Hello and welcome to the final post in our series on the Watergate Crisis, in which we ask the depressing question, Why have Americans forgotten about Watergate? This series has only given an outline of the terrible challenge to our democracy posed by President Nixon’s actions, and those of his top advisors. Their attempt to put the executive branch above the law and create an imperial presidency, if successful, would have allowed the president, any president, to commit any crime s/he felt was necessary to achieve her/his goals. Whether or not the president’s goals were good ones would be immaterial.
The American public’s response to this attempted hostile takeover was spectacular. They rose up almost as one to protest. Network news, newspapers large and small, and the man on the street all knew that the Constitution was being violated and they all refused to sit back and accept that. Nixon was out of office once his criminal activities and determination were clear. Maybe that’s part of the problem. The reaction was so swift and complete, and Nixon out so quickly (and immediately pardoned by Gerald Ford, so there was no long criminal trial after his resignation), and Americans so eager to leave the sordid episode behind them, that Watergate was collectively buried. More Americans today know about George Washington’s alleged infidelity (a complete lie, by the way) or Lincoln’s alleged homosexuality (don’t know, but it doesn’t seem likely) than the actual, open, undeniable crimes committed by Richard Nixon.
But we think the amnesia surrounding Watergate is caused by something far worse than a quick burial. One of the long-term effects of the crisis was a deep mistrust of the federal government. This is so inexplicable. Representatives of the federal government, notably the Watergate special prosecutor Cox, Attorneys General Richardson and Ruckelshaus, the Supreme Court, and all the members of the Senate Watergate Committee heroically resisted efforts to corrupt them. It was men within the president’s inner circle who committed and/or ordered the crimes, not the machinery of the federal government. The federal government rejected the attempt to transgress the Constitution, and the next two presidents after Nixon, Ford and Carter, made strenuous efforts to restore the dignity and honor of the executive branch. Yet somehow, over the 1980s, the message of Watergate became “You can’t trust the government.”
Perhaps the controversial/criminal actions of the Reagan Administration, coming so soon after Nixon’s, became merged with Nixon in the public mind, and led people to believe that the government had not been trustworthy since Kennedy.
Or maybe the steady decrease in civics education from the 1970s on created new generations of Americans who have no idea why Nixon’s actions were criminal.
Or maybe the imperial actions of President George W. Bush, and over a decade of invasion of privacy and other constitutional violations, notably by the Patriot Act, have made Americans forget that the president is not supposed to govern by executive order.
Whatever the reason, it’s bad news to forget about Watergate—what it threatened, who stood up to it, and how the Constitution and good government triumphed. If we begin to believe as a nation that we have “never” had good government, that “all” presidents are corrupt, or that the president is “supposed to” rule the nation like a king, then Nixon wins, corruption wins, and it’s as if Bill Ruckelshaus never stood up to the power of the president who told him he had “no choice but to obey” and said, “I have a choice—I can resign.” We all have the choice to refuse to obey when our Constitution is threatened, whether it’s by the federal government, or by our own ignorance.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Second to last post in our series on the Watergate Crisis; here we follow the crisis to its end, in President Nixon’s resignation on August 8, 1974. The Smoking Gun tape released three days earlier evaporated any support Nixon had left in Congress, and the handful of its members who had voted against impeachment in the House Judiciary Committee said they would now vote for it when the full House voted. The night of August 7, two Senators and a Congressman met with Nixon and told him impeachment in the House and Senate was a certainty. Faced with this, Nixon decided to resign before he could be impeached.
It was a move true to his character. In a way, resigning before he could be impeached was just another form of being above the law—no one would impeach Richard Nixon. He would not submit to Congress in that way. He would get out before the law could be exercised on him, before democratic procedure could be completed.
Nixon gave two resignation speeches that were exemplars of his twisted logic. The first was to the nation, on August 8, 1974, where he said, in part,
In all the decisions I have made in my public life, I have always tried to do what was best for the Nation. Throughout the long and difficult period of Watergate, I have felt it was my duty to persevere, to make every possible effort to complete the term of office to which you elected me. In the past few days, however, it has become evident to me that I no longer have a strong enough political base in the Congress to justify continuing that effort. As long as there was such a base, I felt strongly that it was necessary to see the constitutional process through to its conclusion, that to do otherwise would be unfaithful to the spirit of that deliberately difficult process and a dangerously destabilizing precedent for the future….
—That first sentence is breathtakingly deceitful. If Americans had learned anything by August 8, 1974, it was that Nixon was always out to do what was best for Nixon. He goes on to describe Watergate as a cross he has been forced to bear rather than a crime committed in his name that he himself covered up. Nixon then blames Congress for failing to support him, and forcing him to abrogate the “constitutional process” (by which he means serving his full elected term). To hear Nixon lament a breach of the Constitution at this point is, to put it succinctly, pretty rich.
I would have preferred to carry through to the finish whatever the personal agony it would have involved, and my family unanimously urged me to do so. But the interest of the Nation must always come before any personal considerations. From the discussions I have had with Congressional and other leaders, I have concluded that because of the Watergate matter I might not have the support of the Congress that I would consider necessary to back the very difficult decisions and carry out the duties of this office in the way the interests of the Nation would require.
