The Watergate Affair
The Oval Office Tapes
Nixon continued to deny his involvement in Watergate until a peripheral witness, Alexander Butterfield, mentioned that there was a tape-recording system in the Oval Office. Tape-recording technology had come into existence during the 1930s; it had provided presidents from FDR onward with an ideal means for recording the exact words spoken in important meetings or conversations. FDR, Eisenhower, and Kennedy had all made limited use of a taping system; Lyndon Johnson had embraced it enthusiastically, recording his conversations on a daily basis. Published transcripts of the Johnson tapes provide a fascinating look at the day-in, day-out business of running the Oval Office. Like his predecessors, Nixon used the best technology of the day for a taping system when he became president. Of course, the public—including almost everyone who was summoned to the Oval Office—was completely unaware that there was such a system; only Nixon, a few trusted aides, and the men who installed and maintained the system knew of its existence.
The Senate committee subpoenaed the tapes immediately. Nixon refused to surrender them, claiming “executive privilege”—the president’s right to keep his private conversations private. At this point, a new scandal arose: Vice President Spiro Agnew, who had been accused of income-tax evasion, resigned his office as part of a plea-bargaining agreement. Nixon appointed the House minority leader, Gerald Ford of Michigan, in Agnew’s place.
Lower courts did not accept Nixon’s argument of executive privilege and ordered him to turn over the tapes. When he still refused, the case went to a federal court, which also sided against Nixon. Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox ordered Nixon to surrender the tapes to the federal grand jury investigating Watergate. Nixon responded by ordering first his attorney general, then his deputy attorney general, to fire Cox. Both men chose to resign rather than obey the president’s order; it was left to Solicitor General Robert Bork to fire Cox. This series of events is known as the Saturday Night Massacre.
When Nixon took his case to the Supreme Court, his own appointees ruled against him. Chief Justice Burger, writing the opinion for a unanimous court, stated that the tapes were important evidence in a criminal case, and that therefore Nixon had no right to withhold them. The president’s privilege, he wrote, “cannot prevail over the fundamental demands of due process of law in the fair administration of criminal justice.”
Deep Throat warned Woodward that some of the tapes contained deliberate erasures. Less than two weeks later, the grand jury confirmed that there was an 181⁄2-minute silence on one of the tapes. All along, Nixon had claimed that the full disclosure of the tapes would prove him innocent of any complicity in the Watergate crimes. The fact that the tapes had been partially erased tended rather to confirm his guilt; even some of his most loyal defenders were beginning to doubt his innocence.
In the first weeks of March 1974, the House Judiciary Committee began to discuss impeachment of the president. Rather than face impeachment, Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974; astoundingly, he claimed that he had “never ducked” responsibility for his mistakes. Gerald Ford then became president.
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