- Mike Martinez
Scoundrels: Political Scandals in American History—Watergate
Watergate has become the scandal by which all other American scandals are judged. Whenever an elected official is caught in a compromising situation, his or her actions are said to be “worse than Watergate.” I discuss the episode in my forthcoming book, Scoundrels: Political Scandals in American History.
The suffix “gate” suggests that malfeasance occurred on a massive scale. When an attorney general-designee confessed that she had not paid Social Security taxes for her caregiver, the episode was dubbed “Nannygate.” When it became clear that the Reagan administration traded arms for hostages, it was “Iran-gate.” President Barack Obama wore a light tan suit to a public event, and his Republican critics pounced, labeling his attire choice “tan-gate.” When conspiracy theorists concocted a phony story that Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and her allies were conducting a child sex trafficking enterprise inside a pizza parlor, the hoax was labeled “pizzagate.”
Watergate was part of a long pattern of lawlessness in the presidential administration of Richard M. Nixon. Nixon had always been a practitioner of the “dark arts” of politics. He had made his career as a red-baiting demagogue in the late 1940s. When he went after a career State Department officer, Alger Hiss, Nixon played on citizens’ fears of encroaching Communism. A proponent of realpolitik, Nixon believed that “dirty tricks” were fair game in American elections.
It should come as no surprise, therefore, that Nixon’s men acted in unethical and illegal ways with relative impunity. Even if President Nixon did not order them to engage in mischief, they understood that he was unconcerned about lawless behavior in service of his reelection. A president sets the tone of his administration.
The tone was set in 1971, after the New York Times published excerpts from a series of top-secret documents that came to be known as the Pentagon Papers. President Nixon expressed his fury in no uncertain terms. The papers showed that officials in the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations had lied about progress made during the Vietnam War. White House staffers realized that something must be done to plug the leaks inside the administration and the bureaucracy. They were especially incensed at Daniel Ellsberg, a former State Department and RAND corporation analyst who had copied the records and turned them over to the Times.
President Nixon’s chief domestic policy analyst, John Ehrlichman, tasked his subordinates Egil “Bud” Krogh and David Young with establishing an informal group, the “White House Plumbers,” to plug leaks inside the administration. Krogh and Young enlisted G. Gordon Liddy, finance counsel for the Committee to Reelect the President (CRP), as well as a former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operative, E. Howard Hunt, to conduct a “covert operation” to gather information about Ellsberg’s mental state. The plan was to discredit the whistleblower. Demonstrating a notable lack of scruples, the informal group decided to burglarize the office of Dr. Lewis Fielding, Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, and rifle through his files in search of damaging information on their nemesis. Ehrlichman authorized the project provided it was “done under your assurance that it is not traceable.”
On September 3, 1971, Liddy and Hunt, accompanied by CIA agents Eugenio Martinez, Felipe de Diego, and Bernard Barker, broke into Dr. Fielding’s office and located Ellsberg’s file. It did not contain damaging information. The men subsequently debated whether they should break into Dr. Fielding’s home, but Ehrlichman refused to authorize the operation.
The Fielding burglary was important because it showed the Plumbers that they could engage in illegal campaign activities with the blessing of the Nixon White House. Although they found no usable information with the initial break-in, the secrecy of the deed ensured that the group would continue its “dirty tricks.” In short, the Fielding break-in was a blueprint for subsequent operations.
Throughout late 1971 and early 1972, Nixon’s men devised various plots to aid Nixon’s reelection campaign. On January 27, 1972, Liddy met with Attorney General John Mitchell, presidential counsel John Dean, and Jeb Stuart Magruder, CRP’s acting chairman, to discuss future operations. Liddy had developed an ambitious plan to obtain information from Democrats using illegal surveillance. According to Dean, this meeting represented “the opening scene of the worst political scandal of the twentieth century and the beginning of the end of the Nixon presidency.”
John Mitchell, the nation’s highest-ranking law enforcement officer, should have reacted with righteous indignation, insisting that no one would engage in such blatantly criminal activity while he was in office. He should have thrown the men out of his office and threatened them with criminal prosecution if they ever entertained such ideas again. He did not. Instead, he rejected Liddy’s plan as unworkable. Liddy had the right strategy, but the wrong tactics.
Undaunted, Liddy returned two months later with a scaled down version of the surveillance plan. This time, he proposed breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters housed in an office building, the Watergate complex, to photograph documents and install listening devices—“bugs,” in the parlance of the day—on the committee’s telephones. Mitchell approved this plan.