—Again, Congress is the villain here. There is also a veiled threat (something Nixon was good at): there are “very difficult decisions and duties” the president must handle, but now, because of Congress, Nixon has to leave office, and it’s likely that the man to take his place will not be able to do as good a job handling these difficulties as Nixon.
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.
—Again, no one puts the nation ahead of personal interests like Nixon. Again, Congress is a villain. And again, the nation is in particular peril “with problems we face at home and abroad” and will likely suffer in Nixon’s absence, so in a way we, the American people, are also villains for failing to support Nixon, and we will get our just desserts.
The second speech was given the next day to the White House staff, privately. It was mostly impromptu, and rambling, and in places very weird. Nixon talked about his parents and how saintly his mother was, and he talked about Theodore Roosevelt’s struggle to recover from the death of his first wife. We’ll focus on the parts where he came closest to addressing why he was leaving office:
…I am proud of this Cabinet. I am proud of all the members who have served in our Cabinet. I am proud of our sub-Cabinet. I am proud of our White House Staff. As I pointed out last night, sure, we have done some things wrong in this Administration, and the top man always takes the responsibility, and I have never ducked it. But I want to say one thing: We can be proud of it — five and a half years. No man or no woman came into this Administration and left it with more of this world’s goods than when he came in. No man or no woman ever profited at the public expense or the public till. That tells something about you.
—In defending his staff, Nixon really places blame on them for the first time. No one had thought the Watergate cover-up extended beyond Nixon and his top half-dozen aides. By saying he is proud of them and that “we” have done “some things wrong”, and that as “top man” he has taken responsibility for those wrongful acts, Nixon really seems to be saying he took the fall for his entirely criminal staff. Then he seems to note that none of them ever made any money from their crimes.
Mistakes, yes. But for personal gain, never. You did what you believed in. Sometimes right, sometimes wrong. And I only wish that I were a wealthy man — at the present time, I have got to find a way to pay my taxes — and if I were, I would like to recompense you for the sacrifices that all of you have made to serve in government. We think sometimes when things happen that don’t go the right way; we think that when you don’t pass the bar exam the first time — I happened to, but I was just lucky; I mean, my writing was so poor the bar examiner said, “We have just got to let the guy through.” We think that when someone dear to us dies, we think that when we lose an election, we think that when we suffer a defeat that all is ended. We think, as [Theodore Roosevelt] said, that the light had left his life forever. Not true.
—Again, it’s the staff who committed the crimes—“you” did what “you” believed in, “Sometimes right, sometimes wrong.” And then again the odd swerve into talking about money. And then, after accusing his staff of crimes and of making him take the fall, he comforts them by saying they mustn’t worry about him, that the light has not left their lives forever just because he is leaving office. They will survive their grief at losing him, somehow.
It is only a beginning, always. The young must know it; the old must know it. It must always sustain us, because the greatness comes not when things go always good for you, but the greatness comes and you are really tested, when you take some knocks, some disappointments, when sadness comes, because only if you have been in the deepest valley can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain.
…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.
—Nixon’s suffering has made him great; it has purified him to the point where he can end with a parable. To hear Nixon, whom the tapes revealed to be one of the most petty men in public office, constantly pursuing old grudges and trying to harm people for small offenses, loftily telling people not to be petty is remarkable. To hear the man who hated just about everyone he ever met say you should never hate because then “you destroy yourself” is almost funny.
He was right, though; his hatred and pettiness did destroy him, and he lost while most of the people he tried to bring down won. Next time, we’ll go over the legacy of Watergate.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Hello and welcome to part 6 of our series on the Watergate Crisis. Last time we described the Saturday Night Massacre, October 20, 1973, in which Nixon attempted to override the Constitution, establish an imperial presidency, and end the Watergate investigation all in one day. His efforts shocked a nation that had up to this point generally believed him when he said he didn’t know anything about the Watergate break-in. Firing the deputy Attorney General who refused to fire the Watergate special prosecutor whom the Attorney General had refused to fire, thus leading to the AG himself being fired, and then finding someone at last to fire the special prosecutor was pretty clear evidence of obstruction of justice on Nixon’s part, and seemed to prove that he was, indeed, involved in a cover-up.
The public was furious, and Nixon’s aggressive refusal to admit any wrongdoing only damned him further in their eyes. At a press conference on November 17, 1973, Nixon made his famous statement that “the American people need to know if their president is a crook. Well, I’m not a crook.” Few were convinced. The new Attorney General Nixon had appointed—Robert Bork, the man who signed the paper he was told to sign to fire Archibald Cox—was forced to appoint a new Watergate special prosecutor to replace Cox. Leon Jaworski took over that role. He was a Washington lawyer who had believed the Nixon was not guilty of any criminal acts; only his advisors were. But after the Massacre, Jaworski was determined to get the full tapes of Nixon’s conversations. Just as Cox had done, he subpoenaed Nixon for the tapes, and once again, Nixon refused on the grounds of executive privilege. He added his assertion that the special prosecutor did not have the authority to sue the President—another attempt to put the president above the law. Knowing Nixon could drag this argument out for months, Jaworski went over his head to the Supreme Court.
In United States v. Nixon, on July 24, 1974, the Court ruled that the special prosecutor did have the right to sue the president, and that a president’s claim of executive privilege is overruled if he has evidence that is clearly pertinent to a criminal trial. The Justices may have been rankled by a statement made earlier in U.S. District Court by Nixon’s attorney James St. Clair: “The president wants me to argue that he is as powerful a monarch as Louis XIV, only four years at a time, and is not subject to the processes of any court in the land except the court of impeachment.”
