Tapes Don’t Lie, People Do (Part 5)
But for Richard M. Nixon, the “smoking gun” that inflicted the fatal wound to his presidency was not a revolver, pistol or even a Derringer; it was a single reel of audiotape recorded on June 23, 1972, less than one week following the botched burglary of the Democratic Headquarters at the Watergate hotel.
In all, Nixon made 3,700 hours of recordings from 1971 to 1973, but it was one brief conversation, lasting only about 7-1/2 minutes, that was the coup de grace—or, more aptly, the straw that broke the back of the Nixon presidency.
Called the “smoking gun tape” and recorded only six days after the bungled break-in, it documented President Nixon and his Chief of Staff, H. R. (Bob) Haldeman, devising a plan to stop the FBI’s investigation into the attempted burglary, by having CIA Director Richard Helms and Deputy CIA Director Vernon Walters order L. Patrick Gray, the Director of the FBI, to “stay the hell out” of the Watergate investigation because it involved CIA national security operations.
The problem was that the break-in had nothing to do with national security, but much more importantly, the conversation proved that Nixon was aware and had helped to plan the Watergate cover-up almost from the very beginning.
Without the audiotapes, which were the keys to unlocking a massive cover-up, as well as other related and unrelated "shenanigans,” the June 17, 1972, Watergate burglary would most certainly have been dismissed—as Ron Ziegler, Nixon's press secretary called it—as a "third-rate burglary”; likely relegated to a Trivial Pursuit question that only couch potatoes addicted to C-Span would be able to answer.
But Nixon’s decision to install the elaborate taping system (Part 2) and, once the tapes were revealed, not to destroy them (Part 4), gave investigators detailed insight into serious illegal Whitehouse activities, which eventually led to Nixon’s resignation.
Nixon was arguably one of the most astute and politically savvy presidents in the history of the US, and he knew that the tapes were, if not criminally damaging, politically disastrous. Therefore he fought to keep their existence from becoming public. Citing executive privilege, he refused to release the tapes, and even made a lame attempt to erase part of one, causing the famed 18-1/2-minute gap (Part 3).
After Butterfield’s revelation to the Watergate committee on July 16, 1973 (Part 1), Nixon was under enormous pressure to surrender up to 64 of the tapes, which the special prosecutor deemed relevant to the investigation.
By October 1973, the heat was turned up to a full boil when Special Watergate Prosecutor Archibald Cox subpoenaed the audiotapes. Nixon refused, but suggested a compromise: to provide the special prosecutor’s office with a summary of the recordings.
Cox abruptly rejected the compromise.
Now Nixon had just about had enough! The next day, Saturday October 20, 1973, he ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Cox. Richardson refused and resigned in protest. The order to fire Cox was passed down the chain of command to the Deputy Attorney General, William Ruckelshaus, who also refused, and he too resigned. It passed down, once again, to the Solicitor General, and the man later nominated but rejected for justice of the Supreme Court (1987), Robert Bork, who complied with Nixon’s order and fired Cox.
Nixon then ordered the FBI to seal off the offices of Richardson and Ruckelshaus in the Justice Department, and at Special Prosecutor Cox’s headquarters as well.
Called the Saturday Night Massacre, it was the mother of all political storms and came less than two weeks after Nixon’s Vice President, Spiro Agnew, had resigned his office in disgrace after pleading “no contest” to a corruption indictment on October 10, 1973.
The President’s popularity was plummeting and, coupled with Agnew’s resignation, the administration was seen as having a complete disregard for the rule of law.
Nixon, a shrewd politician, realized this, and a few weeks later tried to appeal directly to the American people. These words would forever come to define his embattled presidency, and to this day, a sad epitaph to what could have been a long and otherwise distinguished career.
“...in all of my years of public life, I have never obstructed justice. And I think, too, that I can say that in my years of public life that I’ve welcomed this kind of examination, because people have got to know whether or not their President’s a crook. Well, I’m not a crook!”
Crook or no crook, a new special prosecutor—Leon Jaworski—was appointed to replace Cox, and he continued to pursue the subpoena requiring Nixon to release all the audiotapes relevant to the investigation.
