On Thursday, August 8, 1974, a somber Richard Nixon addressed the American people in a 16-minute speech via television to announce that he was planning to resign from the Presidency of the United States. He expressed regret over mistakes he made about the break-in at the Democratic Party offices at the Watergate Hotel and the aftermath of that event. He further expressed the hope that his resignation would begin to heal the political divisions the matter had exacerbated. The next day, having resigned, he boarded a helicopter and, with his family, left Washington, D.C.
Nixon had won the 1972 election against Senator George McGovern of South Dakota with over 60% of the popular vote and an electoral vote of 520-17 (one vote having gone to a third candidate). Yet less than two years after what is one of the most overwhelming victories in American elections, Nixon was politically dead. Nixon has been described as a tragic figure, in a literary sense, due to his struggle to rise to the height of political power, only to be undone when he had achieved the pinnacle of success. The cause of this astounding change of fortune has been much debated. It resulted from a confluence of factors, political, historical, and personal.
Nixon was an extraordinarily complex man. He was highly intelligent, even brilliant, yet was the perennial striver seeking to overcome, by unrelenting work, his perceived limitations. He was an accomplished politician with a keen understanding of political issues, yet socially awkward and personally insecure. He was perceived as the ultimate insider, yet, despite his efforts, was always somehow outside the “establishment,” from his school days to his years in the White House. Alienated from the social and political elites, who saw him as an arriviste, he emphasized his marginally middle-class roots and tied his political career to that “silent majority.” He could arouse intense loyalty among his supporters, yet equally intense fury among his opponents. Nixon infamously kept an “enemies list,” the only surprise of which is that it was so incomplete. Seen by the Left as an operative of what is today colloquialized as the “Deep State,” yet he rightly mistrusted the bureaucracy and its departments and agencies, and preferred to rely on White House staff and hand-picked loyal individuals. Caricatured as an anti-Communist ideologue and would-be right-wing dictator, Nixon was a consummately pragmatic politician who was seen by many supporters of Senator Barry Goldwater and Governor Ronald Reagan as insufficiently in line with their world view.
The Watergate burglary and attempted bugging of the Democratic Party offices in June, 1972, and investigations by the FBI and the Government Accountability Office that autumn into campaign finance irregularities by the Committee to Re-Elect the President (given the unfortunate acronym CREEP by Nixon’s opponents) initially had no impact on Nixon and his comprehensive political victory. In January, 1973, the trial of the operatives before federal judge John Sirica in Washington, D.C., revealed possible White House involvement. This perked the interest of the press, never Nixon’s friends. These revelations, now spread before the public, caused the Democratic Senate majority to appoint a select committee under Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina for further investigation. Pursuant to an arrangement with Senate Democrats, Attorney General Elliot Richardson named Democrat Archibald Cox, a Harvard law professor and former Kennedy administration solicitor general, as special prosecutor.
Cox’s efforts uncovered a series of missteps by Nixon, as well as actions that were viewed as more seriously corrupt and potentially criminal. Some of these sound rather tame by today’s standards. Others are more problematic. Among the former were allegations that Nixon had falsely backdated a gift of presidential papers to the National Archives to get a tax credit, not unlike Bill Clinton’s generously-overestimated gift of three pairs of his underwear in 1986 for an itemized charitable tax deduction. Another was that he was inexplicably careless in preparing his tax return. Given the many retroactively amended tax returns and campaign finance forms filed by politicians, such as the Clintons and their eponymous foundations, this, too, seems of slight import. More significant was the allegation that he had used the Internal Revenue Service to attack political enemies. Nixon certainly considered that, although it is not shown that any such actions were undertaken. Another serious charge was that Nixon had set up a secret structure to engage in political intelligence and espionage.
The keystone to the impeachment was the discovery of a secret taping system in the Oval Office that showed that Nixon had participated in a cover-up of the burglary and obstructed the investigation. Nixon, always self-reflective and sensitive to his position in history, had set up the system to provide a clear record of conversations within the Oval Office for his anticipated post-Presidency memoirs. It proved to be his downfall. When Cox became aware of the system, he sought a subpoena to obtain nine of the tapes in July, 1973. Nixon refused, citing executive privilege relating to confidential communications. That strategy had worked when the Senate had demanded the tapes; Judge Sirica had agreed with Nixon. But Judge Sirica rejected that argument when Cox sought the information, a decision upheld 5-2 by the federal Circuit Court for the District of Columbia.
