Richard Nixon

Let's Celebrate Watergate and the Deflation of the Imperial Presidency

It wasn't a national nightmare; it was fun. We can do it again.


Forty years ago, President Richard Nixon, backed into a corner by the Supreme Court, surrendered Watergate's "smoking gun" tape. Recorded six days after the break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters, it revealed the president scheming to get the CIA to quash the investigation — making it clear that he was in on the cover-up from the start.

Nixon announced he would resign three days later, and on Friday, Aug. 9 — after a cringe-inducing double V-for-Victory salute from the South Lawn — it was: So long, don't let the helicopter door hit you on the way out.

That afternoon, a newly sworn-in President Gerald Ford bemoaned "the internal wounds of Watergate, more painful and more poisonous than those of foreign wars." Given 22,000 American casualties in Vietnam under Nixon, it seemed an oafish comparison at best. Still, Ford's point was, "Our long national nightmare is over."

"Nightmare"? Lighten up, Jerry. The revelers who gathered in Lafayette Park had the right attitude: They stuck a sign on the White House fence reading, "Ding dong, the witch is dead."

"I'll tell you what I remember most about Watergate," journalist Jeff Greenfield enthused 10 years later: "It was fun."

Four decades on, it's clearer than ever that Aug. 9, 1974 — when Americans finally dethroned an imperial president, and began reining in the imperial presidency — is a day worth celebrating.

The Nixon tapes revealed much more than the cover-up of a "two-bit burglary." Nixon's "plumbers" broke into a psychiatrist's office, looking for dirt on Pentagon whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg — and even considered a diversionary firebombing of the Brookings Institution that would let them steal Brookings' files.

But Nixon was so irresistibly hate-able, it's easy to forget that, as constitutional scholar Philip Kurland put it in 1978, "The primary evil revealed by the events of Watergate was the presidency: not the man but the office. It was and is bloated with unrestrained power."

Indeed, many of the charges contained in Nixon's articles of impeachment — criminal misuse of the CIA, IRS, and FBI, for example — were business as usual for his predecessors. John F. Kennedy had his CIA director wiretap members of the Washington press corps; Lyndon Johnson had the agency bug Barry Goldwater's campaign plane. Kennedy's Ideological Organizations Project at the IRS made Lois Lerner look like an amateur. And, as Americans learned from the mid-1970s special committee investigation of intelligence abuses led by Sen. Frank Church, D-Idaho, nearly every post-World War II president used FBI wiretaps to keep tabs on political opponents.

As Chris Hayes recounted in 2006, "Church and many Democrats had every reason to believe they would be chiefly unmasking the full depths of Nixon's perfidy," but soon discovered that presidents of both parties enjoyed "using the available federal machinery to screw [their] political enemies."

The Church committee's revelations spurred reforms designed to check executive lawlessness. In the years since, those reforms have been dangerously undermined, and we still hear presidents echo Nixon's infamous statement that "when the president does it, that means it is not illegal."

One thing we don't hear anymore, however, is a phrase Nixon's chief of staff uttered, in all seriousness, during a discussion about the release of the Pentagon Papers: "The implicit infallibility of presidents, which has been an accepted thing in America, is badly hurt by this."

"The implicit infallibility of presidents." Try saying that out loud without smirking. In the wake of Watergate, presidential "infallibility" is no longer an "accepted thing" — it's something that's impossible to contemplate with a straight face.

In that much-maligned era, Americans rediscovered their historic skepticism toward power, and, for a time, brought the presidency down to size. We didn't finish the job, but what we achieved 40 years ago suggests that we can do it again.

This column originally appeared in The Washington Examiner.

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  1. “…when Americans finally dethroned an imperial president, and began reining in the imperial presidency ? is a day worth celebrating.”

    I’ll celebrate when there is the merest hint of an idea that we might seriously consider dethroning the much worse more imperial president we have right this very minute.

    1. Those where my thoughts too. The same ageing media types who like to pat themselves on the back for Nixon have for the most part been very willing to bow to the current emperor.

      1. “been very willing to bow”

        Bow is not quite the term that comes to mind…

        1. Right – missing a letter I think.

          1. If only there were the “Obama Tapes”.

            We can now only guess and suspect, what with using person gmail accounts and crashing hard drives quickly disposed.

  2. I have prig friends who blanch in horror when I dare to suggest that his holiness the big 0 is the worst president since before Nixon.
    They shut up when I ask them how much of the country would have been burned to the ground if Nixon had assumed the right to unilateral unreviewed execution of anyone anywhere on his say-so alone.

    1. Prog friends, dammit, prog friends. Damn autocorrect!

      1. I have no doubt that they’re priggish as well.

        How about prag friends? Vern Schillinger wants to know.

        1. Preg progs are expecially prig.

          1. prick

        2. Yeah, I thought you were right the first time.

      2. prig works for most of them, as well.

    2. Would a couple of Dem hacks breaking into a Republican office even be reported today?

      Fox News might run the story once, hard drives would crash, a “fake scandal” would be declared, and everyone would forget when the next scandal broke.

  3. Let’s celebrate by impeaching the current president. Not just impeachment, but a national holiday, fireworks, ending with the conviction and removal of the president and a number of other officials, followed by the tarring and feathering.

    1. We should have a holiday like that one in the horror movies, where all persons associated with making and enforcing the law are outlaws for 24 hours.

      1. You know how they have mandatory minimum sentences? I say there should be mandatory minimum impeachments. No fewer than five/year, or the entire House is replaced by random members of the LP.

        1. How about just random felons? I’d rather be governed by random felons than LINOs who join because they know the House won’t get five impeachments in.

          1. Make it libertarian felons and you have a deal.

            1. We are all felons according to the Statists.

  4. “the Deflation of the Imperial Presidency”

    Since when? That’s news to me.

