Extract 6: The Great Cover-Up

by Barry Sussman

Page 293

President Richard Nixon
“I want you all to stonewall it, let them plead the Fifth Amendment, cover up, or anything else,” Richard Nixon said privately to his closest associates on March 22, 1973. Publicly, on April 17, 1973, when this picture was taken, the President said,”I condemn any attempts to cover up in this case, no matter who is involved.”
(THE WASHINGTON POST)

Almost until the end, Nixon fought to dodge impeachment or resignation. His last tactic was to have members of Congress judge him not on evidence of his complicity in one or more aspects of scandal, but on the question of whether the nation could afford to lose him as president. Nixon, the theme went, was needed. The position was formally articulated on July 22, 1974, when the assistant minority counsel to the House Judiciary Committee told committee members, “The question is, did the President do it, and if so, what are the implications of that for the nation in light of all competing interests?”

In the last week of July, 1974, as the Judiciary Committee held its final deliberations in lengthy and spellbinding televised sessions, it was apparent that this strategy had failed to move all but a few members of the committee. Nixon had given little in the way of assistance to the Judiciary Committee, generally defying their counsel’s requests and subpoenas for evidence. Nevertheless, the committee, working largely from material gathered in earlier investigations by other bodies, presented an overwhelming case against him in the form of three articles of impeachment.

Each article stated that Nixon had violated “his constitutional oath faithfully to execute the office of the President of the United States” and “his constitutional duty to take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”

Article One charged that Nixon, “using the powers of his high office, engaged personally and through his subordinates and agents in a course of conduct or plan designed to delay, impede, and obstruct the investigation of such unlawful entry (the Watergate break-in); to cover up, conceal and protect those responsible; and to conceal the existence and scope of other unlawful covert activities.”

The article charged that one or more of nine means had been used to implement such conduct, including making or causing false or misleading statements to investigators; withholding evidence; “approving, condoning, acquiescing in, and counseling witnesses” to make false or misleading statements; interfering or attempting to interfere with investigations of the Justice Department, the FBI, the office of the Watergate Special Prosecutor and congressional committees; approving payment of “substantial sums” of money to buy silence or influence the testimony of witnesses or others involved in illegal entry or other illegal activities; attempting to misuse the Central Intelligence Agency; disseminating Justice Department information to subjects of investigations to help them avoid criminal liability; making false and misleading statements to deceive the American people into believing that a thorough and complete investigation had been held, and endeavoring to cause prospective defendants and convicted individuals to expect favored treatment in return for their silence or false testimony.

Article Two charged that Nixon “has repeatedly engaged in conduct violating the constitutional right of citizens, impairing due and proper administration of justice in the conduct of lawful inquiries, of contravening the law of governing agencies to the executive branch and the purposes of these agencies.” The second article dealt with Watergate and also with Nixon’s role in other matters that had been uncovered as the great coverup collapsed. Included were charges dealing with abuse of the Internal Revenue Service, the FBI, the Secret Service and “other executive personnel;” the practice of unlawful electronic wiretapping; the creation and continuance of the White House special investigative unit (the plumbers); the failure to act when he knew that aides had behaved illegally, and the misuse of executive power by interfering with agencies of the executive branch.

Article Three held that the President should be impeached for his refusal to comply with Judiciary Committee subpoenas. “In refusing to produce these papers and things,” the article stated, “Richard M. Nixon, substituting his judgment as to what materials were necessary for the inquiry, interposed the powers of the Presidency against the lawful subpoenas of the House of Representatives, thereby assuming for himself functions and judgments necessary to the exercise of the sole power of impeachment vested by the Constitution in the House of Representatives.”

During the months of closed deliberations of the Judiciary Committee, most members refrained publicly from drawing any conclusions on the evidence the committee staff had assembled. That changed dramatically in the televised sessions as the proposed bill of particulars was drawn, and at the end of each impeachment article, this language appeared: “In all of this, Richard M. Nixon has acted in a manner contrary to his trust as President and subversive of constitutional government, to the great prejudice of the cause of law and justice, and to the manifest injury of the people of the United States.

“Wherefore, Richard M. Nixon, by such conduct, warrants impeachment and trial and removal from office.”

Page 298

On Thursday, August 8, 1974, a drizzly and gloomy day in Washington, D.C., Richard Milhous Nixon, the thirty-seventh President of the United States, announced his resignation from office. The man who for five and a half years had held the highest position in the world’s mightiest nation had been driven out of power.

That evening, in his last televised address as President to the American people, Nixon referred only briefly to the scandal that had destroyed his career. “I regret deeply any injuries that may have been done in the course of events that led to this decision,” he said. “I would say only that if some of my judgments were wrong—and some were wrong—they were made in the best interests of the nation.”

Four times in his sixteen-minute talk Nixon referred to “the good of the nation” as his sole motivation in twenty-eight years of making decisions in public life. With an estimated one hundred thirty million citizens watching—the greatest number ever to see a single televised event—Nixon said he hoped his legacy would be that he had made the world “a safer place today, not only for the people of America, but for the people of all nations … that all of our children have a better chance than before of living in peace, rather than dying in war.”

With the knowledge of the President’s private thoughts rubbed in their consciousness through transcripts of the most revealing conversations, there could be but few Americans who accepted those words at face value. They had come to learn that the public and the private Nixon were two very different men.

Outside the White House, as Nixon spoke, two thousand or more people gathered. Some were solemn and sad but others, the majority, cheered the news of his departure. One placard waved in front of the television cameras was inscribed, “Jail to the Chief.” It was a strange, perhaps inevitable climax to the Watergate saga, to more than two years of what many have come to regard as the most bizarre and tragic scandal of modern times.

The following morning, on August 9, Nixon assembled his White House staff and members of the Cabinet for an n popular, since Nixon’s resignation, to talk about how well the American system works. Sussman’s book makes clear that the nation owes its gratitude as much to plain good luck as it does to the system.

For one thing, there is the matter of the tapes. Had Nixon not been so foolish as to install that taping system in his office or if Alexander Butterfield had not made that historic revelation of its existence to the Senate Watergate committee, Richard Nixon would undoubtedly still be President of the United States. There would still have been much incriminating evidence (Dean’s testimony, for example), but there would not have been the solid, indisputable proof that was needed to turn most Republicans against one of their own.

It is sobering to realize just how reluctant Congress, including Democrats as well as Republicans, was to take action against the President. Congress acted only when an outraged public demanded it.

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