Nixon then offered to give Cox authenticated summaries of the nine tapes. Cox refused. After a further clash between the President and the special prosecutor, Nixon ordered Attorney General Richardson to remove Cox. Both Richardson and Assistant Attorney General William Ruckelshaus refused and resigned. However, by agreement between these two and Solicitor General Robert Bork, Cox was removed by Bork in his new capacity as Acting Attorney General. It was well within Nixon’s constitutional powers as head of the unitary executive to fire his subordinates. But what the President is constitutionally authorized to do is not the same as what the President politically should do. The reaction of the political, academic, and media elites to the “Saturday Night Massacre” was overwhelmingly negative, and precipitated the first serious effort at impeaching Nixon.
A new special prosecutor, Democrat Leon Jaworski, was appointed by Bork in consultation with Congress. The agreement among the three parties was that, though Jaworski would operate within the Justice Department, he could not be removed except for specified causes and with notification to Congress. Jaworski also was specifically authorized to contest in court any claim of executive privilege. When Jaworski again sought various specific tapes, and Nixon again claimed executive privilege, Jaworski eventually took the case to the Supreme Court. On July 24, 1974, Chief Justice Warren Burger’s opinion in the 8-0 decision in United States v. Nixon (William Rehnquist, a Nixon appointee who had worked in the White House, had recused himself) overrode the executive privilege claim. The justices also rejected the argument that this was a political intra-branch dispute between the President and a subordinate that rendered the matter non-justiciable, that is, beyond the competence of the federal courts.
At the same time, in July, 1974, with bipartisan support, the House Judiciary Committee voted out three articles of impeachment. Article I charged obstruction of justice regarding the Watergate burglary. Article II charged him with violating the Constitutional rights of citizens and “contravening the laws governing agencies of the executive branch,” which dealt with Nixon’s alleged attempted misuse of the IRS, and with his misuse of the FBI and CIA. Article III charged Nixon with ignoring congressional subpoenas, which sounds remarkably like an attempt to obstruct Congress, a dubious ground for impeachment. Two other proposed articles were rejected. When the Supreme Court ordered Nixon to release the tapes, that of June 23, 1972, showed obstruction of justice by the President instructing his staff to use the CIA to end the Watergate investigation. The tape was released on August 5. Nixon was then visited by a delegation of Republican Representatives and Senators who informed him of the near-certainty of impeachment by the House and of his extremely tenuous position to avoid conviction by the Senate. The situation having become politically hopeless, Nixon resigned, making his resignation formal on Friday, August 9, 1974.
The Watergate affair produced several constitutional controversies. First, the Supreme Court addressed executive privilege to withhold confidential information. Nixon’s opponents had claimed that the executive lacked such a privilege because the Constitution did not address it, unlike the privilege against self-incrimination. Relying on consistent historical practice going back to the Washington administration, the Court found instead that such a privilege is inherent in the separation of powers and necessary to protect the President in exercising the executive power and others granted under Article II of the Constitution. However, unless the matter involves state secrets, that privilege could be overridden by a court, if warranted in a criminal case, and the “presumptively privileged” information ordered released. While the Court did not directly consider the matter, other courts have agreed with Judge Sirica that, based on long practice, the privilege will be upheld if Congress seeks such confidential information. The matter then is a political question, not one for courts to address at all.
Another controversy arose over the President’s long-recognized power to fire executive branch subordinates without restriction by Congress. This is essential to the President’s position as head of the executive branch. For example, the President has inherent constitutional authority to fire ambassadors as Barack Obama and Donald Trump did, or to remove U.S. Attorneys, as Bill Clinton and George W. Bush did. Jaworski’s appointment under the agreement not to remove him except for specified cause interfered with that power, yet the Court upheld that limitation in the Nixon case.
