Forty years ago Friday, America's gravest constitutional crisis since the Civil War ended with the unthinkable—the resignation of an American president in disgrace. After more than two years of legal and political trauma that wracked and divided a nation, the 2,026 days of Richard M. Nixon's presidency were over.
It's difficult to convey the enormity of those harrowing times to generations who have lived through 9/11, two polarizing wars, a presidency decided by the courts, the first African-American president, and the Great Recession. Yet in its day, Watergate was just as seismic.
It shook the foundations of our republic, engaging all three branches of government on an ugly collision course, pitting millions against one another in ideological combat, and shattering the country's faith in its leaders and institutions.
America's commitment to civil liberties was sorely challenged by a "plumber's unit" created to spy on White House political adversaries and antiwar zealots. A president of the United States tried to conceal criminal deeds by claiming his agents were protecting national security. When a special prosecutor who was appointed to find the truth came too close to it, the president fired him in the infamous "Saturday Night Massacre." It was, unbelievably, the stuff of banana republics.
In today's 24/7, social-media-driven universe, Watergate would have played out in a few months; it dragged on for parts of three years, riveting the nation and dominating headlines morning and night.
Though justice ultimately prevailed and our democratic processes survived, Watergate's corrosive fallout is with us still. Ever since, political leaders are viewed with more suspicion and cynicism. Presidents aren't considered nearly so trustworthy anymore. Escalating polarization between Congress and the White House has crippled bipartisan governance. Reporters and presidents have little use for each other now. All this traces to Watergate.
What follows is a personal remembrance—not just of history, but history that altered America forever. I was fortunate to watch it all unfold firsthand, especially that fateful final week, as the 29-year-old White House correspondent for Newsweek.
Four decades later, in one of life's small ironies, my office at National Journal is in the Watergate complex. Driving to work I pass the old Howard Johnson's motor lodge, now a George Washington University dorm, where Nixon partisans monitored a botched burglary of the Democratic National Committee's Watergate headquarters across the street on the night of June 17, 1972.
* * *
At 12:20 p.m. on August 8, 1974, Richard Nixon's press secretary entered the White House briefing room. We knew it must be serious—Ron Ziegler had checked his Marlboro Lights, Styrofoam cup of coffee, and trademark cockiness at the door.
Ziegler's briefing lasted just 83 words and he had trouble finishing. "Tonight at nine o'clock Eastern Daylight Time," he announced, struggling to maintain his composure, "the president of the United States will address the nation on radio and television from his Oval Office."
As Ziegler left the podium, a Wall Street Journal correspondent once again shouted the question he'd been asking at every press briefing for weeks: "Ron, is the president going to resign?"
Early on, Ziegler had denounced the break-in as a "third-rate burglary." Even a year into the scandal, Nixon professed his ignorance and innocence. "I am not a crook," he famously insisted in Orlando, Florida, in November 1973.
By then, however, Nixon's damage-control efforts were cratering. Guided by an FBI agent known as Deep Throat, The Washington Post's Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had produced a steady stream of blockbuster scoops documenting that the Watergate burglars had been choreographed by retired intelligence agents with close ties to the 1972 Nixon reelection apparatus and within the White House.
A Senate special committee was trying to determine, in the immortal phrase of the late Senator Howard Baker, "what did the president know and when did he know it." Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski, a legendary trial lawyer from Texas, was hauling presidential associates before a federal grand jury. Nixon's chief of staff and domestic policy adviser had been forced to resign after Woodward and Bernstein reported their complicity in the cover-up.
When White House aide Alexander Butterfield told the Watergate committee that Nixon had been secretly taping his Oval Office conversations, Jaworski subpoenaed the tapes. Nixon refused, claiming executive privilege. The special prosecutor sued the president, triggering a constitutional confrontation between the executive branch and the judiciary. On July 24, 1974, a unanimous Supreme Court ruled that Nixon must surrender the tapes.
Monday, August 5
After 26 months, the endgame reached a stunning crescendo in just five days, beginning on the afternoon of Monday, August 5, when the White House released transcripts of three tapes. Shortly before they were made public, Nixon's chief of staff, Alexander Haig, convened about 100 White House senior aides in the Old Executive Office Building. He warned that "material damaging to us" was about to be released and exhorted them to stay at their posts for the good of the nation.
Even more telling, Haig had already informed Vice President Gerald Ford that the tapes were a game-changer and that Ford should begin thinking about preparing himself to become president.
"After that meeting, the odds were overwhelming that I would be president," Ford told me 17 years later. "Of course, even then Haig was saying, 'One minute he's going to resign, the next minute he's going to fight it through.' "
The three 1972 conversations between Nixon and Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman demolished Nixon's contention that he was merely the innocent victim of overzealous subordinates. They showed convincingly that Nixon had been deeply involved. In fact, one of them revealed he was conspiring to cover up the break-in six days after it happened—nine months before he claimed he first learned of the incident.
The incriminating transcripts not only sealed Nixon's fate, they coined a new phrase in the American political lexicon: "the smoking gun."
I called my boss, Newsweek's legendary bureau chief Mel Elfin, and read him what we liked to call the "nut graf" from each of the tapes. Mel had impeccable political instincts, but this was a no-brainer. "It's over," he said. "You're about to cover the biggest story of your life."
Tuesday, August 6
After a 10-minute haircut in the basement barber shop, Nixon walked upstairs for an emergency Cabinet meeting. For 88 minutes, he led the conversation as if the business of government were paramount on his mind. He began by saying he wanted to talk about the most important problem facing the country—inflation.
At some point he brought up the Watergate crisis, dissecting the mess for about 25 minutes. Yes, he acknowledged, he'd made some mistakes; these were difficult times for him and his family, but he intended to soldier on and let "the constitutional process" go forward.
The delusional quality of the meeting was jerked back to reality when George H.W. Bush, chairman of the Republican National Committee, politely suggested it was time for Nixon to resign. Several participants later reported that Nixon kept talking, ignoring Bush's recommendation as though it had never been uttered.