- Historic Sites
I. The Hour Of The Founders
In which a President fails to fulfill his constitutional duty to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” And a reluctant Congress acts.
June/july 1984 | Volume 35, Issue 4
The Watergate crisis had begun in June 1972 as a “third-rate burglary” of the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington’s Watergate building complex. By late March 1973 the burglary and subsequent efforts to obstruct its investigation had been laid at the door of the White House. By late June, Americans were asking themselves whether their President had or had not ordered the payment of “hush money” to silence a Watergate burglar. Investigated by a special Senate committee headed by Sam Ervin of North Carolina, the scandal continued to deepen and ramify during the summer of 1973. By March 1974 the third-rate burglary of 1972 had grown into an unprecedented constitutional crisis.
By then it was clear beyond doubt that President Richard M. Nixon stood at the center of a junto of henchmen without parallel in our history. One of Nixon’s attorneys general, John Mitchell, was indicted for obstructing justice in Washington and for impeding a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation in New York. Another, Richard Kleindienst, had criminally misled the Senate Judiciary Committee in the President’s interest. The acting director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, L. Patrick Gray, had burned incriminating White House documents at the behest of a presidential aide. Bob Haldeman, the President’s chief of staff, John Ehrlichman, the President’s chief domestic adviser, and Charles Colson, the President’s special counsel, all had been indicted for obstructing justice in the investigation of the Watergate burglary. John Dean, the President’s legal counsel and chief accuser, had already pleaded guilty to the same charge. Dwight Chapin, the President’s appointments secretary, faced trial for lying to a grand jury about political sabotage carried out during the 1972 elections. Ehrlichman and two other White House aides were under indictment for conspiring to break into a psychiatrist’s office and steal confidential information about one of his former patients, Daniel Ellsberg. By March 1974 some twenty-eight presidential aides or election officials had been indicted for crimes carried out in the President’s interest. Never before in American history had a President so signally failed to fulfill his constitutional duty to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”
It also had been clear for many months that the thirty-seventh President of the United States did not feel bound by his constitutional duties. He insisted that the requirements of national security, as he and he alone saw fit to define it, released him from the most fundamental legal and constitutional constraints. In the name of “national security,” the President had created a secret band of private detectives, paid with private funds, to carry out political espionage at the urging of the White House. In the name of “national security,” the President had approved the warrantless wiretapping of news reporters. In the name of “national security,” he had approved a secret plan for massive, illegal surveillance of American citizens. He had encouraged his aides’ efforts to use the Internal Revenue Service to harass political “enemies”—prominent Americans who endangered “national security” by publicly criticizing the President’s Vietnam War policies.
The framers of the Constitution had provided one and only one remedy for such lawless abuse of power: impeachment in the House of Representatives and trial in the Senate for “high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” There was absolutely no alternative. If Congress had not held President Nixon accountable for lawless conduct of his office, then Congress would have condoned a lawless Presidency. If Congress had not struck from the President’s hands the despot’s cudgel of “national security,” then Congress would have condoned a despotic Presidency.
Looking through the back issues of The New York Times , I recollected in a flood of ten-year-old memories what it was that had filled me with such foreboding. It was the reluctance of Congress to act. I felt anew my fury when members of Congress pretended that nobody really cared about Watergate except the “media” and the “Nixon-haters.” The real folks “back home,” they said, cared only about inflation and the gasoline shortage. I remembered the exasperating actions of leading Democrats, such as a certain Senate leader who went around telling the country that President Nixon could not be impeached because in America a person was presumed innocent until proven guilty. Surely the senator knew that impeachment was not a verdict of guilt but a formal accusation made in the House leading to trial in the Senate. Why was he muddying the waters, I wondered, if not to protect the President?
It had taken one of the most outrageous episodes in the history of the Presidency to compel Congress to make even a pretense of action.