The Last Days of Nixon–And the American Republic?

We’re coming up shortly on the 40th anniversary of Richard Nixon’s resignation, which coincides with the publication of Rick Perlstein’s new doorstop, The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, about which more—much more—in due course.  (I’m working on a long review for the Claremont Review of Books, and also following closely the unfolding controversy about potential plagiarism that Craig Shirley has brought against Perlstein’s peculiar method of source citation.)  For now suffice it to say Perlstein doesn’t mean Nixon, Reagan, and conservatives any good will with his latest henge.

Doubtless we’ll hear what I have called the “Standard Heroic Account” of the Watergate saga, which I described in the first volume of The Age of Reagan thus:

The Standard Heroic Account of the Watergate saga played out over two years as an epic struggle between the truth-seeking crusaders in Congress, the Justice Department, and the media against the villains in the White House trying to cover it all up, complete with a “Saturday Night Massacre” (when Nixon fired special prosecutor Archibald Cox and attempted to close down the investigation), missing or tampered evidence (the unexplained 18 1/2 minute gap in a key Oval Office tape), hush money (cash payoffs to Howard Hunt and others), mystery figures (“Deep Throat,” the still-secret source for Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein), and betrayals (White House counsel John Dean, whose 1973 Senate testimony first implicated Nixon in the cover up).  With Nixon’s resignation in August, 1974, the outcome of Watergate is regarded as a triumph of American constitutional democracy.  The combination of a vigilant media and an aroused Congress supposedly showed that “the system works.” . . .

Nixon’s “paranoia” is always attributed as the ultimate cause for the “climate” that gave rise to such unsavory activities occurring in the White House.  While the standard explanation is not wrong, it is worth recalling Delmore Schwartz’s counsel that “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.”  The nation was divided as at no time since the Civil War, and Nixon indeed had political enemies.  He meant to defeat them, and they knew it.  A ferocious and possibly decisive political clash was coming.  But then came the blunder of Watergate, which diverted attention away from the main contest Nixon wanted to fight.  Watergate became a surrogate battle, a dramatic—and traumatic—sideshow that diverted attention away from the main clash and deepened the nation’s existing divisions.

It is on precisely this point that all of the accounts of Watergate miss the nature and deeper significance of the political clash that served as the backdrop of the affair, and how the aftermath of Watergate changed the operation of government in subtle but profound ways.  While the sleuths of history attempt to peel away the tantalizing missing details suggested above, it is in the more abstract arena of Watergate’s effect on the constitutional structure of government where the most important revisionism remains to be done.  The reaction to the temporary constitutional crisis brought about by Nixon’s misdeeds (temporary because he would have been gone from the White House by 1976 anyhow) was a permanent constitutional crisis in the form of the powers that Congress and the bureaucracy usurped from the executive branch during its post-Watergate weakness.  Watergate didn’t just change our standards of ethics in government; it changed how the Constitution works.  Far from showing that “the system works,” Watergate introduced significant new distortions into our “system” that Ronald Reagan was largely unable to affect despite two popular landslide elections, and which persist today.

You can read my entire chapter about this, or you can take in this 22-minute segment of The American Mind with Professor John Marini of the University of Nevada at Reno, which nails it. Nixon had a serious plan in his second term to tame Congress and the bureaucracy.  So he had to be stopped by any means necessary.  And unfortunately he handed his enemies the perfect tool to ensure his destruction.