The Watergate scandal created one of the greatest constitutional crises in American history. When the House Judiciary Committee approved three articles of impeachment against President Richard Nixon and the Supreme Court ruled that he had to turn over to Congress the tapes that proved the claims against him, he realized his support in the Senate had collapsed. He resigned rather than face almost certain conviction on abuse of power and obstruction of justice.
We know the villain’s story well, but what about the heroes? When the country’s own leader turned his back on the Constitution, who was there to defend it?
Conspiracy is about the reporters, prosecutors, judges, justices, members of Congress, and members of the public who supported and defended the Constitution when it needed it most.
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Chapter 1: Landslide CHAPTER 1 Landslide NOVEMBER 7, 1972
Approval. Richard Nixon had spent his entire life working for approval. Now, as the earliest vote counts came in on election night, 1972, it became clear that he’d finally gotten what he wanted. Not simply a second term as president. No. Nixon had won his first term as president in 1968 with a tiny majority and decided right then that when he ran for a second term, he’d win big, no matter what. He wanted real recognition. He wanted to be an unquestioned, undeniable, undoubted winner. And he’d done it. Richard Milhous Nixon had won a majority of votes in forty-nine of the fifty states. Nixon, a Republican, had defeated his Democratic opponent by nearly eighteen million votes in one of the most lopsided wins in presidential history.
Naturally, Nixon was pleased with the results. Voters had finally recognized his worth. As he saw it, he now had a mandate, a kind of authority to act boldly, and he planned to use it. But while Republicans around the country cheered the victory, Nixon made just one quick visit to a nearby celebration and a short television appearance to thank his supporters. Then he huddled with two close aides in a room on the second floor of the White House. They talked long into the night, the president serious and unsmiling.
Electoral College totals by state, 1972 presidential election
Nixon wrote later that he didn’t really know why he was in such a gloomy mood that night. But he thought perhaps he was worried about Vietnam, or perhaps about the upcoming trial in the scandal everyone was calling Watergate.1
Worry about the war in Vietnam made sense. Nixon had campaigned for his first term in 1968 on a “secret plan” to end the long, long war. He’d reduced the number of Americans fighting there, but the war still wasn’t over and it grew more unpopular by the minute. Nixon believed that the presidents who led the country into the war had made a real mess of things, a mess he was stuck trying to clean up. And it got in the way of everything else he wanted to do as president. In 1972, he campaigned again on ending the war. The situation was complicated, but Nixon was determined to finally achieve peace.
Watergate was another matter. In June, five months before the election, police had interrupted a middle-of-the-night break-in at the Watergate office and apartment complex a mile west of the White House. They arrested the burglars on the spot and soon discovered that the men were somehow connected to Nixon’s reelection committee. The story hit the newspapers the next morning, and it could have been very awkward for the president if people believed his campaign staff had done something illegal to try to win votes. But Nixon’s press secretary—the White House aide who talks to reporters—went on television and described the crime as a “third-rate burglary” that had nothing to do with the president or any of his aides. Most news outlets soon moved on to other stories, and the burglary faded into the background.
The burglars faced charges related to the break-in and would probably be in the headlines again when they went to trial. But the judge on the case scheduled the trial for after the election, and that was good for Nixon. It meant that the story wasn’t in the news on Election Day. And by the time it was, most people wouldn’t even remember something that had happened in June. Even so, the night before the election, with all the polls predicting a landslide, Nixon wrote in his diary, “The only sour note of the whole thing is Watergate....”2 Why would that be?
Richard Nixon had worked toward winning the 1972 election by a big margin since the day of the 1968 election. But halfway through his first term as president, he had feared he might not win a second term at all. In 1970, prices for food and housing and gasoline were high and getting higher, and that hurt the president’s popularity. People wanted him to fix the economy, and he wanted that too. But he hadn’t had much success. At the same time, tens of thousands of college students were shutting down campuses and highways across the country to protest the war in Vietnam and Nixon’s war policies. That made many voters angry and afraid and made the president look weak. When the Democrats started their campaign for the 1972 election, they would go after the president on all of it.