After Watergate, in 1978, Congress passed the Ethics in Government Act that provided a broad statutory basis for the appointment of special prosecutors outside the normal structure of the Justice Department. Such prosecutors, too, could not be removed except for specified causes. In Morrison v. Olson, in 1988, the Supreme Court, by 7-1, upheld this incursion on executive independence over the lone dissent of Justice Antonin Scalia. At least as to inferior executive officers, which the Court found special prosecutors to be, Congress could limit the President’s power to remove, as long as the limitation did not interfere unduly with the President’s control over the executive branch. The opinion, by Chief Justice Rehnquist, was in many ways risible from a constitutional perspective, but it upheld a law that became the starting point for a number of highly-partisan and politically-motivated investigations into actions taken by Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton, and by their subordinates. Only once the last of these Presidents was being subjected to such oversight did opposition to the law become sufficiently bipartisan to prevent its reenactment.
The impeachment proceeding itself rekindled the debate over the meaning of the substantive grounds for such an extraordinary interference with the democratic process. While treason is defined in the Constitution and bribery is an old and well-litigated criminal law concept, the third basis, of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” is open to considerable latitude of meaning. One view, taken by defenders of the official under investigation, is that this phrase requires conduct amounting to a crime, an “indictable offense.” The position of the party pursuing impeachment, Republican or Democrat, has been that this phrase more broadly includes unfitness for office and reaches conduct which is not formally criminal but which shows gross corruption or a threat to the constitutional order. The Framers’ understanding appears to have been closer to the latter, although the much greater number and scope of criminal laws today may have narrowed the difference. However, what the Framers considered sufficiently serious impeachable corruption likely was more substantial than what has been proffered recently. They were acutely aware of the potential for merely political retaliation and similar partisan mischief that a low standard for impeachment would produce. These and other questions surrounding the rather sparse impeachment provisions in the Constitution have not been resolved. They continue to be, foremost, political matters addressed on a case-by-case basis, as demonstrated the past twelve months.
As has been often observed, Nixon’s predicament was not entirely of his own making. In one sense, he was the victim of political trends that signified a reaction against what had come to be termed the “Imperial Presidency.” It had long been part of the progressive political faith that there was “nothing to fear but fear itself” as far as broadly exercised executive power, as long as the presidential tribune using “a pen and a phone” was subject to free elections. Actions routinely done by Presidents such as Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Nixon’s predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, now became evidence of executive overreach. For example, those presidents, as well as others going back to at least Thomas Jefferson had impounded appropriated funds, often to maintain fiscal discipline over profligate Congresses. Nixon claimed that his constitutional duty “to take care that the laws be faithfully executed” was also a power that allowed him to exercise discretion as to which laws to enforce, not just how to enforce them. In response, the Democratic Congress in 1974 passed the Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974. The Supreme Court in Train v. City of New York declared presidential impoundment unconstitutional and limited the President’s authority to impound funds to whatever extent was permitted by Congress in statutory language.
In military matters, the elites’ reaction against the Vietnam War, shaped by negative press coverage and antiwar demonstrations on elite college campuses, gradually eroded popular support. The brunt of the responsibility for the vast expansion of the war lay with Lyndon Johnson and the manipulative use of a supposed North Vietnamese naval attack on an American destroyer, which resulted in the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. At a time when Nixon had ended the military draft, drastically reduced American troop numbers in Vietnam, and agreed to the Paris Peace Accords signed at the end of January, 1973, Congress enacted the War Powers Resolution of 1973 over Nixon’s veto. The law limited the President’s power to engage in military hostilities to specified situations, in the absence of a formal declaration of war. It also basically required pre-action consultation with Congress for any use of American troops and a withdrawal of such troops unless Congress approved within sixty days. It also, somewhat mystifyingly, purported to disclaim any attempt to limit the President’s war powers. The Resolution has been less than successful in curbing presidential discretion in using the military and remains largely symbolic.
