Lessons From Watergate

Michael Kurth Thursday, January 23, 2020 Comments Off on Lessons From Watergate
Lessons From Watergate

In the summer of 1972, I was living in the Washington, D.C. area when Richard Nixon was running for re-election against George McGovern, a far-left senator for South Dakota. My first wife, Jette, and I were Nixon supporters, so we decided to go down to Nixon’s campaign headquarters and volunteer our services. I was assigned to put stamps on envelopes (in those days that involved a lot of licking), but Jette had office skills, so they sent her to work in the office of Maurice Stans, the finance chairman for Nixon’s re-election committee. Jette didn’t sit in on any high-level meetings, but one can pick up a lot of gossip in the coffee-break room.

On June 17, five men were caught breaking into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate complex. Among the items they had on them were $2,300 in sequentially numbered hundred dollar bills that the police traced to the Committee to Re-elect the President. Nixon denied any knowledge of the break-in, but Maurice Stans would later admit to providing Nixon with one million dollars in cash that Nixon kept in his White House safe, although Stans claimed he had no knowledge of how Nixon used that money.  

As the saga of Watergate unfolded over that summer and fall, what I recall of the gossip my wife brought home was that there was little doubt the trail led back to the safe in Nixon’s office. But the question everyone was asking was “why would the president do such a thing?” The 1972 presidential election was not close. Nixon would receive 61 percent of the popular vote compared to 38 percent for McGovern. In the Electoral College, the vote was 520 to 17. (The only state McGovern carried was Massachusetts.)

I’m still puzzled by why Nixon found it necessary to dispatch his “plumbers” to break into the Headquarters of the DNC — an act analogous to hacking the DNC computers today.  Remember, computers were not in common usage back in ‘72: records were kept in filing cabinets, not on hard drives (the “plumbers” had 40 rolls of film with them for photographing DNC files); and communication was not made by email or text message, but via landline phones. (The “plumbers” were also in the headquarters to plant listening devices in the DNC’s phones).

Nixon described the Watergate burglary as a “bizarre incident” and denied any involvement, while Republican loyalists dismissed it as a “dirty trick” — typical of politics at that time. But Nixon’s landslide victory did not translate down the ballot to Congress, where the Democrats retained control of the House 242 to 192 and the Senate 56 to 42. Early in 1973, the Senate and the House Judiciary Committee both launched investigations into the Watergate affair, with the Senate hearings broadcast live to the nation by PBS.

While Americans were glued to their TV sets watching the Senate hearings, another scandal arose. Nixon’s Vice President, Spiro Agnew, was the former governor of Maryland. An investigation by the Maryland State Police revealed that Agnew had received kickbacks for construction contracts while he was governor and the payments continued even after he became vice president. The urgency of this matter was clear: if Nixon were removed from office, Agnew would become the president. Although Agnew denied any wrongdoing, he accepted a deal that would allow him to escape prison time if he resigned the vice presidency, clearing the way for Gerald Ford, the Minority Leader of the House of Representatives, to become vice president.

Throughout the Watergate investigations, most Republican congressmen and senators stood behind Nixon as he stone-walled, denied and lied about his involvement in the crime. The Democrats had no “smoking gun,” they said. But then came the testimony of Nixon aide Andrew Butterfield, who revealed that Nixon tape-recorded all his conversations in the White House Oval Office.  Nixon claimed executive privilege and refused to turn over the tapes, but the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that he had to release them to congressional investigators.  

That was pretty much the end of Nixon’s presidency. Sen. Barry Goldwater, House Minority Leader John Rhodes and Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott met with Nixon and told him that he faced all-but-certain impeachment, conviction and removal from office by the Senate, and said it would be best for him and the country if he would resign and let Gerald Ford grant him a pardon once he became president. Thus, on August 9, 1974, Nixon addressed the nation and resigned as president.

There are several take-aways from the Watergate affair that are relevant to what’s going on today with Donald Trump’s impeachment. One is that the Watergate burglary occurred five months before the election. Everyone knew Nixon was somehow involved —it was the subject of countless jokes on late-night TV shows — but the voters didn’t care; at least not very much.  They didn’t go to the polls to vote for Nixon; they went to vote against George McGovern and his vision of a socialistic America. (Are you listening, Democrats?)

Another take-away is that the articles of impeachment approved by the House Judiciary Committee were not for the crime of breaking into the DNC headquarters, but for obstruction of justice, abuse of power and contempt of Congress. It has often been suggested — and I believe with some validity — that if Nixon had come clean and admitted his role in Watergate before the election and been contrite about it, he would not have been impeached. But Nixon was paranoid and thought the media was after him (which it was), so he dug in and denied everything.

Finally, there is that lingering question of why Nixon felt the need to break into DNC headquarters in the first place. I think a similar question can be asked about Donald Trump’s obsession with proving Ukraine, not Russia, meddled in our election and demanding Ukraine investigate the Bidens. In doing so, he chose to believe Vladimir Putin over the reports of all of our intelligence services.

Although Trump’s election was largely unexpected and he failed to win the popular vote, he won in the Electoral College, and that is all that matters. Moreover, several investigations have found that while the Russians meddled in the 2016 election, their meddling did not affect the outcome.

Similarly, the Mueller investigation found no evidence the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians. That should have been the end of it. Trump doesn’t need to disprove allegations that he stole the 2016 election from Hillary Clinton … but he just can’t let it go. The voters don’t care about Ukraine; most of them don’t even know where it is. A simple mea culpa — “I’m new to this job, I overstepped my boundaries, I won’t do it again” — would have put an end to it. But now we have a constitutional crisis.  If witnesses are called in a Senate trial, will there be another Andrew Butterfield moment?  That is what Mitch McConnell and other Republican senators fear.

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