Letters from the Archives is a series in which we highlight past Atlantic stories and reactions from readers at the time.
“Watergate is potentially the best thing to have happened to the presidency in a long time,” wrote Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in his November 1973 Atlantic article, “The Runaway Presidency.”
On June 17, 1972, five men broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C., in the hopes of procuring campaign intelligence for the White House. The Nixon administration’s effort to distance itself from the burglary stands as one of the greatest political cover-ups in American history: “I can say categorically,” President Richard Nixon insisted that August, “no one in this Administration, presently employed, was involved in this very bizarre incident.” The following months and years proved otherwise; by February 1973, the Senate had approved a select committee to investigate the scandal. And that was just the start. In October, Nixon ordered a series of attorneys general to fire the independent special prosecutor (two of them refused and resigned in protest until finally the third carried the order out), an incident that came to be known as the Saturday Night Massacre.
Schlesinger wrote about the “unprecedented concentration of power” in Nixon’s White House. The article, drawn from his soon-to-be-published The Imperial Presidency, explained how a corrupt style of executive governance had reemerged under the Nixon administration. Nixon’s time in office was “not an aberration but a culmination,” Schlesinger concluded. Impeachment would be a step toward fixing “the crisis of the presidency,” but not a long-term solution.
The nation must show presidents, Schlesinger wrote, that “when their closest associates place themselves above the law and the Constitution, such transgressions will be not forgiven or forgotten for the sake of the presidency, but exposed and punished for the sake of the presidency.”
Letters in response to Schlesinger’s Atlantic article trickled in over the course of a few months, as Congress continued to arbitrate Nixon and his aides’ lawlessness. R.P. Shirah from Monroe, Louisiana, advocated for Nixon; he suggested that the present “crisis” was attributable to Nixon’s “avowed enemies—blatantly attempting to remove him from office by whatever means.”
Schlesinger’s article was “lousy yellow journalism,” wrote G.L. Frederic from Scio, Oregon. He felt that Nixon was doing an “ultra-fine job of running the country,” and that more articles should be reporting on that:
You as a member of the press are totally enslaved to the obligation of protecting and defending him in his duty. The constitution keeps you free to do this—so do it.
The Atlantic did not follow Frederic’s instruction. For the magazine’s March 1974 issue, L.E. Sissman wrote a scathing critique of the president entitled “Sick of Dick.” He began:
Though he may have abdicated his regal seat by the time you read this, the resignation of Richard Nixon will not invalidate the force of this confession—the first, I believe, to be made by a plain citizen who is simply satiated with the continuing bungled nonfeasance of a man who was perfectly clearly not cut out to be president of anything larger than a used-car lot.
On February 6, 1974, the House of Representatives had authorized the Judiciary Committee to investigate impeachment of the President. Sissman’s piece was published roughly around the time several former Nixon aides were indicted, on March 1, 1974. Although Nixon escaped incrimination (for the time being) because the special prosecutor felt a sitting president could not be charged until leaving office, he had been secretly designated a co-conspirator.
Sissman, who was “fed up to here, and possibly beyond” with carrying around the “knowledge (and fear) of [Nixon’s] ineptness,” railed on the president. His ideas, Sissman wrote, were antiquated:
From the beginning, Nixon was a flat-earther, a proponent of ideas and interests the nation at large had thought to be outworn. He was a spokesman, in a sense, for the previous generation—or maybe the generation before that. His subsequent career proved, if it proved nothing else, that there were (and are) still large pockets of people who cleave to the old ideas, and whom progress has passed by.
But his reign was almost over:
Richard M. Nixon, at the very height of his semi-imperial majesty, was struck from the dais at one blow and left struggling on the ground, entangled in the voluminous folds of his cohorts’ sly intrigues. And perhaps—but will we ever know?—his own.
Nixon would, Sissman concluded, “surely be known to fame as our worst and most inept President.”
Readers were polarized. “I can’t see Richard Nixon as an anachronism,” Roger Williams from New York City wrote. “To me, he seems the closest thing to a typical American around.” A handful wholeheartedly agreed with Sissman—“If I never read another copy of your magazine ... I would still say most sincerely that ‘Sick of Dick’ is more than worth the price of my subscription,” one wrote—but many argued vehemently against his assessment.
Two women from Eureka Springs, Arkansas, felt slighted and underrepresented by Sissman’s article. “Never, I believe,” declared Margaret C. McGrade, “have I seen expressed in print so much vituperation.” Irene W. Bracken wrote, “It seems everyone on the Eastern seaboard is biased. Could I remind you that in other parts of this great land there are numbers of people who think for themselves and do not always agree with your views?”
On April 29, 1974, Nixon announced he would release edited transcripts of White House tapes (which contained recordings of his conversations with staffers). In late July, just before the House Judiciary Committee voted to recommend the first article of impeachment, the United States Supreme Court decided unanimously that all subpoenaed materials should be given to the federal district court. Finally, the straw that broke the camel’s back: On August 5, 1974, the White House released an undisclosed tape from days after the break-in that caught Nixon talking to his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, about how to bar the FBI from investigating Watergate further.
With stiff shoulders and steady eyes, Richard Nixon resigned on August 8, 1974: “I have never been a quitter,” he said. “To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct in my body. But as president, I must put the interests of America first.”
In November of 1974, a year after Schlesinger’s piece was published and months after the president resigned, George V. Higgins wrote “The Friends of Richard Nixon,” in which he analyzed how the president had manipulated and deceived his closest allies. Nixon had dealt with Watergate, Higgins wrote, “by paying hush money, and sacrificing friends, and lying to loyalists, and watching subalterns go off to jail while lying some more.”
Feedback from Atlantic readers had quieted. A two-time Nixon voter from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, W.T. Couch, “owe[d] thanks” to both The Atlantic and the rest of the media, “especially to television,” for exposing the president’s “utterly mediocre and petty law-breaking and generally untrustworthy character.”
A few Californians, however, were incredulous of Higgins’s account, and remained loyal to Nixon. Mrs. R.L. Davis from Pasadena felt the “ruthless, needless, denigrating of a great man” was “destructive” to the country. Catherine S. Anderson from Santa Barbara, who still counted herself among Richard Nixon’s friends, turned Higgins’s final line on its head. “My God, he wanted sympathy,” Higgins had written of Nixon. “That’s exactly what he does get,” Anderson replied, “from me and from thousands of others.”
By that point, the chaos of the Nixon White House seemed to be a thing of the past. But Schlesinger had been careful to warn that such overstepping of presidential boundaries was almost certain to happen again:
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.