Fifty years after Watergate, the greatest scandal is looking third rate.
President Nixon waves goodbye from the steps of his helicopter outside the White House on August 9, 1974. AP/Chick Harrity
by Conrad Black
It is 50 years this week that a group of junior level recruits of the Committee to Re-elect the President (Richard Nixon), made a forced entry into the office of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate complex in Washington. They were apprehended without resistance; nothing was stolen, nothing was damaged, no one was hurt.
It was not even the “third-rate burglary” of White House press secretary Ron Ziegler’s description. The intention was to attach wiretaps on the Democrats’ telephones, and President Nixon knew nothing about it. As the ensuing saga unfolded, in my capacity as the publisher of a small semi-urban daily newspaper in Québec with some readers in Vermont, I warned of the dangers of criminalizing policy differences.
I suggested that once this process was begun, impeachments, of which there had been only one in prior American history more than 100 years before (Andrew Johnson unsuccessfully in 1869), they would become as routine as votes of nonconfidence in the parliamentary system, and the legislative branch would undermine the executive branch.
We are gradually accelerating towards that point. From 1789 to 1973, only one presidential impeachment was launched, and from 1973 to 2017, one impeachment was sent to the House and three further impeachments were tried. All were frivolous and vexatious.
There has been an immense Watergate literature, most of it self-serving clap-trap designed to reinforce the righteousness of Nixon’s accusers and to revile Nixon as uniquely morally unqualified for high office who was outed as a horned and cloven-footed monster by a crusading press. Despite this avalanche, there has never been any probative evidence that Nixon himself committed a crime.
Nixon’s own version of events, that he made serious mistakes but broke no criminal laws, has stood up under 50 years of a slowly dissolving consensus of demonization. Nixon’s greatest mistake was in squandering too much political capital by making public assertions that proved to be untrue, especially his assurance to a press conference on March 5, 1974 that he had not authorized any money for the defendants.
Nixon had, but it was to pay their legal fees and help their families, and even in the celebrated instance of Howard Hunt, there has never been conclusive evidence that he was suborning false or altered testimony. In tactical terms he also should either have destroyed the tapes before they were subpoenaed, although that would have been much suspected, or better still, ensured that all taped conversations involving Watergate matters showed him in a favorable light.
If at the outset he had placed a well-respected official in complete charge of the matter and effectively washed his hands of it, it would have embarrassed his administration but left him untouchable. As it was, though, and as it will ultimately be judged, there is no solid evidence that Nixon committed a crime, though a number of people in his entourage did.
The so-called “smoking gun,” consisted of Nixon approving a suggestion of his chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, that Haldeman, chief domestic advisor John Ehrlichman, and White House counsel John Dean ask the director and deputy director of the CIA, Richard Helms and General Vernon Walters, to ask the FBI not to pursue the Watergate investigation because, as most of the Watergate intruders were Cuban exiles who had been involved in anti-Castro activities, this could embarrass the CIA. Nixon said they could make the request if they wished. This was insane, as it was unfeasible and not mainly an FBI matter.
When this section of tape was finally played to Nixon’s counsel, James St. Clair and Fred Buzhardt, they concluded that they could no longer defend the president and they retired from the case. This was unprofessional behavior because the evidence would also reveal that Helms and Walters told their visitors that they would make such a request of the FBI if the president told them to do so but not otherwise.
When informed of this, Nixon told Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Dean that he would make no such request. Richard Helms and Vernon Walters told me on separate occasions that they did not believe that the so-called “smoking gun” constituted a crime, though it certainly showed poor judgment.
After two years of relentless battering, and acutely aware of his own errors in dealing with Watergate, Nixon was effectively overcome by a combination of fatigue, the demoralization of being let down by associates, and abandoned by his own counsel, self-blame for bringing such embarrassment upon the country, his office, his family, and himself, and his high patriotic view that the office of President of the United States should not be subjected to the indignity of an impeachment trial.
The articles of impeachment were bunk: that Nixon had “made it his policy… And acted directly and personally through his close subordinates and agents, to delay, impede, and obstruct the investigation of the Watergate break-in, to cover-up, protect and to conceal the existence and scope of other unlawful covert activities.”
The second article claimed Nixon had “endeavored” to misuse the IRS, (not that he actually had misused it has some of his predecessors had), had not fulfilled his oath faithfully to execute the laws, and had violated the constitutional rights of other citizens, citing wiretaps and alleged abuse of the CIA and FBI. Nixon was in fact much less guilty of such matters, none of which were crimes, then were Franklin D. Roosevelt, J. Edgar Hoover, the Kennedys and Lyndon Johnson, among others.
The third article, which would not have passed, accused Nixon of impeding the impeachment proceedings by non-compliance with the committee subpoenas for 147 tapes. This was outright nonsense.
Article 4, which was rejected but demonstrated the biases of the prosecutor, claimed that Nixon had usurped Congress’s power to declare war by the Cambodian bombing in 1969. Article 5 was an equally fatuous charge about Nixon’s taxes that was unfounded and was not adopted and article 6 was so absurd it did not get to a vote.
If cant and emotionalism had been allowed to subside and a fair trial had been held, Nixon would have been acquitted. If the scores of improper contacts between the presiding trial judge, the special prosecutors, and numerous politicians had come to light, a mistrial would have been declared.
Richard Nixon deserves to be acquitted by history and to be remembered as the first president to be inaugurated without his party being in control of either house of the Congress and to assume the headship of the country that was riven every week with race riots and antiwar riots and had 545,000 draftees in a war at the ends of the earth with no exit strategy and 200 to 400 of them returning every week in body bags.
And he should be remembered for ending the war while maintaining a non-Communist government in South Vietnam that, as was demonstrated in repulsing the great North Vietnamese offensive of April, 1972, could have been sustained with continued American air support.
Nixon should also be remembered for having opened relations with China, negotiated and signed the greatest arms control agreement in history with the USSR, begun a peace process in the Middle East, ended segregation, ended the draft, founded the Environmental Protection Agency, and substantially reduced the crime rate.
The co-chief myth-maker of Watergate, Carl Bernstein, still inflicts himself on us via television, this week accusing Donald Trump of “sedition.” He is as egregious and malicious a fabulist as he was 50 years ago.