Crime and Ambition: Richard Nixon and Watergate

Jason Waggoner

April 1, 1994

When one examines the presidency of Richard Nixon, one cannot help but be reminded of the Watergate scandal, the biggest political scandal in American history. Watergate caused the American public to lose faith in the presidency, and examine the office as it had never been examined before. As Americans went to the polls to elect future presidents, the memories of Watergate went with them and caused them to wonder if such actions would ever be repeated. Richard Nixon’s ambition had won him the nation’s highest office, but a twist of fate caused that same ambition to take it from him just six years later.

Richard Nixon’s political career began in 1946 when he was elected to the United State House of Representatives. He became a senator in 1950, in the midst of the national prominence he gained in the Alger Hiss case. He served as Dwight Eisenhower’s Vice-President for eight years, but he was defeated in his bid for the presidency in 1960 by John Kennedy. Nixon’s perseverance and ambition paid off in 1968 when he was elected President, narrowly defeating Hubert Humphrey.1

The Watergate scandal hit the Nixon administration early in 1973. Back in 1972, the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP), headed by former Attorney General John Mitchell, began a massive fund-raising campaign aimed at collecting as much money as possible before the reporting contributions became mandatory under a new law, and the money could be used for any purpose..2

Early in 1972, G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt, two of Nixon’s aide, concocted an elaborate scheme to wire tap the phones of several Democrats and hinder their plans. Mitchell refused to approve the plan twice, saying that it was too expensive and risky. He finally approved a modified version of the plan in which the telephones of the Democratic National Committee, including the telephone of its chairman, Lawrence O’Brien, would be wiretapped..3

The scandal took its name from the Watergate apartment and office complex in Washington, D.C., where five men were arrested for breaking into the Democratic Party’s national headquarters located there. One of the burglars was James W. McCord, Jr., the security chief of CREEP. The police found sophisticated photography and eavesdropping equipment, as well as $2300 in cash in their possession..4 "The Watergate break-in eventually exposed a whole array of campaign practices designed to disrupt or embarrass the political opposition, all of which commentators later summarized as ‘dirty tricks.’".5

The Federal Bureau of Investigation eventually traced the money carried by the burglars to CREEP, and then Nixon ordered the Central Intelligence Agency to call the FBI off the investigation, saying that national security was at stake. Although Nixon had not been involved in the planning of the burglary, this action made him a part of the cover-up. As time passed, Nixon authorized payment of "hush money" to Hunt and the others..6

An investigation led by Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward found evidence that White House aides had helped finance sabotage and espionage operations against 1972 Democratic presidential hopefuls. Additional evidence was revealed that tied top White House aides, including Domestic Council Chief John Ehrlichman and White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, to plans for the burglary and concealment of evidence that implicated members of the Nixon administration..7

On April 30, 1973, Nixon forced Haldeman and Ehrlichman to resign, and fired John Dean, another aide. He accepted responsibility for Watergate, and said that a special prosecutor would appointed to handle the case. In May of 1973, the Department of Justice appointed Archibald Cox to fill the position, and the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities began hearings on Watergate, headed by Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina. John Dean became Nixon’s chief accuser, stating that he had played a major part in the cover-up, with Nixon’s knowledge..8

The most startling revelation of all came on July 16, 1973 when the existence of a White House taping system was revealed to the committee by White House aide Alexander Butterfield. Nixon stated that he used the taping system to record conversations that would preserve an accurate record of his tenure in office..9

Cox and the committee believed that the tapes could answer important questions raised in the investigation. Nixon was asked to supply certain tapes, but he refused, claiming executive privilege. Cox and the committee then sued Nixon to obtain the tapes. United States District Court Judge John Sirica ordered Nixon to turn over the tapes. Nixon appealed the order, but a U.S. court of appeals supported Sirica’s deicision..10

In October of 1973 Nixon offered to provide Cox with summaries of the tapes. Cox refused the offer, saying that summaries would be unacceptable as evidence in court. Nixon then ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Cox, but Richardson refused to comply and resigned. Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus followed suit after being given the same order. Solicitor General Robert Bork was named acting Attorney General, and he carried out Nixon’s order. Leon Jaworski took over the position of special prosecutor following Cox’s dismissal..11

Also in October of 1973, Vice-President Spiro Agnew resigned his office under charges that he had accepted bribes as Baltimore County Executive in Maryland, Governor of Maryland, and Vice-President. Although Agnew maintained his innocence, he pleaded no contest to one count of tax evasion under an agreement with the Department of Justice. Agnew was later issued a court order to repay $268,482, which was the amount the state contended Agnew had accepted, plus interest, and he complied..12

Nixon became the first president to nominate a Vice-President under the procedures outlined in the twenty-fifth amendment to the Constitution. His choice was House minority leader Gerald Ford, who took office after being confirmed by Congress on December 6, 1973..13

The Nixon administration suffered further damage later that month when several members of the House of Representatives initiated steps to impeach Nixon. When Nixon finally decided to supply Sirica with the tapes, it was discovered that three important conversations were missing. The White House said that the taping system had malfunctioned during two of the conversations, and that the third had accidentally been erased..14

