Forty years after Richard Nixon resigned the presidency, Watergate still resonates as one of the worst political scandals in our country’s history. For most people, the name evokes the June 17, 1972, break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington and the cover-up, in which, as became clear later, the president himself had an immediate and central role. The break-in was not a “third-rate burglary,” as Nixon’s spokesman tried to convince us, but a major assault on the electoral process; nor was the cover-up limited to rogue White House aides, as Nixon eventually claimed; it was a brazen, widespread obstruction of justice that set a precedent for later abuses of power by other presidents.
President Nixon used the powers of his office to hide the involvement in the burglary of top campaign and White House officials. He promised presidential pardons to the burglars and directed that campaign funds be used to buy their silence. He ordered the CIA to stop the FBI’s investigation. He suborned perjury by his top staff and obtained secret grand jury information to coach prospective witnesses. The cover-up worked disturbingly well through the presidential election—Nixon won by a landslide—and into early 1973.
But Watergate is also shorthand for a whole catalog of other abuses and crimes committed by President Nixon. In an effort to obtain discrediting information about Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg, Nixon approved a break-in at Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office. He created the infamous “enemies list” of antiwar activists, political opponents and journalists—including The Nation’s White House correspondent Robert Sherrill—who were to be subjected to harassing Internal Revenue Service audits. He ordered illegal wiretaps of journalists and White House staffers, which continued, conveniently, even after one of them went to work for a Democratic presidential opponent. He directed the secret bombing of Cambodia, a neutral country, and concealed the fact from Congress and the American people. He refused to spend funds lawfully appropriated and tried to dismantle a federal agency, the Office of Equal Opportunity, which had been tasked with implementing much of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty agenda.
Simply put, President Nixon placed himself above the law. In a television interview with David Frost after he left the White House, Nixon explained: “When the President does it, that means that it is not illegal.” These are the words of someone to whom nothing is forbidden. This is the philosophy of a despot, not of a president in a democracy.
Smoking Gun: The Nation on Watergate
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In my first term in the House of Representatives, I served on the Judiciary Committee, which in the spring of 1973 conducted impeachment proceedings against the president. It was clear to me that the bipartisanship and the seriousness with which the committee approached its task were motivated by a sense of the grave danger Nixon posed to the rule of law.
Watergate is often blamed for engendering deep public cynicism about government. But as I saw from my front-row seat in Congress, Watergate actually showed that our constitutional system of checks and balances can, in fact, work. While the president engaged in crimes and abuses of power—something our constitutional framers anticipated some president, someday would do—the press, the courts and Congress blocked him and forced him out of office. The rule of law, although battered, won out—briefly, at least.