The Unmaking of a President, 1974
On a cold Saturday in January 1973, amidst rumors that the administration would soon announce a negotiated settlement to the war in Vietnam, Richard M. Nixon swore for the second time to uphold and defend the Constitution as president of the United States. Riding the tide of an unprecedented electoral victory and aware of the adulation that the end of direct U.S. involvement in Indochina would bring him, the day of his second inaugural was Nixon's moment of triumph.
At the party celebrating Nixon's inauguration, the president stood above the throng on the ballroom floor and surveyed the fruits of his victory. He made his way to the floor and, as if to deliver a benediction to his loyal followers, reached his hand out to the admiring crowd. The president's men had served him well-how well would not be known until almost a full year later.
Vietnam was the central focus of the 1972 election; Watergate never surfaced as the issue that would sway the vote. Part of the reason that Watergate stayed in the background during the campaign was that George McGovern chose to talk about Nixon's more heinous crimes. The other reason the break-in didn't change the election's outcome was that a systematic effort to contain the matter worked better than even Nixon could have hoped.
But the cover-up began to fall apart after inauguration day. New revelations about high-level involvement in the "illegal entry" began to surface in the press, and later in the spring presidential aide John W. Dean III broke ranks and began to spill the beans to federal prosecutors. Dean, watched by millions on nationwide television, appeared before Sam Ervin's Senate Watergate Committee and told how Nixon had learned of the cover-up even before election day and how Nixon seemed pleased with Dean's efforts to keep White House involvement in the break-in quiet.
Piece by piece, Nixon's position of power began to crumble. Last October after Nixon fired his special prosecutor, Archibald Cox '34, cries from Congress and from the streets demanded Nixon's impeachment. Impeachment seemed distant, almost improbable, in October, but under the weight of public outrage the House Judiciary Committee took up the future of Richard Nixon.
The battle in Judiciary began as a confrontation between lawyers. James D. St. Clair spoke for the president in the proceedings. John Doar served as the majority counsel for the committee and slowly but surely prepared a case against the president.
But the real drama, though few realized the full implications of the event, took place in the Supreme Court. In a fateful decision two weeks ago, the Court ordered Nixon to turn over 64 new tapes to the Watergate special prosecutor. Those tapes contained information that indicated that Nixon agreed to and took part in the Watergate cover-up; that was the end of the road for Richard Nixon. Gerald Ford took over as president, and the glorious triumphs of the 37th president have become just an ironic footnote in history.