This is an unbelievably astounding statement. Nixon is not trying to camouflage his intent: he is an absolute monarch while he is in office, and “not subject to the processes of any court in the land”. No wonder St. Clair shamefacedly said “the president wants me to argue” this point. The Court responded to St. Clair’s statement by saying that no president had any claim to “absolute, unqualified Presidential privilege of immunity from judicial process under all circumstances.”
Nixon was forced to give the unedited tapes—all of them—to Jaworski, and the transcripts and some audio were made public. They revealed a Nixon no one was prepared for: perpetually foul-mouthed, hostile, petty, vengeful, racist, anti-semitic, sexist, and criminal. So many four-letter words had to be bleeped out of the released audio and omitted from the public transcripts with the words “expletive deleted” that that phrase became a bitter joke to Americans, used by comedians to refer to the entire crisis. The “Smoking Gun” tape, in which Nixon talked about stopping the FBI criminal investigation of the break-in six days after it happened, which we cover in part 4 of this series, was released at last, and there was no way for even Nixon to pretend he wasn’t involved in the cover-up. Congress moved as one body to vote for impeachment, and there was only one thing left for Nixon to do: resign.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
It’s post 5 in our series on the Watergate crisis, and here we come to the most shocking part of the entire event, which is the Saturday Night Massacre of October 20, 1973. We left off last time with the forced resignations and false confessions of Haldeman and Ehrlichman, and the firing of John Dean for deciding he would tell all he knew to the Senate Watergate Committee. Bear in mind that Dean knew that the original break-in had been carried out by CREEP and approved by former Attorney General John Mitchell, and he knew that the president had ordered evidence to be destroyed and people to be paid off to keep quiet, but he did not know that Nixon had tried to stop the FBI investigation. No one but Nixon, Haldeman, and Ehrlichman knew that. The only way anyone else could find that out was if they listened to the secret tape recordings Nixon made of all of his conversations, including the one we mentioned last time from June 23, 1972—six days after the break-in—in which Nixon told Haldeman to have the CIA director, Richard Helms, call the head of the FBI, Patrick Gray, and tell him to “stay the hell out of this” in the name of national security. Luckily, only a handful of men in Nixon’s administration knew about the tapes. Unluckily for Nixon, one of them told all he knew to the Senate Watergate Committee, on live national TV.
On Friday the 13th, July 1973, White House assistant Alexander Butterfield was asked if there was any type of recording system used in the White House. After some prodding, Butterfield said there was, and that it automatically recorded every word spoken in the Oval Office, Cabinet Room, and Nixon’s private office. Three days later, after the weekend break, Butterfield reiterated this claim. Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox subpoenaed Nixon for these tapes. He wanted to listen to them and see if they showed that the president ordered the break-in, had tried to cover it up, or just knew about it. Nixon refused, citing executive privilege and again saying that national security would be damaged if the tapes were made public. Cox said he would only make public information relating to Watergate; if there was none, no part of the tapes would be made public. Nixon still refused and ordered Cox to rescind the subpoena, which Cox refused to do. On Friday, Nixon offered a compromise: he would allow Mississippi Senator John Stennis to listen to the tapes and write a summary of their contents. Cox refused. He did not trust Nixon to give Stennis access to tapes that would incriminate himself. The subpoena stood.
Now the events unfolded that would be called the Saturday Night Massacre, events which threatened the very basis of constitutional law in the U.S. It’s hard to believe that finding out that the president had tried to obstruct a criminal investigation to protect the criminals could be overshadowed by any other of his actions, but what Nixon ordered on Saturday, October 20, 1973 surpasses even that obstruction of justice in its seriousness.
That morning, Nixon told his chief of staff Alexander Haig to call his new Attorney General, Elliot Richardson, and tell him to fire Cox. Richardson had just been appointed as Attorney General by Nixon in April after the “resignation” of John Dean. A few days earlier, on Thursday, Richardson had met with Nixon and learned that he wanted Cox fired if he wouldn’t accept the Stennis compromise. Richardson told the president he felt sure Cox would accept it, but left the meeting already resolved to resign if Cox didn’t. He knew that Nixon would ask him to fire Cox because only Richardson could: as Attorney General, he had appointed Cox as special prosecutor, and only he could fire him. Richardson did not believe the refusal to accept the Stennis compromise was grounds to fire Cox, but Nixon did. After that Thursday meeting, he told Haig “No more tapes, no more documents, nothing more! I want an order from me to Elliot to Cox to that effect now.”
When Haig called Richardson at 7.00 on Friday night to tell him to fire Cox, Richardson refused, saying he would resign instead. As this was happening, Cox (unaware of this call) issued a statement to the press just in time for the evening deadline saying that the president was refusing to comply with a court order “in violation of the promises which the Attorney General made to the Senate” that the Watergate break-in would be investigated thoroughly. Cox’s statement was front-page on Saturday morning, and he was planning to hold a press conference at 1.00. Richardson phoned Cox to tell him what had happened. At the press conference, Cox reminded reporters that only the Attorney General could fire him. Meanwhile, Haig phoned Richardson again and ordered him to fire Cox; Richardson refused. Knowing what would happen next, Richardson met with his Deputy Attorney General, William Ruckelshaus, and told him that he, Ruckelshaus, would be asked to fire Cox once Richardson’s resignation was made public. Ruckelshaus said he would not do it and that he, too, would resign.
