Politics & Policy

A Farce at Forty

Reexamining Watergate, amid the continuing media outbursts

Over the summer, the 40th anniversary of the resignation of President Richard Nixon and President Gerald Ford’s pardon of him passed, not, unfortunately, without the usual clangorous outburst of self-righteous claptrap and exercises in pseudo-historical mind-reading and amateur psychoanalysis. Many years ago, I happened to have dinner with the former president a few days after the New York Times had run another speculation about his psychological make-up and, when I volunteered that he probably didn’t enjoy these pieces, though he must by then have been used to them, he replied that the first such published insight into his psyche was in a California newspaper when he was only a second-term congressman. Nixon said: “The author committed suicide a few years ago, which, though unfortunate, confirmed me in my original view that her mental equilibrium was a good deal less stable than mine was.”

Even my distinguished friend George Will got into the act this year, by suggesting that Nixon may have resigned to avoid having to deal with his recorded instruction to his chief aide, Bob Haldeman, to break into the liberal Brookings Institution and “clean out the safe.” This was, to say the least, a bad idea, and even Haldeman, who had no shortage of improvident brainwaves himself, ignored this particular instruction. But that is the point: It was never attempted; the release of the tape containing that order to Haldeman was certainly an embarrassment, and is a disturbing impulse from the holder of so great an office, but people are not impeached and removed from an office to which they have been elected (in this case by the greatest plurality in American history, 18 million votes), for voicing an insane thought, even when that thought, if enacted, would have been a very serious crime.

The same could be said of the so-called smoking gun, which precipitated Nixon’s resignation and was effectively the last straw to a public that had been whipped into a righteous frenzy by a media campaign that seized upon and magnified every instance of Nixon’s uncharacteristically inept handling of the whole series of revelations and allegations that started with the forced entry of the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington. Aides suggested that they ask the director and deputy director of the CIA (Richard Helms and Vernon Walters) to intervene with the FBI to stop the Watergate investigation for the stated reason that it could back into CIA covert operations against Cuba in which some of the Watergate intruders had once been involved. It was a tawdry as well as an insane proposal, and even if successful would not have accomplished anything because the investigation was being carried out by District of Columbia ​police. But Helms and Walters said they would do so if ordered by the president himself to make that request, and when informed of this, Nixon declined to give any such order and told his aides not to proceed. This was a contemptible and foolish idea, but it was not pressed or acted upon, and did not constitute obstruction of justice, or anything that justified disemboweling a presidency.

One of the more irritating anniversary comments was a piece in the Wall Street Journal commending President Ford for pardoning Nixon. It was annoying not because its conclusion was mistaken, but because of the sanctimonious presumptions that were invoked in support of the intelligent conclusion that Ford was in all respects correct to issue the pardon. The op-ed piece, which was published on September 6, was written by Ken Gormley, dean of law at Duquesne University and author of a biography of Archibald Cox, Watergate special prosecutor and former solicitor general of the United States, and David Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The authors claim that, in accepting the pardon, Nixon “acknowledged his guilt.” He did not; he maintained all his subsequent life of 20 years that he had made serious errors but had not committed illegalities. Their authority is a 1915 case that found that a presidential pardon carried “an imputation of guilt.” It may, but it does not necessarily do so, or at least not an irreversible imputation of guilt.

These authors also assert that President Ford had not made a deal with the president who appointed him vice president and then stood aside to elevate him to the presidency, trading a pardon for the country’s two national offices over ten months. Many pundits as well as the dense ranks of Nixon’s opponents (they almost completely overlapped for a long time), screamed this at the time, including relatively sober commentators such as Joseph Alsop, but there was never a shred of evidence of it and such a thought arose only in the perfervidly malignant atmosphere confected by the anti-Nixon media, with, it must be admitted, what amounted to the cooperation of Nixon himself in his incompetent handling of the issues from the Watergate intrusion of June 1972, right up to his resignation in August 1974. Of course there was no such arrangement, the suggestion of it was always scurrilous and defamatory of both presidents, and to proclaim triumphantly 40 years later that they are now free of that suspicion is fatuous.

