By Stanley Kutler
President Richard Nixon resigned on Aug. 9, 1974, in the wake of the Watergate scandal and the revelations of his “abuses of power” and obstruction of justice. For his involvement in criminal activities, Nixon earned his unique epitaph: an unindicted co-conspirator.
As the nation watched events unfold from 1972 to 1974, a host of then-famous names passed before us: Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Dean, Mitchell, Colson, Haig, Ziegler, Liddy, Hunt, Kleindienst, Magruder, Agnew, and so on. But the burglars, assorted presidential aides, congressional investigators and prosecutors now have faded into the mists of history—spear carriers at best. Only the principal remains in our consciousness for his achievements and his misdeeds.
In 1974, more than 30 hours of White House tapes proved sufficient to force Nixon’s resignation in the face of certain impeachment. In succeeding years, Nixon maintained that his tapes would exonerate him, yet he fought doggedly (and expensively) to prevent access to the remaining several thousand hours.
Eventually, a successful 1996 lawsuit forced the liberation of his remaining tapes, and secured wide public access to them. The new tapes have magnified and pinpointed Nixon’s criminal liabilities. He openly discussed “hush money” payments to the arrested Watergate burglar E. Howard Hunt, one of his “plumbers,” a secret group engaged in break-ins and other illegal activities. H.R. Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, reported on Aug. 1, 1972, that “Hunt’s happy.” “At considerable cost,” the president replied. And then hastily added: “It’s worth it. They have to be paid. That’s all there is to that.” He knew that Hunt “had done a lot of things.” He worried that Hunt’s “plumbers’ ” work—his “earlier venture,” according to Nixon—might be exposed.
Nixon was both aware of the cover-up and was a participant in it from the outset, as the famous “smoking gun” tape of June 23, 1972, long ago revealed. He discussed the cover-up constantly throughout the next year. Haldeman told him that John Dean was “watching it on an almost full-time basis” and reporting to him and John Erhlichman, another principal Nixon aide. Haldeman assured Nixon that the investigation of Watergate was proceeding “along the channels that will not produce the kind of answers we don’t want produced.” On obstruction of justice, the tapes are clear.
Nixon’s famous March 21, 1973, meeting with Dean (“There is a cancer on the presidency”) has been variously interpreted. Either Dean told an uninformed Nixon of the full scope of the cover-up (as Nixon contended) or, more likely, he merely summarized whatever the president knew. In any event, no sooner had Dean left the Oval Office than Nixon called in his longtime secretary, Rose Mary Woods, and told her he “may have a need for substantial cash for a personal purpose”—Woods had several hundred thousand dollars of “campaign contributions” in her office. Nixon acknowledged that his good friend Thomas Pappas “has raised the money.” Haldeman laconically added: “And he’s able to deal in cash.” Later, Nixon thanked Pappas for his aid “on some of these things that … others are involved in.”
Nixon learned as early as October 1972 that Mark Felt had leaked FBI field reports to The Washington Post, a “secret” known since 1997 with the first release of new tapes. But Haldeman told him, “If we move on him, he’ll go out and unload everything. He knows everything that’s to be known in the FBI.” Nixon agreed and then, trying to fathom Felt’s motivation, he and Haldeman concluded that Felt was Jewish (he was not) and that explained his leaking of the information.
On April 30, 1973, Nixon dismissed his top aides. He spent several hours in telephone conversations that evening, making remarks uncharacteristically emotional, distraught, poignant and sprinkled with slurred words. At one point, he told the fired Haldeman, “I love you, Bob.” A few days later, he lamented to his press secretary, “It’s all over, do you know that?”
Nixon’s tragic fate was self-inflicted. In the literary sense, he was a comic figure—“I am not a crook” is popular shorthand for a reflection on his life. The comic side reflects his awkwardness, and that awkwardness resulted in fatal isolation. He was constantly at odds with himself, allowing hate and suspicion of others to consume him, and this sent his career crashing into ruins. Nixon’s conflicts and hates fueled his drive for power, and they eventually unraveled his authority. There was no “new Nixon” after all; he was the same man who had played on our public stage for so many years. In the end, Nixon delivered his most revealing insight into himself: “[T]hose that hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.”
Partisans and historians will long argue over Nixon’s presidential record; they similarly will divide over how to measure his impact on American political style and life. But Nixon’s ignoble end indisputably left a disturbing legacy for that political life. Today, we speak of presidential abuses of power as being “worse than Watergate” in their contempt for lawful processes and the rule of law. The “lessons” and meaning of Richard Nixon remain exquisitely relevant.
Watergate persists as Nixon’s nemesis. For it is Watergate and the unprecedented spectacle of a presidential resignation that most set him apart. Neither Nixon nor we can escape that history. The 35th anniversary of Richard Nixon’s resignation once again raises his name and his memory, and reminds us of who and what he was. “For hateful deeds committed by myself! I am a villain: yet I lie. I am not,” Shakespeare’s Richard III declared. Watergate remains Nixon’s burden and our legacy.
Stanley Kutler is the author of “The Wars of Watergate” (W.W. Norton).
White House archive / Oliver F. Atkins