Nixon summoned Richardson to his office and told him that if he didn’t fire Cox, Nixon couldn’t meet with the Soviet Premier to work out a solution to the crisis in the Middle East because Brezhnev wouldn’t respect a man who was being publicly defied by a subordinate. Again Richardson refused, and Nixon said “I’m sorry that you insist on putting your personal commitments ahead of the public interest.” Richardson resigned. As Richardson left, Haig was on the phone to Ruckelshaus, telling him to fire Cox. When he balked, Haig barked “Your commander in chief has given you an order! You have no alternative.” Undaunted, Ruckelshaus replied, “Except to resign”, which he did. Finally, Nixon sent a limousine to pick up Solicitor General Robert Bork from his home and bring him to the White House. There, Nixon told him to fire Cox. He had a letter of dismissal ready, waiting for Bork’s signature. Intimidated, Bork signed it. Nixon told him, “You’ve got guts.”
At 8.25 that evening, White House press secretary Ron Ziegler held a press conference announcing the resignations of Richardson and Ruckelshaus and the firing of Cox, saying “the office of the Watergate Special Prosecution Force has been abolished as of approximately 8 PM tonight.”
The nation was shocked. The way they experienced it, they woke up to read Cox’s claim that the president was refusing to obey a court order. Then they watched his press conference at 1.00 PM where he outlined his rightful claim for the tapes. Then they heard an 8.25 PM press conference saying that Cox, Richardson, and Ruckelshaus were all fired, and that the president had declared the Watergate investigation over. It was abundantly clear that Nixon had eliminated three men whom he was afraid of—what was he afraid of? What did he think they would discover if they had the tapes? And more importantly, would the president’s illegal, unconstitutional firing of the special prosecutor be allowed to stand? was the president above the law? Could he do whatever he wanted, no matter what? As commander in chief, if he committed a crime, did the American people “have no alternative” but to let him do it, and to quietly accept an imperial presidency?
The name “Saturday Night Massacre” may seem overdone—like the “Boston Massacre”, in which only five people died. But what was being massacred was the Constitution, separation of powers, and the rule of law that said that in the U.S. no one, no matter their position, is above the law. The coverage on the news that night reiterated this perception of danger:
John Chancellor, NBC News: Good evening. The country tonight is in the midst of what may be the most serious Constitutional crisis in its history. The President has fired the special Watergate prosecutor, Archibald Cox. Because of the President’s action, the attorney general has resigned. Elliott Richardson has quit, saying he cannot carry out Mr. Nixon’s instructions. Richardson’s deputy, William Ruckelshaus, has been fired.
Ruckelshaus refused, in a moment of Constitutional drama, to obey a presidential order to fire the special Watergate prosecutor. And half an hour after the special Watergate prosecutor had been fired, agents of the FBI, acting at the direction of the White House, sealed off the offices of the special prosecutor, the offices of the attorney general and the offices of the deputy attorney general.
All of this adds up to a totally unprecedented situation, a grave and profound crisis in which the President has set himself against his own attorney general and the Department of Justice. Nothing like this has ever happened before.
Nothing like this had ever happened before. Nixon had thrown down a gauntlet to the nation: you must accept my power to live above the law. I will not be questioned. How would the nation react?Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
In part 4 of our series on the Watergate crisis, we look at the deepening cover-up orchestrated by Nixon. Election day 1972, the day he had been planning for since 1968, came just after the FBI announced that the break-in at DNC headquarters was just one of a slew of illegal actions taken by CRP to spy on the Democrats. But Nixon won re-election in a landslide, because most Americans in November 1972 believed that the president had no connection with the break-in. Nixon might have been an uptight, old-fashioned, awkward war-hawk, but he wasn’t someone who would hire some half-baked military rejects (as the Burglars were perceived at the time) to break into Democratic offices. The whole burglary was so amateurish and pathetic that few people believed that Nixon—Tricky Dick, the man who was always one step ahead—could have had anything to do with it.
But Nixon had everything to do with it. In 1974, one of his conversations with Haldeman, held 6 days after the break-in, would be revealed to the nation. We’re indebted to Watergate.info for this transcript of the conversation; go there to read the whole excerpt. For now, here are the most damning parts of it (with repeated words and “uhs” taken out):
Haldeman: Now, on the investigation, you know, the Democratic break-in thing, we’re back to the problem area because the FBI is not under control, because [FBI Director Patrick] Gray doesn’t exactly know how to control them, and their investigation is now leading into some productive areas, because they’ve been able to trace the money, not through the money itself, but through the bank, you know, sources – the banker himself. And it goes in some directions we don’t want it to go. …the way to handle this now is for us to have [Deputy CIA Director Vernon] Walters call Pat Gray and just say, “Stay the hell out of this…this is business here we don’t want you to go any further on it.” That’s not an unusual development…
Nixon: Uh huh.
Haldeman: …and that would take care of it.
What we’ve heard so far is Haldeman saying he will tell the deputy director of the CIA to tell the director of the FBI to stop investigating a crime—the Watergate break-in. Remarkably, Haldeman ends by saying this is not unusual. Even more remarkably, Nixon agrees.
