Nixon and the Historians: Watergate Anniversary Break-In Edition

June 17, 2012, 12:39 pm

The Watergate Plumbers. Photo Credit: Wally McNamee/Corbis, via History Commons

Forty years ago today five men were sitting in a District of Columbia jail. They were accused of having broken into Democratic National Committee headquarters, a suite of rented rooms in the Watergate office complex which turned out to contain little of value for the Committee to Re-Elect the President (known, incredibly, as CREEP.) But the botched burglary, and most importantly the administration’s determination to cover it up, made history. In 1974, Richard Milhouse Nixon became the first American president to resign from office.

Coordinated by former national security operatives G. Gordon Liddy and Howard E. Hunt, the event was ultimately revealed as one of many illegal operations coming out of the White House. These black ops were intended to ensure Nixon’s re-election and to silence his enemies.  The staff who performed them were known by CREEP and West Wing aides in the know as “the Plumbers” because, among their other functions, they investigated and fixed [political] leaks coming out of the administration. You can read a chronology of the Watergate Scandal, as it came to be known, here.

The irony, of course, is that Nixon’s re-election that fall was hardly in doubt. Even amidst growing evidence of and rumors about the administration’s crimes, the President was returned to office with 60.7% of the popular vote. Part of this was that the Democratic party had absorbed powerful social movements that were pulling it apart, producing 14 primary candidacies in 1972. The field included the eventual candidate, George McGovern, liberal standard bearer of the anti-war movement; two feminists, both of color (Patsy Mink and Shirley Chisholm); two African-American candidates (Chisholm and Walter Fauntroy); a former Vice President (Hubert Humphrey); the powerful western centrist Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson; and a raging segregationist (George Wallace) whose campaign was marred by an assassination attempt that rendered him paraplegic.

I’m going save my personal reflections on Watergate for next summer, the 40th anniversary of the investigation, but let me just say that it was perhaps the galvanizing event in my life as a citizen and my evolution into a student of politics. Nixon resigned before an impeachment vote could be taken, but only after a riveting summer of televised hearings from which a 10th grade Radical could not tear herself away. This moment of crisis, which Chris Hayes has argued in Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy (2012) actually bolstered Americans’ faith in the institutions of democratic government, also led to a rumble of political anti-establishmentarianism. First it led to the election of outsider Democrat James Earl “Jimmy” Carter and then to what would soon be called Reagan Republicanism.

What is shocking in retrospect is that Watergate dealt only a temporary blow to the Republican Party. In the wake of the scandal, the GOP came roaring back in 1980 and held the presidency until 1992.  What Watergate may have achieved is the seismic shift towards movement conservatism within the party that made this comeback possible, a phenomenon which ultimately pushed both parties to the right.  It did irreparable damage to the Northeastern liberal establishment wing of the Republican party. As Rick Perlstein points out in Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (2001) and Nixonland: the Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (2008), the Nixon candidacy had held Goldwater conservatives (who would become Reagan conservatives in the 1970s) at bay.  Although Nixon was a Californian (Reagan, a midwesterner, would become the most persuasively “western” president), it was his move to a white shoe New York law firm in the wake of losses to to John F. Kennedy and Edmund “Pat” Brown that would deliver the fund raising, connections and internationalist profile that returned Nixon from the political death.

Watergate, and his Viet Nam policies, obscure those things which made the New Nixon acceptable to party liberals and noxious to Republican conservatives. Phyllis Schlafly had reported on the control of the GOP nominating process by Eastern elites back in 1964 with A Choice, Not An Echo: the Inside Story of How Presidents Are Chosen.  A self-published volume that Schlafly and her husband sold out of their garage to support the Goldwater candidacy, this widely distributed conservative manifesto predicted that the future of the GOP would be determined by a struggle between the grassroots party and elite, liberal “kingmakers” who controlled nominating conventions. A remarkable document, A Choice, Not An Echo predicts how United States political history would play out for the final third of the twentieth century and beyond. (This struggle may not be over: in 2010, Schlafly charged that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s centrist policies and huge financial resources make him a contemporary kingmaker.)

The history of Watergate may ultimately reveal that Nixon had more enemies than he knew. One thinks of the complex role that Democratic segregationist and the Senate’s leading constitutional expert Sam Ervin played in Nixon’s downfall, for example. The critical history of Watergate is woefully underwritten, in part because the Nixon family has, until recently, kept important materials out of the public domain. For many years, the Nixon family competed with the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA): the presidential library and museum in Yorba Linda, CA was privately funded and maintained, and kept records affecting Nixon’s reputation closed. Since NARA assumed control of the collection in 2007, many of these records are being processed and released, and new ones, particularly oral histories, are being generated.

Until then, how to prepare for next summer?  I would suggest, in addition to Rick Perlstein’s books, David Greenberg’s marvelous Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image (2003), which shows how Nixon learned to turn a changing media environment to his advantage but was never fully able to control it. For rip-roaring fun, there is Thomas Mallon’s fictional Watergate: A Novel (2012), which tells the story of the scandal from the point of view of Nixon’s staff and political accomplices.

Mallon’s book provides a particularly forceful portrait of Rose Mary Woods, the loyal secretary who — in the novel, mind you — is directly responsible for the “gaps” in the tapes that ultimately forced Nixon’s resignation. Watergate portrays the president as a curiously passive figure, cleaning up after other people’s errors, rather than generating the vast, paranoid conspiracy that we have come to know.  Differently, Ann Beattie’s Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life (2011) tries to imagine what perhaps the most enigmatic figure, the First Lady, might have thought and wanted as her husband drowned his family in tragedy.  Beattie’s book, neither fact nor fiction, is a useful read for historians as well, as she turns her central character this way and that, imagining different motivations for her actions and events that may (or may not) have occurred.

Of course, this is barely a start: Amazon lists 10,376 results for “Nixon” so, even allowing for hardback, paper and Kindle copies of the same text, you had better get going.  Are there any reader favorites?

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