Stanley Kutler: 35 Years After Nixon

Roundup: Talking About History

[Stanley Kutler is the author The Wars of Watergate (Norton), Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes (Free Press), The American Inquisition: Cold War Political Trials (Hill & Wang), and numerous other books and articles.]

President Richard Nixon resigned on Aug. 9, 1974, in the wake of the Watergate scandal and the revelations of his “abuses of power” and obstruction of justice. For his involvement in criminal activities, Nixon earned his unique epitaph: an unindicted co-conspirator.

As the nation watched events unfold from 1972 to 1974, a host of then-famous names passed before us: Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Dean, Mitchell, Colson, Haig, Ziegler, Liddy, Hunt, Kleindienst, Magruder, Agnew, and so on. But the burglars, assorted presidential aides, congressional investigators and prosecutors now have faded into the mists of history—spear carriers at best. Only the principal remains in our consciousness for his achievements and his misdeeds.

In 1974, more than 30 hours of White House tapes proved sufficient to force Nixon’s resignation in the face of certain impeachment. In succeeding years, Nixon maintained that his tapes would exonerate him, yet he fought doggedly (and expensively) to prevent access to the remaining several thousand hours.

Eventually, a successful 1996 lawsuit forced the liberation of his remaining tapes, and secured wide public access to them. The new tapes have magnified and pinpointed Nixon’s criminal liabilities. He openly discussed “hush money” payments to the arrested Watergate burglar E. Howard Hunt, one of his “plumbers,” a secret group engaged in break-ins and other illegal activities. H.R. Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, reported on Aug. 1, 1972, that “Hunt’s happy.” “At considerable cost,” the president replied. And then hastily added: “It’s worth it. They have to be paid. That’s all there is to that.” He knew that Hunt “had done a lot of things.” He worried that Hunt’s “plumbers’ ” work—his “earlier venture,” according to Nixon—might be exposed.

Nixon was both aware of the cover-up and was a participant in it from the outset, as the famous “smoking gun” tape of June 23, 1972, long ago revealed. He discussed the cover-up constantly throughout the next year. Haldeman told him that John Dean was “watching it on an almost full-time basis” and reporting to him and John Erhlichman, another principal Nixon aide. Haldeman assured Nixon that the investigation of Watergate was proceeding “along the channels that will not produce the kind of answers we don’t want produced.” On obstruction of justice, the tapes are clear.

Nixon’s famous March 21, 1973, meeting with Dean (“There is a cancer on the presidency”) has been variously interpreted. Either Dean told an uninformed Nixon of the full scope of the cover-up (as Nixon contended) or, more likely, he merely summarized whatever the president knew. In any event, no sooner had Dean left the Oval Office than Nixon called in his longtime secretary, Rose Mary Woods, and told her he “may have a need for substantial cash for a personal purpose”—Woods had several hundred thousand dollars of “campaign contributions” in her office. Nixon acknowledged that his good friend Thomas Pappas “has raised the money.” Haldeman laconically added: “And he’s able to deal in cash.” Later, Nixon thanked Pappas for his aid “on some of these things that … others are involved in.”

Nixon learned as early as October 1972 that Mark Felt had leaked FBI field reports to The Washington Post, a “secret” known since 1997 with the first release of new tapes. But Haldeman told him, “If we move on him, he’ll go out and unload everything. He knows everything that’s to be known in the FBI.” Nixon agreed and then, trying to fathom Felt’s motivation, he and Haldeman concluded that Felt was Jewish (he was not) and that explained his leaking of the information.

On April 30, 1973, Nixon dismissed his top aides. He spent several hours in telephone conversations that evening, making remarks uncharacteristically emotional, distraught, poignant and sprinkled with slurred words. At one point, he told the fired Haldeman, “I love you, Bob.” A few days later, he lamented to his press secretary, “It’s all over, do you know that?”

Nixon’s tragic fate was self-inflicted. In the literary sense, he was a comic figure—“I am not a crook” is popular shorthand for a reflection on his life. The comic side reflects his awkwardness, and that awkwardness resulted in fatal isolation. He was constantly at odds with himself, allowing hate and suspicion of others to consume him, and this sent his career crashing into ruins. Nixon’s conflicts and hates fueled his drive for power, and they eventually unraveled his authority. There was no “new Nixon” after all; he was the same man who had played on our public stage for so many years. In the end, Nixon delivered his most revealing insight into himself: “[T]hose that hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.”

Partisans and historians will long argue over Nixon’s presidential record; they similarly will divide over how to measure his impact on American political style and life. But Nixon’s ignoble end indisputably left a disturbing legacy for that political life. Today, we speak of presidential abuses of power as being “worse than Watergate” in their contempt for lawful processes and the rule of law. The “lessons” and meaning of Richard Nixon remain exquisitely relevant.

Watergate persists as Nixon’s nemesis. For it is Watergate and the unprecedented spectacle of a presidential resignation that most set him apart. Neither Nixon nor we can escape that history. The 35th anniversary of Richard Nixon’s resignation once again raises his name and his memory, and reminds us of who and what he was. “For hateful deeds committed by myself! I am a villain: yet I lie. I am not,” Shakespeare’s Richard III declared. Watergate remains Nixon’s burden and our legacy.