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These authors also claim that Ford acted to “preserve American history.” But there was never any suggestion that Nixon, having complied with the Supreme Court order to hand over the tapes of his private conversations, would destroy any documents. As was ultimately determined by the courts, when cant and emotionalism had finally subsided to manageable levels, Richard Nixon had the same right as other presidents to presidential materials, and the intervention of the Congress to deny him that access was illegal, just as the IRS’s revocation of its previous agreement on the tax treatment of his contribution of his vice-presidential papers, which mirrored what other vice presidents had done, was illegal, and was, in effect, an act of theft, as the government retained the papers. (Could anyone today imagine that the IRS had any lessons in ethics to give Richard Nixon or any other taxpayer?) Richard Nixon had to build his own presidential library, with the financial support of many thousands of admirers throughout the country and in every walk of life, and litigate to gain possession of papers that were his by right. The scandal in this aspect of the Watergate controversy is that it has taken 40 years for even a dean of law to realize that Gerald Ford was an honest man. But to judge from this piece, it may take some while longer for him to realize that Richard Nixon did not cease to possess any rights over what is traditionally a president’s property, with an obligation to preserve it, with or without a pardon for offenses of which he was never officially accused.

The authors are of course correct to endorse President Ford’s action, and it was to the Kennedys’ credit that Edward Kennedy and others awarded him the Profile in Courage Award in 2001 for granting Nixon the pardon (which Senator Kennedy, a renowned pillar of official probity, had opposed at the time). If even Teddy Kennedy figured that out 13 years ago, one wonders why it is still judged a ponderously weighty conclusion today. Mr. Gormley’s book about Archibald Cox was subtitled “Conscience of a Nation.” I think not. (That was the title of egregious former Irish prime minister Charles Haughey’s autobiography, with no more justification.) Cox was a well-qualified lawyer but he was a raving partisan Kennedy Democrat whose interest from beginning to end was the lynching of the man from whom the Kennedys probably stole the 1960 presidential election to put themselves in the White House (and install Cox as solicitor general). He was so far from America’s conscience that, when President George H. W. Bush obtained congressional approval for the great alliance that forced Saddam Hussein to disgorge the state of Kuwait that he had seized, Cox wrote to the governments of the member-states of the United Nations urging them not to cooperate with the U.S. Most U.N countries approved the alliance action and it has never been clear to me why Cox was not accused, even if only informally, of violating the Logan Act and trying to conduct American foreign policy as a private citizen without authority or standing to do so. (This first intervention in Iraq is almost universally considered to have been justified and successful; it lasted only a few days on the ground and the allies incurred very few casualties.)

At some point, even if it is the centenary or bicentenary of Watergate, America is going to have to realize that there was never an adequate reason to drive from office one of the country’s most successful presidents. Richard Nixon extracted the country from the Vietnam War while preserving a non-Communist government in Saigon, reopened relations with China, signed the greatest arms-control agreement in history with the USSR, founded the Environmental Protection Agency, ended school segregation without recourse to the mad, court-ordered busing of schoolchildren all around metropolitan areas for racial ”balance,” ended the draft, stopped the endless riots and skyjackings, started the Mideast peace process, and calmed the nation, which rewarded him with a mighty landslide reelection. There is some legitimate question about his motives in advancing funds to Watergate defendants, but there has never been what a proper court of justice could call a clear case that Nixon committed crimes.

Watergate delivered Indochina to the North Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge; unleashed the USSR in Angola, Central America, and Afghanistan, poisoned the wells of American public life to this day; fragmented the national media; and undoubtedly helped reduce the quality of candidates for high offices, including the presidency (vide the last four elections). Forty years after this shameful travesty, and long after Woodward and his claque have been exposed as all-season mythmakers, much of American opinion is still sleepwalking through a stilted morality play and congratulating itself on the inexorable workings of its democracy. The distinguished British writer Muriel Spark was much closer to the truth when she allegorized it as the theft of a thimble in a convent in her book The Abbess of Crewe. As George Stade, head of the English department of Columbia College, wrote in the New York Times 40 years ago next month (October 20, 1974), Ms. Spark was the first writer to demonstrate that the Watergate affair was, in fact, “a farce.” The farce lingers yet.

— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, A Matter of Principle, and Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies That Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership. He can be reached at cbletters@gmail.com.

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