EDITOR'S NOTE: It was 40 years ago that Richard M. Nixon became the only president of the United States to resign. Historians cite the relentless coverage of the Watergate scandal by The Washington Post as the catalyst for that event. Harry Rosenfeld, now editor-at-large of the Albany Times Union, was at that time overseeing that coverage as assistant managing editor of the Post.• • •
In those days – was that really more than four decades ago? – I was immersed in the unfolding Watergate investigation. While the tide of serial incrimination rose, eventually sinking the presidency of Richard Nixon, any idea that he could be forced to resign or be impeached was far from my mind.
As the editor in charge of the daily investigative coverage of that scandal, increasingly revealed by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, reporters on the local news staff, it was an uppermost concern of mine not to massage the message. Our newspaper, The Washington Post, led in discovering the breadth and depth of the wrongdoings of Watergate. From the first, the White House counterattacked, deriding our extensive coverage the Watergate break-in as overkill involving nothing more than“a third-rate burglary.”
That was only the opening salvo of a relentless attack from the Republicans in the White House, the Congress and the party organization and its well-connected faithful. We were denounced as a notoriously liberal newspaper, beholden to the Democrats and enlisted as their partisan attack dog. Moreover, the whole world – at least the insiders that resided in the District of Columbia and environs – knew that our charismatic executive editor, Ben Bradlee, had been a very close friend, a veritable buddy, of President John Kennedy, who beat Nixon for the job the first time he ran in 1960.
So I felt it necessary, as our team uncovered the layered illegal schemes of the Nixon White House, that we do nothing to provide fodder for the vilification campaign that was studded with artful non-denial denials. Their technique was to discredit an article by refuting an assertion that the story did not make. I had to make as sure as any editor overlooking reporters’ work is able that personal prepossession and political or cultural disdain did not infect the quality of our groundbreaking reporting – in short, that we were not finding the facts we were disposed to find and ignoring contravening ones. After all, for a long time, we were out there alone, which was another argument that we were partisan: Nobody else thought anything that weighty was going on.
We were taking it one step at a time, getting closer and closer to the top man. The first time impeachment came up was when I was interviewed by a Japanese television correspondent who asked what I thought the chances were of that happening. I batted the question away because I did not want to say anything that might suggest our coverage had an agenda.
Some time later, after Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew, resigned over bribes he had taken for favors delivered while Maryland governor (at heart, they were really a scurvy bunch), I lunched with a close friend who was not in the news trade. He was a mover and shaker, and asked me whether I thought Nixon would be removed.“No way,” I said. In my assessment, the American people would never sit still for both their elected president and vice president being ejected from office. Even accumulating evidence of serious wrongdoing, accompanied by the tightening of the circled wagons around the White House, wasn’t enough. When it comes to dislodging a president, in my opinion, inferences wouldn’t suffice. You would need crystal-clear evidence far beyond the conventional reasonable doubt.
That’s why almost to the end, the impeachment of Nixon was chancy. It wasn’t even a lively possibility after a congressional committee had received written testimony from the No. 2 CIA man that Nixon had ordered it to squelch the probe into the Watergate burglary. Sen. Barry Goldwater stood tall and unwavering on behalf of the president – and kept the Republicans pretty much in line – until late in the day. But when the Supreme Court ordered Nixon to turn over the tapes, including“the smoking gun” tape that he had been clinging to for his political life, the game was over. With Republican support, impeachment was assured. So Nixon resigned.
Nixon survived his epic disgrace in fine style. He never lacked for food on his table, wine in his glass, a roof over his head with his Oxfords surely highly polished. His picked successor, Gerald Ford, quickly pardoned him. This was probably the right thing to do for the good of the country. Except that Nixon never, ever, admitted to his crimes and misdemeanors.
Absent that acknowledgment, he did not deserve a pardon. One is pardoned because of a wrongful conviction or for having ‘fessed up and mended one’s miscreant ways. His behavior forever stands as a caveat against the arrogance of power and its myriad abuses.