Liddy and his men got to work, relying again on E. Howard Hunt. They also brought in James W. McCord Jr., a former CIA man who was serving as CRP’s security coordinator. In turn, McCord recruited other operatives, including Alfred C. Baldwin III, a former agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), who would carry out the wiretapping and monitor telephone conversations.
The group rented a room at the Howard Johnson’s motel across the street from the Watergate complex. On May 28, after several failed attempts, the burglars broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters without being detected and installed listening devices on two telephones. Unfortunately for the operatives, the devices malfunctioned. They resolved to return and fix the defects.
The second break-in became the most infamous burglary in American history. Shortly after midnight on June 17, 1972, Frank Wills, a 24-year-old private security guard in the Watergate office building, noticed a piece of duct tape placed on a door lock adjacent to the underground parking garage as he made his rounds. The tape prevented the door from latching shut. It was an odd occurrence. The Watergate building was considered so safe that security guards did not even carry guns. Thinking it was strange but not criminal, Wills removed the duct tape and continued patrolling the building.
Approximately 30 minutes later, he returned to the door and saw that the duct tape had been replaced. He distinctly recalled removing the tape during his earlier patrol. Realizing that someone else was inside the building, Wills scampered over to a lobby telephone and called the police. Withing minutes, three plainclothes District of Columbia police officers, Sgt. Paul W. Leeper, Officer John B. Barrett, and Officer Carl M. Shoffler, arrived on the scene in an unmarked cruiser. The officers were on “bum patrol,” which required that they dress as hippies and attempt to buy drugs from street pushers.
The burglars had arranged for a lookout to keep watch from the Howard Johnson’s motel across the street, exactly as he had done during the first burglary. The man, Alfred Baldwin, was watching television and never saw the police car. Even if he had, it was unmarked and might not have aroused suspicion. In the meantime, the officers turned off the elevators and locked the entrance and exit doors from the building. Wills accompanied the officers as they methodically searched each office on each floor.
When Wills and the police officers searched the sixth floor, where the Democratic National Committee offices were located, Baldwin saw the activity from across the street and tried to alert his confederates via walkie talkie. It was too late. The officers discovered five men wearing business suits carrying burglary tools inside an office. These middle-aged men were not ordinary burglars. They carried $2,300 in cash, mostly in $100 bills with sequential serial numbers, a shortwave radio receiver to pick up police communications, two 35-millimeter cameras, 40 rolls of unexposed film, and three small tear gas guns. The officers immediately arrested the men, later identified as Virgilio Gonzalez, Bernard Barker, James W. McCord Jr., Eugenio Martinez, and Frank Sturgis.
By Sunday, June 18, White House officials knew they were in trouble. It was only a matter of time before the police traced the five defendants to the White House. G. Gordon Liddy had been instrumental in establishing the Plumbers, and now was instrumental in concealing White House involvement in the crime. He called Jeb Magruder on June 18 to initiate a coverup. They had a major problem, however; E. Howard Hunt’s name appeared in the address book of two of the burglars. Several White House staffers destroyed files in Hunt’s safe to conceal any links with the burglary.
Judging by comments that Nixon made to his chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, which were captured on the White House taping system, the president had not known of the burglary before it occurred. He did know, however, that his men were willing and able to carry out “black bag jobs.” Despite his lack of advance knowledge, Nixon soon learned the details. Instead of expressing outrage that a member of his administration had broken the law, on June 23, 1972, the president asked Haldeman, “Who was the asshole that did this thing?” He was referring to the break-in. When he learned that the FBI was investigating the burglars’ funding source, Nixon ordered Haldeman to have the CIA block the investigation. Thus, within a few days of the break-in, Nixon obstructed justice.
The president’s men had their marching orders: Watergate was to be kept as far away from the White House as possible. The strategy was to stonewall and deny all facts and inferences. To that end, White House Press Secretary Ron Ziegler blithely dismissed the incident as a “third-rate burglary attempt.” Nixon himself later stated publicly that he had directed his White House counsel, John Dean, to investigate Watergate. On August 29, 1972, Nixon reported that based on Dean’s investigation, “I can say categorically that ... no one in the White House staff, no one in this Administration, presently employed, was involved in this very bizarre incident.” Dean later admitted that he had not launched an investigation into the episode.
