Saturday will mark the 40th anniversary of the only presidential resignation in American history, at the end of the country’s greatest scandal.
Indeed, Watergate became the archetype of political scandals and even added a suffix to the English language. Scandals ever since have often been given names like Monicagate. Words such as firestorm acquired their political meanings thanks to Watergate, phrases such as “modified, limited hangout,” “expletive deleted,” and “What did he know and when did he know it?” were coined during Watergate.
The scandal began with a comically inept burglary of the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate building complex, not far from the Lincoln Memorial, on June 17, 1972. But the White House denied any connection and dismissed it as a “third-rate burglary.” It managed to keep the lid on long enough for Nixon to win a 49-state landslide over Senator George McGovern that November.
But the next spring the scandal broke wide open when John Dean, the White House counsel, began talking to congressional investigators and U.S. attorneys. The whole world watched in fascination. (I happened to be in Manaus, Brazil, in the middle of the Amazon jungle, and I don’t speak Portuguese. But the headline in the local paper, in war type, proclaiming “O Escândolo Watergate!” told me it was time to get home and watch the fun.)
It was the greatest political theater one can imagine as Nixon fought with all the considerable cunning at his disposal as the Senate Watergate hearings and a special prosecutor burrowed in. The three networks carried the hearings live (one network carried them every day, alternating among them) and the ratings were huge. I doubt there have ever been so many banner headlines in a 15-month period in the New York Times, not a paper known for big headlines, except possibly in wartime. The revelation of the White House taping system, the Saturday Night Massacre, the 18 1/2 minute gap in the tapes, the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein, Judge Sirica, the ever-growing list of indictments of Nixon officials. Political junkies never had it so good.
By the next summer Nixon was on the ropes. The House was preparing articles of impeachment and the Supreme Court, in a rare summer meeting, ruled 9-0 that the tapes had to be turned over. Knowing that his impeachment was imminent and his conviction in the Senate likely, Nixon resigned. The new president, Gerald Ford, said that “our long national nightmare is over,” and soon gave Nixon a blanket pardon, largely ending the investigation. It is highly likely that the pardon cost Ford election in his own right in 1976.
At the center of it all, of course, was Richard Nixon, a character of Shakespearean proportions. He had few political gifts. He wasn’t handsome, he was at best a mediocre speaker, he had no gift of gab and lacked sociability. He was a bundle of psychological tics with more than a whiff of paranoia. With good reason, he was nicknamed “Tricky Dick.” What he did have was an utter determination to rise to the top of American politics, and an irresistible urge to ruin himself. Nearly kicked off the Republican ticket as vice president in 1952 in a scandal over a slush fund, he saved himself with the maudlin, but highly effective “Checkers speech.” When he lost the race for governor of California in 1962, he told the press, “You won’t have Dick Nixon to kick around any more.” But six years later he became the first failed presidential candidate (having lost to Kennedy in 1960) to win the White House. Even after the disaster of Watergate, Nixon managed to make himself into a respected elder statesman on foreign affairs. Most presidential failures have few biographies written about them. Nixon will have an endless stream.
For the sake of the country, I hope we never have another Watergate, but I confess I enjoyed the one we had.