President Nixon released edited transcripts of the White House tapes on April 29, 1974. PHOTO: NATIONAL ARCHIVES AND RECORDS ADMINISTRATION
Between the Lines / By Peter McDermott
In the last week of July 1974, Congressman Jerome Waldie (D-Calif.) said: “Common sense tells you that a president of the United States does not condone the payment of $400,000 to seven people occupying a DC jail unless he wants something from them.”
This comment was made during the historic House Judiciary Committee’s debate on whether it should recommend that President Nixon be impeached and removed from power.
The office of DNC Chair Larry O’Brien had been broken into in June 1972, but Watergate only exploded into a full scandal early in 1973, and in the summer of 1974, it was reaching its resolution.
All 21 Democrats on the committee — including three Southerners who were close to Nixon on most issues –voted for the motion to recommend impeachment. Six of the committee’s 17 Republicans joined the majority. Of those, the media identified three conservatives, one of them New Jersey’s Lawrence Hogan. The more moderate three included Clinton-era Defense Secretary William Cohen and Tom Railsback of Ohio.
In her classic account, “Washington Journal,” Elizabeth Drew focused a good deal on Railsback’s agonizing on the issue . He was aware that while Richard Nixon had lost the confidence of 75 percent of the voters, he was still popular with the other 25 percent, which was the core of the GOP base. He told Drew that to cover up was human nature. What bothered Raislback was the obvious pattern of abuse of power — one party, his own, using every means available to go after the other.
At the time, it was horrifying that people associated with the White House got caught trying to wiretap O’Brien, a former member of the Cabinet. But that was just the tip of the iceberg.
“I find it very offensive. I don’t care if it’s been done before. I don’t think it’s been done on this massive scale,” said the Republican congressman from Ohio.
Soon enough, the ironclad “smoking gun,” the “arrow to the heart,” the tape that proved that Nixon obstructed justice was revealed, and he resigned before the Senate could put him on trial.
Drew said something like Watergate would probably never happen again, but that abuse of power would always be a threat to democracy. In the decades since we’ve had streams of abuse, but only occasionally can we definitely say that it amounts to abuse of power.
We can thank Rep. Kevin McCarthy and some others for revealing in recent weeks what we’d mostly guessed: that the Benghazi hearings are about targeting the Democrat most likely to succeed, Hillary Clinton. And that is an abuse of power. It’s worth remembering at the core of the Watergate scandal was a dirty-tricks campaign against Senator Ed Muskie of Maine, the Democrat the GOP thought would be Nixon’s toughest foe in the general election of 1972.
After Watergate, the Republicans recovered somewhat under the steady hand of President Ford and then experienced a strong revival with the Reagan presidency, though that became mired in scandal, too, in its second term.
We tend to identify the modern Republican Party with the fervor of Reaganism, but the hyper-partisanship and the ideological aggression have their roots in the Nixon years.
The president’s men were clean-cut, “wholesome-appearing” types. They had the conventional suits of the advertising executives some of them had been. “Toughness with a smile” was the image they projected, Elizabeth Drew reported at the time. (“Washington Journal” was reissued last year by the Overlook Press.) But she suggested, too, that they’d skillfully manipulated the symbols of flag, religion and family.
“The religiosity of the people around Nixon was and is a striking thing,” Drew wrote in 1974. “They made their patriotism and their piety part of their politics.”
And that politics, arguably, has helped make the modern Republican Party. At the very least, the potted biographies of just a few of the central Watergate figures can help tell its story.
Gordon Liddy: White House undercover operative. Was handed a 20-year sentence, but ultimately the only 20-year term that he did was as a conservative talk-show host through his retirement in 2012. Was convicted of conspiracy, wire-tapping and burglary. President Carter took pity on Liddy and he was released in 1977.
Charles “Chuck” Colson: Special Counsel to the President, also known as Nixon’s “hatchet man.” One of the few Nixon people who wasn’t religiously pious, he found God just as he began his eight months behind bars. He did some good work on prison reform, but his was very much a God that agreed with Republicans on most issues. In his mind, Evangelical Christianity and political conservatism fitted hand in glove.
Pat Buchanan: Speechwriter not implicated in any wrong-doing. He was a co-designer of Nixon’s “Southern Strategy.” With the newly enfranchised African-Americans registering with the Democratic Party in the South, the GOP rallied the white majority to the Republican Party. It was combined with a Northern version of the strategy. Though the party’s support base is now almost exclusively white, it regularly accuses the modern multiracial Democratic Party of stirring up racial resentment.
Ron Ziegler: White House press secretary, who famously called the Watergate break-in a “3rd-rate burglary.” Not involved in any illegal activity. He apologized later to the Washington Post; remained close personally to Nixon, in contrast to those who went to jail.
While the scandal was front-page news, he employed a tactic first used by movement conservatives in the late 1950s: put capitalist corporations like CBS, et al, as well as newspapers, many of them owned by Republicans, on the defensive by claiming liberal bias and partisanship. Nixon wasn’t a movement conservative, but he was paranoid about the media, and his press secretary channeled that paranoia most effectively.
Ziegler was also the conduit for the message that if the Democrats wanted to force a patriot and all-around good guy like Nixon from power, then they could expect their presidents to be similarly targeted into the future. And so it proved. Once, impeachment was a process talked about with great solemnity and seriousness; these days, “impeach” is one of the Republicans’ favorite verbs.
Bob Haldeman: Nixon’s chief of staff and most powerful aide. Spent 18 months in prison. Was the first high-ranking official to look at the idea of the party developing its own TV news network. Discussed the possibility with Nixon media consultant Roger Ailes, who owns today’s Fox News and is a major Republican power-broker.
John Mitchell: Former U.S. attorney general and manager of Nixon’s landslide reelection win in 1972. Spent 19 months behind bars. Here we’re in “Follow the Money” territory. A secret campaign slush fund was used to buy the silence of the Watergate burglars and their handlers. Those who followed the money story in the papers would learn that major corporations and industry groups were among the generous campaign donors. There was a big reform push in the wake of Watergate. But much of what was shocking in 1974 is now legal, thanks to the Citizens United and McCutcheon decisions handed by the Supreme Court, with its hand-picked GOP majority.