If Nixon Survived Watergate, 10 Dangerous Precedents Would Have Been Established

Every generation needs to relearn the lessons of history. Forty-four years ago, on August 9, 1974, Richard Nixon resigned the presidency. If the Watergate burglary was not discovered and if Richard Nixon was not forced to resign, what would have been the consequences?

  1. Presidents would be free to ask allies or followers to break into the offices, homes and doctors’ offices of political opponents, tap private communication, steal private medical records, hire private detectives to tail and look for dirt or compromising information on those they classified as “enemies.”
  2. Presidents could obstruct justice, destroy the independence and professionalism of law enforcement, order the FBI or other legal authorities not to investigate aides or cronies, and get away with it.
  3. Presidents could use the machinery of government — FBI, CIA, Justice Department, IRS — for political purposes, against their opponents and adversaries — with impunity.
  4. Presidents would be free to wage secret wars in foreign countries (as Nixon did in Cambodia) without informing the American people.
  5. Presidents would essentially be above the law, like monarchs prior to the Age of Enlightenment. “If the president does it, it’s not illegal,” President Nixon declared.
  6. Presidents could brazenly lie to the American people and face no consequences. Subsequent presidents who brazenly lied — most prominently, Bill Clinton — did face legal consequences, disbarment and fines. He apologized, and his chosen successors — Al Gore and Hillary Clinton — did not win the presidency, in part because of their association with him. Gore chose a running mate, Senator Joe Lieberman in part because he had been harshly critical of Bill Clinton’s behavior and publicly rebuked him.
  7. If Nixon survived, it would have set an unhealthy partisan precedent that presidents could demand and expect members of their own political party to march in lockstep and place the short-term tribal desires of their political party ahead of the rule of law and needs of the country. During the Nixon era,¬†Republicans in Congress, particularly the United States Senate, demonstrated integrity and independence from the president and took a lawyerly approach. “What did the president know and when did he know it?” asked GOP Senator Howard Baker of TN, the ranking minority member of the Senate Watergate Committee. Other distinguished Republican but independent-minded lawmakers included Senator Lowell Weicker of CT, and Rep. William Cohen of ME. In the last weeks of the scandal, Senator Barry Goldwater (R-AZ) and Republican leader Hugh Scott (R-PA) went to Nixon at the White House and told him he did not have the political support within the Republican Party in Congress to continue as president.
  8. Nixon might have survived if he had the unwavering loyalty and support of a major television news network willing to abandon journalistic independence, cater to Republican partisans, put a positive spin on his presidency, and constantly excoriate his adversaries, But Nixon did not sponsor or control a major television network. The three major network news programs covered him and the scandal aggressively for two years. His popularity sank below 30 percent in the final summer of his presidency. Indeed, Roger Ailes, a Nixon advisor, was inspired by the Watergate debacle to work with Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch to found the Fox News cable network in 1996.
  9. In short, the presidency would be far more powerful, with far fewer checks and balances, if Congress did not assert its independent oversight authority as a co-equal branch of government, with the Constitutional responsibility to hold the executive branch accountable.
  10. Nixon’s forced resignation ended the reign, at least for that era, of what historian Arthur Schlesinger called “the imperial presidency,” a concern that the presidency could not be controlled by Congress and that it exceeded its constitutional limits. Those who believe in limited government should without qualification look back on Nixon’s departure as a great victory for the rule of law and constitutional checks and balances.

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