Under a hail of public protest, Nixon yielded 9 tapes but still refused to release all 64, citing executive privilege. Nixon’s challenging of the subpoena that ordered him to turn over secret recordings of his conversations in the White House through the US courts bought him some time.
But Nixon's presidency continued to spiral out of control, and in the months to come, it became clearer and clearer that the President had engaged in, shall we say, conduct unbecoming of the Chief Executive of the United States.
Nixon eventually picked Rep. Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr., from Michigan as his Vice President to replace Agnew. Nixon selected the popular House Minority Leader, with the hope that Congress would look favorably on and be more sympathetic to the President, now that the likeable Ford was part of the Nixon administration.
The Senate voted nearly unanimously 92 to 3 to confirm Ford, as did the House (387 to 35), and on December 6, 1973, Gerald Ford was sworn in as Nixon’s Vice President.
Some cynics believed that the wily Nixon picked Ford because he believed that Congress would never impeach him, afraid to make Ford president. It was President Lyndon Johnson, after all, who had coined the phrase: “Ford was so dumb he couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time.”
Nonetheless, by late July of 1974, the House Judiciary Committee, headed by Rep. Peter Rodino of NJ, did indeed approve three articles of impeachment against the President. The first, obstruction of justice, passed 27–11. The second, abuse of power, passed 28–10. The third, contempt of Congress, passed 21-17.
All 21 Democrats on the committee voted unanimously to send all the Articles of Impeachment to the House of Representatives for a full vote. Seven of the seventeen Republicans voted for at least one of the resolutions, while ten Republicans voted no on all three resolutions.
Coincidental to the Impeachment vote, the US Supreme Court voted 8-0 (Associate (later Chief) Justice William Rehnquist abstained) and rejected Nixon’s executive privilege argument, ruling that Nixon must hand over the specific tapes and documents to the special prosecutor.
In United States v. Nixon (418 U.S. 683, 1974), the court ruled: “Neither the doctrine of separation of powers, nor the need for confidentiality of high-level communications, without more, can sustain an absolute, unqualified Presidential privilege of immunity from judicial process under all circumstances.”
Nixon still refused to release the tapes, but when confronted with certain impeachment for violating a Supreme Court decision, he relented and released all of them, including the “smoking gun,” which was now cocked and ready to fire the lethal bullet that would end the Nixon presidency.
This is the actual “smoking gun” tape recording between Nixon and Haldeman that took place on June 23, 1972 (click here). (Best to read the accompanying transcript while listening.)
On a scale of 1–10, this conversation was an 11.
Now even Nixon’s few remaining supporters deserted him. All of the ten Republicans who had voted against all three Articles of Impeachment in committee announced that they would all support impeachment when the vote was taken in the full House of Representatives.
The end of the line for Mr. Nixon’s presidency, however, came when influential Republican senator and former presidential candidate (1964), Barry Goldwater, told the beleaguered President that he doubted that Nixon could get more than nine votes out of a hundred in a Senate trial, and if pressed, he could only name, off hand, two certainties: Nebraska Senator Carl Curtis and South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond.
It became obvious at the meeting with Goldwater that Nixon had hopelessly lost the Republican leaders he needed for survival, including Goldwater himself.
Nixon’s closest advisors gave him the grim news that impeachment by the House was assured and, unlike the Senate trial of President Andrew Johnson in 1868, far more than two-thirds of the senators needed were in favor of impeaching the 37th President.
Faced with certain impeachment, Nixon resigned the presidency a few days later, on August 9, 1974. His hand-picked Vice President, Gerald R. Ford, became the 38th Presidentimmediately following Nixon’s resignation. Ford remains the only unelected president in the history of the United States.
Less than a month later, Ford granted Nixon a full and unconditional pardon for all Watergate-related activities.
With the likely exception of recording Christmas carols, Nixon’s departure, thankfully, ended all audio recording in the White House forever.
But nearly a quarter of a century later, audiotape would make a surprise comeback in the nation's capital, when President William Jefferson Clinton got tangled up in—or, more appropriately “Tripped” up by—secret audiotape recordings.
The “I word” once again returned to Washington, but this time the tables were turned on the Democrats, as the impeachment “ghosts” of the Watergate era would now come back to haunt President Bill Clinton as well.
(To be continued.)