1973 Twenty-five Years Ago

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At the start of October, although the Watergate scandal had been snowballing all year, President Richard Nixon still had hopes of keeping it from turning into an avalanche. Despite numerous damaging accusations, a substantial fraction of the public still believed the President or was willing to suspend judgment in the absence of firmer evidence. His lawyers had plausible constitutional arguments for keeping tapes of his Oval Office conversations secret. And with a sleazy hack poised to succeed him, many citizens worried what would happen if Nixon were removed from office. Then, in less than two weeks, the wheels fell off the wagon. By Halloween, instead of boldly challenging Congress and the courts, Nixon was desperately scrambling to stave off impeachment.

The trouble began with the only member of the Nixon administration so insignificant that he could make no contribution to the Watergate conspiracy itself: Vice President Spiro Agnew. Despite his noninvolvement in that scandal, Agnew was plenty corrupt: He had systematically extorted bribes and kickbacks as governor of Maryland and continued to collect on them as Vice President. A federal investigation was making Agnew look guilty enough to embarrass even Richard Nixon, who pressed the Justice Department to force him out.

On October 10, with no advance warning, Agnew shocked the country by resigning from office. As part of a deal with prosecutors, he also pleaded nolo contendere (the same as guilty, but with no admission of wrongdoing) to tax evasion in return for avoiding prison. The rarely used nolo plea, roughly equivalent to today’s “whatever,” allows a defendant to assert that he wasn’t really guilty, which Agnew has been doing ever since.

Two days later an appeals panel ruled that Nixon had to give subpoenaed tapes to John J. Sirica, a federal district judge. On October 19 Nixon announced he was ignoring the decision on grounds of Executive privilege. As a compromise he offered to prepare summaries of the conversations. At the same time, he ordered Archibald Cox, the Watergate special prosecutor, to cease his efforts to obtain the unedited tapes.

Cox told Nixon to take a hike. Nixon told Attorney General Eliot Richardson to fire him, and Richardson resigned rather than carry out the order. Richardson’s deputy, William Ruckelshaus, also refused to fire Cox, so Nixon fired him. The highest surviving Justice Department official, Solicitor General Robert Bork, then fired Cox and abolished his office to finish off the so-called Saturday Night Massacre.

A firestorm of denunciation immediately erupted, with polls showing a plurality in favor of impeachment for the first time. In defying the courts, Nixon could arguably claim to be standing up for the independence of the Executive branch, but his hamfisted attempt to squelch Cox’s investigation made clear that he had something serious to hide. On October 26 Nixon backtracked, promising to appoint a new special prosecutor, but the damage had been done. The President had indelibly stamped himself as deceitful and made any compromise on the tape issue impossible.

The most important event of the month attracted little notice at first. On October 20, as Nixon was figuratively roaming the Justice Department with chain saw and hockey mask, the government of Saudi Arabia cut off oil sales to the United States in retaliation for America’s support of Israel in the Yom Kippur War. Other Middle Eastern states joined the embargo, which turned an already serious fuel shortage in the United States into a full-blown energy crisis. The squeeze depressed all sectors of the economy, and before long, as drivers rose at five in the morning to wait for hours on line for dollar-a-gallon gasoline priced at an outrageous fifty cents a gallon, President Nixon’s economic record started looking a whole lot worse. Then as now, a President could complain of persecution and find sympathetic ears as long as the country was reasonably prosperous. Nixon had, after all, won forty-nine states less than a year before. But with unemployment and prices both zooming upward, friends became as hard to find as open gas stations for the beleaguered President.

In less than a month Nixon had been shorn of his best argument against impeachment (Agnew), the basis for what remained of his public support (the economy), and the fig leaf (Executive privilege) he had been using to hide the tapes’ damning evidence. From then on, his situation deteriorated so fast that he would soon feel compelled to declare, “I’m not a crook”—and find that no one believed him.