Both events overshadowed his achievements, which in foreign affairs included ending the war against Vietnam, establishing diplomatic relations with China, and setting up the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia.
At home he ended the military draft, enforced desegregation of schools in the southern states, established the Environmental Protection Agency, and signed the National Cancer Act, which set up the ongoing “war on cancer”.
It all seemed like a presidency of which he could be proud and in 1972 he was re-elected for a second term in one of the largest electoral landslides in American history. He won more than 60 percent of the popular vote, taking every state in the union except for two – Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. Then came the Watergate revelations . . .
Richard Milhous Nixon was born in 1913 to a poor farming family in California. He achieved excellent grades at school but had to turn down a scholarship from Harvard because his family could not afford to send him there by train.
He went on to graduate from law school in 1937 and then began to practise law.
He saw active duty in the Navy during the Second World War and was elected to the House of Representatives as a Republican in 1946. In 1950 he was elected to the Senate and was chosen as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s running mate in the 1952 presidential election.
After serving for eight years as Vice-President he ran for the top job himself in 1960 but was narrowly defeated by the charismatic John F. Kennedy. Nixon’s chance came again in 1968, a tumultuous year which saw President Lyndon B. Johnson withdraw from the presidential race, the assassination of both Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, and widespread anti-Vietnam war riots across the country.
Nixon defeated both the Democrat Hubert Humphrey and Alabama governor George Wallace who represented the American Independent Party, campaigning for racial segregation. (Wallace won five states in the Deep South).
As Nixon’s first term of office was coming to a close, the White House became focused on re-election. And on June 17, 1972, five men broke into the Democratic National Committee's headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington DC where they were caught wiretapping phones and stealing documents.
One of them was James W. McCord, the security chief of the Committee to Re-elect the President. His arrest was reported in the next morning’s Washington Post by two young reporters, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward.
Dismissing the story as inconsequential, Nixon’s Press Secretary, Ron Ziegler, said at a routine White House Press conference that the President would have no comment on a “third-rate burglary attempt.”
Bernstein and Woodward, though, began to be fed information by an anonymous source whom they referred to as “Deep Throat.” His identity would be kept secret for over 30 years until in 2005 William Mark Felt, who at the time of the scandal was associate director of the FBI – the bureau’s second-highest ranking post – revealed himself to be the source.
With Felt’s guidance Woodward and Bernstein produced one explosive story after another. They revealed the direct involvement in Watergate of Nixon’s close associates and that the break-in and wiretapping had been financed by illegally laundered campaign contributions.
Then on October 10 came a sensational front-page article revealing that the Watergate break-in “stemmed from a massive campaign of political spying and sabotage conducted on behalf of President Nixon’s re-election and directed by officials of the White House.”
Rumors and revelations continued almost daily until on February 7, 1973, the Senate Watergate Committee was set up to investigate the scandal.
Richard Nixon was an insecure man handicapped by a persecution complex, and in February 1971, he had arranged for a secret voice-activated bugging system using telephone taps and concealed microphones to be installed in the White House, including the Oval Office.
Its existence was revealed in July, 1973 during testimony to the Senate committee by White House aide Alexander Butterfield. It later emerged that up to that point Nixon had tape-recorded 3,700 hours of conversations. His rejection of a congressional subpoena to release the tapes constituted an article of impeachment that led to his downfall.
Under enormous pressure, the White House released some subpoenaed tapes on August 5. One of them, later known as the "smoking gun" tape, revealed the initial stages of the Watergate cover-up, with Nixon and his chief of staff, H.R. (Bob) Haldeman, discussing how to block investigations. It demonstrated that the President knew of the Watergate break-in shortly after it took place and that he had approved plans to thwart official scrutiny.
Facing certain impeachment in the House of Representatives and equally certain conviction in the Senate, Nixon announced his resignation on the evening of August 8, 1974.
In a televised broadcast he said: “I have never been a quitter. To leave office before my term is completed is opposed to every instinct in my body. But as President I must put the interests of America first. Therefore, I shall resign the presidency effective at noon tomorrow.”
Gerald Ford, the Vice-President, immediately took charge and a month later granted Nixon "a full, free, and absolute pardon” for all crimes associated with Watergate.
Richard Nixon died after a stroke on April 22, 1994, aged 81. World leaders attended his funeral, as did every living President. In his eulogy, Bill Clinton praised Nixon's accomplishments, particularly in foreign affairs, and pleaded: "May the day of judging President Nixon on anything less than his entire life and career come to a close.”
Interviewed by David Frost in 1977, the man himself reflected: “I gave 'em a sword. And they stuck it in, and they twisted it with relish. And I guess if I had been in their position, I'd have done the same thing.”
A few years later he gave a more considered view of his resignation: “I think the best description of how I felt then was a little poem that read,
‘I am hurt, but I am not slain.
I shall lay me down and bleed a while
And I shall rise and fight again.’
“That’s the story of my life,” he commented with a wry grin.
Nixon fought for the rest of his days to prevent the release of his recorded conversations. The Government began releasing the secret tapes after his death, the final tape being made public in 2013.
Published: November 3, 2020
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