Nixon's Resignation: 40 Years Later

The Crime and the Coverup

On June 17, 1972, a group of burglars broke into the Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate complex, but it took more than two years before the scandal forced Nixon from office. 

Long before it was clear Nixon would fall, in November 1973, the historian and former Kennedy Aide Arthur Schlesinger laid out why Nixon's misdeeds were unique, and why they would eventually require his removal: 

The presidency has been in crisis before; but the constitutional offense that led to the impeachment of Andrew Johnson was trivial compared to the charges now accumulating around the Nixon Administration. There are, indeed, constitutional offenses here [but] .... what is unique in the history of the presidency is the long list of potential criminal charges against the Nixon Administration.

A defiant Nixon at a March 1973 news conference
(Charles Tasnadi/AP)

The implications of that fact were stark. "For the first time in a century, Americans in the 1970s have to think hard about impeachment, which means that, because most of us flinch from the prospect, we begin to think hard about alternatives to impeachment," Schlesinger wrote, but concluded that all of the potential alternatives had even more fatal flaws. Though impeachment was ultimately avoided by Nixon's resignation, Schlesinger's point proved prescient.

f course, we might never have known about much of Watergate if not for whistleblowers who revealed the White House's behavior. But who was "Deep Throat," and was he a hero or a morally compromised striver, out to help himself? The secret informant who encouraged Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein to dig into the burglary by tracing campaign cash was the subject of much speculation until Mark Felt, a former associate director of the FBI, revealed himself in 2005.

In 1992, James Mann showed that the FBI and the Nixon White House had been clashing since the president appointed an outsider to succeed long-time director J. Edgar Hoover. That, Mann wrote, is why an FBI insider would have seen fit to leak to Woodward. But who would that have been? While Mann mentioned Felt repeatedly—he was first on a list of possibilities—he didn't pin it on him definitively.

There has been considerable speculation that Deep Throat never existed, that he must have been either a complete fiction or a composite of several people. My memory of those early months of Watergate is otherwise: that there was a specific individual, from the FBI, and Woodward had special access to him.

In March 1974, a group known as the Watergate Seven were arraigned for their involvement in trying to undermine the Watergate investigation. Several—including three of Nixon's most senior aides, Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and Attorney General John Mitchell—were tried, convicted, and sentenced to prison. The trials made a national hero of federal Judge John Sirica. Looking back on the trials with new archival evidence on the 39th anniversary of Nixon's resignation, in 2013, Geoff Shepard, who was a young attorney on the president's defense team, charged Sirica with ethical violations.

It is true that we failed spectacularly. Of course, I’m disappointed we weren’t more successful. But whether the defendants were innocent or guilty, I’ve always worried on a more basic level that the heightened emotions of the times denied them the due process of law envisioned by our Constitution.

Atlantic contributing editor Andrew Cohen replied, saying that while Sirica's meetings with prosecutors were unwise, they did little to taint the verdicts.


The Aftermath

Nixon boards the Marine One helicopter for the last time.

It may have been true, as Gerald Ford said at his inauguration, that the "long national nightmare" was over, but Nixon wasn't gone.

Just as the press had been sure in 1962 that they wouldn't have Nixon to kick around anymore, the American people imagined they were rid of the man when he left for California. Nixon, never a quitter, had other plans. In an excerpt from a new edition of her book on Watergate, former Atlantic Washington correspondent Elizabeth Drew reported earlier this year on Nixon's post-presidential plan:

Determined and methodical as usual, with the help of aides who had gone with him to San Clemente at government expense, Nixon made a plan. This secret plan, codenamed Wizard, was one to regain respectability. He would show ’em again. What would have crushed most people to Richard Nixon was another crisis to be overcome.

Incredibly, Drew notes, Nixon was largely successful: Through force of will, blackmail, and a certain something—not quite charm, this being Nixon—he ended his life as a respected foreign-policy mandarin, a wise old man and confidant of presidents.

That rehabilitation, limited as it was, might have been impossible without a pardon. The propriety of Gerald Ford's decision remains a subject of fierce disagreement today. But the question is not just whether Ford should have pardoned Nixon, but why he did so. The men were not close, as Seymour Hersh reported in 1983: "Nixon had reservations about Ford's abilities, Colson says; after Ford's confirmation, the President once described him to Colson as his 'insurance policy' against impeachment." In an finely detailed tick-tock of the pardon, starting from Ford's appointment to the vice-presidency, Hersh sought to determine what happened. His final judgment was harsh:

Richard Nixon, with his continued efforts to influence the White House through the good offices of Alexander Haig, demonstrated that his fall from power had taught him little. And Gerald Ford, by putting self-interest and political loyalty to a benefactor above his duty, did not give the American legal system a chance to work. The transfer of power in August of 1974 was not a triumph for democracy.

Harsher, and more colorful, was Hunter S. Thompson's obituary for Nixon, "He Was a Crook," which originally ran in Rolling Stone and was later republished in The Atlantic. (For more Thompson on Nixon, read his long interview with the magazine in 1997.) Thompson and Nixon had been linked for decades, perhaps most memorably in the incredible story of the two men chewing the fat about football during the 1968 campaign. The obituary is trademark Thompson: funny and irreverent and angry and touching and manic.

I have had my own bloody relationship with Nixon for many years, but I am not worried about it landing me in hell with him. I have already been there with that bastard, and I am a better person for it. Nixon had the unique ability to make his enemies seem honorable, and we developed a keen sense of fraternity. Some of my best friends have hated Nixon all their lives. My mother hates Nixon, my son hates Nixon, I hate Nixon, and this hatred has brought us together.

On one hand, Thompson wrote, "It was Richard Nixon who got me into politics, and now that he's gone, I feel lonely." On the other, "If the right people had been in charge of Nixon's funeral, his casket would have been launched into one of those open-sewage canals that empty into the ocean just south of Los Angeles." 

* * *

For those who lived through it, Watergate remains a nightmare, more or less vividly remembered—the details gets fuzzy, the exact sequence is obscure, but the fear is just as real. (Just notice Woodward and Bernstein's conflicting recollections, in Politico Playbook, of what they ate while watching Nixon's resignation speech.) For those who are younger, the saga seems hard to grasp, a little slapstick, a little scary, hardly believable.

Schlesinger's 1973 essay speaks to both groups from the distance of 41 years. For the battle-scarred survivors, it's worth recalling the good that came out of the horror. "Watergate is potentially the best thing to have happened to the presidency in a long time," Schlesinger wrote. "If the trails are followed to their end, many, many years will pass before another White House staff dares take the liberties with the Constitution and the laws the Nixon White House has taken." And for those who believe it couldn't happen again, not here, Schlesinger offers caution.

Corruption appears to visit the White House in fifty-year cycles. This suggests that exposure and retribution inoculate the presidency against its latent criminal impulses for about half a century. Around the year 2023 the American people will be well advised to go on the alert and start nailing down everything in sight.

We all might be wise to mark our calendars.

Jump to comments
Presented by

David A. Graham

David Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

What Is a City?

Cities are like nothing else on Earth.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.


A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?


In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.


What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.


Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.



More in Politics

Just In