Nixon: What about Pat Gray, ah, you mean he doesn’t want to?
Haldeman: Pat does want to. He doesn’t know how to, and he doesn’t have any basis for doing it. Given this, he will then have the basis.
Haldeman: …And the proposal would be that Ehrlichman and I call them in—
Nixon: All right, fine. …I mean, well, we protected [CIA director Richard] Helms from one hell of a lot of things.
According to Haldeman, Gray wants to help in the cover-up, but doesn’t know how to remove his agency from the case without raising suspicions. Word from the White House will allow him to say it is on the basis of national security. Nixon makes the alarming claim that Richard Helms owes him for the protection Nixon has given him in the past from “one hell of a lot of things.”
Nixon: Of course, this is a hunt that will uncover a lot of things. You open that scab there’s a hell of a lot of things and that we just feel that it would be very detrimental to have this thing go any further. …what the hell did [former Attorney General John] Mitchell know about this thing?
Haldeman: I don‘t think he knew the details, but I think he knew.
Nixon: You call them [Walters and Helms] 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.
Haldeman: O.K. We’ll do it.
So as soon as he found out about the CRP connection to the break-in, Nixon was working not only to cover it up but to stop the FBI investigation completely. His certainty that a) Gray was completely on board with obstruction of justice; b) the head of the CIA Helms would do Nixon’s bidding because of the “things” he had done; and that c) obstructing justice was a minor thing is shocking. This was the “tough” Nixon that most Americans thought was too smart to get involved in something as sloppy and dangerous as the Watergate break-in.
But despite this assurance, the FBI continued its investigation into how CRP money had gotten in the burglars’ bank accounts. FBI director Gray pushed back when he was ordered to lay off in the name of national security, not buying the argument that somehow the burglars were connected with an attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro. Gray’s resolve led Vernon Walters to back down, and what should have been the removal of the FBI from the case, and the disappearance of Watergate from the public eye, turned into only a few days’ delay.
By March 1973, Nixon had come up with a new plan to get Watergate off his back. He would have Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Dean take the blame for the break-in and resign. The tie to the White House would be explained, Nixon would not be implicated, and the scandal would die. Haldeman and Ehrlichman were willing to go along. But John Dean was not. He did not realize how deeply Nixon was involved with the cover-up, and he had a meeting with the president in March in which he said that the bribes he was paying to the burglars and others to keep them quiet, and the documents he had destroyed, were obstruction of justice. Famously, Dean described Watergate as “a cancer on the presidency.” We know all that he said because the conversation was taped, and revealed to the nation in August 1974. (Dean had the strange feeling that he was being recorded at the time. Nixon kept asking him to repeat things in full sentences.) Nixon told Dean to keep making the payments, and Dean refused, saying he was going to testify about all of his actions to the Senate Watergate committee. Nixon told him to do what he had to do, and fired him a few days later.
On April 20, Haldeman and Ehrlichman resigned. They were tried and convicted and given prison sentences. Nixon claimed that Dean had resigned, too. He then announced that he had appointed a new Attorney General to replace John Mitchell: Elliot Richardson.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Hello and welcome to the second post in our series on the Watergate crisis. It was 40 years ago that this shocking series of events took place, and it’s amazing how little most people know about it. Watergate may have been the greatest challenge to our democracy in our entire history, because it was an attempt by a president and his advisors to undermine, and even overthrow, checks and balances of power between the three branches of government, judicial review, and equal protection under the law. No president that we know of had ever before, or has ever since, committed himself and his closest advisors to actual crimes: robbery, intimidation, blackmail, attempted murder. These were all things that President Nixon either ordered his men to do, or mapped out a plan for. It took all the accumulated power of our democratic system to stop this metamorphosis into dictatorship, and one crucial event was so terrible it was called the Saturday Night Massacre, and yet—few Americans today know what that was, or any of the main events, let alone the details and motives behind those events, that made up Watergate. Unfortunately, all that lives on of that crises are: a paradoxical, cruelly unwarranted, deeply heart-breaking lack of faith in our government on the part of Americans; and the suffix “-gate”, which we apply now to all sorts of idiotic pseudo “scandals”. We call Watergate a crisis, not a scandal, because it threatened the very basis of democratic government in this country, which goes beyond the minor thrill of shock and titillated interest that defines a scandal.
We will bring Watergate back in this series, because it was a forceful attack on our democratic system that was even more forcefully beaten back by Americans who understood that system and were willing to fight for it. Let’s go through the events in the crisis as they happened.
It all started in January 1972, when Gordon Liddy, leader of the Committee for the Re-Election of the President, came up with a plan to cripple the Democratic Party’s presidential campaign that year by spying on their headquarters, stealing documents, threatening members of the Democratic National Committee, and more. Winning the 1972 was beyond crucial to President Nixon. He was determined to win re-election, mainly so that he could continue the Vietnam War (which he believed the U.S. could win under his leadership) and continue his efforts to reach out to Communist China. Nixon also felt it was crucially important that a moderate Republican hold office for two terms to break the Democratic stranglehold on the presidency: since 1933, there had only been two Republican presidents, Dwight Eisenhower and himself. So the Committee for the Re-Election of the President was not some minor group of volunteers working in a basement office. Nixon was personally involved in their work.