No matter how hard the administration attempted to distance itself from Watergate, the trail led back to the White House. When the press asked if it was true that one of the burglars worked for the CRP, John Mitchell, the former attorney general who had resigned to head up the president’s reelection committee, denied involvement in the break-in. The denials proved to be false. In August, investigators located a $25,000 check in Bernard Barker’s account. It was a campaign contribution from Kenneth H. Dahlberg to the Committee to Reelect the President. Dahlberg’s check, among others, was a lawful contribution, but it had been used to pay for supplies used in the administration’s covert operations. A check from a political donor found in a Watergate burglar’s account was the first tangible link between the break-in and the Nixon administration. Other revelations followed in due course. Within a few months, it was clear that the administration had used a secret fund to finance a series of intelligence-gathering operations designed to help Nixon in his reelection bid.
In the meantime, a grand jury indicted the five burglars. Hunt and Liddy had been tied to the operation, and they were indicted as well. They entered guilty pleas or were convicted at the conclusion of the trial on January 30, 1973.
James W. McCord Jr. eventually wrote a letter to the federal district court trial judge, John J. Sirica, explaining that the burglars had been pressured to remain silent about who had financed the break-in. He said that the defendants had perjured themselves. Sirica believed that the White House was behind the enterprise, but the central question was how high the conspiracy went. Did President Nixon know of the operation and, if so, when did he know?
As the scandal deepened, Nixon’s White House counsel, John Dean, debated ways that he, Haldeman, and Ehrlichman might save President Nixon from impeachment and possibly a post-presidential criminal prosecution. Nixon was thinking along these lines as well. If he fired these three aides, he might yet save his presidency. The narrative would be that it was his assistants, not the president, who had authorized the series of unlawful acts. Nixon had been overwhelmingly reelected in November 1972. Now he had to hold on to his victory, even if it meant sacrificing the men who had helped him win high office. Such were the vicissitudes of politics.
As Nixon increasingly engaged in the coverup, his men, some facing substantial prison time, cooperated with the authorities. Magruder eventually told prosecutors that he had perjured himself when he testified at the burglars’ trial. He implicated John Dean and John Mitchell. Dean had been willing to fall on his sword to save Nixon’s presidency, but it dawned on him that he would be a scapegoat—perhaps the sole scapegoat—for the coverup. During a White House meeting on April 15, 1973, Dean sensed that his conversation was being tape-recorded, although he did not know for certain that Nixon had installed a secret taping system in the White House. Two days later, Dean confessed to Nixon that he, Dean, was cooperating with the United States Attorney’s Office.
The president was becoming increasingly desperate. On April 30, 1973, he asked that Haldeman and Ehrlichman resign along with Attorney General Richard Kleindienst. He also fired John Dean as White House counsel. Explaining his actions in a televised address, Nixon claimed that with these personnel changes, it was time to put the Watergate scandal behind the nation. The implication was that these men were the perpetrators and he, as president, had cleaned house. He named a new attorney general, Elliot Richardson, that same day.
Nixon hoped that Watergate would fade from the headlines, but he was under tremendous pressure to authorize the appointment of a special counsel. He reluctantly agreed that Attorney General Richardson possessed authority to investigate the matter. In May 1973, Richardson appointed a Harvard Law School professor, Archibald Cox, as a special counsel tasked with getting to the bottom of the scandal.
Congress eventually investigated the episode as well. On February 7, 1973, the United States Senate voted 77-to-0 to approve a resolution creating a select committee to investigate the matter. A North Carolina senator, Sam Ervin, served as chairman. A white-haired, amiable self-styled “country lawyer” who spoke with a thick southern accent, Ervin, a Democrat known for his politically conservative views on race, could be counted on to support the administration whenever possible. That was the initial impression, in any case. Nixon would soon learn to his detriment that Ervin’s fidelity to his country and to the facts of the case trumped his conservative ideology.
The committee held televised hearings from May 17 through August 7, 1973, and they became riveting entertainment for millions of Americans. John Dean appeared before the committee and proved to be a devastating witness as he meticulously outlined the administration’s malfeasance. Other witnesses provided fascinating testimony as well. Alexander Butterfield, a relatively low-level assistant, revealed that the White House contained a system that automatically tape-recorded conversations in the Oval Office, the cabinet room, and in Nixon’s private office in the Old Executive Office Building. The revelation electrified the country. Immediately following the testimony, members of Congress and the special counsel sought access to the tapes as part of their concurrent investigations.