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Maarja Krusten - 8/14/2009

Mr. Hughes, your argument seems to come down to (1) everybody does it and (2) Nixon was brought down by those who disliked his anti-Communism and political or policy stances. However, it is entirely possible to regret or condemn some what Nixon did in the abuses of governmental power (they go beyond Watergate) and still be a staunch anti-Communist of the type that voted Republican during the Cold War. I’m one such person.

As someone who worked on Nixon’s campaign in 1968 while in high school and voted for him in 1972, I have a different take on this, one that relates to the nexus of leadership and politics. At its core, Nixon’s failure was a failure of stewardship.

It doesn’t matter what policy objectives you have (and many of Nixon’s were good) if you cannot achieve sustainability. A President has governmental obligations but he also has political ones. Among the political objectives is the goal of keeping his party in power, of helping elect a successor of the same party who will build on his legacy. You have to build capital, not throw it away. You cannot become so distracted by personal or political grievances so as to destroy your political capital. Or so convinced of the rightness of your objectives that you lose sight of the need to convince the public of them. The public is in the mix, members get to vote on who succeeds you. (The article at
suggests that George W. Bush understood this better than his Vice President did.) If you lose the support of the public, and they vote in to office a President of the other party, you’ve failed that part of the stewardship obligation.

You can see the weakness of Nixon’s approach in some of Spiro Agnew’s speeches. If you blame the press or blame the public or blame the other party, you cannot learn from your mistakes. (This applies to both political parties.) If a woman divorces her husband, and he sits in a bar and laments to buddies that he made a good living, had a nice house, and went to church every Sunday, she had no reason to leave, he’s unlikely to find success in a new relationship. It’s the person who looks inward and works through what had gone awry in the failed earlier relationship with a desire to learn – looks at it from the perspective of both spouses -- who has the better chance of achieving success in the future. There’s a reason why Step 4 of the 12 step program has as its goal, “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”

There are many barriers to self awareness and doing inventories in the Whiate House. Maintaining perspective in the White House is difficult. A President has power, but he also is vulnerable to being weakened by the temptation to reach for political crutches most people don’t use in their jobs (demagoguery, blame shifting, situational ethics, failure to man up and demonstrate a belief in accountability.) Also keep in mind that the President is surrounded at the senior levels by at-will employees. It is his obligation to enable them to speak truth to power, to be honest brokers, but most Presidents struggle to create the right tone at the top in this area.

Nixon had a tendency to vent and let off steam in private. Sometimes he asked for things he should not have asked for. (That he demanded the identification and removal from their positions of some Jewish civil servants – Nixon referred to them as a “cabal” -- in the Bureau of Labor Statistics was a vast over reaction to a bureau official’s timing in releasing some economic data. That aides complied vastly weakened Nixon, it didn’t help him. It’s reasoned and selective pushback by senior staff, not compliance, which strengthens Presidents.). Nixon’s chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, actually sometimes listened to the President’s less well considered orders and walked away determined to ignore them, until he cooled down and thought better of them. (Carl Bernstein offers some interesting observations on the role of the White House chief of staff in his book, A Woman in Charge.) Haldeman was willing to absorb Nixon’s anger at times until he cooled down. That Haldeman felt the need to catch heat from Nixon, his boss (“have you done it yet? Why not? Get it done”) until he reconsidered (“You haven’t done it yet? Just as well”) suggests a serious problem in and of itself.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 8/13/2009

This conservative has never been persuaded the criminality of Nixon was any greater than the criminality of Kennedy and Johnson, despite the endless attempts to pretend it was. Johnson was guilty of election fraud and venality, amassing a large fortune while on the public payroll. Kennedy was guilty of election fraud, IRS manipulation, and had a penchant for international murder, too, both in Indo-China and in Cuba. Neither man's reputation could have survived the high scrutiny applied to Richard Nixon any better than Richard Nixon's did. And the back rooms of both Kennedy and Johnson administrations heard just as many four-letter words as Nixon's ever did, and much more contempt for the American people, too.

It was Nixon with George Wallace in 1968 who combined to take 60% of the vote to only 40% for Hubert Humphrey, finally breaking forever the stranglehold of the FDR coalition. This was a very bitter defeat for liberals, who previously considered the victory of war-hero Eisenhower just an aberration in their steady march to a socialist utopia. So they set out to destroy Nixon with more fury than ever, but they did not "get" him until his second term.

Nixon had been the their bete noir long before the Watergate break-in and cover-up. They could never forgive him for exposing communist subversives high in the Roosevelt and Truman administrations. Their hatred continues today, in no small measure, because Nixon succeeded so well in attaching the "soft on communism" label to the Democratic Party which is still a great impediment to the electoral progress of such people as John F. Kerry and Barack Obama--60 years after the Hiss case.

Anti-Nixon hysteria has also served to identify the liberal media, the liberal slant of Hollywood, and the liberal bias of the Ivy League in the public mind. This should bother some wiser members of all three groups, especially since the trend has been to reveal more truth, as we saw with the recent Sam Tanenhaus book. The market for anti-Nixonism seems to be contracting sharply.