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On August 8th, 1974, President Richard M. Nixon did something no other President before or since had ever done.
Yep, he resigned the Presidency of the United States; walked away from the highest office in the land; walked off his job as leader of the free world. On August 9th, he climbed into a helicopter, gave the victory sign, and split.
The reason? The Supreme Court's decision in U.S. v. Nixon.
This decision, announced three weeks earlier, instructed the president to hand over audiotapes that would surely implicate him in an epic cover-up of one of the biggest political scandals in U.S. history. Having lost the support of most of his White House staff and facing almost certain impeachment, he announced his resignation.
The scandal was Watergate, the famous event that attached "-gate" to every cultural, political, and sports controversy since 1973 and that, as gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson put it, "burned a big hole for itself in every American history textbook written from 1973 till infinity" (source).
Quick recap: On June 17th, 1972, some guys connected to Nixon's re-election campaign broke into the Democratic National Committee Headquarters at the Watergate hotel and office complex in Washington, D.C. and went digging through files and planting secret recording devices. This was nothing new for the Nixon Administration, which was known for bugging the offices of their political opponents and using federal agencies like the FBI, IRS, and CIA to hassle activist groups that Nixon didn't like. And he disliked almost everybody.
It gradually became clear that there was a massive cover-up of the Watergate break-in, and that the burglars had been paid hush money by Nixon's re-election campaign. On March 1st, 1974, a grand jury indicted a number of Nixon aides—H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, Charles Colson, John Mitchell, Robert C. Mardian, Kenneth Parkinson, and Gordon Strachan—for federal crimes committed while serving in the Nixon White House, including their roles in Watergate.
A secret informer, nicknamed "Deep Throat" by the media, leaked information to The Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward suggesting that the cover-up went pretty high up. Senator Howard Baker famously asked, "What did the President know and when did he know it?"
Turns out he knew a lot, and knew it starting a week after the break-in. Nixon protested his innocence in the Watergate affair and took his case to the American people on television, famously declaring that "I am not a crook."
Unfortunately for Nixon, his paranoia about his political enemies made him record conversations that took place in the Oval Office. Even more unfortunately, some of those conversations were about his role in the cover-up of the scandal.
A Senate committee assigned to investigate the Watergate scandal had requested the tapes, but Nixon refused to cough them up. Instead, he released, edited, and redacted transcripts. But this wasn't good enough for the special prosecutor assigned to the case by the attorney general. He didn't want edited transcripts, but the real deal tape, and issued a subpoena for the material. After Nixon's lawyer unsuccessfully tried to get the subpoena quashed in District Court, Nixon appealed, and the case went to the Supremes.
Nixon argued that the Supreme Court lacked the power to force him to produce the tapes. Because it was a conflict between the president and the Watergate special prosecutor, this was purely an argument within the executive branch; the judicial branch (the courts) could butt out. Nixon also argued executive privilege, which is a constitutional power the president has to quash—or just straight up ignore—any subpoena trying to access information or personnel of the executive branch by the judicial and legislative branches. In plain English, this means that the president can withhold information from Congress, the courts, and the public if he deems it a threat to national security.
Here's the thing. Have you read the Constitution lately?
Executive privilege is nowhere to be explicitly found in the document; it's just implied in Article II, which describes the presidency as a very unique office and the president as different from an ordinary person in his rights and responsibilities. U.S. v. Nixon was the first time that the Supreme Court ruled (unanimously, btw) that executive privilege is a legitimate power. Unfortunately for Nixon, the Court also ruled that executive privilege is not an absolute power. Because this wasn't a matter of military importance or national security, executive privilege didn't protect the president this time.
On July 24th, 1974, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that President Nixon had to turn over the tapes. After the decision, Nixon again released to the special prosecutor an abridged transcript of the tapes. Knowing what the tapes would reveal, and with three articles of impeachment being weighed against him—obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and contempt of Congress—Nixon called it quits.
P.S. Thanks to Fred Emery for his book Watergate: The Corruption of American Politics and the Fall of Richard Nixon. Lots of facts in there.
