Nixon's Resignation: 40 Years Later

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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.

Presented by

David A. 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.

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