- 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 criminal standard buttressed the President’s larger thesis: In defending himself he was fighting to protect the “Presidency” from sinister forces trying to “weaken” it. On March 12 the President’s lawyer, James D. St. Clair, sounded this theme when he declared that he did not represent the President “individually” but rather the “office of the Presidency. There was even a National Citizens Committee for Fairness to the Presidency. It was America’s global leadership, Nixon insisted, that made a “strong” Presidency so essential. Regardless of the opinion of some members of the Judiciary Committee, Nixon told a joint session of Congress, he would do nothing that “impairs the ability of the Presidents of the future to make the great decisions that are so essential to this nation and the world.”
I used to listen to statements such as these with deep exasperation. Here was a President daring to tell Congress, in effect, that a lawless Presidency was necessary to America’s safety, while a congressional attempt to reassert the rule of law undermined the nation’s security.
Fortunately for constitutional government, however, Nixon’s conception of a strong Presidency included one prerogative whose exercise was in itself an impeachable offense. Throughout the month of March the President insisted that the need for “confidentiality” allowed him to withhold forty-two tapes that the Judiciary Committee had asked of him. Nixon was claiming the right to limit the constitutional power of Congress to inquire into his impeachment. This was more than Republicans on the committee could afford to tolerate.
“Ambition must be made to counteract ambition,” Madison had written in The Federalist . On April 11 the Judiciary Committee voted 33 to 3 to subpoena the forty-two tapes, the first subpoena ever issued to a President by a committee of the House. Ambition, at last, was counteracting ambition. This set the stage for one of the most lurid moments in the entire Watergate crisis.
As the deadline for compliance drew near, tension began mounting in the country. Comply or defy? Which would the President do? Open defiance was plainly impeachable. Frank compliance was presumably ruinous. On Monday, April 29, the President went on television to give the American people his answer. Seated in the Oval Office with the American flag behind him, President Nixon calmly announced that he was going to make over to the Judiciary Committee—and the public—“edited transcripts” of the subpoenaed tapes. These transcripts “will tell it all,” said the President; there was nothing more that would need to be known for an impeachment inquiry about his conduct. To sharpen the public impression of presidential candor, the transcripts had been distributed among forty-two thick, loose-leaf binders, which were stacked in two-foot-high piles by the President’s desk. As if to warn the public not to trust what the newspapers would say about the transcripts, Nixon accused the media of concocting the Watergate crisis out of “rumor, gossip, innuendo,” of creating a “vague, general impression of massive wrongdoing, implicating everybody, gaining credibility by its endless repetition.”
The next day’s New York Times pronounced the President’s speech “his most powerful Watergate defense since the scandal broke.” By May 1 James Reston, the newspaper’s most eminent columnist, thought the President had “probably gained considerable support in the country. ” For a few days it seemed as though the President had pulled off a coup. Republicans on the Judiciary Committee acted accordingly. On the first of May, 16 of the 17 committee Republicans voted against sending the President a note advising him that self-edited transcripts punctured by hundreds upon hundreds of suspicious “inaudibles” and “unintelligibles” were not in compliance with the committee’s subpoena. The President, it was said, had succeeded in making impeachment look “partisan” and consequently discreditable.
Not even bowdlerized transcripts, however, could nullify the destructive power of those tapes. They revealed a White House steeped in more sordid conniving than Nixon’s worst enemies had imagined. They showed a President advising his aides on how to “stonewall” a grand jury without committing perjury: “You can say, T don’t remember.’ You can say, T can’t recall. I can’t give any answer to that, that I can recall.’ ” They showed a President urging his counsel to make a “complete report” about Watergate but to “make it very incomplete. ” They showed a President eager for vengeance against ordinary election opponents. “I want the most comprehensive notes on all those who tried to do us in. … They are asking for it and they are going to get it.” It showed a President discussing how “national security grounds” might be invoked to justify the Ellsberg burglary should the secret ever come out. “I think we could get by on that, ” replies Nixon’s counsel.