Looking back at Watergate, 50 years later
In the cloying humidity and purple shadows of twilight on August 8, 1974, massive crowds gathered across from the White House waiting to learn the fate of Richard Nixon, America’s 37th President. They, along with the rest of the world, didn’t have long to wait. Just twenty four hours later, Nixon became the first sitting President, in the wake of the 1972 Watergate scandal one of the most explosive political events in American history, to resign from office before his term had expired.
Perhaps one of the most iconic images in America’s political history is the freeze frame moment that captured Richard Nixon, the newly designated “former” president who, after taking a short, and last, walk across the White House lawn to the waiting helicopter, Marine One stood defiant and unrepentant, atop the steps of the copter on August 9, 1974 as it prepared to lift off the pad and carry him away from the wreckage of a shattered and prematurely ended presidency.
A few short weeks from now, June 17th will mark the half century mark of the infamous Watergate scandal the scope of which still boggles our collective memory. It was like an out of control wild fire that figuratively burned the Nixon White House to the ground. In the end, Nixon himself was consumed by the inferno of political flames. With the clarity that hindsight provides, the world retains a crystal remembrance of the enormous scale of the deep-rooted crime and corruption that was ingrained in the Nixon presidency from its first day in office. And yet, five decades later exactly what the motivation was for five secret operatives acting on orders from the White House, and who were arrested on the night of June 17, 1972 for breaking into the Watergate complex headquarters of the Democratic National Committee was. Why the Watergate burglars were sent on a late night covert mission to steal documents still largely remains a mystery fifty years later. The operation itself was the stuff from which fictional political thriller movies and novels are born. Shakespearian in it breadth, it included wiretapping, massive amounts of hush money paid out to many different people, and a secret taping system in the Oval Office that would ultimately lead directly to Nixon’s political demise and fall from grace. To restate, to this day, America still does not have a clear answer to the question of why they broke in on the long ago night in June of 1972.
History bears out the fact that in 1972 Nixon was a shoe-in to trounce his opponent, South Dakota Senator George McGovern, a very liberal Democrat who, by all accounts, had little or no chance of winning the election. Given the political climate of the times, and for all intents and purposes, nothing could have kept Nixon from a landslide re-election victory. Again, the question of why still begs to be asked.
Back in the day, the tenacious investigative reporting of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein became the stuff of journalistic legend. Both men became media rock stars in breaking the Watergate scandal wide open by bringing the glaring abuse of presidential power and the illegal actions of the Nixon re-election campaign to light. Those people who are old enough to have lived through Watergate have a vivid recollection of the two year long process that would expose stunning revelations showing clearly that Nixon had lied, directed, and was a full conspirator in the burglarizing of the Democratic National Committee.
In the end, the kill shot in a two year publically televised investigation by the US Senate for Richard Nixon was that all of it was captured on his White House secret recording system. The famous question posed to the country, and to the world, by the late Republican Senator Howard Baker of “What did the President know, and when did he know it?” was answered by Nixon own tapes. They were what unraveled his presidency. Nixon’s tape recordings showed him to be exactly what he had publicly stated that he was not; “a crook.”
When all the dust had settled, Richard Nixon never admitted guilt in any way, shape or form, and he never apologized for anything. He only resigned because the key senior members of the Republican congressional delegation told him that he would not survive and impeachment trial by the senate. He stated that he did not want to drag the country through an impeachment trial.
Looking back at Richard Nixon through the lens of time, he is indeed an American tragedy in every sense of the word. I have always believed that if he had come forward, admitted his guilt and his role in Watergate, and thrown himself on the mercy of the American people that they would have forgiven him. For despite his deeply flawed character and raging paranoia regarding his perceived enemies, he was a brilliant man. Perhaps no other person in modern times was more prepared and qualified to assume the presidency. He had prepared himself for the Oval Office across his entire political career that began in 1946. In the final analysis, he was a victim of his own personal demons, and his conduct and actions shattered America’s naïve and idealistic view of the presidency.
Watergate is a study in how power corrupts, and how a White House and a president can be cloaked in a veil of darkness. When I look back in time at path to impeaching a president, and compare today’s political climate to that of the Nixon years, I see a palpable difference between the two modern day presidents who stood in the crosshairs of the process; Richard Nixon and Donald Trump.
In my mind, Donald Trump made Richard Nixon look like a choir boy. When all is said and done, and despite Nixon’s flaws and personal demons, the difference between the two men is that, in the end, Nixon actually cared about the country and our democracy, while Trump only cared about himself, and always put his own personal interests above his oath of office.
Paul Collins is a freelance writer from Southborough, Massachusetts.