Archibald Cox recognized that the tapes likely held information that would aid his investigation. Not surprisingly, he subpoenaed the tapes. Similarly, Senate investigators subpoenaed the tapes. Citing executive privilege, Nixon refused to release the recordings. The president could do nothing about the congressional subpoena because it was issued by a separate branch of government, but Cox reported to the attorney general, who was part of the executive branch. Accordingly, Nixon ordered Cox to drop his subpoena.
It was a breathtakingly audacious act. The president was interfering in an investigation launched by the special counsel to delve into the president’s alleged abuse of power in covering up the Watergate break-in. Directly defying the president, Cox refused to drop the subpoena. Accordingly, on October 20, 1973, Nixon ordered Attorney General Richardson to fire the special prosecutor. Richardson declined to follow the order. Instead, he resigned in protest. Nixon ordered the next man in line, Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus, to fire Cox. Rather than comply, Ruckelshaus resigned as well. The number three man in the United States Department of Justice, Solicitor General Robert Bork, fired Cox.
The sordid episode, which became known as the “Saturday Night Massacre,” had the opposite effect from what Nixon had intended. He had badly misjudged public reaction to his decision to fire Archibald Cox. He thought this act would relieve public pressure, but it only exacerbated tensions. Defending his actions a few weeks later, Nixon assured the press, “Well, I am not a crook.” To illustrate the truth of this assertion, he allowed Bork to appoint a new special prosecutor. Bork tapped Leon Jaworski, a prominent Texas lawyer.
If Nixon believed that a new special prosecutor would somehow be less diligent in investigating the scandal, he was mistaken. Jaworski plowed forward, picking up Cox’s investigation where it had left off. He, too, sought access to the White House tapes.
Even as Congress and the special prosecutor investigated Nixon’s behavior, his aides faced parallel court proceedings. On March 1, 1974, a grand jury in Washington, D.C., indicted seven of Nixon’s men: H. R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, John Mitchell, Charles “Chuck” Colson, Robert Mardian, Gordon C. Strachan, and Kenneth Parkinson. Richard Nixon was an unindicted co-conspirator. If he had not been a sitting United States president, he probably would have been indicted and convicted of one or more crimes.
Confronted with mounting calls to release the White House tapes, Nixon understood that he faced a dilemma. If he did not release anything, he faced increasing scrutiny from all quarters. If he released all the tapes, it would be damning evidence of criminality. Aside from the legal jeopardy he faced, he knew that the American public would be outraged by the numerous instances of profanity as well as racial and ethnic slurs scattered throughout the recordings.
After much debate among administration officials, Nixon decided to release edited transcripts with the comment “expletive deleted” from places where someone, mostly Nixon, used vulgar language. All national security information would be redacted. Perhaps the transcripts would suffice to satisfy the numerous investigators.
To sell this solution, the president delivered an address to the nation on April 29, 1974. He pointed to a series of notebook binders to indicate that he was releasing a large volume of information. He hoped that the sheer volume of material would mollify his critics and halt the momentum that seemed to be headed toward impeachment.
Initially, the release of the edited transcripts appeared to achieve Nixon’s purpose. He had supplied investigators with sufficient material to argue that he had complied with the law and should no longer be pursued for additional information. Nixon’s men argued that they had released more than enough information to meet the president’s constitutional obligations to Congress. To require more was to hamper presidential effectiveness and upset the balance of power among the branches of government.
Nixon again failed to appreciate public opinion. As citizens and congressional leaders delved into the transcripts, the mood shifted. The behind-the-scenes Nixon that emerged from the tapes was a mean, vindictive, petty, and profane man. The Senate minority leader, Hugh Scott, was reluctant to criticize the leader of his party, but even he denounced Nixon and his aides as “deplorable, disgusting, shabby, immoral.” Facing voters in the fall 1974 elections, Republican members of Congress distanced themselves from the embattled president.
A renewed call for release of the unexpurgated tapes met with stiff resistance. Publicly, Nixon sought refuge in executive privilege, but only the most partisan hack believed that the president’s stance was a principled defense of an implied constitutional power. Nixon knew what was in the tapes. Worse than revelations of his thuggish behavior were conversations demonstrating that, contrary to his assurances, Nixon was in fact a “crook.” He had to hold the line at all costs.