One thing that has lingered in the public memory is that name: the Committee for the Re-Election of the President. It was known as the CRP in the Nixon administration, but once the Watergate crisis began to break, and public opinion turned against Nixon, it was popularly referred to as CREEP.
Liddy presented his criminal plan to the CRP’s chairman, Jeb Magruder, U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell, and Presidential Counsel John Dean (the president’s personal lawyer). That Liddy felt no qualms about suggesting illegal activities to two federal lawyers—one the nation’s top lawyer and the other the president’s top lawyer—is telling about the atmosphere in the Nixon Administration. It was clear to Liddy that Nixon would not disapprove of illegal activities in the name of winning the election. Attorney General Mitchell reviewed the plan and rejected it as too complicated, but two months later he approved a revised version that involved CRP members breaking into the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, DC. The men would bug the phones, so that all phone calls would be recorded and listened to by CRP, and then copy any important documents they found that revealed the Democratic strategy for winning the election. The men for the job were Liddy and two former CIA officials, Howard Hunt and James McCord. At this point, Mitchell resigned as Attorney General to take the job of Chairman of the CRP.
The “burglars”, as they came to be known, were not talented secret agents. They got into the DNC offices at the Watergate, and tapped the phones, but were unable to find any documents with important information. They broke in two more times looking for data, and on the third trip in, they were caught by a security guard. Frank Wills was working the overnight shift on June 17 when he saw masking tape covering the latches in a door (so the door would close but not lock). He took the tape off. An hour later, he came back and found the door had been re-taped. Wills called the police, and the burglars were caught red-handed in the DNC offices. Hunt, McCord, and three other men hired for the job were charged with attempted burglary and wiretapping. On September 15, they were indicted by a grand jury, as was Liddy, for conspiracy, burglary, and violating federal wiretapping laws. Judge John Sirica was the man who oversaw the grand jury, and he convicted the five men on January 30, 1973.
That is the description of the Watergate break-in that began the crisis. We see that there was already a crisis in the Nixon Administration, even before the break-in(s) took place, in that it was committed to a by-any-means-necessary election strategy that condoned criminal activity in the name of re-election. Whether Nixon knew about the break-in before it happened remained a question for many years; it seems clear now that he did not know in advance. But his men were sure he would not disapprove. They did not tell him about the break-in beforehand simply because they didn’t think they needed to—they felt sure it would have his approval. The HBO documentary “Nixon on Nixon: In His Own Words” that is airing now is powerful proof of this. By playing some of the thousands of hours of recordings made of Nixon talking to his advisors and other people, it shows that Nixon was constantly urging his men to commit crimes to stop people he considered to be his enemies, long before Watergate. He ordered his men to break into the Brookings Institute, a Washington think tank which he considered too liberal, and commanded that they blow up the safe there and destroy its contents. When Senator Edward Kennedy requested Secret Service protection because of death threats, Nixon tells his advisor to get Kennedy two men who will spy on him and find some scandalous information that Nixon can use to ruin Kennedy’s career. The advisor replies instantly that he has a Secret Service agent who has pledged to do anything for him, including committing murder, if he is asked. Nixon approves this man as Kennedy’s bodyguard, saying “Good, good” when he hears about the man’s willingness to kill for the president. If murder was okay, mere robbery and wiretapping were nothing at all.
We’ll end this installment by clarifying something that, like so many features of this crisis, was once common knowledge but is now mostly lost. Presidents before Nixon had sometimes tape-recorded their conversations in the Oval Office, but he was the first to record all conversations—phone calls and face-to-face. He only told three men in his administration about this. Everyone else was unaware that they were being recorded. These tapes would be discovered during the Watergate investigation, and used to prove Nixon’s involvement in criminal activity, as well as his overall coarseness, bigotry, racism, and aggression, all of which shocked the nation. Nixon used so many four-letter words that had to be bleeped out that the transcripts of the tapes read “expletive deleted” wherever they appeared, and this became a bitter catch-phrase Americans used at the time to describe the president’s overall negative and hateful agenda.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
It’s the 40th anniversary in 2014 of the end of the Watergate investigation, and a good broad outline of what happened is available from a not-completely unexpected source: Stephen Colbert and the writers of the Colbert Report. Everyone, by now, knows the premise of this show is that Colbert is an extreme right-wing commentator, and so would be supportive of Nixon to the end. But as usual, real historical facts are presented clearly and briskly, and Colbert’s cartoonishly neo-con interpretations do not detract from what the average viewer can learn about the topic at hand.
We’ll begin our series on Watergate by linking you to the Colbert Report’s “A Nation Betrayed—A Fond Look Back: ’74”. Enjoy!
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The Pledge of Allegiance is actually older than 60; it was written in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, a minister and social reformer who was given the assignment by Daniel Sharp Ford, editor of the magazine Youth’s Companion, published in Boston. The year before, in 1891, the magazine had sponsored a campaign to sell American flags to public schools so each classroom could have one; in 1892, as part of the myriad celebrations and memorializations of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the Americas, Youth’s Companion wanted to provide a salute to those flags that could be used in the classroom.
