Watergate, Richard Nixon, and American Politics
To being nowhere near the beginning of this piece, I will point out that American politicians, perhaps like all politicians, are managers, meaning they want to manage issues, address them, meaning in ways meant to preserve or fortify their power. So, for example, with regard to race, the issues are handled, managed in ways meant to maintain and fortify the power of the politicians involved. Hence, at times, this would mean passing civil rights legislation; while at other times it would mean criminal justice “reforms” that lead to the mass incarceration of racial minorities. What dictates how issues are managed or handled are calculations about which means will best deal with the issue while preserving or extending the power of the politicians involved.
For similar reasons, any election results must be managed in order to deal with the issues the elections revolved around while preserving the power of those invested in the prevailing order. Such managing is necessary because all elections are potentially disruptive, but especially those elections that occur in the midst of widespread popular unrest, dissatisfaction, anger, or even rage. So, finally coming the point of this essay, after the 1968 presidential election, the Nixon administration had to be managed even while it was attempting to manage the affairs of the nation. Politics is, in this sense, a two way street. This was especially true in 1968 given the popular unrest that then existed and given that Nixon’s politics represented his desire to change the existing alignment of political forces. Beyond this, there was the fact that Nixon had never been accepted as a member in good standing in those forces that were socially and politically dominant, forces represented by the likes of the Washington Post and the New York Times. He was, in brief, looked upon suspiciously. He knew this and it affected him repeatedly.
From this perspective, Watergate and Nixon’s resignation from the presidency was not, as it is so often portrayed, a purification, a cleansing of the American political, an act of statesmanship that rescued American democracy. Rather, it was an illustration of the certain political forces who were seeking to protect themselves, their power, and the system that conveyed their status upon them. They were resisting Nixon, yes; but their resistance was against Nixon and his politics that would have represented significant political changes were Nixon successful. It was useful to present Nixon as a fundamentally flawed individual, driven by his insecurities to try to undermine American democracy. But actually the oligarchic forces that had prevailed prior to Nixon’s presidency were trying to protect themselves and their power. If they happened to protect American democracy as a result that was not their primary objective. They weren’t trying to protect American democracy; they were trying to protect themselves.
This doesn’t mean that Nixon was seeking democratic changes to offset the oligarchic forces that were opposed to him. Nixon was no more a democrat than were his opponents. But his politics represented a threat to a broad swath of the existing powers that controlled or tried to control US politics, forces like those in the mainstream media like the Washington Post and the NY Times, the military, corporate elites, and “the Club” in Washington, D.C. Nixon’s “New Majority,” which was said to appear in full force in the 1972 presidential election, had to be handled, be managed by these powers because otherwise they were facing displacement by Nixon’s “New Majority.”
Because Nixon knew that his policies, which he claimed were underwritten by that New Majority, were a threat to the existing order, he also knew that he had to proceed secretly or covertly if he were to be successful. He knew, for example, that he wouldn’t be able to leave Vietnam outright or early in his first term because he knew that the south would then fall and he would be blamed for “losing South Vietnam” and probably not be re-elected. So he had to extend the war, continue it until he as re-elected or almost re-elected, after which he would be immune from the consequences of a Communist reunification of Vietnam. Of course, he could not pursue such a strategy openly, given the intense opposition that had arisen against the war, and so he pursued it secretly, keeping it a secret even from the military, parts of which were still committed to victory in Vietnam.
Similarly, Nixon knew that his “opening” to Communist China would be opposed, intensely opposed, and were he to make his strategy public, his opponents would do all they could to undermine it. He had to present it as an accomplished fact and this required the utmost secrecy. His opponents were spread across the political spectrum, as they included both right-wing Republicans and anti-Communist Democrats like Henry Jackson, not to mention anti-Communists in the military like Admiral Zumwalt and Admiral Moorer. Thus, secrecy was of paramount importance to Nixon’s China policy and had to be maintained even against the likes of Nixon’s own Secretary of Defense, Melvin Laird.
Nixon’s Soviet policy of “détente” was represented most importantly by his search for mutually agreeable limitations on strategic arms, hence, the SALT agreements he negotiated with the Soviets. But the strategic arms limitations policies could not be hidden because they necessarily involved treaties and treaties have to be ratified by the Senate and, hence, publicly debated. But Nixon knew he would again be opposed by both right-wing Republicans and anti-Communist Democrats and, hence, he would have to try to outflank these forces, which he managed to do for a little while. That is, he did so until his “Watergate troubles” began and were eventually placed front and center by Nixon’s opponents, some of them who were like Alexander Haig pretending to be in Nixon’s camp. To think that Nixon’s “Watergate troubles” had nothing to do with opposition to his policies would be, in a word, naïve.
And, generally, to think of Watergate as having little or nothing to do with Nixon’s politics would be just as naïve. Given the threat that Nixon posed to some of the most powerful forces in D.C., a threat enhanced by Nixon’s landslide victory in the 1972 presidential election, Nixon had to be managed, handled, including even forcing him out of the presidency and sending him disgraced into a kind of exile in San Clemente. Nixon, of course, did much to help his opponents dispose of him as president, most importantly by obstructing justice while trying to cover up Republican participation if the Watergate burglaries. But beyond that Nixon had a good deal of help, for example, from his chief of staff, Alexander Haig and even some from Henry Kissinger, not to mention John Dean, in helping his opponents remove him from office. Yes, a time would come when Nixon could be rehabilitated as an “elder statesman,” but only when he was old and had no real political power. And even then, Nixon’s rehabilitation did not include real acceptance. President Clinton tried to do that but if he succeeded, he only did so at Nixon’s funeral. Dead presidents, here Nixon, can be safely praised.
So far was Watergate from being a cleansing, a purification of a political order that had been corrupted by Nixon, who sought to impose his will on America by secret and covert means, it was in reality an illustration of some powerful political forces protecting themselves, their power, and the system which made them what they were. During Watergate and after, the media, for example, was presented as helping to save democracy, when in fact the likes of Woodward and Bernstein, for example, were fed by the likes of Mark Felt, an FBI bigwig, and more importantly by Alexander Haig, a four-star general whom Woodward had briefed when both worked at the Pentagon. Woodward and Bernstein and others, even many others, were working for and with those forces that were most threatened by Nixon and his politics.
Just by the by, as it were, during the Iran Contra scandal, when the media seemed to go out of its way to protect the Reagan administration from any thoughts of impeachment or resignation, the media had only changed its tactics, not its goal, which was to protect those powerful forces supporting the Reagan administration and its politics. So, while it looked like the “muck-raking” media of the Watergate years had changed, becoming accommodationists in the 80s, these looks were deceiving insofar as the media’s goal was the same in the 70s and the 80s, to protect some of the most powerful political forces in D.C. The goal was the same; only the means had changed.
Today, the question should be asked: Will ridding ourselves of Trump represent a cleansing, a purification of the American political order or just another protective – and reactionary – oligarchic operation? No doubt, should Biden prevail in the 2020 presidential election, the media will tout it as a cleansing, a purification of that order. But given Biden’s status as a penultimate insider, no more controversial than Gerry Ford was when he was appointed Nixon’s vice president, it seems doubtful that there is or will be much cleansing going on. The prevailing but floundering oligarchy will be restored, just as other powerful forces were restored when, as Gerry Ford put it after Nixon’s resignation, “Our long national nightmare has ended.’ But then there are nightmares and there are nightmares. For me, the most frightening nightmare is one in which those powerful forces are celebrated as democratic forces and the oligarchy rolls on and on and on.