The new special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, was not satisfied with the transcripts. He wanted access to the tapes. Nixon’s lawyers filed a motion in federal court to prevent their release, but Judge Sirica denied the motion in the federal district court. The tapes, he ruled, were necessary to the defense of Nixon’s men facing trial for their roles in the Watergate affair. Sirica set a deadline of May 31 for Nixon to produce the tapes. In an appeal filed directly in the United States Supreme Court, Nixon’s lawyers contended that the dispute was not a matter for the courts. Because Nixon and Jaworski were members of the executive branch, they could resolve the matter without involving the judicial branch. Moreover, Nixon argued that Jaworski had not demonstrated that the requested materials were necessary evidence in the ongoing trial of the seven Watergate defendants. Finally, the president’s lawyers reiterated the executive privilege claim.
It was a weak performance. Nixon’s claims were tantamount to an argument that the president was above the law and that he need not comply with subpoenas or judicial orders that he deemed inconvenient. On July 24, 1974, the United States Supreme Court ruled 8-0 in United States v. Nixon that the president must release the tapes.
Writing for the court, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger concluded that although a president can protect some material under a claim of executive privilege, the privilege is not inviolable. In this case, the judiciary’s interest in providing a fair trial to the Watergate defendants outweighed the president’s interests in keeping the tapes secret. The court ordered Nixon to deliver the subpoenaed tapes to Judge Sirica in the federal district court.
The moment the high court instructed Nixon to deliver the tapes, his presidency was all but over. The tapes contained incriminating statements that could not be excused. During a conversation with John Dean on March 21, 1973, for example, Nixon’s counsel described the Watergate coverup as a “cancer on the presidency.” It threatened to metastasize and engulf the White House. Referring to the decision to pay hush money to the burglars to keep them from testifying truthfully, Dean succinctly summarized the paramount problem. “That’s the most troublesome post-thing,” he said, “because Bob [Haldeman] is involved in that; John [Ehrlichman] is involved in that; I am involved in that; Mitchell is involved in that. And that’s an obstruction of justice.”
When Dean told the president that E. Howard Hunt was attempting to blackmail the White House with ever-increasing demands for money, Nixon sounded unfazed by the illegality. He responded that the money should be paid, and he, Nixon, knew where they might obtain the funds. It was one of several “smoking gun” statements: The president of the United States was on tape saying that he knew where he and his advisers could find money to bribe burglars to lie under oath, or at least to remain silent, in a criminal case.
During several subsequent conversation, Nixon reiterated his agreement that the hush money should be paid. Not every conversation survived, however. In one infamous example, investigators discovered an eighteen-and-a-half-minute gap in one recording. The White House provided a convoluted explanation. Rose Mary Woods, the president’s loyal, long-time personal secretary, had accidentally erased part of the tape when she pushed the wrong pedal on the Dictaphone while she answered a telephone call. The media had a field day when photographs showed that Woods had to strain her body to answer the phone while her foot remained on the pedal. It was highly unlikely that she could have accidentally erase the tape.
Somehow the Nixon presidency limped on, but his political fortunes declined precipitously throughout 1974. Early in the year, the House of Representatives passed a resolution allowing the House Judiciary Committee to launch an impeachment investigation. On July 27, three days after the Supreme Court announced its decision in United States v. Nixon, the Judiciary Committee voted 27-to-11 to recommend as its first article of impeachment a charge of obstruction of justice. Two days later, the committee recommended a charge of abuse of power against Nixon. The vote was 28-to-10. On July 30, the committee charged Nixon with contempt of Congress for defying eight Judiciary Committee subpoenas from April through June 1974. The committee vote was 21-to-17.
It did not appear that matters could grow worse for Nixon, but they did. On August 5, 1974, the White House released a tape from June 23, 1972, just a few days after the Watergate break-in had occurred. On the tape, Nixon and his chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, discussed the FBI investigation of the break-in. After admitting that the bureau’s investigation potentially “goes in some directions we don’t want it to go,” Haldeman recommended that Nixon order the director of the CIA to contact the director of the FBI and tell him to “stay the hell out of this.” If Nixon had been the law-and-order leader he claimed to be, he would have expressed shock and outrage at the recommendation. He did not. He enthusiastically approved the recommendation. Referring to Haldeman’s statement that the CIA should obstruct the investigation, Nixon said, “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.”
Anticipating a public backlash from the tape, Nixon insisted that his comments did not constitute obstruction of justice. He simply wanted the CIA to inform the FBI that the spy agency believed that national security issues were involved in the Watergate investigation. The explanation fooled no one. Even Nixon’s lawyers, Fred Buzhardt and James St. Clair, understood that their client had lied to them as well as to Congress, his supporters, and the American people.