As a minister, socialist, and reformer, Bellamy wanted the pledge to focus a new generation of Americans on social justice and economic equality of opportunity. He wrote this short text:
I pledge allegiance to my flag and to the republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
This pledge, quickly titled “The Pledge of Allegiance”, was immediately popular, and began to be used in schools across the country. In 1923, in fears that immigrants would think that “my flag” meant the flag of their country of origin, new text was added over Bellamy’s objections:
I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
You can see Bellamy’s point: if you say “the flag of the United States of America”, then adding “the republic for which it stands” is unnecessarily redundant. When you just said “the flag”, then you had to specify the American republic for which it stood. But that was the least of the changes to Bellamy’s pledge.
Before the text was changed, the manner of reciting it was revised. Originally, one was supposed to recite the pledge in this posture:
This was called the “Bellamy Salute”. By the early 1930s, it was uncomfortably like the Nazi salute, and although it took awhile—1942 to be exact—the federal government finally issued the directive to place one’s right hand over one’s heart when saying the Pledge, rather than extend it in a by-now fascist gesture.
In 1954, the final change came, and that’s what we comment on today: 2014 is the 60th anniversary of the addition of “under God” to the Pledge. The Catholic organization Knights of Columbus led a petition to add these words to the Pledge during the Cold War, to differentiate the U.S. from godless Communist nations, and President Eisenhower signed the measure, saying “In this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource in peace and war.”
So now the pledge reads
I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
This is the version most Americans know today; it’s how we at the HP grew up reciting it. In fact, few know or would believe that “under God” wasn’t always in the Pledge. But it’s a sad anniversary, we think; adding “under God” as a “spiritual weapon” seems incongruous, and to insert religious faith into a statement of loyalty to the U.S. goes against the principles of its founding documents. The Pledge has often been mis-used since September 11th as a loyalty test: anyone who won’t recite it or has qualms with its use in public schools is a traitor. But the Founders strictly and explicitly forbid loyalty tests in the U.S. If you were born here or were naturalized as a citizen, you are a citizen, and you cannot be forced to “prove” your loyalty on pain of losing privileges, goods, or your life.
So we like to recite the first revised Pledge, which is about upholding the founding principles of this nation: We pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all. Of course, we don’t force anyone else to do it our way—that would be un-American.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has ruled (we think that’s the word) that Washington, DC’s NFL team, the Redskins, can no longer trademark that name, saying: “the term ‘Redskins’ was disparaging of Native Americans, when used in relation to professional football services”. Five Native Americans brought the case to the Patent Office saying the name is disparaging. The upshot is that the team can no longer control who uses the name or profit from its use. (The image of the “redskin” that goes along with the name is still, somehow, protected.)
The team’s owners are contesting this, and will appeal; in fact, this decision seems to have been made before and overturned by a federal district court. So there is a chance that the name will go on, and continue making money for the team.
The list of team names, from professional sports to high school, that use Native American references is very long. “Indians” is a name used by hundreds of school teams; “Chiefs” and “Braves” are second in popularity. In most cases, it seems clear that the name was chosen to represent the team’s strength and fearlessness, and was considered a shout-out to the Native Americans who possessed those qualities. Usually the image that represented the team was a chieftain in full feather headdress, or a “brave” with one feather. On the high school level, the image was usually neutral; it’s at the college and professional level that they are uniformly racist (one notes the Cleveland Indians image and the (now defunct) Philadelphia Warriors image in particular).
In the case of the Washington team, its owners have leaned heavily on the historical defense: any name that’s 80 years old must be innocent. This is an oft-used argument that we cannot make sense of. There are many words that have been around a long time that are slurs. In 1890, Webster’s dictionary listed “redskin” as a “contemptuous” term for Native Americans. That predates the team choosing it as its name. But the league is standing by it: Adolpho Birch, the NFL’s senior vice president of labor policy and government affairs, said the name is not a slur:
“The team name is the team name as it has been for 80-plus years. And what we need to do is get beyond sort of understanding this as a point-blank situation and understand it more as a variety of perspectives that all need to be addressed, that all need to be given some weight, so that at the end of it we can come to some understanding that is appropriate and reflects the opinions of all. I think that is part of the issue with the question is that it is constantly being sort of put into a point-blank, yes-or-no, yes-or-no kind of context when that’s not the reality of the situation that we’re dealing with.”
Often here at the HP we present a block quote and break it down through analysis. We’ve done it for George Washington and William Jennings Bryan. Now we will attempt to do it for Adolpho Birch:
“The team name is the team name as it has been for 80-plus years.”
—If something is old, it can’t be racist. People in olden times were not racist.
“And what we need to do is get beyond sort of understanding this as a point-blank situation and understand it more as a variety of perspectives that all need to be addressed, that all need to be given some weight, so that at the end of it we can come to some understanding that is appropriate and reflects the opinions of all.”
—Instead of the name being… black and white, as it were, it is a complex issue where everyone’s opinion has equal weight and a solution exists that will please and reflect the wishes of everyone, even if they are diametrically opposed.
“I think that is part of the issue with the question is that it is constantly being sort of put into a point-blank, yes-or-no, yes-or-no kind of context when that’s not the reality of the situation that we’re dealing with.”
—The question of the name is an issue that is usually described as dichotomous, dichotomous, dichotomous when that’s not realistic.
