Monday, July 27, 2009

The Smoking Gun of Watergate

Today is the 35th anniversary of an important event in American history.

On this day in 1974, the House Judiciary Committee approved, by a 27–11 vote, the first article of impeachment against Richard Nixon. The article dealt with obstruction of justice.

In the great drama that was Nixon's impeachment proceeding in the summer of 1974, Saturday, July 27 was a significant day, both publicly and privately.

A few days earlier, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Nixon had to turn over the tapes he had been trying to keep to himself. That was really the beginning of the end, but behind–the–scenes work needed to be done,

Fred Buzhardt, Nixon's attorney, was worried about one tape in particular — the one of a conversation from June 23, 1972, less than a week after the Watergate break–in. In "The Final Days," Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein wrote that Buzhardt was certain the tape "undermined" Nixon, but he needed reinforcement. So, acting on the instruction of chief of staff Alexander Haig, Buzhardt asked speech writer Pat Buchanan to come to his office. His objective was to solicit Buchanan's opinion without revealing what was in the tape.
When Buchanan arrived, Buzhardt hedged. What would happen if there was a serious problem about the contents of one of the tapes? "Al told me to ask you," Buzhardt said.

Buchanan wanted to know what he meant.

"Well, what would you say if there was something that showed the President knew of the cover–up earlier than he said?"

"Is it an early tape or a late tape?" Buchanan asked. Before Buzhardt could answer, Buchanan finished the thought. "If it's something ambiguous, we can handle it. If it's in March (1973), well, it means he was wrong by a week or so. But if it's in June or July of '72, then that's the smoking gun."

Buchanan pressed for more information, but Buzhardt would say only, "It's pretty serious."

The Final Days

And so it was.

When the tape was made public, Nixon's support "eroded significantly," in the words of Vice President Gerald Ford. The tape clearly showed Nixon instructing then–chief of staff H.R. Haldeman to order the CIA to halt the FBI's investigation into the break–in.

In other words, obstruction of justice.

On July 27, Ford said the failure of the House Judiciary Committee to produce any evidence against Nixon was a "travesty." Little did he realize that, on that very day, Buzhardt and Buchanan were having their conversation about the tape that ultimately became known as the "smoking gun."

And it devastated those who had defended Richard Nixon.

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