It was 40 years ago this week, yet the biggest scandal in America’s history has not faded from memory. Watergate was unraveled by sound journalism and, ultimately, by the workings of the American constitution. Americans do well to revisit this unique chapter in history.
The ultimate success of bringing a corrupt president to resign had a lot to do with an underlying tenet of the U.S. constitution– bipartisanship. Republican President Richard Nixon did not resign because the Democratic party was out to get him for approving clandestine efforts to spy, bug, burglarize and defame opponents.
America survived Watergate because the Republican leadership in Congress and members of the Nixon administration drew a line between the exercise of power and respect of the U.S. constitution. After doing so, they worked with the Democratic leadership and majority in Congress.
Not long after Nixon’s overwhelming re-election in 1972, the five Watergate burglars appeared in front of Judge Sirica’s (a registered Republican) and severe sentences were imposed. The judgment prompted one of the accused–James McCord, formerly of the CIA–to divulge the larger conspiracy.
The Special Senate Watergate Committee composed of Democrats and Republicans began hearings in 1973 that put on display the extent of the conspiracy. The ranking Republican, Senator Howard Baker (a moderate), asked probing questions: How much did the president know? And when did he know it?
In the spring of 1973, a Republican aide, Alexander Butterfield, divulged the existence of a White House taping system that corroborated much of the testimony. The latter, who resisted the release of the tapes and actually fired two attorney generals in the process–Elliot Richardson and William Ruckelshaus in the famous Saturday Night Massacre–was soon on the path to impeachment.
In the spring and summer of 1974, the House Committee charged with investigating the scandal considered some articles of impeachment. A compromising tape disclosure was followed by a visit from influential Republican Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, who made it abundantly clear to the president that he would not survive an impeachment trial.
Nixon resigned Aug. 9, 1974.
Gerald Ford was sworn in as U.S. president and within a month, issued a presidential pardon, The controversial decision may have cost him the 1976 election. However, history sees Ford’s gesture as one of healing. Nixon never recovered his glory, and history still regards him more for Watergate than his many accomplishments.
Sirica, Baker, Goldwater, Richardson, Ruckelshaus and Ford were all Republicans. They had to deal with a president who won 49 of 50 states in 1972 and could boast of such major achievements as détente with the USSR, an end to U.S. involvement in Vietnam, full diplomatic recognition to Communist China, the creation of Amtrak and EPA and the start of a Mideast peace process. Yet Republicans and Democrats were inspired by ethics and the spirit of the constitution to place justice above the retention of power while they worked together.
In so doing, they saved the Republican party. Make no mistake, the crimes were serious and deeply imbedded. Nixon committed a constitutional coup d’état against his own government. But bipartisanship triumphed and members of both parties worked together for the greater good.
Many in the U.S. long for days in which principle wins over expediency and polarization gives way to compromise — days in which being American is more important than being a Republican or Democrat.
A look at the Watergate scandal 40 years later provides hope.