At that point, even though the election was two years away, Nixon told his aides to do whatever it took to win big in 1972. They followed his order, even using tactics the public could not know about. Tactics that a lot of people would call unfair or underhanded, even criminal. In fact, Nixon’s men knew that if Americans found out about everything the president’s campaign did, they might say President Nixon stole the 1972 election. But Richard Nixon and his aides went ahead with the underhanded tactics because they believed victory was important enough to use any means necessary to achieve it.
President Nixon greets students in Utica, Michigan, 1972
For two years, the president’s men, as people called his aides (yes, they were all men), got away with dirty tricks, bribes, lies, and more in their effort to guarantee Nixon’s win. The botched break-in at the Watergate complex was their only slip, and it really wasn’t that terrible a crime. Nixon’s press secretary was right—it was a “third-rate burglary.” But he was wrong that it had nothing to do with the president or his aides. The problem with Watergate was that if anyone dug too deeply into it, they could uncover enough dirt to destroy everything.
As Republican celebrations ended late on election night, Nixon still sat with his aides. At two o’clock in the morning, the president ordered scrambled eggs and bacon from the White House kitchen, and the men continued talking about Nixon’s victory and his second term. He and his men believed that he, Richard Nixon, and only Richard Nixon, could achieve peace around the world. Nixon had campaigned this time on his vision for world peace and the progress he’d made with China and the Soviet Union, as well as the real chance for an end to the war in Vietnam. He’d also promised better pay for the military, and he’d reminded voters of his first-term achievements—new environmental laws and agencies, reforms in law enforcement, new civil rights programs, and more. He’d even talked about plans for simplifying and smoothing out the workings of the gigantic federal government, something almost everyone agreed the government needed. Those kinds of promises—his platform—as well as a very weak Democratic candidate gave Nixon his huge win.
Richard Nixon (right), and vice-presidential nominee Spiro Agnew at the 1972 Republican National Convention
But Richard Nixon had other second-term plans on his mind that night too. Plans that weren’t in his public platform. Unofficial plans that, like the secret campaign tactics, no one could know about. Plans that would shock the people who had just voted for him.
Americans thought they knew Richard Nixon well in November 1972. They knew he grew up poor in California with a cold, stern father and not enough money. He had worked at his father’s store, helped care for his younger brothers, and still earned excellent grades. He was smart and studious, willing to work harder than anyone else, and he’d learned at a very young age not to give up. No matter what. Not when a younger brother died at the age of seven, and not when his older brother died eight years later after a long battle with tuberculosis. Even when he got into Harvard but couldn’t afford to go, Richard Nixon refused to give up. He went to a nearby college, where he again worked harder than anyone else, and then went on to law school. Americans admired that kind of personal story. Many liked Nixon’s grit and his willingness to press on against the odds.
That life story and some tough campaigning won Richard Nixon his first election in 1946 when he ran for the House of Representatives from a district in Southern California. Four years later, he won election to the Senate. In 1952, he was elected vice president under Dwight Eisenhower, and they won reelection together in 1956. But when Nixon ran for president in 1960 against Democrat John F. Kennedy, he lost by one-tenth of one percent in the closest race in US history. That hurt, and after losing the race for governor of California in 1962, Nixon thought about getting out of politics. But he wasn’t a quitter. He spent time studying his mistakes, learning about voters in every part of the country, and thinking about new ways for the United States to work with foreign countries. In 1968, he ran for president again and got just enough votes to win.
The trouble was that while people recognized Nixon as intelligent, hardworking, and determined, that was only one side of the man. Even his closest aides and advisors eventually admitted that he had a very dark side as well.
