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How Nixon tested the U.S. government and changed its relationship to the American people

August 7, 2014 at 6:35 PM EDT
Interest in the character and legacy of President Richard Nixon has endured 40 years since his resignation. Judy Woodruff joins Beverly Gage of Yale University, Timothy Naftali of New York University, Patrick Buchanan, author of "The Greatest Comeback" and Luke Nichter, author of "The Nixon Tapes," to discuss Nixon’s many facets and how his presidency changed American government.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tomorrow marks the 40th anniversary of the end of Richard Nixon’s presidency, an occasion to look back at a man, and a moment, that changed the country.

FMR. PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: I shall resign the presidency effective at noon tomorrow.

JUDY WOODRUFF: On the evening of August 8, 1974, from the Oval Office, President Richard Nixon announced his resignation, this after a two-year-long saga that became known as the Watergate scandal.

On June 17, 1972, five men who had been hired by the Committee to Reelect the President were arrested trying to bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate complex. It was one part of a large clandestine effort to ensure Nixon’s reelection.

That fall, he won by a landslide, beating Senator George McGovern by nearly 18 million votes. But investigations into the Watergate break-in continued, eventually tying the White House to the burglary. In February 1973, a Senate committee began to look into the president’s connection to the Watergate break-in and the subsequent cover-up.

That May, the special panel began hearings which lasted nine months. Some members of President Nixon’s own administration testified against him, including former White House counsel John Dean, who said there had been a cover-up, one he had discussed with the president.

JOHN DEAN, Former Counsel to President Nixon: I began by telling the president that there was a cancer growing on the presidency, and if the cancer wasn’t removed, the president himself would be killed by it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And former White House aide Alexander Butterfield confirmed the existence of audiotapes on which the president had recorded all telephone calls and conversations in the Oval Office since 1971.

FRED. D. THOMPSON, Minority Counsel: Were you aware of any devices installed in the executive office building office of the president?

ALEXANDER BUTTERFIELD, Former White House Aide: Yes, sir.

JUDY WOODRUFF: After the hearings, Democrats, commentators and even members of his own party called for the president to resign. But he resisted, with comments like this at a news conference in March of ’74.

RICHARD NIXON: It perhaps would be an act of courage to resign. It also takes courage to stand and fight for what you believe is right, and that is what intend to do.


JUDY WOODRUFF: The president also refused to turn over the Oval Office tapes, until, on July 24, the Supreme Court ordered their release. Three days later, the House Judiciary Committee voted along bipartisan lines to approve articles of impeachment, charging the president with obstruction of justice and abuse of power.

He continued to proclaim his innocence, until a group of Republican congressional leaders told him he could not survive votes in either house, at which time he finally decided to step down.

RICHARD NIXON: Sometimes, I have succeeded, and, sometimes, I have failed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The next day, Richard Nixon departed the White House, becoming the only American president to resign the office.

And we take this moment to look back at someone who had a profound effect on our nation.

And joining us for that is Beverly Gage. She’s professor of 20th century American history at Yale University. Presidential historian Timothy Naftali, former director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, he’s now head of the Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Archives at New York University. Pat Buchanan, who served as a senior adviser in the Nixon White House, and he’s author of the book “The Greatest Comeback: How Richard Nixon Rose From Defeat to Create the New Majority.” And Luke Nichter, co-author, with Douglas Brinkley, of the book “The Nixon Tapes,” a compilation of key conversations recorded by the president’s secret White House taping system.

And we welcome you all to the NewsHour.

Pat Buchanan, as someone who knew Richard Nixon very well, why do you think it’s important that we look back at him and look back at his presidency?

PAT BUCHANAN, Author, “The Greatest Comeback “: Well, I think, certainly, when you mention the Watergate scandal, it was the greatest scandal in American political history.

It brought down his presidency. Bill Clinton was impeached, but he survived that. But Nixon’s presidency, I think, is an extraordinary thing, because if you look at his first term and not the Watergate second term, I think you would find him one of the most consequential of presidents.

He had opened up China. He had negotiated arms control with the Soviet Union. He had ended the draft. He had desegregated the South. He had enacted 18-year-old vote, built EPA, and OSHA, and the Cancer Institute. So he was an enormously consequential president.

And it’s my view and some others’ view that, had he sort of stood down, say, before — right at his second term, I think he would have been a near-great president. But there’s no question that the second term was a failure. And what people remember are two things, Nixon the China and Watergate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Luke Nichter, Pat Buchanan raises the fact that there are many aspects to this man. It wasn’t just Watergate.

You told us this week — you said, we’re still trying to digest this man 40 years later. Why is that?

LUKE NICHTER, Author, “The Nixon Tapes”: Yes. Pat sounds like a spokesperson for the book, in some ways.


LUKE NICHTER: I think — I didn’t know this 10 years ago, when I started working on the tapes, but I know it now, that when you add up all of the Watergate and abuses of government power we now call it material on tapes, it’s only about 5 to 7 percent of the total tapes.

Yet these 5 to 7 percent have created almost 100 percent of our impression of the man and his presidency.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But when you look at this, there’s still a fascination with Richard Nixon. Why is that?

