USHI Module: How Did Watergate Change American Political Culture?

KC Johnson

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Texas representative Barbara Jordan of the House Judiciary Committee, 1973

A common complaint among contemporary political observers--of both the right and left--centers around the alleged tendency of political disputes to be handled through the legal process.  Has, in fact, American political life become more legalistic in the last three decades? If so, why? And what are the most important manifestations of this pattern?
This module examines the intersection between law and politics since Watergate. It focuses on three central questions:
How has the growing pattern of judicial or quasi-judicial investigations of political leaders affected the conduct of public policy and the public's image of Washington?
What accounts for the emergence of issues, most notably those centered around rights-related liberalism, that inherently blur the line between law and politics?
And how have these first two patterns affected the American court system, especially the nature of Supreme Court appointments?

Making the Transition:

Unlike with some other modules, this issue should not pose a problem here: any good survey course will cover Watergate and its subsequent effects. That said, one possible way of introducing this topic--and making it more historically grounded, always a difficult matter with relatively recent events--is by viewing Watergate through the framework of past presidential scandals or impeachments.  For those interested in the history of scandal, Teapot Dome represents the best place to start: like Watergate, it involved corruption in high government office. The only background for presidential impeachment comes from the impeachment and trial of Andrew Johnson, which, if not covered earlier in a course, can easily be summarized now. Both of these earlier events raise an obvious question with which to start discussion, namely, what, if anything, distinguished Watergate from its predecessors?


One way to begin is through a timeline background to Watergate:

May 28, 1972 Electronic surveillance ("bugging") equipment is installed at Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate building.
June 17, 1972 Five men are arrested while attempting to repair the surveillance equipment at Democratic National Committee headquarters.
August 30, 1972 President Nixon announces that John Dean has completed an investigation into the Watergate buggings and that no one from the White House is involved.
January 8, 1973 Watergate break-in trial opens. Hunt pleads guilty (January 11); Barker, Sturgis, Martinez, and Gonzalez plead guilty (January 15); Liddy and McCord are convicted on all counts of break-in indictment (January 30).
February 7, 1973 U.S. Senate creates Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities.
April 17, 1973 President Nixon announces that members of the White House staff will appear before the Senate committee and promises major new developments in investigation and real progress toward finding truth.
April 23, 1973 White House issues statement denying President had prior knowledge of Watergate affair.
April 30, 1973 White House staff members H. R. Haldeman, John D. Ehrlichman, and John Dean resign.
May 17, 1973 Senate committee begins public hearings.
May 25, 1973 Archibald Cox sworn in as Special Prosecutor.
July 7, 1973 President Nixon informs Senate committee that he will not appear to testify nor grant access to presidential files.
July 16, 1973 Alexander Butterfield informs Senate committee of the presence of a White House taping system.
July 23, 1973 Senate Committee and Special Prosecutor Cox subpoena White House tapes and documents to investigate cover-up.
July 25, 1973 President Nixon refuses to comply with Cox subpoena.
August 9, 1973 Senate committee files suit against President Nixon for failure to comply with subpoena.
October 19, 1973 President Nixon offers a compromise on the tapes: Senator John Stennis (D-Miss.)--a man notoriously hard of hearing--would review tapes and present the Special Prosecutor with summaries.
October 20, 1973 Archibald Cox refuses to accept the Stennis compromise. President Nixon orders Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Cox, but Richardson refuses and resigns in protest. Acting Attorney General Robert Bork fires Cox. These events come to be known as the "Saturday Night Massacre."
October 23, 1973 President Nixon agrees to hand over tapes to comply with subpoena.
November 1, 1973 Leon Jaworski named Special Prosecutor.
November 21, 1973 Senate Committee announces discovery of 18 minute gap on tape of Nixon-Haldeman conversation of June 20, 1972.
February 6, 1974 House of Representatives authorizes House Judiciary Committee to investigate whether grounds exist for impeachment of President Nixon.
April 16, 1974 Special Prosecutor issues subpoena for 64 White House tapes.
April 30, 1974 President Nixon submits tape transcripts to House Judiciary Committee.
July 24, 1974 Supreme Court unanimously upholds Special Prosecutor's subpoena for tapes for Watergate trial.
July 27-30, 1974 House Judiciary Committee adopts articles I, II, and III of impeachment resolution charging President with obstruction of investigation of Watergate break-in, misuse of powers and violation of his oath of office, and failure to comply with House subpoenas.
August 9, 1974 President Nixon resigns.
September 8, 1974 President Gerald Ford pardons Nixon.
For those eager for more than the bare-bones details of the crisis, however, it seems only fitting to begin any coverage of Watergate through the prism of the Washington Post, given the newspaper's role in uncovering the crisis. The paper's site provides a comprehensive chronology of events leading to Richard Nixon's resignation, introductions to some of the key players in the scandal, speculation as to the identity of Deep Throat (the confidential source of Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein), and a discussion of how the scandal changed the Post as a newspaper. The latter three sections can be used for those with special interest in any of these themes--the first is a must as an introduction.

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The above photo features former White House counselor John Dean testifying before Sam Ervin's Watergate Committee hearings. No coverage of Watergate could be complete without an examination of the congressional investigation of Watergate, an event that--alongside the involvement in Vietnam--would transform the culture of Congress and the nature of the relationship between the executive and legislative branches.  To obtain a sense of how Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee approached the issue, take a look at the remarks of Barbara Jordan, the African-American congresswoman from Texas. Other notable figures on the panel included Robert Drinan, the former dean of Boston College Law School and the first priest to serve in the U.S. Congress, and the chair of the committee, New Jersey's Peter Rodino, while in the Senate, the hearings were dominated by the Judiciary Committee's chair, Sam Ervin.