Attorneys learned on November 14, 1973 that there was a gap of almost nineteen minutes in the tape of a conversation between Nixon and Haldeman on June20, 1972. On January 15, 1974 a group of technical experts determined that the gap was the result of five separate manual erasures, but it was never known who had performed them..15

Jaworski served Nixon with a subpoena in April of 1974 to furnish tape recordings and documents pertaining to sixty-four White House conversations, stating that evidence in the cover-up case was contained within the materials. At the end of April Nixon released 1254 pages of edited materials, saying that they told the entire Watergate story. However, Jaworski insisted that Nixon supply him with the original materials he had requested. Nixon claimed executive privilege again and refused. This forced Jaworski to sue Nixon in federal court. The case made it all the way to the Supreme Court in July of 1974, and the Supreme Court ordered Nixon to supply Jaworski with the materials, ruling unanimously that a president cannot withhold evidence in a criminal case..16

Late in July 1974, the House Judiciary Committee voted to impeach Nixon on the grounds of obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and refusal to obey a congressional subpoena ordering him to release the tapes. On August 5, 1974, Nixon obeyed the Supreme Court ruling and released the tapes. The tapes proved that Nixon had authorized the cover-up as early as June 23, 1972. The Watergate debacle came to an end on August 9, 1974, when Nixon became the first president to resign from office..17

Vice-President Gerald Ford assumed the presidency that same day, but he had never planned to be President. Ford found himself in the ironic position of attempting to restore national confidence through presidential authority during a time when the abuse of presidential power had caused the problem to begin with. Ford weakened his support when he pardoned Nixon on September 8, 1974. Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Mitchell, Dean, and other officials faced indictment, trial, and imprisonment for their respective roles in the Watergate scandal, but Nixon was free from all prosecution for any crimes he may have committed as President. Ford had hoped that his benevolent gesture would heal the nation’s wounds, but he only succeeded in raising public doubt about his judgment..18

Ford felt the heat of public scrutiny more than any President that succeeded Nixon. After all, he was the only man to become both Vice-President and President without having been elected to either office. Also, he had been Vice-President while facts about Watergate were still being discovered. The American public’s faith in the government had been reduced to its lowest level in years because of Watergate, and the work of many federal agencies had been disrupted by the Nixon impeachment crisis..19

Many reasons for thinking behind the Watergate scandal have been discussed over the years. In retrospect, the burglary seemed unnecessary because Nixon defeated George McGovern by a huge margin in his reelection bid. One obvious reason behind the scandal is that Nixon was faced with Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, and he was unable to make any legislative progress as a result. He wanted to end the gridlock by being reelected and establishing Republican majorities in both houses of Congress..20

James McCord and H.R. Haldeman have offered interesting insights into the Watergate scandal. McCord believes that Mitchell’s and Haldeman’s objective was to have doubts about Nixon’s reelection, so they authorized the espionage against the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic presidential hopefuls. "And I believe that Nixon wanted to win by the largest possible margin, in order to go down in history as having the largest mandate from the people. I believe that for these reasons, the Watergate operation was approved.".21

"Had Watergate been handled through the usual White House staff system, and been manage by Nixon in his usual fashion, it would never have happened in the first place. And even if it had happened, it would have been handled in such a way as to avoid the disaster it eventually became.".22 Haldeman and Jaworski share the belief that if Nixon had destroyed the tapes after their existence was revealed by Butterfield, claiming to protect national security, the American public would have believed him, and he would not have been forced to resign under the threat of impeachment..23

The burglary itself did not hurt Nixon, because he had not been personally involved in its planning, but the resulting cover-up was the contributing factor in his downfall. "The Watergate break-in eventually diminished in importance as the nation discovered what John Dean labeled the "White House horrors" and the clear patterns of presidential abuses of power. The subsequent attempts by the White House to obstruct the investigation of the Watergate affair-the "cover-up," which itself led to more abuses of power-further detracted from the significance of the break-in.".24

All in all, the Watergate scandal proved that despite the recent growth in the power of the executive branch, Americans were no more ready to tolerate such abuses of power than they had been in the days of the colonists..25 Richard Nixon’s desire for an accurate place in history led to his fall from power. His actions during the Watergate scandal succeeded in assuring him of a much less favorable place in history than what he imagined. Richard Nixon became the victim of his own ambition, just like Julius Caesar had centuries ago. Nixon’s refusal to cooperate during the Watergate investigation virtually proved that he had something to hide. By failing to disclose his Watergate materials, Nixon practically admitted his guilt and began the impeachment proceedings himself.

The Watergate scandal shocked the American people as a whole, and forced them to reevaluate the government and the individuals that elect to run it. Nixon’s actions were an unprecedented threat to the American constitution, and a blatant disregard for the principles of truth and justice that he had been elected to preserve. Justifiably, poetic justice was done when fate turned the tables on Richard Nixon and forced him to resign the office that he had worked his whole life to hold.

It is the hope of all Americans that Watergate will teach a valuable lesson to the individuals who will occupy the Oval Office in the future, and it is a lesson that will not soon be forgotten.

Jason Waggoner is a freshman from Wellsville, OH.