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Trump might make us miss Watergate

In the 1970s, our political system was better suited to meet a crisis than it is now.

Richard Nixon speaking from behind a podium.
Could Trump really make the country nostalgic for the Nixon era?
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

We may be approaching the third* presidential impeachment effort of the past half century. There was widespread talk after Richard Nixon’s resignation that the “system had worked” despite the strain of a criminal president. Bill Clinton’s impeachment arguably placed the system under far less pressure; only the most obsessed Clinton haters thought his misdeeds approached the severity of Nixon’s crimes, while there never was a serious chance that Clinton would be removed from office.

Indeed, it’s hard to see any long-lasting legacy of the Clinton impeachment. It probably hurt Republicans in the 1998 midterms. The Clinton-Lewinsky scandal may have cost Democrats the 2000 presidential election, but it likely would have been a prominent issue whether or not Republicans had impeached Clinton. Nor did the Clinton impeachment rein in the executive branch, as Watergate did, at least temporarily. None of the presidents who have followed Clinton have been known for their deference to Congress. The Clinton impeachment may not have been history repeating itself as farce; it now appears to have been like a fearsome storm that howled briefly but left no enduring mark on the landscape.

But it’s Watergate that should most interest us now. Unlike the Clinton impeachment, it ended with Nixon leaving office in disgrace, resigning to avoid certain impeachment and removal. At least temporarily, it marked the rollback of the “Imperial Presidency” that had grown since the 1930s and 1940s. It was accompanied by a wide range of legislation meant to protect the power of Congress. Unlike the case of the Clinton impeachment, few people regretted the end of Richard Nixon’s presidency.

The central difference between our political system and that of the Watergate era is that then political parties were weak but nonpartisan elites were strong. Today, while parties may not be strong per se, nonpartisan elites — the media, the civil service, the bar, Congress itself — have lost much of their prestige. They have also lost much of their political independence.

Unlike Trump, Richard Nixon faced a Congress entirely in Democratic hands. Democrats had control of committee chairmanships and the legislative agenda. If many of those Democrats were relatively conservative, few felt especially warmly toward Nixon, whose presidency had featured numerous attempts to circumvent Congress. Democrats had an obvious partisan incentive to undermine Nixon’s presidency. Given that they had been in control for almost two decades, Democrats felt secure in their power. By contrast, we are in an era of “insecure majorities,” and the new Democratic majority feels vulnerable, especially given how many freshmen come from districts that voted for Trump or Mitt Romney.

But there were also elements of bipartisanship that were critical to Watergate. In the 1970s, American politics was at its lowest point of partisan polarization. Ticket-splitting was at its highest, congressional party unity was at its lowest. This made it easier for members of both parties to oppose Nixon in 1973-74. Many moderate and conservative Democrats played critical roles in Watergate. They couldn’t be dismissed as knee-jerk opponents of Nixon or as sour-grapes McGovernites. Robert Byrd may have been the Senate Democratic whip, yet he was also conservative enough for Nixon to toy with putting him on the Supreme Court. He pressured FBI director-designate L. Patrick Gray to testify at his confirmation hearing that Nixon had sought to involve him in the coverup of the Watergate burglary.

Sam Ervin gained national fame as the chair of the Senate Select Committee on Watergate. But he was also a segregationist and a Vietnam hawk who had little in common with the liberals who came to idolize him during the televised hearings he ran in the summer of 1973. (When the committee began its hearings in May, Nixon’s approval rating was at 44 percent; by the end of the summer, it had fallen to 33 percent). Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D-MT) wisely picked Ervin as chairman of the select committee. Ervin’s reputation as a Senate institutionalist and an ideological conservative helped convince Republicans and Southern Democrats to support the creation of the panel. In the end, the committee was approved by a 77-0 margin in February 1973 — when Watergate was still a below-the-fold story.

Moderate and liberal Republicans did even more to bring down Nixon who, in many ways, was one of them. In a ticket-splitting era, politicians could still build reputations independent of their parties. Sen. Lowell Weicker (R-CT), a member of the Senate committee, grilled witnesses in a fashion that enraged the Nixon White House. Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus refused the president’s order to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox. In the aftermath of the ensuing Saturday Night Massacre, multiple liberal Republicans turned against Nixon.

Republicans on the bench played a vital role, too. U.S. v. Nixon, the decision that required Nixon to hand over the Oval Office tapes, was credited to Chief Justice Warren Burger, whom the president himself appointed. It was actually mostly written by Justice Potter Stewart, an Eisenhower appointee whom Nixon considered naming as Chief Justice. Even John Sirica, the District Court Judge whose hard-line tactics helped foil the Watergate coverup, was a Republican.