Perhaps the critical element in Nixon's downfall was the revelation by presidential aide Alexander Butterfield that Nixon had secretly recorded all Oval Office conversations between mid-1971 and mid-1973.   Nixon, who early in the crisis had proclaimed, "I am not a crook," fought hard to prevent the release of the tapes, claiming "executive privilege," only to be rebuffed by a unanimous Supreme Court in U.S. v. Nixon. Since the tapes contained evidence of the President obstructing justice, it soon became clear why the President had not wanted to tapes made public; click here to listen to some of the tapes.  Soon after the decision, Nixon resigned.  His successor, Gerald Ford, pardoned him; Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski, in this memorandum written the day of the resignation, agreed. Do you?

Making the Transition:

Watergate had a transforming effect on American political culture. Among other things, it led to the passage of a host of initiatives designed to improve government ethics, including:


Federal Campaign Act Amendments (1974 and later), which established limitations on campaign contributions, a public financing system for presidential elections, and an independent agency to administer and enforce the election laws.
Congressional Ethics Code (1977 and later), which set standards of conduct and limited congressional outside earned income, honoraria fees, and gifts.
Ethics in Government Act (1978) which required financial disclosure by high government officials in all three branches of the federal government, restricted contacts between former high level executive branch employees and their former agencies, and established a government office to monitor compliance with the law.
Special Prosecutor Provision of the Ethics in Government Act (1978 and later), which established a mechanism for appointing independent counsel to investigate and prosecute wrongdoing by high government officials.
Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (1977), which prohibited American companies from bribing foreign officials, politicians, or political parties.
Freedom of Information Act Amendments (1974 and later), which strengthened the Freedom of Information Act, increasing public access to government papers.
The Government in the Sunshine Act (1976), which mandated opening meetings of all multi-member government agencies to the public.
House and Senate Open Meeting Rules (1973 and 1975, respectively), which opened all congressional committee meetings to the public absent a recorded vote to close them.
FBI Domestic Security Investigation Guidelines (1976 and later), which restricted political intelligence-gathering activities of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (1978), which regulated electronic surveillance conducted within the United States for foreign intelligence purposes.
Intelligence Authorization Act (1980), which required the Executive Branch to keep the House and Senate Intelligence Committees "fully and currently informed" of all U.S. intelligence activities.
But, given recent events, a study of Watergate opens up the possibility of inquiring into the other 20th century presidential impeachment--that of Bill Clinton in 1998. Of course, studying such recent events poses the problem of historical objectivity, but the topic cam be framed in a historical fashion, chiefly by addressing the similarities and differences between the two impeachments. Indeed, this primarily historical question was at the heart of the Clinton impeachment debate: Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee invited Watergate-era members Robert Drinan, Liz Holtzman, and Wayne Owens back to Washington for their insights; Drinan was particularly outspoken on the matter.
You can begin with a timeline of the impeachment proceedings, along with a sampling of House debate on impeachment. Although without transcripts, this nonetheless provides a good sense of the tense atmosphere in the House during the proceedings. Given the recent nature of the Clinton impeachment, it is difficult to address in a historical framework. But not impossible. First of all, two excellent books on the impeachment--by Jeffrey Tobbin and Richard Posner--provide some broader grounding of the affair. Second, the Clinton/Lewinsky affair provides an opening for some interesting historical questions, namely:
How did the Office of Independent Counsel change the nature of American politics? This Slate dialogue between law professors Akhil Amar and Laurence Tribe offers a good jumping-off point for discussion
How--if at all--did the Clinton articles of impeachment differ from those offered against Nixon?
And, in the end, did the House Republicans misinterpret the Framers' conception of what constituted an impeachable offense--specifically the provisions described by Alexander Hamilton in Federalist 65 and Federalist 66?

Impeachment, of course, represents only one avenue of judicial or quasi-judicial investigations of the executive since Watergate.  Most such investigations have centered on the Office of Independent Counsel, one of the more controversial creations of the Watergate-era Congress. This interesting site provides a history of the law along with a start-to-finish coverage of one high-profile independent counsel investigation.

Another way of introducing this theme is through the Iran-contra affair, the most important scandal of the Reagan administration. Acting on information from Iranian and Israeli emissaries, some U.S. officials came to believe that in exchange for the sale of U.S. weapons to Iran, the Teheran government would use its influence to gain freedom for the U.S. hostages in Lebanon, despite the fact that this policy contradicted the Reagan administration's stated policy. At the same time, the administration was eager to obtain funds--which had been severely limited by Congress--to assist the anti-communist contra forces in Nicaragua. Eventually, a clandestine NSC operation headed by Lieut. Col. Oliver North oversaw an operation selling arms to Iran; more than $47 million flowed through a network of Swiss bank accounts controlled by North and his associates. A good portion of this money eventually found its way to the contras.
The scandal unraveled rapidly in late 1986, after a Beirut newspaper broke the story. North and his supervisor, NSC head John Poindexter, immediately resigned.  Sunsequent investigations focused on how much Reagan, Vice President George Bush, and other top administration officials had known about the operations; and on the efforts of North, Poindexter, and others to conceal their activities from Congress.
Along with a high-profile congressional investigation, of which Arthur Liman served as chief counsel, Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh issued his final report on the Iran-contra affair in August 1993. Although most of Walsh's convictions were later overturned, the inquiry did yield a statement of facts by the government that offered an interesting glimpse into the development of the scandal. Why, in the end, did Congress in this instance choose not to pursue impeachment?

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Bibliography, with web site suggestions