Sunday, August 2, 2009

Nixon's Crime

On Friday, Aug. 2, 1974, the noose really began to tighten around Richard Nixon's neck.

That was the day Nixon surrendered tapes of 13 conversations, among them the damning June 23, 1972, conversation with H.R. Haldeman that came to be known as the "smoking gun." Before he did so, chief of staff Al Haig gathered seven people — White House press secretary Ron Ziegler, Nixon attorney Fred Buzhardt, special counsel James St. Clair, Congressional liaison William Timmons, political counselor Dean Burch, speech writer Pat Buchanan and Haig's aide, George Joulwan — for a strategy session in his office in the early morning hours.

If any of those who attended the meeting came to it harboring any hope that Nixon could survive the crisis, that hope was quickly dashed.

The day dawned "overcast and muggy," Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein recalled in their book, The Final Days. Haig asked Buzhardt to give the group the bad news. When Buzhardt told them that there was "something fairly serious" in the subpoenaed tapes, Haig said, "I can hear the assholes tightening."

The general consensus of those at the meeting was that it was over for Nixon. Shortly thereafter, St. Clair met with Vice President Gerald Ford to give him a legal assessment.
"Without going into great detail, St. Clair informed Ford that he considered the new evidence so damaging that impeachment was certain and conviction highly probable."

The Final Days

In the 35 years that have passed since Nixon's resignation, there has been a certain amount of misunderstanding on the part of the public. What did Nixon do? Why was he forced from office? Some people have been under the false impression that it was all politically motivated — Democrats seeking revenge for Nixon's landslide re–election two years earlier.

So persistent was that belief that many people believed the impeachment of Bill Clinton in the late 1990s was Republican payback for the impeachment of Nixon.

It is possible that there was some political tit for tat involved in the proceedings against Clinton more than two decades later. But there was more to the impeachment of Nixon than political revenge. Something fundamental.

Perhaps no one else explained the situation better than political historian Theodore H. White in his book Breach of Faith:
"The true crime of Richard Nixon was simple: he destroyed the myth that binds America together, and for this he was driven from power.

"The myth he broke was critical — that somewhere in American life there is at least one man who stands for law, the President. That faith surmounts all daily cynicism, all evidence or suspicion of wrongdoing by lesser leaders, all corruptions, all vulgarities, all the ugly compromises of daily striving and ambition. That faith holds that all men are equal before the law and protected by it; and that no matter how the faith may be betrayed elsewhere, at one particular point — the Presidency — justice will be done beyond prejudice, beyond rancor, beyond the possibility of a fix. It was that faith that Richard Nixon broke, betraying those who voted for him even more than those who voted against him."

Breach of Faith

On Aug. 2, 1974, former White House counsel John Dean — the man whose testimony to the Senate Watergate Committee the year before irreversibly turned the public against Nixon — was sentenced to prison. He was slated to begin serving a one– to four–year prison term a month later.

Nixon never spent a day in prison, but the die was cast on his presidency on August 2.

Elsewhere in Washington, Senators Barry Goldwater and Hugh Scott met to discuss the situation. They felt they had 36 votes for acquittal if Nixon faced a trial in the Senate — two votes more than they needed — but 11 of those votes, including both Scott and Goldwater, were iffy.

By sunset on August 2, Nixon's support on Capitol Hill had eroded to well below what he needed to remain in office.

And the task that remained was for those in the White House who were still loyal to the president but were convinced of his guilt to persuade Nixon that he had no choice but to relinquish power.

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