A look back at Richard Nixon’s presidency & the Watergate scandal (1974)

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Richard M Nixon presidential portrait

Portrait of a Presidency

By Peter Jenkins

“…Nixon’s questions about Watergate — ‘How could it have happened? Who is to blame?’ — must be asked about his Presidency…”

“How could it have happened? Who is to blame?” Richard Nixon asked these questions rhetorically on April 30, 1973, when, flanked by a bust of Abraham Lincoln and the American flag, he addressed the people for the first time on the subject of Watergate.

“I want to talk to you tonight from my heart on a subject of deep concern to every American,” he began. He had been appalled to hear of the Watergate break-in on June 17, 1972. He had ordered a full investigation and had been assured repeatedly by men in whom he had faith that no members of his administration were involved.

Not until March 21, 1973, had he had reason to doubt these assurances, and as a result of information given to him on that day he had assumed responsibility personally for conducting intensive new inquiries. He was determined to get to the bottom of the matter and to bring out the truth, no matter who was involved. He accepted responsibility but not blame; it would be cowardly to blame his subordinates, he said, thereby implying that they were to blame. And with that he declared: “I must now turn my full attention once again to the larger duties of this office.”

A year later to the day, the President released a 1,200-page transcript, edited in the White House, of tape-recorded meetings and telephone conversations covering chiefly the six weeks preceding that first public defense of himself on television.

>> Video of President Nixon’s first Watergate speech | Text of speech

Whether or not they are taken to establish that he is guilty of criminal offenses, specifically obstruction of justice, the transcripts utterly condemn his Presidency. They present an intimate portrait of a man morally unfit to occupy his high office. They question the previous judgment — of most critics and admirers alike — that Richard Nixon, whatever his deficiencies, is a man of quick mind and firm grasp, a consummate politician.

Richard Nixon

How could it have happened? Who is to blame?

The questions he asked himself about Watergate — “How could it have happened? Who is to blame?” — must now be asked about his Presidency. How did such a man come to occupy the White House?

There are, broadly, four explanations advanced for Watergate, although they need not be mutually exclusive:

1. Watergate was systemic.

(a) left-wing version

On the student Left, even now, impeachment has not caught on as a cause, certainly not one comparable with the antiwar movement. That Nixon should commit crimes was no surprise to the Left — look at the crimes he had committed in Indochina. The emergence of a parallel police state had been in progress for years under the guise of a national security requirement born of the cold war and in large part sustained by American imperialism.

Noam Chomsky, arch intellectual critic of the Indochina war from a Marxist-Leninist standpoint, saw Watergate as a botched coup d’etat. It demonstrated “once again how frail are the barriers to some form of fascism in a state capitalist system of crisis.” It was a deviation from past practice not so much in scale or principle as in the choice of targets; that is to say, it picked on the wrong people, not on Communists but on fellow members of the Establishment, co-repressors.

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The crimes complained of were far less serious than the war crimes committed in Asia. “If we try to keep a sense of balance,” wrote Chomsky in The New York Review of Books. “the exposures of the past several months are analogous to the discovery that the directors of Murder Inc. were also cheating on their income tax. Reprehensible, to be sure, but hardly the main point.”

(b) neo-conservative version

Watergate was backlash, an extremist reaction against the social engineering of liberals, the protesting of students, permissiveness, the “New Politics,” etc. This theory is congenial to apostate liberals, to the Intellectuals for Nixon of 1968 and 1972.

Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab, students of right-wing extremism and joint authors of The Politics of Unreason, for example, interpret Watergate as “not just the creation of evil men” but as “the symptomatic rumbling of a deep strain in American society of which Richard Nixon has come to seem the almost perfect embodiment.”

The displacing developments of the 1920s, the heyday of the Ku Klux Klan, threatening power and status and provoking backlash and paranoia, were interrupted by the New Deal and World War II. With the 1960’s returned “galloping megalopolization,” plus welfare programs costly to the taxpayer; civil and cultural disorders; sex, hetero and homo; drugs, etc. But instead of the K.K.K. we got Watergate.

