred to it as a “third-rate burglary.” But, it became much harder to cover-up as multiple Nixon staff members would be implicated in the crime. Among those included in the cover-up were E. Howard Hunt (a CIA officer), and FBI agent G. Gordon Liddy.
They would later be indicted for, “guiding the burglars, via walkie talkies in the Watergate building.”
More dark dealings would continue on behind the scenes. President Nixon told his Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman that the Watergate burglars “are going to need money.” The next day, burglar G. Gordon Liddy, told White House aides that he and his fellow burglars would need money for bail, legal expenses, and family support. It would eventually be revealed that E. Howard Hunt was at the center of this scheme.
Nixon decided that it would be in his best interest to provide ‘hush money.’ Going further, White House attorney John Dean met with Vernon Walters, the Deputy Director of the CIA, to request ‘financial assistance’ for the Watergate burglars. Of course, the request was denied. Nixon and his re-election staff directed Maurice Stand, Nixon’s chief fundraiser, to appropriate $75,000 to the burglars.
The investigation would reveal far more about the administration. In July of 1973, one of Nixon’s former staff members revealed the existence of secretly taped conversations between the President and his aides. This would lead to the infamous moment where a portion of the tapes were missing.
But, before the remaining portions of these tapes were even released, Nixon had refused. He cited executive privilege and national security. In a landmark 8-0 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, “the court held that neither the doctrine of Separation of Powers, nor the generalized need for confidentiality of high-level communications, without more, can sustain an absolute, unqualified Presidential privilege.”
Though the tapes were admitted into the court Nixon would essentially walk free. On March 1, 1974, a Grand Jury of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia “returned an indictment charging seven individuals with various offenses, including conspiracy to defraud the United States and obstruct justice.” Nixon would not be indicted but only named as an “unindicted co-conspirator.”
On August 8th, 1974, Richard Nixon announced his resignation as President of the United States. This would make him the first President in history to voluntary leave office.
After departing the White House Nixon was succeeded by Vice President Gerald R. Ford. In a highly controversial move, Ford pre-pardoned Nixon on September 8 of 1974. Ford would make it impossible for the former President to be prosecuted for any crime he may have committed while in office.
Nixon would join the ranks of an elite few Presidents who were impeached: Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998.
Numerous backroom dealings, shifty campaign tactics, blackmail, and defrauding the public were all undertaken by the Nixon Administration. In response, President Nixon was given a slap on the wrist and told he could walk free. He was then pre-pardoned by his Vice President.
With each historical example comes a lesson to be learned. Sometimes they aren’t always easy to recognize. Fortunately or unfortunately, that isn’t the case here.
Here it is: In Nixon’s widely viewed interview with British T.V. personality David Frost, Nixon reflected on his final cabinet meeting. Speaking to his key supporters, cabinet members, and advisors he said, “I am sorry. I just hope I haven’t let you down.” In the Frost interview, Nixon was given an opportunity to reflect on that statement. He continued, “I let down my friends, I let down the country, I let down our system of government and the dreams of all those young people who oughta get into government but will think its all corrupt and the rest. Most of all, I let down an opportunity that I would have had for two and half years to proceed on great projects and programs for building a lasting peace.”
So, what does all of that mean?
My analysis is this: Government isn’t corrupt by nature. It only fosters a few seemingly powerful individuals who are. But, that development does not invite us to simply give up on what government can be simply because we disapprove of what it is.
Many have drawn comparisons of this moment to today. These conclusions may be meritorious. But, that doesn’t mean we can’t stay informed. It doesn’t mean we can’t stay vigilant. It doesn’t mean we can’t stay active.