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1974: Twenty-five Years Ago
Dick’s Last Trick
April 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 2
Watergate dominated the news in April, as it had for more than a year. Each day seemed to bring new evidence of malfeasance by President Richard Nixon and his staff, and in a nation unaccustomed to having a criminal in the White House, the revelations were taken quite seriously. As the House Judiciary Committee took up the question of impeachment, Nixon knew his time to wriggle out of the mess was running short. In the football metaphors that he loved so much, the President was trailing by two touchdowns late in the fourth quarter. So, like any coach in such a predicament, he called for an onside kick.
As often happens in last-minute comebacks, Nixon benefited from a questionable call by the referees. On April 28 Maurice Stans and John Mitchell, former leaders of Nixon’s re-election campaign committee, were acquitted of criminal conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and perjury. Although both men would later be convicted on other charges, the verdict gave a temporary lift to Nixon’s rally attempt. He capitalized on the momentum, hoping that a weary public would welcome a chance to put Watergate behind it.
On April 30, in a final, desperate maneuver to save his job, President Nixon released 1,254 pages of partial transcripts, edited by himself, of Oval Office tape recordings that the House committee had subpoenaed. He invited a pair of prominent congressmen to verify their accuracy. The committee had requested the tapes to reconcile conflicting accounts of the President’s role in covering up the Watergate burglary of June 1972. Nixon refused to turn over the actual tapes—ostensibly to protect nationalsecurity information and the privacy of the participants, but in truth because they showed he had been involved in the cover-up from the start.
Like an onside kick, the maneuver risked helping the other team. In a nationally televised address the President conceded that “these transcripts will provide grist for many sensational stories in the press. … they will be embarrassing to me … [and] the subjects of speculation and even ridicule. … ” In an unsuccessful attempt to cut down on the ridicule, the President had deleted vulgar and indecent material (which would have made Kenneth Starr’s report 90 percent shorter) and passages unrelated to the President’s official actions (which would have made Starr’s report 100 percent shorter). In place of swear words he substituted “expletive deleted.” This ponderous phrase caught the public’s fancy and instantly became an all-purpose joke.
The transcripts inspired widespread shock and revulsion, sparked new calls for Nixon to resign, and revealed enough by themselves for the House committee to recommend impeachment. Yet they also concealed enough to give Nixon a fighting chance of mustering thirty-four votes to avoid conviction by the Senate. In a pattern that would become familiar in later scandals, the President’s defenders admitted that he had acted crudely and dishonestly but denied any proof of impeachable offenses. (At one point in the transcripts, Nixon told his staff that “perjury is a hard rap to prove” and suggested that they have convenient memory lapses when testifying.)
Nixon hoped that the transcripts would make him look candid and cooperative while maintaining the fig leaf of privacy and national security. But the House committee—divided, unusually for Watergate, along party lines—refused to take the bait. Along with the Watergate special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, it doggedly continued to press its subpoenas. The Supreme Court soon told the President that he had to turn over the tapes, reducing his maneuvering room to zero. A hundred days after his gamble with the edited transcripts, Richard Nixon would become an ex-President.
With Nixon in such deep trouble, attention naturally turned to Vice President Gerald R. Ford and his family. A reporter asked his wife, Betty, how she dealt with the stresses of her new role and got a disarmingly honest reply. “Valium three times a day,” the soon-to-be First Lady replied, “or sometimes Equagesic. That way I’m more comfortable.”