For example, instead of thinking of political opponents as men and women who disagreed with him on the issues, Richard Nixon thought of them as enemies. To him, that meant that bending or breaking the rules to defeat them was all right. From the very start of his political career he’d lied about the people he ran against, saying they were communists. By 1972, he didn’t want to defeat Democrats—he wanted to destroy them.
Nixon also thought journalists and reporters who criticized his speeches or actions were out to get him. He believed that they treated him unfairly and favored other politicians. It didn’t stop there. College professors who disagreed with his views of history or economics? Enemies. Celebrities, business executives, civil rights leaders, war protesters who spoke out against his policies? All enemies. Especially the war protesters.
Nixon saw so many people and groups as enemies that during his first term as president, his aides created an “enemies list” with the names of individuals, groups, organizations, even colleges and universities he believed wanted to ruin him. Eventually, the list—kept locked in a safe—grew to hundreds of names.
Between his first election in 1968 and his reelection four years later, Nixon’s determination to win big had made his dark side stronger. He was sincere about seeking world peace and improving military pay as he said he would. But he didn’t plan to use his victory to unite the country the way many presidents try to do. Instead, his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, said later,
It was as if victory was not an occasion for reconciliation [setting aside differences] but an opportunity to settle the scores of a lifetime.3
The enemies list had started as a “don’t invite these people to the White House” list. Now it became a list of people and groups Nixon wanted to demolish during his second term. A month before the 1972 election he told a White House lawyer,
All of those that have tried to do us in... are asking for it and they are going to get it. We haven’t used the Bureau [FBI] and we haven’t used the Justice Department, but things are going to change.4
When Nixon said he would use those government departments, he meant that he would order the FBI—Federal Bureau of Investigation—to investigate his enemies, to tap their phones, look at their mail, and perhaps talk to their employers. He’d done it a year earlier when a reporter for CBS News told television viewers that something Nixon said in a speech wasn’t true. The reporter was correct, but Nixon was furious and within forty-eight hours, FBI agents arrived at the reporter’s house and office while other agents visited his family, friends, and coworkers to do a “background check.”5 Why? The agents may have thought the president was considering the reporter for a job, but in fact, he simply wanted to inconvenience and bully the man.
Nixon planned to use the Internal Revenue Service—the agency that collects Americans’ taxes—the same way. Even if IRS agents didn’t find anything wrong in someone’s tax filings, they could bother a person for all sorts of financial records going back years and ask detailed questions about everything they’d earned or spent. The agents didn’t need to know why they were investigating—the president could call it national security or a background check. Even if the truth was that he was just after his Democratic opponents. He told aides, “We ought to persecute them” using the IRS.6 Persecute? Yes, by forcing innocent people to spend lots of money on lawyers and accountants, and lots of time—months or even years—worrying they’d done something wrong when they hadn’t.
Nixon and his men had other ideas to take out his enemies as well. White House aides could give or leak embarrassing or damaging information on an enemy to reporters. The president had tried it in 1971. At the time, he wanted to get hold of negative information about his predecessor, Democratic president Lyndon Johnson, and decisions Johnson had made on the war in Vietnam. If he could leak that information to the press, it would be a huge embarrassment to Johnson and to the Democrats still in Congress. An aide told Nixon that the documents were in a safe at a private research organization in Washington. Nixon told his men to “... get in and get those files. Blow the safe and get it.”7 The burglary and safe-blowing never happened, and it turned out that the documents Nixon thought would be so damaging didn’t exist. Not in that safe or anywhere else.
Wait. What about the US Constitution and the law?
First, Richard Nixon was the president of the United States. He made the same promise all presidents make. It’s spelled out in Article II of the US Constitution: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute [carry out] the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” As the head of the executive branch of government, it is the president’s job to make sure agencies enforce the nation’s laws and follow the Constitution. Think about that.
Second, the first ten amendments to the Constitution are called the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Reporters, newspapers, and other news media may freely and openly criticize the government, including the president. So can private individuals. And the Fourth Amendment guarantees that citizens will be safe from government or police searches unless a judge agrees there is serious reason for them.