Another restriction on presidential authority occurred through the Supreme Court. In United States v. United States District Court in 1972, the Supreme Court rejected the administration’s program of warrantless electronic surveillance for domestic security. This was connected to the Huston Plan of warrantless searches of mail and other communications of Americans. Warrantless wiretaps were connected on some members of the National Security Council and several journalists. Not touched by the Court was the President’s authority to conduct warrantless electronic surveillance of foreigners or their agents for national security-related information gathering. On the latter, Congress nevertheless in 1978 passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which, ironically, has expanded the President’s power in that area. Because it can be applied to communications of Americans deemed agents of a foreign government, FISA, along with the President’s inherent constitutional powers regarding foreign intelligence-gathering, can be used to circumvent the Supreme Court’s decision. It has even been used in the last several years to target the campaign of then-candidate Donald Trump.
Nixon’s use of the “pocket veto” and his imposition of price controls also triggered resentment and reaction in Congress, although once again his actions were hardly novel. None of these various executive policies, by themselves, were politically fatal. Rather, they demonstrate the political climate in which what otherwise was just another election-year dirty trick, the Watergate Hotel burglary, could result in the historically extraordinary resignation from office of a President who had not long before received the approval of a large majority of American voters. Nixon’s contemplated use of the IRS to audit “enemies” was no worse than the Obama Administration’s actual use of the IRS to throttle conservative groups’ tax exemption. His support of warrantless wiretaps under his claimed constitutional authority to target suspected domestic troublemakers, while unconstitutional, hardly is more troubling than Obama’s use of the FBI and CIA to manipulate the FISA system into spying on a presidential candidate to assist his opponent. Nixon’s wiretapping of NSC officials and several journalists is not dissimilar to Obama’s search of phone records of various Associated Press reporters and of spying on Fox News’s James Rosen. Obama’s FBI also accused Rosen of having violated the Espionage Act. The Obama administration brought more than twice as many prosecutions—including under the Espionage Act—against leakers than all prior Presidents combined. That was in his first term.
There was another, shadowy factor at work. Nixon, the outsider, offended the political and media elites. Nixon himself disliked the bureaucracy, which had increased significantly over the previous generation through the New Deal’s “alphabet agencies” and the demands of World War II and the Cold War. The Johnson Administration’s Great Society programs sped up this growth. The agencies were staffed at the upper levels with left-leaning members of the bureaucratic elite. Nixon’s relationship with the press was poisoned not only by their class-based disdain for him, but by the constant flow of leaks from government insiders who opposed him. Nixon tried to counteract that by greatly expanding the White House offices and staffing them with members who he believed were personally loyal to him. His reliance on those advisers rather than on the advice of entrenched establishment policy-makers threatened the political clout and personal self-esteem of the latter. What has been called Nixon’s plebiscitary style of executive government, relying on the approval of the voters rather than on that of the elite administrative cadre, also was a threat to the existing order. As Senator Charles Schumer warned President Trump in early January, 2017, about the intelligence “community,” “Let me tell you: You take on the intelligence community — they have six ways from Sunday at getting back at you.” Nixon, too, lived that reality.
Once out of office, Nixon generally stayed out of the limelight. The strategy worked well. As seems to be the custom for Republican presidents, once they are “former,” many in the press and among other “right-thinking people” came to see him as the wise elder statesman, much to be preferred to the ignorant cowboy (and dictator) Ronald Reagan. Who, of course, then came to be preferred to the ignorant cowboy (and dictator) George W. Bush. Who, of course, then came to be preferred to the ignorant reality television personality (and dictator) Donald Trump. Thus, the circle of political life continues. It ended for Nixon on April 22, 1994. His funeral five days later was attended by all living Presidents. Tens of thousands of mourners paid their respects.
The parallel to recent events should be obvious. That said, a comparison between seriousness of the Watergate Affair that resulted in President Nixon’s resignation and the Speaker Nancy Pelosi/Congressman Adam Schiff/Congressman Jerry Nadler impeachment of President Trump brings to mind what may be Karl Marx’s only valuable observation, that historic facts appear twice, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”
An expert on constitutional law, and member of the Southwestern Law School faculty, Professor Joerg W. Knipprath has been interviewed by print and broadcast media on a number of related topics ranging from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to presidential succession. He has written opinion pieces and articles on business and securities law as well as constitutional issues, and has focused his more recent research on the effect of judicial review on the evolution of constitutional law. He has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums, and serves as a Constituting America Fellow. Read more from Professor Knipprath at: http://www.tokenconservative.com/
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