All these things are obscure in the early autumn of 1973. It is possible that Nixon may conclude that the Watergate problems are not after all (as he told the Prime Minister of Japan) "murky, small, unimportant, vicious little things," but are, rather, evidence of a profound and grievous imbalance between the presidency and the Constitution. Perhaps he may, by an honest display of candor and contrition, regain a measure of popular confidence, re-establish constitutional comity and recover presidential effectiveness. But full recovery seems unlikely unless the President himself recognizes why his presidency has fallen into such difficulties. Nixon's continued invocation, after Watergate, of national security as the excuse for presidential excess, his defense to the end of unreviewable executive privilege, his defiant assertion that, if he had it to do over again, he would still deceive Congress and the people about the secret air war in Cambodia—such unrepentant reactions suggest that he still has no clue as to what his trouble was, still fails to understand that the sickness of his presidency is caused not by the overzealousness of his friends or by the malice of his enemies, but by the expansion and abuse of presidential power itself.
For the issue is more than whether Congress and the people wish to deal with the particular iniquities of the Nixon Administration. It is whether they wish to rein in the runaway presidency. Nixon's presidency is not an aberration but a culmination. It carries to reckless extremes a compulsion toward presidential power rising out of deep-running changes in the foundations of society. In a time of the acceleration of history and the decay of traditional institutions and values, a strong presidency is both a greater necessity than ever before and a greater risk—necessary to hold a spinning and distracted society together, necessary to make the separation of powers work, risky because of the awful temptation held out to override the separation of powers and burst the bonds of the Constitution. The nation requires both a strong presidency for leadership and the separation of powers for liberty. It may well be that, if continuing structural compulsions are likely to propel future Presidents in the direction of government by decree, the rehabilitation of impeachment Will be essential to contain the presidency and preserve the Constitution.
Watergate is potentially the best thing to have happened to the presidency in a long time. 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. If the nation wants to work its way back to a constitutional presidency, there is only one way to begin. That is by showing Presidents 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.
If the Nixon White House escapes the legal consequences of its illegal behavior, why will future Presidents and their associates not suppose themselves entitled to do what the Nixon White House has done? Only condign punishment will restore popular faith in the presidency and deter future Presidents from illegal conduct—so long, at least, as Watergate remains a vivid memory. 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.
A constitutional presidency, as the great Presidents have shown, can be a very strong presidency indeed. But what keeps a strong President constitutional, in addition to checks and balances incorporated within his own breast, is the vigilance of the people. The Constitution cannot hold the nation to ideals it is determined to betray. The reinvigoration of the written checks in the American Constitution depends on the re-invigoration of the unwritten checks in American society. The great institutions—Congress, the courts, the executive establishment, the press, the universities, public opinion—have to reclaim their own dignity and meet their own responsibilities. As Madison said long ago, the country cannot trust to "parchment barriers" to halt the encroaching spirit of power. In the end, the Constitution will live only if it embodies the spirit of the American people.
"There is no week nor day nor hour," wrote Walt Whitman, "when tyranny may not enter upon this country, if the people lose their supreme confidence in themselves,—and lose their roughness and spirit of defiance—Tyranny may always enter—there is no charm, no bar against it—the only bar against it is a large resolute breed of men."