Next on our list of presidents who have faced impeachment is Richard Nixon. While Nixon wasn’t technically impeached by the House, his removal would have been a certainty if he had not resigned. But how exactly did it all go down?
In Office 1969-1974
How Did He Become President?
Like Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon was raised in a poor family. He grew up in Southern California and had a strict upbringing as a Quaker. As an adult, he worked as a lawyer, then for the federal government. He joined the Navy during World War II, even though he could have claimed religious exemption.
Some of his Republican friends back in California recruited Nixon to run for a difficult House of Representatives seat, held by a Democrat. Nixon won. His first chance at the national spotlight came during his time on the House Un-American Activities Committee. He was a major player in the case against Alger Hiss, a government official accused of being a Soviet spy. Next, Nixon ran for Senate. His questionable campaign practices, including the implication that his opponent was a Communist, earned him the name “Tricky Dick.” As you might expect, Nixon continued his anti-Communist streak as a senator, becoming close friends with the movement’s leader, Joseph McCarthy.
Nixon’s tough stance on Communism (and his ability to draw votes from California) made him an ideal choice to be Dwight Eisenhower’s running mate in the 1952 election. Yet again, things got a little shady during the campaign. Nixon was accused of taking illegal campaign gifts. He defended himself in the televised “Checkers Speech,” in which he told the country the only gift he would keep was his family dog, Checkers. Luckily, the American public bought it, and he earned enough sympathy to avoid resigning from the campaign.
Eisenhower allowed Nixon to be a surprisingly active Vice President. He attended Cabinet and National Security Council meetings, and had a hand in foreign policy, which was unusual for VPs back then. After Eisenhower’s second term was up, Nixon chose to run for president himself in 1960. He faced little primary opposition, but had to face John F. Kennedy in the general. Nixon lost narrowly, which many blamed on his lackluster appearance in America’s first televised debates. Kennedy, on the other hand, looked young and handsome. Trying to stay relevant, Nixon later ran for California governor, but had another loss. He publicly threatened to leave politics forever.
A blessing in disguise, sympathy for Nixon went up again after a news program ran a premature “Political Obituary” for him. The episode included an interview with the accused spy Alger Hiss, prompting public backlash and ultimately ending the program entirely. Also lucky for him, Republicans lost big in Congress during his absence. He was one of the only party leaders free of blame.
Four years later, Nixon saw another opportunity to run for president. 1968 was infamously bad, starting with the Tet Offensive swinging public opinion against the Vietnam War, and then the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. The Democratic primaries were chaotic following President Lyndon B. Johnson’s decision to not to seek re-election, ending with VP Hubert Humphrey earning the nomination. Nixon’s plan was to go after the Southern vote (disaffected by the Democrat’s embrace of civil rights) and build a coalition of the Silent Majority (people who had quietly despised the counter-culture and anti-war movements). And of course, there were more suspicious campaign strategies, as many believed Nixon’s campaign sabotaged Johnson’s Vietnam peace talks in October, just before the election. Nixon also benefited from third-party segregationist candidate, George Wallace, joining the election and breaking up the Southern vote, though Nixon did his fair share of dog-whistling, too. In the end, Nixon won big.
Where Did He Go Wrong?
If it hadn’t been for this one, big thing, Nixon’s presidency would have been a relative success. He brought an end to the Vietnam War, opened up relations with China, and had a stable relationship with the USSR. But things started heating up with the release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. The papers contained classified information about the US government’s handling of the Vietnam War, which had a much larger scope than the public was aware of. Although the papers were worst for President Johnson, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger convinced Nixon to put a stop to it. Being the paranoid person that he was, Nixon formed the “White House Plumbers,” a secret group of executive branch staff (including intelligence officials) that were in charge of “stopping leaks.”
Some of the Plumbers also worked on the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CRP) for Nixon’s 1972 campaign. The CRP used campaign money to pay some burglars to break into the Democratic headquarters at the… wait for it… Watergate Hotel! On June 17th, 1972, they snuck in to take pictures of campaign documents and to wiretap phones. They were caught when a security guard found tape on the latches of the doors. Throughout the next few months, the Plumbers got to work on a cover up. The press (thanks, Woodward and Bernstein!) were slowly putting the pieces together, but it was not a serious issue during the election. Nixon destroyed the Democratic nominee, Senator George McGovern, 520 to 17 electors. The crazy thing is, Nixon didn’t even need to do illegal stuff to win this election!
As Nixon’s second inauguration passed, more and more information was being discovered in the Watergate trials. In July 1973, it became known that Nixon had secret audio recordings from the Oval Office. The investigation subpoenaed the tapes, but Nixon refused, citing executive privilege. With the pressure on, Nixon got more paranoid. In October, he fired two Attorneys General (yes, that’s correct) on the same night in order to find someone that was willing to fire the special prosecutor on the case. The incident became known as the Saturday Night Massacre. Nixon’s famous response to criticisms of these actions was, “I’m not a crook.”
In the summer of 1974, the Supreme Court ordered Nixon to finally release the Oval Office tapes. The tapes had plenty of Watergate talk on them, but there was also an 18 minute stretch suspiciously missing. The initial excuse was that Nixon’s personal secretary had accidentally destroyed it. But this smoking gun tape was eventually released a few weeks later, and it contained blatant obstruction of justice by Nixon. The House Judiciary Committee recommended articles of impeachment.
How Did He Avoid Removal?
Republican leaders met with Nixon and told him that removal from office was inevitable. So, on August 8th, 1974, Nixon resigned in a televised address. You can’t fire me, I quit!
Nixon’s Vice President, Sprio Agnew, had ALSO resigned back in 1973 due to allegations of tax evasion and money laundering from his time as governor of Maryland. Nixon appointed a replacement: Michigan Representative, House Minority Leader, and former University of Michigan football star, Gerald Ford. Having never been elected to the executive branch, Ford became president following Nixon’s resignation. In September, he chose to pardon Nixon, believing that it was his duty to help the country move on.
Ford’s decision was an unpopular one. He did manage to win a tough primary against Ronald Reagan in 1976 (try again in ’80!), but ultimately lost the election to Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter.
48 people were found guilty in connection to Watergate. In his post-presidency, Nixon wrote ten books to try and save his image. He died in 1994 after a stoke.
What Did It Say About America?
It took a while, but the system worked! Nixon had been flirting with corrupt practices for too long. This is the de facto bar for what presidents can get away with. What’s really funny to me is that Nixon’s first claim-to-fame was being on the House Un-American Activities Committee, but he himself went on to do way more damage to our government’s image than the alleged Soviet spies ever did.
Was It The Right Decision?
For Congress to introduce articles of impeachment? Absolutely. For Nixon to resign? Yeah. For Ford to pardon Nixon? No.
I remember when Gerald Ford passed away in 2006, a lot of media outlets discussed how the pardon had been the right decision at the time to move the country forward. But I disagree. I think the public was right the first time. The Watergate scandal was part of a long string of presidential missteps that took our trust away from the government. I think it would have been more powerful for Americans to see justice take its course, and to show that not even the president was above the law.