25 years later, a presidency never the same
WASHINGTON — Richard nixon's watch stopped on the last night he slept in the White House. At 6:00 a.m., thinking it was still the wee hours, he awoke and padded to the kitchen for a snack. Surprised to find cooks on the job, he ordered up a hearty breakfast of hash and eggs to fortify himself for the day to come.
Hours later - on Aug. 9, 1974, 25 years ago today - Nixon resigned the office of President of the United States, and the clock stopped on a whole political era. Never again would the people's and press's faith in government be quite the same.
Watergate and its aftermath remain arguably the most important domestic political event of the post-war period. The attitudes and institutions spawned in the crucial time of the mid-1970s have affected every US chief executive since - none more so than the current occupant of the office.
Bill Clinton's impeachment travails can be seen, in a way, as Watergate's second act. In the Lewinsky matter, post-Nixon politics collided with presidential misdeeds which were serious, yet different from those of Watergate. Twenty-five years from now the nation may still argue about whether Clinton got what he deserved.
"What has lingered on [from the Nixon experience] is the suspicion of government," says George McGovern, Nixon's 1972 election opponent. "We won't get over it in the foreseeable future."
Nixon himself remains one of the most fascinating characters in US politics. With former Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, he transformed the Republican party from a club of eastern establishment figures to a conservative movement centered in the south and west. Yet he was far from an ideologue. He opened relations with China, approved environmental laws, and even opted for wage and price controls to try to strangle inflation.
At a time when politicians were already rising or falling on their television appearance, he was gratingly uncharismatic. Yet the force of his will and intellect won him two presidential elections. With his great promise and dark paranoia he was Shakespearean. Today's politicians can appear Seinfeldian by comparison.
"There was great resistance to him no matter what he did ... I think ultimately he'll be viewed substantially less harshly than he was at the time," says his last chief of staff, Gen. Alexander Haig.
Perhaps. Yet it's hard to remember today how quickly support for Nixon collapsed. On Aug. 5, the White House released the transcript of a tape which proved that six days after the Watergate break-in the president himself had tried to get the CIA to stop the FBI from investigating the matter. It was a clear example of obstruction of justice.
On Aug. 7, Senator Goldwater and other senior Republican leaders went to the Oval Office and told the embattled Nixon that the Senate would vote to remove him from office, if it came to that.
On Aug. 9, after speaking to his staff, he was gone. He ceased to be president at 11:35 a.m, when Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was handed his resignation letter. At the time, Nixon was airborne, on his way to his San Clemente, Calif., home.
One of the legacies of this whole experience may be a reassertion of congressional authority. Nixon's handling of the Vietnam War was already causing lawmakers to complain about what was then called the Imperial Presidency.
After Watergate, lawmakers felt far less need to defer to the office of the presidency as the symbolic head of the nation. The congressional creation of a host of new oversight institutions, from campaign finance limits to the independent counsel law, was just one part of this watchfulness.
The events which led to Nixon's resignation "created an enduring aura of suspicion we are still dealing with," says Mr. McGovern.
That is certainly true on the part of the press. Nixon's resignation marked both a decline in credulity in the media, and a democratization of its ranks.
Before Nixon, chief executives could lunch with big-name columnists and believe they had the press under control. Then a pair of dogged Washington Post metro section reporters, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, helped bring a president down. When Nixon gave his resignation speech, Bernstein and Woodward weren't celebrating at a Georgetown soiree. They were eating bologna sandwiches from the Post cafeteria.
One humorist wrote that presidents should now most fear reporters that eat at McDonald's, not state dinners. Bill Clinton's experience bears this out: It was mid-level Newsweek newshound Michael Isikoff, along with the Internet columnist Matt Drudge, who broke stories about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky.
But it is the legal institutions through which post-Watergate watchfulness has been filtered that have had the greatest impact on post-Nixon presidents. The Independent Counsel act created a virtual inspector general of the presidency, subjecting chief executives to lengthy investigations.
The experience of Bill Clinton, say some experts, showed that Congress in some instances overreacted to Watergate.
"It's a bad bet when we've tried to find alternative procedures" to basic constitutional protections, says John Barrett, a former Iran-contra investigator who is now a professor of law at St. John's University.
In the end, even Kenneth Starr felt that independent counsels were not an effective hammer to control all presidential misdeeds, and the law authorizing them has now been allowed to expire. It will now be up to the Attorney General to police the presidency, as before.
Some post-Watergate reforms have become entrenched parts of American politics. The flow of campaign money is now open for all to see, even if contribution limits established in the late 1970s have been largely circumvented. Freedom of Information laws have made government more accountable at all US levels.
And both Watergate and the Lewinsky matter demonstrate that the US system works - that it is resilient in the face of crisis. In one case, the structure of the Constitution led to the ouster of a president. In another, it led to his acquittal. Some say with the economy booming, Americans were reluctant to remove Clinton from office. Others point out that the gravity of Nixon's offense, and his own taped words, created a once-in-lifetime situation.
"What led Nixon to resign was a level of proof and evident that stands apart," says John Barrett. "It was one extraordinary thing and we have not seen anything else like it."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society