LUKE NICHTER: We still have 700 to 800 hours of tapes that have not been released.

And so we’re already drowning in tapes. And yet we still have a lot more to learn. I teach 18-to-20-year-olds who, for them, Richard Nixon is an ancient as the American Civil War. They don’t even have a great living memory of 9/11. They want to learn something other than Watergate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Beverly Gage, you talked to us about he really was a part of a series of things that happened in this country in the late ’60s and ’70s. Expand on that.

BEVERLY GAGE, Yale University: Right.

Well, I think we have to see Watergate really in the context of a whole series of crises in the American government. And in many ways, Watergate is the most dramatic of them, but it comes in the context of a huge struggle over Vietnam, over secrecy over Vietnam, over the ways that the intelligence establishment had been treating anti-war protesters at home.

It comes in the midst of real turmoil certainly over civil rights in the United States, but the breakdown in some ways of democracy at the Democratic National Convention. And so Watergate became sort of a place where all of these contests came together and were I think played out in Watergate, in addition to playing out people’s views of Richard Nixon himself.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, so, Tim Naftali, is that one reason why we remain so fascinated by him?

TIMOTHY NAFTALI, New York University: Well, we remain fascinated by him because, on the one hand, he was brilliant.

He was also a political icon in this country for 50 years. And at the same time, he remains the only president to resign. Those two years, from the moment that the break-in occurred at the Watergate until the time he resigned, Richard Nixon fought with the truth.

And, ultimately, the American people and all three branches of government learned that he had been lying all along. By overstepping his bounds, Richard Nixon tested our constitutional structure. What happened 40 years ago this week was that the U.S. constitutional structure showed that it could last, it was flexible enough to deal with a president who had exceeded his constitutional bounds.

As Beverly intimated, this really was the high point of the imperial presidency. From this point on, Congress and the Supreme Court would be taking measures, putting them in place to reduce to some extent executive authority.

Richard Nixon is Shakespearian because he was so full of power, so full of darkness, so full of ambition that he tested our constitutional structure, and reshaped it in a way that I’m sure he regretted, but in a way that’s been helpful to all Americans.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Shakespearian, Pat Buchanan? You worked with him. You started working with him well before he was president.

PAT BUCHANAN: He followed the saintly Lyndon Johnson, who was wiretapping Dr. Martin Luther King, and they’re taking the products of the wiretap and delivering them to the press corps. All that was covered up.

But I will say, your question is excellent. Why is there such a fascination? Look, Richard Nixon was a national figure in 1947. I don’t know what grade I was in. He nailed Alger Hiss.

JUDY WOODRUFF: With Alger Hiss.

PAT BUCHANAN: He was in the — the whole McCarthy-Truman era, he was at the center of that, the second youngest vice president. Loses to the legendary JFK, loses in California, says goodbye and good luck, I’m out of politics, manages what I call the greatest comeback in American political history, vaults to a 49-state victory, on top of the world, and because of the mendacity and because of the — frankly, the indecisiveness in Watergate not to step up and say, look, our guys did it, I didn’t know about it, and we got to cut them dead.

And that’s what he…


PAT BUCHANAN: Hold it. Hold it.

Nixon used to say, asked what the prime minister said, a prime minister has got to be a good butcher. He wasn’t a good butcher.




If I may — well, if I may, Pat, you have reduced Watergate to just a break-in and the cover-up of the break-in. Watergate turned out to be a pattern of abuses of power which are well-documented by the case.

I will grant Luke — it’s true. It’s only about 202 hours, but those are startling, dramatic and very, very troubling 202 hours. The president applied to the domestic realm the kinds of activities that we associate with foreign covert action. He didn’t mind doing whatever was necessary to hurt his political enemies. He ordered things that, fortunately, things people didn’t follow up on.

PAT BUCHANAN: Well, look, who was Deep Throat, a Washington Post hero?  Mark Felt, in charge of black bag jobs for J. Edgar Hoover.

Here he was, a corrupt FBI agent stealing secrets out of the grand jury, turning them over to reporters, who were getting the fruits of his crimes, in order to bring down a president.

Now, look, this was a very tough era. There were things done in Watergate also. I was offered the headship of the plumbers. And I went over and looked at these cowboys and I said, I don’t think I want to do this job. But some stupid idiot went into Ellsberg psychiatrist’s office. For what purpose, I don’t know. But Nixon didn’t know it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, well, we’re not going to resolve so much of this 40 years later, but we will keep on trying.

But I am interested, Luke Nichter, in after listening to more than 3,000 hours of those tapes, what more did you learn about this man?  We think we know everything about him, but you learned more.

LUKE NICHTER: And we still have plenty more to learn.

I think what I have come away with, I think, a deeper appreciation for both his — I think his good traits and for his faults. I say let’s give Nixon credit where credit is due, and let’s continue to criticize where we think criticism is due.

I think what is clear with this discussion is that Nixon does occupy this sort of unique place in our public consciousness. We like to put presidents in boxes. We have the top third, the bottom third, we have average, we have below average. Where does Nixon fall?  What box do we put him in? Who else is in the box? Can a box even contain Richard Nixon?


JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Beverly Gage, that’s a good question for you. As someone who looks at contemporary American history, what box does he fit into?


Well, the interesting thing about Nixon, as Luke says, is that he fits into a lot of boxes. So if you’re going to do your pure numerical rankings of how successful a president was, certainly, the only president to resign ends up pretty close to the bottom.

But there’s a whole series of kind of revisionist discussions about Nixon. Was Nixon actually a liberal, right?  By today’s political standards, the man who founded the EPA, should we think of him…

JUDY WOODRUFF: A Republican who founded the EPA, advanced women’s equal employment, started the war on cancer, you could go on.

BEVERLY GAGE: Exactly. Exactly.

And many people are now actually looking back to Nixon with this sort of romantic lens, a moderate Republican.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Pat Buchanan, help us understand this, because today we think of Republicans in one way. He was a different kind of Republican.

PAT BUCHANAN: He was indeed.

See, he was an Eisenhower era Republican. The conservative movement to which I belonged began really in the late ’50s. Nixon was already an international figure then. And so I looked upon him as an eclectic, a pragmatist who wasn’t anti-government. He came out of poverty.

I’m sure he didn’t think the New Deal was going down the road to socialism. I think all of those things. But I saw the tapes the other night, listened to them. And he had these scurrilous comments about Jewish folks when someone did something and he cut into it.

And then you realize — I was with him when he ordered the airlift that saved Israel in the Yom Kippur War. And Golda Meir said he was the best friend Israel ever had. So, when you said you have got put it together, put it all together, and I think you get a complex picture of someone who was a powerful national figure for 30 years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tim Naftali, you have already talked about how you think he changed the constitutional makeup of the country. How did he change this country?

I mean, it can be argued that the way we view government, government itself changed as a result of Richard Nixon.

TIMOTHY NAFTALI: Well, one thing is that no president tapes anymore.


TIMOTHY NAFTALI: The other thing that’s quite different is that, up until Richard Nixon, presidents owned their papers.

So the actual documentation of the presidency has changed dramatically because of the Nixon era. But I also think that Richard Nixon forced a lot of Americans to think about what they want their president to do.

You know, the reason why Richard Nixon, I believe, wouldn’t have resigned had it not been for the tapes is that we Americans prefer our presidents to be right. We will disagree with them, but at a certain point, the president is our bald eagle. We need presidents that are better than average.

And Richard Nixon tested that, and made a lot of people in Congress, in the Supreme Court, in the press, and in the public think about, what should the limits be on any man who occupies — and someday I hope a woman — who occupies the White House?

For that, Richard Nixon will be forever remembered.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Luke Nichter, what would you add to that?

LUKE NICHTER: I would add to that not just the Nixon presidency, but really it’s kind of the long 1960s had kind of fundamentally reordered the relationship between the government and the governed.

I think we have become less idealistic about presidents. I think we — you know, we launched a field of investigative journalism. Journalists became heroes as a result…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Woodward and Bernstein.

LUKE NICHTER: Young people wanted to go to journalism school as a result. I think people have become more cynical of their political leaders.

And that — in some ways, that’s better. I think it’s created a degree of greater transparency. But I think ultimately it changed the country in so many ways.



JUDY WOODRUFF: Just a minute. I want to turn to Beverly Gage first.

Did we permanently become more cynical, Beverly Gage, as a result of Watergate and the Nixon presidency? Do we give him the credit or discredit for that?

BEVERLY GAGE: I think we did.

I think that — so, I would add two things to what’s already been said. One is that we also have the look at Watergate not really as ending with the resignation but having a series of consequences afterwards, particularly for the intelligence community, began to have a whole series of studies of government secrecy.

And those really fundamentally changed in the ’70s. And the second thing that I would add is that I do think it changed Americans’ attitudes toward government and toward their expectations of government in a funny way.

If you had been here in 1974 on this day and said, what’s going to happen to the Republican Party, you would have said, they’re finished, right?  They’re never coming — but in a funny way, this suspicion of government actually, I think, benefited people like Reagan.

PAT BUCHANAN: I put Ike and JFK together. And I think that was an era of good feeling in America.

And then you had Lyndon Johnson and Nixon. And Johnson was broken by the same cultural, political, moral revolution, civil rights, anti-war, all the rest of it, urban riots, all the things that came out of the ’60s that permanently — that brought down Nixon, brought down Johnson, permanently divided America.

Not only that. That division has grown. And the counterculture, I think, is dominant now. But this is — these are the seeds of the wars we’re fighting today. You can see the Goldwater — Goldwater-Rockefeller battle inside the Republican Party and the McGovern-Muskie battle inside the Democratic parties today. The Democratic Party is more united.

I don’t know that the Republican Party can really come back, though, because it has permanently lost, I think, a significant slice of the country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We are raising subjects that we could go on about, and we will have other opportunities to come back.

But we want to thank you all very much. Tim Naftali, Luke Nichter, Pat Buchanan, Beverly Gage, we thank you.

PAT BUCHANAN: Thank you.

LUKE NICHTER: Thank you.