Not only was the 1970s Congress less partisan than today’s, but it was more decentralized and less dominated by leadership. Speaker of the House Carl Albert could best be described as an ineffective alcoholic, and neither Mansfield nor Senate Republican leader Hugh Scott were particularly vigorous figures. The institutional leadership of the Republican Party — Scott, House Republican leader John Rhodes, RNC chairman George H. W. Bush — did not break with Nixon until his presidency appeared mortally wounded in the summer of 1974. Democratic party leadership played important roles in the Watergate investigation, but mostly behind the scenes: Mansfield devising the Senate select committee, House Majority leader Tip O’Neill laying the procedural groundwork for impeachment.

Instead, committees took the lead, first the Senate Judiciary committee, then the Senate Select committee, finally the House Judiciary committee. The confirmation hearings for Gray and Richardson gave members of the Senate Judiciary Committee the opportunity to extract concessions and admissions. Most notably, Richardson agreed to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Watergate. These committees were ultimately characterized by bipartisan cooperation, both among staff and rank-and-file members. A critical group of mostly moderate Republicans and Southern Democrats composed the so-called “Fragile Coalition” on the House Judiciary Committee. Their deliberations helped build bipartisan support for impeachment.

As Frances Lee notes in Beyond Ideology, much partisan behavior is driven not by philosophical differences but by “team” behavior aimed at gaining power. During the early stages of Watergate, Republicans did act as a “team” in support of Nixon. Both House Republican leader Gerald Ford and Senate Watergate committee ranking Republican Howard Baker took action early on to protect the Nixon White House. But as Nixon’s political stature crumbled in the spring and summer of 1974, his support among Republican politicians also slipped. His approval among Republican voters had already fallen from near-unanimity in the wake of the 1972 election to barely half at the end of the 1973.

The mass media, particularly the Washington Post, was critical to keeping the Watergate story going in its early days. The Nixon administration sought to discredit unfavorable reporting as the work of a biased press keen to bring down its sworn enemy.

That argument did not prevent the American public from turning against Nixon. But it might be more effective today. As Jonathan Ladd notes in Why Americans Hate the News Media and Why It Matters, Americans’ trust in the mass media has fallen dramatically over the past few decades. During Watergate, the conservative media was generally supportive of Nixon, but in the coverup’s infancy, media coverage was mostly limited to the National Review, the newsletter Human Events, and a few radio commentators. Almost all Americans got their news from TV network news or newspapers that carefully avoided open political bias. Today, the conservative media has sprouted what David Frum calls the “conservative political-entertainment complex,” and Fox News and Rush Limbaugh attract audiences in the millions. Trump’s message that the mainstream media cannot be trusted finds a more receptive audience than Nixon found, and a more elaborate apparatus to spread it.

Watergate occurred just as Congress was expanding its institutional capacity in the wake of the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970 and in response to decades of growth in presidential power. Staff was increased, and legislative support agencies such as the Congressional Research Service and the General Accounting Office were beefed up. The 1970s were an era when members of Congress were more willing to defend their institution, even when that meant crossing party lines. By contrast, recent decades have seen the legislative branch steadily lose power to the executive.

What would it mean for the political system to not handle the current crisis well? This could cover a range of undesirable outcomes:

  • A criminal president remaining in office despite committing acts that would justify his removal.
  • An impeachment along narrowly partisan lines, perhaps followed by a farcical trial in the Senate — or no trial at all.
  • A president using the impeachment process to rally his supporters, perhaps also persuading swing voters that Democrats are “out of control.”
  • Congress failing to obtain information that the public deserves to see.
  • Congress continuing to lose power to the executive.

But history does not only offer us lessons to despair. Trump’s narrow, flukish electoral victory bears no resemblance to Nixon’s 49-state landslide of 1972. The 2020 election approaches, with a Trump defeat seeming very plausible. With two impeachment processes within living memory, the prospect of removing a president is far more imaginable than it was in 1974. Donald Trump has frequently shown bizarre political judgment, while Nixon was generally careful in public statements, avoiding anything that would implicate him.

Finally, Nixon had at least some good will from his fellow politicians, despite his poor personal relations with so many of them. He was, after all, the president who opened relations with China, negotiated arms control with the Soviets, and created the Environmental Protection Administration. He was a political veteran who could draw upon relationships that had lasted for a quarter century or more. After the release of the “smoking gun” tape, Rep. Charles Wiggins (R-CA), perhaps the president’s most able defender on the House Judiciary Committee, admitted that the time had come to end the “magnificent public career of Richard Nixon.” Outside of Mar-a-Lago, it’s hard to imagine anyone saying such words about Donald Trump.

* There was talk of impeaching Reagan for Iran-Contra, George W. Bush for the Iraq War, and Obama over the various obsessions of the right-wing fever swamps, but none of these cases amounted to much.

The author wishes to thank Philip Klinkner of Hamilton College for his contributions to this article.