Have you ever noticed how government conspiracy movies became really popular in the mid-70s? There's (the underrated, in our opinion) The Parallax View (1974), The Conversation (1974), Three Days of the Condor (1975), and All The President's Men (1976). They're all great examples of the paranoia of the 1970s. (You can't blame drugs for everything). You like Jason Bourne movies? Well, Robert Redford was the original Jason Bourne (sort of) in Three Days of the Condor.
Why this glut of government conspiracy flicks? Because of the revelations of Watergate, people became much more distrustful and cynical about the government, and this spilled right over into the popular culture. Watergate tore the Band-Aid off a bunch of secret, nasty government activities. Because the Watergate committee also discovered that the CIA was carrying out questionable domestic security operations, the Church Committee was formed to investigate the CIA.
Ever notice how the CIA is never the good guys in movies? Yeah, you can thank this committee for that.
In a series of famous televised interviews in 1977 with British journalist David Frost, Nixon said that probably his greatest regret of the whole Watergate mess was that he let down young people who might have wanted to go into government service, but now will think that government's just too corrupt. Instead, they'd all go work for organizations that are totally ethical and transparent, like Goldman Sachs or the New England Patriots.
The whole sordid Watergate affair wasn't the first high-level government scandal and there have been plenty of shockers since. But Nixon was unfortunately right: this was a low point in the nation's confidence in their government to act legally and ethically. In Watergate, government conspiracy theories turned out to be the truth.
We swear, though—we really did land a man on the moon.
Just a Click Away
Access in a click what the Watergate Committee had to dig for. About 3000 hours of the declassified Nixon tapes. No subpoena needed.
The Watergate Files
A rundown of the Watergate scandal at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum.
The Post with the Most
Home of crack reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, The Washington Post published a handy timeline of its coverage of Watergate, with links to all its articles. There were a lot.
Ghosts in the White House?
Chief of Staff Alexander Haig suggested that some "sinister force" may have been responsible for the mysterious 18 ½- minute gap in the tape of the Nixon-Haldeman meetings. This was by far not the weirdest thing Haig ever said or did.
This is Oliver Stone's film about Nixon's turbulent presidency. (Be sure to watch the Director's Cut.)
All The Presidents Men (1976)
Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman star as The Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein, who investigated the Watergate scandal and became household names in the '70s.
Summer of Judgment: The Watergate Hearings
A documentary recalling the Watergate Hearings with actual archived footage.
A dramatization of the famous 1977 TV interviews between British rock-star journalist David Frost and Richard Nixon.
The Gift that Keeps On Giving
The Nixon tapes continue to be released, showing the Prez freaking out about Watergate.
The Last Nail in the Coffin
In 1983, Nixon met with a former aide to reflect on the events leading to his resignation. In 2014, Nixon's Presidential Library released those tapes.
Forty years later, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward reflect on their reporting of the Watergate scandal. Disclaimer: they're not as good-looking as Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman.
Worse Than We Thought
In this 2012 article, even Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein are shocked by what they learned about the extent of Nixon's dirty tricks.
The Watergate scandal got a ton of ink from all major print publications. CNN reviews the series of articles that appeared in TIME magazine in the 1970s. We can only imagine what the coverage would have been like if the internet was around in those days.
The New York Times announces Nixon's resignation.
President Nixon's Resignation Speech
Nixon announces his intention to resign from the presidency.
President Nixon's Farewell to the White House Staff
President Nixon's last speech at the White House.
I Am Not a Crook
At a televised press conference, Nixon denies any involvement in a Watergate cover-up.
I Am a Crook
British journalist David Frost gets Nixon to admit wrongdoing (well, kinda) in a series of television interviews in 1977.
The Experts Speak
University of California Political Science Professor Peter Irons discusses U.S. v. Nixon.
United States v. Nixon: Lawyers Present Oral Arguments
If you have three hours to spare, these are the actual oral arguments for the case.
The Watergate Hotel
Here's where it all went down.
The Motley Crew
Mug shots of the Watergate burglars
Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman Swears In
H.R. Haldeman, at this time Nixon's former chief of staff, is sworn into the Watergate Committee to be questioned about the break-in (and not his haircut).
He Is Not a Crook
Nixon leaves the White House after his resignation.
A political cartoon of President Ford's pardon of President Nixon.
Here's G. Gordon Liddy in a characteristically provocative pose. Can't say the guy didn't have fun.