We can see that our analysis makes good sense of Birch’s sputtering and panicky nonsense. The answer to “is that name racist” cannot be “yes” or “no”. That’s too point-blank. Reality is that nothing is ever clear, even to people who are clear that the name offends them. In “reality”, the only virtue of Birch’s “argument” is that it puts the onus of the racism on us, the public who have sat back and accepted the racist team name for so long. For 80 years, the team was allowed to perpetrate racism, and that’s not just the team’s fault.
So it can only be hoped that a district court does not overturn this latest ruling, and that a point-blank rebuke to the league’s and the team’s “complex” defense of a “contextual” racial slur is taken down.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 2 so far )
As we enter part 6, the last post in our series on President Lyndon Johnson’s March 1965 “We Shall Overcome” speech, we look at the context of the speech—how it was made, delivered, and received.
President Johnson had not planned to give the speech at all; he was sending his Voting Rights Act bill to Congress and usually when presidents send a bill to Congress they attach a brief message to it and that’s all. Few presidents will make a public speech to Congress urging the passage of a pending bill because a) members of Congress don’t like being pressured publicly to pass things, and b) if the bill is not passed, then the president loses some clout. But at the last moment—the day before the speech was given—Johnson decided this particular bill needed more than a note. We have applauded speechwriter Richard Goodwin for drafting the We Shall Overcome speech in record time, working overnight on the 14th/15th, with Johnson’s direct order to use “every ounce of moral persuasion the Presidency had… with no hedging, no equivocation”. Goodwin delivered on that request. The actual title of the speech was “The American Promise”, but like so many things in U.S. history and culture it became known by a different name—Johnson’s use of the dynamic civil rights promise “We Shall Overcome” destined the speech to be known by that name.
The genius of the speech, and of Johnson’s delivery, lies in its ability to make voting rights for black Americans personal for all Americans. As Americans, they inherited a mission, and if they refused to carry out that mission, they were betraying their country. This was at the very start of some public doubt about the nation’s involvement in Vietnam, when calling on people to fight for their country was beginning to ring hollow, but here was a forum where everyone could be on board—or, at least refusing to get on board was much more difficult. If Americans weren’t sure they were fighting for liberty and justice in Vietnam, they could be very sure they were fighting for it at home, in the form of voting equality. This was a goal that suited both the radical agenda of social revolutionaries and the more square patriotic agenda of their elders. It even made “summoning into convocation all the majesty of this great government” (not something many average Americans, let alone hippies, could have said without blushing) seem not only necessary, but just and commendable and faith-inspiring.
By calling on the nation to fulfill its covenant with God and man, Johnson made passive acceptance of racial discrimination impossible and a kind of passive action to end it possible: that is, Southern Congressmen who did not want to vote for civil rights legislation could do it with the excuse to their constituents that the president had made it impossible not to, that the tide had turned, and that everyone was going to have to find a new way of getting around. No one likes it, they might say, but that’s how it has to be now. Appealing to the ideal of America itself, rather than existing constitutional amendments that some might say should be overturned, forced opponents of civil rights into the untenable position of arguing against America itself, of betraying the nation’s identity, of being un-American.
Reaction to the speech was very positive and action was swift. As Garth Pauley puts it in his book LBJ’s America: the 1965 Voting Rights Address:
In their coverage of his speech, many journalists lauded the president for invoking and affirming “the most sacred and deeply held convictions of a nation,” which brought “the present chapter of the struggle for human rights into proper perspective.” Citizens echoed these sentiments in their letters and telegrams to the White House. And when editorialists urged swift passage of the president’s bill, their appeals employed the language of Johnson’s narrative: The New York Times even suggested passage was a foregone conclusion because a “people that has responded unflinchingly to every trial of national purpose . . . will not fail this test.” Moreover, following President Johnson’s speech, members of Congress deliberated voting rights legislation using the language of America’s destiny, promise, and purpose. Senators and congressmen claimed that the nation must “make good on its promise… [to] fulfill the revolutionary dream of freedom and equality for all Americans” by “passing a bill which [sic] fully insures that every American… has the right to vote”—which will represent a step “along this nation’s honored march toward further fulfillment of our traditional goals of equal opportunity and equal treatment.” Congress indeed passed the final voting rights bill less than five months after Johnson’s speech. The president signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law on August 6, emphasizing at the signing ceremony that America had righted a historical wrong, enacted its sacred principles, confirmed its promise, and now would endeavor to “fulfill the rights that we now secure.”
Pauley goes on to speculate about the ability of a president today to refer to and rely on a shared moral high ground in America to gather support for a bill, and it’s a thoughtful note to end this series on:
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Finding a shared moral language out of which a president can fashion a persuasive appeal is difficult. President Johnson effectively grounded his appeals in a potent narrative that focused on public morality–his listeners’ civic duty to keep and fulfill the sacred American Promise. But as the citizenry continues to become more religiously and culturally diverse, less schooled in the narratives of the nation’s history, more aware of how such narratives can be used to justify depraved causes as well as honorable ones, and perhaps less influenced by the moral authority of the presidency, presidents may find it especially tricky to build moral consensus through oratory. Consider this problem from a perspective afforded by studying Johnson’s speech. He used oratory to help secure the significant public good of equal voting rights, primarily by appealing to the American Promise–of which the Constitution is one expression–rather than the Constitution itself. But could Johnson have crafted such a stirring, persuasive appeal on the basis of constitutional guarantees alone? Would his listeners have found it as moving, meaningful, and motivational? Would we find it as eloquent today?
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