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The Nixon Era and Watergate

By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 4, 2012

Time Line

1968 Richard Nixon elected president
1969 Warren Burger appointed to the Supreme Court
1970 Congress creates the Environmental Protection Agency
1971 Nixon aides begin to compile “enemies list”
1972

Nixon visits China

Nixon visits Soviet Union; signs SALT Treaty

Break-in at Democratic headquarters in Watergate buildings

Nixon reelected

1973

Senate begins investigating Watergate scandals

Vice president Agnew resigns; replaced by Gerald Ford

Saturday Night Massacre

1973-1974 Energy crisis
1974

Taped Oval Office conversations made public

Nixon resigns; Ford becomes president

Ford pardons Nixon

Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward publish All the President’s Men

 

The Nixon Era and Watergate

Elected president by 500,000 votes in 1968, Richard Nixon intended to stay president for a second term. More than that, he ordered his closest aides to see to it that he was reelected by the largest landslide in history, telling them he did not care how they did this, so long as it was done. The actions that his aides took, with Nixon’s full knowledge and approval, eventually led to the break-in at the Watergate buildings. This burglary was the beginning of a Washington Post investigation that led to the downfall of the Nixon administration.

Nixon’s major legacy to the nation was twofold. On the positive side, he eased the tense American relationship with the Soviet Union and paved the way for more cordial relations with China. On the negative side, he played the leading role in a major political conspiracy to subvert the electoral process.

The important issue involved in the Nixon scandals is the notion of representative government and the power of the law over all citizens. The Americans’ early experience of being ruled without representation had led them to devise a government of checks and balances to ensure that the government could not become tyrannical. The Constitution does not allow the president the same privileges as a dictator or an absolute monarch. Nixon’s behavior violated this principle. When asked about his illegal activities, he was quoted as saying “If the president does it, it isn’t illegal.” Nixon genuinely believed that the president was above the law, with absolute power to make what- ever decisions he believed were in the best interest of the nation. He believed that a Nixon presidency was in the nation’s best interest; on that basis, he did everything he could to ensure that he got reelected and he clung to his official position even when the nation began to turn against him.

Nixon’s position—that the U.S. president is above the law—is simply not tenable. The U.S. Constitution is based on long-standing British principles that state that no one, including the monarch, is above the law; the Magna Carta of 1215 spells this out clearly. By the same token, the U.S. Constitution includes procedures by which the president can be removed from office for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” If a president can commit crimes, he is clearly not above the law.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

The Nixon Era and Watergate Practice Test

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