    1. It was deflated but not popped.

      1. It got a flat tire, which was promptly replaced with steel-belted radials guaranteed for 3,000,000,000,000,000 miles or the death of the Republic, whichever comes first.

        1. ^this^

        2. A regretful +1

  5. Impeachment is an absurdly rare event in U.S. history. And conviction is even rarer. Something is seriously and obviously wrong with our system from very early on that this is true. It’s not like we don’t have corruption, venality, dishonest, malfeasance, and rank incompetence throughout the system.

    1. “It is terrible to contemplate how few politicians are hanged. ”

      ? G.K. Chesterton

      1. Chesterton was such a smart guy. Religious and anti-establishment…

        “The State did not own men so entirely, even when it could send them to the stake,
        as it sometimes does now where it can send them to the elementary school.”
        – G.K. Chesterton

    2. I’m not sure why we even talk about impeachment anymore. If it was impossible to impeach a president when people were actually able to persuaded by arguments, why would we think it was even close to possible now?

      1. Yeah, neither Team is ever going to hold their own guy accountable.

        1. Indeed, the Teams are holding the other guy accountable, either. Bush was impeachable; Obama even more so.

  6. when Americans finally dethroned an imperial president, and began reining in the imperial presidency ? is a day worth celebrating.

    except that didn’t happen. a partisan scalp was acquired and that’s about it.

    btw, how is break-in a threat to free elections and a politicized IRS not?

    1. Scalp? That was a toupee.

    2. btw, how is break-in a threat to free elections and a politicized IRS not?

      Because RETHUGLICANZ!!11!!! And Fake SKANDULZ!!11!!!!

      1. Stupid not hitting refresh first…

        1. Or perhaps, great minds think alike.

    3. Because…Fake Scandalz!!!11!1!!

    4. Please step over here traveler for the mandatory anus scan.

      1. Where do I sign up???

        1. That’s the great thing about it being mandatory. You don’t need to sign up.

        2. It was covered when you signed the social contract.

          1. Plus, you’re defending freedom.

            1. …with back-door patriotism.

  7. This might be the most Pollyannaish piece Reason has ever published. Jesus Christ…

    1. It was Healy having a Libertarian Moment.

  8. I want to know when the Obama Tapes are coming out.

    I’m having a hard time believing that this megalomaniac learned his lesson.

    1. He lois Lernered his lesson.

  9. Both President Obama and his predecessor deserve to be water boarded.

    Then thrown in prison for life.

  10. “Given 22,000 American casualties in Vietnam under Nixon”

    OK, granted I’m using Wikipedia. Adding up all the American deaths, 1969- “after 1975”, I come up with 21264. ’65 – ’68 saw 36530 dead, under LBJ, who frankly made Nixon look like a piker in other respects.

    I’m tired of seeing Nixon (who I despise) held up as a bogeyman. He was a middling poor President, and he was a scofflaw. The evidence of History suggests that what he was really almost impeached for, though, was having the gall to think the press would let him get away with what LBJ and JFK had pulled.

    1. What’s curious is the amount of Americans who died in Vietnam and Korea, yet we are told that during the Cold War not a single shot was fired…

      1. Too many people, of many political stripes, don’t want a really cold eyed examination of our relations with assorted “Communist” and “Revolutionary” regimes. Some because they don’t think the American People can deal with actual international diplomacy until it has been sanitized for little old ladies, others because they want to disguise just how many murderous thugs they have had school girl crushes on.

        If we had assassinated Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Castro, and assorted Islamic sickos when it would have been easy we would be reviled and feared throughout the world ?. and the world would almost certainly be a much cleaner place.

        So, really, there is no down side, as such?…

        1. Thanks to our federal government we are reviled and feared now. Especially hated.

          I love my country, but I hate my government.

          1. Thanks to our SIZE we are reviled and feared now. I really doubt that any government we might conceivably have would result in a different World Opinion. No matter how big and successful we might be, the only way to alleviate the widespread misery and want that afflicts the world would be world conquest ? and nobody would thank us, even if it worked out for the best.

            Now, our government probably hasn’t helped, and I don’t like it either, but it isn’t a matter of how or government behaves or misbehaves. Ours isn’t as bad as most governments out there, but we expect it to be better. It isn’t. It isn’t GOING to be.

            I don’t think we can do without government (I am 50, fat, and prone to gout; I won’t be fighting any Warlords. Not successfully, anyway). But government is an inevitable evil, not really subject to reform beyond a certain point.

            1. I believe it is the armies of occupation that the federal government has throughout the world that brings about the hatred and resentment.

              Much as our founding fathers were pissed off at Great Britain for having armed troops in the colonies at the time.

              1. If you think the troops we have in places like.Germany or Okinawa inspire hatred, wait until we propose to take them home. It doesn’t matter what we do, we will get hatred, most of it fRompeople who want our success. But don’t want to accept the conditions that made it, or seem to have made it.

                1. I’m not sure what “success” you are talking about. The people of this country may have been successful back when my parents were kids. People born in the US today will not know what it’s like to live in a free country unless they move elsewhere.

                  The government has destroyed our money, taken away our rights and liberties, and trained many of us to cheer the government for doing this to us.

                  It’s all patriotic, you understand. It’s for your own good.

  11. Audience at Rocky Horror Picture Show: “What does America need?”
    RMN: “America needs a full-time president.”
    Audience: “What else?”
    RMN: “And a full-time Congress.”

  12. Today’s hyper-partisanship is covering up the fact that the presidency’s power is increasing every year and has been since the moment Nixon left office. Instead of focusing on the presidency as an institution in charge of a bureaucracy that doesn’t really change, we focus on it as a prize to be won by “your” team (or reflexively fought against if your team is the loser).

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