Nixon could not survive the public reaction. Even his most committed supporters recognized that their man was politically doomed. On August 7, 1974, House Minority Leader John J. Rhodes, Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott, and Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican presidential nominee and a revered elder statesman in the party, filed into the Oval Office to deliver bad news to their leader. They told him that he had virtually no congressional support. Rhodes bluntly said that the House was certain to vote in favor of the articles of impeachment. Perhaps only 75 of the 435 House members would oppose the articles. The senators told him that no more than 15 of their colleagues would vote for acquittal, leaving 85 senators to vote for conviction. Nixon needed at least 67 senators to retain his office.
Facing overwhelming opposition, Nixon had no viable options. Although the congressional Republicans had not specifically counseled resignation, the president decided to resign before he could be impeached and convicted. In a televised address on August 8, 1974, announcing his decision, Nixon explained: “I have never been a quitter. To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct in my body. But as President, I must put the interest of America first. America needs a full-time President and a full-time Congress, particularly at this time with problems we face at home and abroad. 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.”
It was a stunning, historic address. Richard M. Nixon was the first president to resign in the nation’s history. For his supporters, it was akin to a Shakespearean tragedy. Nixon was a brilliant foreign policy strategist who had opened the country to China and improved relations with the Soviet Union. Watergate was indeed a third-rate burglary, and while the president showed poor judgment in attempting to cover up his aides’ malfeasance, it should not have been grounds to end his presidency.
Nixon’s legion of detractors believed that “Tricky Dick” was a morally bankrupt human being who did not hesitate to abuse his power in his quest for political power. He was unfit to serve as president, and his removal from office was necessary to preserve the integrity of the American system of government. With his departure, it was time for the country to heal.
Nixon met with his staff in front of the television cameras in the East Room of the White House on the morning of August 9, 1974. In a rambling, maudlin speech, he reflected on his time as president, his parents’ sacrifices, and the hardships that presidents such as Theodore Roosevelt suffered in their lives. He concluded by advising his staff that “the greatness comes not when things go always good for you, but the greatness comes when you are really tested, when you take some knocks, some disappointments, when sadness comes; because only if you’ve been in the deepest valley can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain.” In advice that might have saved his own political career, Nixon said, “Always give your best; never get discouraged; never be petty. Always remember others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.”
With that, Nixon and his family boarded a helicopter and departed from Washington. The Nixon presidency had ended ignominiously. Gerald R. Ford, his vice president of 10 months, became the thirty-eighth president of the United States.
A month later, Ford pardoned Nixon for crimes he had committed or may have committed or taken part in” as president in hopes of healing a divided nation. Nixon accepted the pardon but insisted that he had done nothing wrong. He went to his grave almost 20 years later insisting that his only mistake was “in not acting more decisively and more forthrightly in dealing with Watergate, particularly when it reached the stage of judicial proceedings.”
Ford suffered extensive political damage for pardoning his predecessor. Skeptics wondered if there had been a quid pro quo. Nixon had appointed Ford as vice president, with congressional approval, following Spiro Agnew’s resignation in October 1973. In the days leading up to Nixon’s resignation, Ford had met with Nixon’s chief of staff, leading critics to observe that Ford might have traded the promise of a pardon in exchange for Nixon’s agreement to leave office quickly and quietly. Ford denied that such an arrangement existed. When Ford died in 2006, even his most vocal critics conceded that his decision to pardon Nixon was an act of political courage. In issuing the pardon, Ford had harmed himself politically, but he had acted to move beyond Watergate. His in inaugural remarks, Ford observed that “our long national nightmare is over.”
Watergate remains the quintessential example of political corruption in American history because the venality was so clear. Burglarizing an opponent’s office building to collect campaign intelligence to assist in the president’s reelection efforts is unquestionably illegal. Nixon did not know about the crime beforehand, but he established the conditions necessary for his men to engage in such behavior with impunity. When he learned of the break-in, Nixon could have denounced the activities of his men and demanded justice. Instead, he sought to cover it up lest his law-and-order message be exposed as hypocrisy, and his reelection bid suffer. He was willing to use the executive branch bureaucracy in service of the conspiracy. Throughout his political career, Nixon had lived by a simple maxim—the ends justify the means—and he demonstrated his adherence to that motto in the Watergate affair.