Why? We got Watergate because Richard Nixon was a product of provincial America and represented its insecurities of status and values; he was also a product of the McCarthy era; moreover, the defeats along the way of his political career had caused him to see himself as the victim of vicious smears.

Although not an extremist, indeed an opponent of extremism and elitism, he brought extremist tendencies with him to the White House; once he was inside, it was easy for the logic of that extremism to unfold, “especially,” wrote Lipset and Raab, “given the circumstances which the Nixonites found in Washington.”

For Washington was still a Democratic town. The anti-war movement was continuing, and the events of May, 1970 (Cambodia), gave rise to the fear that Nixon would go the way of Johnson. The White House was determined to believe that the protests were financed by foreign powers; when the C.I.A. and F.B.I. could provide no evidence of this, parallel intelligence agencies were set up at the White House.

“The behavior summed up in the name Watergate,” wrote Lipset and Raab in Commentary, “was typical, at least in form, of American backlash extremism.”

Yet to the majority of Americans, Nixon seemed less extremist in 1972 than McGovern. “If American society is to avoid backlash extremism in the future it will have to find ways of preventing the disenfranchisement of the electorate by ideological factionalists, and of making the politics of pragmatism and democratic restraint prevail once again on the national scene.” In other words, McGovern and the Left were also to blame for Watergate.

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2. Watergate was endemic in the office of the Presidency.

There are several variations of this thesis advanced from different positions in the political spectrum, but essentially it is a thesis of the moderate Left. Its most distinguished exponent is Arthur Schlesinger Jr. In his book The Imperial Presidency he writes:

Nixon’s Presidency was not an aberration but a culmination. It carries to reckless extremes a compulsion towards Presidential power rising out of deep-running changes in the foundations of society. In a time of the acceleration of history and the decay of traditional institutions and values, a strong Presidency is both a greater necessity than ever before and a greater risk — necessary to hold a spinning and distracted society together, necessary to make the separation of powers work, risky because of the awful temptation held out to override the separation of powers and burst the bonds of the Constitution. The nation required both a strong Presidency … and the separation of powers…

In other words, in Schlesinger’s view, the power of the Presidency has in-creased and is increasing, but ought not to be diminished. Rather, Nixon should be impeached in accordance with the constitutional procedure whose genius “lies in the fact that it can punish the man without punishing the office.”

As to the office, it must be checked not by law but by politics: America must return to Theodore Roosevelt’s conception of a strong Presidency held strictly accountable to what Schlesinger calls “the discipline of consent.”

3. Watergate was innate in Nixon’s personality and politics.

It was the logical conclusion, wrote Frank Mankiewicz in his Perfectly Clear: Nixon from Whittier to Watergate, of “the unbroken series of frauds and deceptions that have marked a quarter of a century and more of what will now be called ‘Nixon politics.'”

>> The final Richard Nixon interview with David Frost

A man devoid of ideology or conscience, Nixon in his lust for electoral victory took advantage of the country’s obsession with national security to advance his own career and seek power unlimited by constitutional checks or internal self-restraint. Watergate was not the result of excesses by his subordinates but of their “acting squarely within the approved limits of the closed Nixon society…. For this was not a right-wing movement, or a Republican movement — it was a Nixon movement, and it had been building its moral standards for 25 years.”

4. Watergate was an aberration.

The whole thing was a ghastly mistake and blunder, committed by over-zealous aides in the heat of a campaign and out of misguided but genuine concern for national security. Essentially this is Nixon’s defense, the thesis favored by the diminishing number who hold him not to blame, or at least innocent of criminal complicity, and who explain the cover-up, if such there was, by the President’s concern to spare aides who believed themselves to have been acting in the national interest.

>> Read more on the next page!

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