Breaking and entering, stealing documents, blowing up a safe? All illegal—they are crimes. So is wiretapping phones without a judge’s okay. That’s the Fourth Amendment again.
President Nixon didn’t plan to break into any offices or listen in on reporters’ phone calls himself. But legally, ordering a criminal action is just as bad as committing the actual crime.
The American people didn’t know about the president’s secret plans when they voted, of course. They had no idea what was going on behind the closed doors of the White House or what kinds of actions Nixon had ordered. Hardly anyone did. But the president’s friend and former attorney general John Mitchell later called these secrets the “White House horrors.”8
The horrors went beyond attacks on “enemies.” They included taking bribes from businesses that wanted government favors and accepting illegal campaign donations. They even included sabotaging the election.
Nixon’s men knew that the president wanted to run against someone he was certain to defeat. So they came up with a plan for a secret “dirty tricks” campaign.
Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine was the Democrats’ most popular candidate in early 1972. But his campaign began to fall apart before the Democratic Convention. Ads for Muskie rallies listed wrong times or dates. Workers arrived late. A newspaper printed a letter showing that Muskie used offensive and insulting language. The same paper printed accusations of racism and heavy drinking by Muskie’s wife. Muskie and his supporters didn’t know what was happening. No matter what they did, the campaign was a mess. Other Democratic candidates had similar experiences. George McGovern, unlikely to do well in the November election, ended up winning the Democratic nomination.
All of it was part of Nixon’s order to his aides that anything and everything was acceptable to make sure he won.
Wait. Can they do that?
Much of what Nixon’s people did was not strictly illegal. But that didn’t make it right. It was unethical at the very least. That means that their actions—their “dirty tricks”—went against accepted values or ideas of right and wrong. They weren’t playing fair. And they were also going against one of the most important principles of representative democracy—free and fair elections. Without fair elections, there is no democracy.
There was even more to Nixon’s secret plans than getting back at his opponents or winning the election at all costs. His ideas for reorganizing the government went well beyond what he had said in public, too. Richard Nixon wanted to make decisions and appointments and run the government without asking Congress for approval. He didn’t want the House of Representatives or the Senate to block his plans or tell him how to spend money or who he could appoint to high offices. That wasn’t unusual; most modern presidents have wanted more authority. Over the years, the federal government had become so enormous and slow-moving that presidents had difficulty carrying out their plans and fulfilling their campaign promises. But Nixon’s ideas went beyond what earlier presidents had considered.
For example, Nixon had decided that while Congress had the job of appropriating or approving money for specific uses, he would impound or refuse to spend the money when he disagreed with Congress. He also had decided to reduce Congress’s influence on how he ran executive departments and policies. In the American system of government, the president appoints cabinet members—heads of major departments like the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture and so on—but the Senate must confirm or approve those appointments. Nixon wanted to get around that check on his authority. He would appoint cabinet officers who the Senate would confirm easily. Then he’d have a small group of trusted advisors who did not need Senate approval make the big decisions and tell the department heads what to do. Later, the press called these advisors “super-secretaries.” Nixon had planned to establish this new structure without asking Congress for a reorganization law as earlier presidents had. But was that constitutional?
In addition to shrinking Congress’s role in spending decisions and appointments, Nixon planned to “clean house” of anyone anywhere in the White House who wasn’t loyal to Richard Nixon first and foremost. And he wanted the same kind of loyalty from the people who worked in all of the executive agencies of the federal government. These people are called civil servants and often spend their entire careers in government service. They stay in their jobs no matter who the president is or what party he or she belongs to. The president doesn’t appoint them. They earn their positions through education, expertise, and hard work.
