This weekend marks the forty fifth anniversary of Richard Nixon's infamous "Saturday Night Massacre" and the beginning of the end for the Nixon administration. A look back at the surprising legacy of a complicated and misunderstood president.
Forty-five years ago, President Richard Nixon ordered the firing of the special prosecutor in the Watergate scandal. The Attorney General and one other Justice department official either resigned in protest or were fired.
Commentators called this the “Saturday Night Massacre.” In the days that followed, polls showed that for the first time a plurality of Americans favored the impeachment of Richard Nixon. It took another ten months but eventually Mr. Nixon became the first and only US president to resign. We recall a book of that era by liberal columnist Jimmy Breslin: “How the Good Guys Finally Won.”
Back then, the Watergate scandal seemed simple. It was commonly understood that the right-wing Mr. Nixon’s top aides had broken the law and that he had participated in a cover-up. They were convicted in court and Mr. Nixon was pardoned in a very controversial decision by President Ford.
As four-and-half decades have rolled by, people have started to give the Nixon administration and the outcome of Watergate a second look.
Mr. Nixon is now widely viewed as a consequential president. He forced desegregation of southern schools and northern unions – the so-called “Philadelphia Plan” helped usher in the era of Affirmative Action. He established the EPA and OSHA. He started the “War on Cancer” through the NIH. He appointed four Supreme Court justices. Mr. Nixon signed Title 9 ensuring gender equity in college sports with ramifications well beyond athletics. He instituted wage and price controls. Mr. Nixon wound down Vietnam War and he ended the draft.
He played off the two communist giants – China and the Soviet Union – against each and established detente which was the prelude to Presidents Reagan and Bush ending the Soviet Union. In 1972 Richard Nixon won a 49-state victory. In 1973, Mr. Nixon stood up to the Soviet Union and helped save Israel by a massive arms shipment and by putting US forces on alert.
The tough Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir later said that when she heard of the weapons shipment she broke down and cried. In her autobiography Ms. Meir wrote that Richard Nixon was the best friend Israel had ever had.
Under Richard Nixon we went to the moon six times and we have not been back.
Richard Nixon boosted the careers of future presidents Gerald Ford and George HW Bush and candidates like Bob Dole, Lamar Alexander and Patrick Buchanan. One of his key domestic advisors was Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan who later went to the U.S. Senate.
In regards to the Watergate scandal, many now question the prosecution both in the court system and in the Congress. For example:
• Beginning with the first trial of the Watergate burglars, Judge Sirica began to act more like a prosecutor than a judge. He gave conditional sentences to the burglars of up to 30 years in prison for a nonviolent break-in! These sentences were announced to be eligible to be reduced on the condition that the men sentenced talked about people who were not even on trial.
• As congressional investigations continued and the trials of Mr. Nixon’s aides began, Judge Sirica – it is now known – had many ex parte discussions with prosecutors. These did not become part of the record and were unknown to the defense at the time.
• The prosecutors’ primary witness in the Watergate trial was former Nixon aide John Dean. Judge Sirica successfully played a trick on jurors and the American public with Mr. Dean. In most cases when a witness turns state evidence as Mr. Dean did, the sentence of that individual is withheld until after the trial in which he/she agrees to testify. The reason for that is obvious: The prosecution wants to make sure that the person testifies to what they agreed to testify. This normal procedure was not followed in the case of Mr. Dean.
Instead, John Dean was sentenced shortly after his plea arrangement and before the trial of the higher-ups. The sentence was relatively stiff – up to four years in prison. Why? The reason is fairly obvious. The judge did not want the defense to disparage Mr. Dean’s testimony as motivated by a desire for a light sentence. But it was a light sentence. Mr. Dean never served a day in prison. He was in a safe house before and during the trial and immediately after the conviction of Mr. Nixon’s aides Judge Sirica commuted Mr. Dean’s sentenced to “time served “and he walked free.
The ruse worked. The jury and the public saw a handsome young man apparently serving hard time testifying against his superiors who had supposedly been directing his activities. John Mitchell, John Ehrlichman and HR Haldeman were hobbled in their defense that they had been relying on Mr. Dean – a lawyer – to carry out his duties lawfully.
In many ways, Nixon was a classic liberal. On his watch and with his support, we moved to Affirmative Action(unfortunately), OSHA, the Environmental Protection Agency, détente with the USSR, disengagement from Vietnam and normalization of our relationship with China. The author Noam Chomsky referred to Nixon as “in many respects the last liberal president.” But the liberals of his time hated him.
After reflecting on these issues for more than forty years we conclude the following:
• Anyone who studies his life understands that Mr. Nixon was a deeply-flawed individual.
• Mr. Nixon was a good president who could have been a great one.
• There is reason to suspect that the Watergate scandal should not have led to his resignation.
Finally, and this is supreme irony, until President Obama came to the presidency, Richard Nixon was our last liberal.