Nixon couldn’t check on the loyalty of each and every civil servant—there were over two million nonmilitary workers in government buildings in Washington and around the country (about the same number as there are today). But those with real authority had better make their loyalty to the president clear if they wanted to keep their jobs. They needed to jump when Nixon’s men said “jump” no matter what their expertise and experience told them. Nixon didn’t want their input or questions about issues or investigations or anything else. He wanted total obedience and loyalty in order to have a government in which he, the president, had complete control.
Just a second. What would the framers think of all this?
The framers or writers of the United States Constitution—James Madison, George Washington, Roger Sherman, James Wilson, and more than fifty other men who came together and designed a new government in 1787—were determined that no one person would ever have total control in the new country. They’d fought a long, bloody war to break away from a king and they weren’t going to go back. Madison had studied every kind of government from the ancient Greeks through the eighteenth century and brought his ideas to the Constitutional Convention. After great debate and compromise, the delegates decided on a representative democracy or republic with three equal branches of government. The president, head of the executive branch, carries out the law but does not have more power than the legislative branch (Congress, made up of the House of Representatives and the Senate), which writes the law. And neither the president nor the Congress has more power than the judicial branch (the federal courts with the Supreme Court at the top), which determines what the law means. This idea is called separation of powers. Additionally, each branch of government has ways to oversee or check the power of the other two. That’s the system of checks and balances. The framers knew that a government with a stronger executive could be more efficient and fast-moving than the government they designed. A powerful king, for example, could make decisions very quickly because he didn’t have to ask for approval from anyone. It was the framers’ belief, however, that those governments didn’t guard citizens’ rights or uphold democratic ideals. Any single person or group with total control was dangerous, no matter who that person or group was. But Richard Nixon wanted to make the president or executive much more powerful than Congress or the courts. And he wanted to shrink the other branches’ ability to check executive power.
The framers also understood that presidents would naturally want aides and advisors who are loyal to them. But loyalty to one person above anything else? No. That would make that one person more important than the Constitution. Look at the oath all government employees take: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic [inside the country]; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same [the Constitution]; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter.” Think about where every government worker promises to put his or her highest loyalty.
Nixon hadn’t accomplished all that he wanted to during his first term. He blamed his enemies, many of them in Congress and the news media. But now he saw a chance to move forward without checks and really get things done. Imagine that.
Imagine a president of the United States without any checks from Congress. Imagine a news media that is afraid to criticize that president or let the public know about government corruption or lies that may affect people’s jobs, their families, or the nation. Imagine elections where only one candidate has any real chance of winning. What else would that president or a future president do? Imagine the Constitution with no meaning and a Bill of Rights that protects no rights at all.
Richard Nixon wanted to be a great president. By 1972, however, his dark side became too strong. Most Americans didn’t know it yet, but the president they had just reelected—and the men he chose as his closest advisors and aides—were a real danger to American democracy.
On election night, the president’s men thought Nixon was safe. They’d handled that one slip—Watergate—by giving the arrested men a lot of money to either stay silent or tell lies in court. Now that the election was over, they’d keep paying the burglars if they had to, and make sure the prosecutors at the trial didn’t dig up any information that would be harmful to the president.
The president’s men were wrong. They and the president were not safe. The framers had designed a system of government that could survive a president who put himself above the presidential oath, above the Constitution, and above the law. The system would work—if enough people made it work.
Even as Richard Nixon talked to his aides and ate his scrambled eggs on election night, the constitutional system was in motion. The system had been in motion since the night of the Watergate break-in in June. That system was chugging forward like a slow but powerful locomotive.
Table of Contents
1 Landslide 1
2 A Bungled Break-in 23
3 Investigating 35
4 Worrisome Facts 46
5 Exercising the First Amendment 56
6 An Angry Judge 76
7 The Senate Steps In 89
8 Revelations 109
9 Prosecuting the President's Men 130
10 Turning Point 147
11 The People Speak 165
12 The House investigates 179
13 The Supreme Court Rules 193
14 Debating Impeachment 210
15 Reckoning 226
Watergate Timeline 250
Cast of Characters 257