Not a Crook?
A Defense of Richard M. Nixon
It would not be unrealistic to say that Richard M. Nixon is one of the most unpopular presidents in the history of the United States. After all, he was the man who was the mastermind behind the Watergate scandal, which was responsible for shattering the pristine image that the office of the president previously had. A poll in 1974 revealed the following statistics.
A poll...asked people how much faith they had in the executive branch of the government. Only 14 percent answered 'a great deal'; 43 percent said 'hardly any.'1
Nixon has been accused of all manner of corruption. His style of campaigning has been attacked by many. If all of the accusations against Nixon are entirely true, then it is fitting that he is at the bottom of the presidential totem pole. However, there is ample evidence that Nixon's actions are not unique to him. It is obvious that he is at least partly guilty for Watergate, and the problems caused by it, but it also is equally evident that the practices that he was condemned for are not uncommon in government. Essentially, Nixon may not have been the most scrupulous president to ever hold office, but he wasn't much worse than any other president of his time. The Watergate scandal was a product of bad luck, Nixon's misplaced trust in his aides, and the desperate attempts of people to avoid blame in the affair. Nixon was not innocent, but his guilt was blown out of proportion by a series of events that were not wholly within his control.
In order to even partially redeem the tarnished image of Nixon we hold today, it is important to show that the impression we have of Nixon -- one of a ruthless, unscrupulous politician -- is a false one. Nixon's political career prior to his presidency has been scrutinized and criticized to an extreme degree. Even before he was president, Nixon was no worse than any other politician.
In high school, Nixon was a likable fellow. A classmate of his commented, "I never found anybody who knew him who didn't like him."2 However, this is not to say that Nixon was loved by all in high school. His personality guaranteed that he was not universally popular by any means. "Nixon's remote manner and his tendency to compartmentalize repelled those who never came to know him well."3 This has been responsible for much of Nixon's unpopularity in his political career. It is evident that as a child, he was as good-hearted as any. His mother remembered something he said when he was only 10 years old. "Mother, I would like to become a lawyer -- an honest lawyer who can't be bought by crooks."4 He was perhaps too good-hearted, which would get him into trouble later. "...[people who knew Nixon well] speak...of a considerate nature and of the loyalty he shows his friends."5 His extreme trust in his companions would later betray him. No matter what problems Nixon would encounter in the future, however, his childhood was a typical one. There is no sign of the evil Nixon that many speak of.
Nixon's earliest bad press came from his prosecution of the much publicized Alger Hiss case. Nixon, in the House of Representatives at the time, was a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee. He doggedly investigated Hiss, and finally Hiss was found guilty of perjury. As Herbert Klein explains,
...Nixon earned the enmity of many in the press corps, who had been cultivated by the charming Hiss as close personal friends and who never believed that...[Hiss] was guilty. They felt that Nixon had 'jobbed' Hiss, and this personal feeling of the newsmen could be seen in the bias in some of the stories about Nixon... The split between Nixon and this part of the press corps caused him to believe early on that many of the newsmen were enemies... the Hiss case brought reactions from many reporters who considered [Nixon] to be a 'ruthless, opportunistic Nixon.'6
It is important to note that early on Nixon had bad experiences with the press. They seldom saw the good side of him, and often gave him bad press. This alienation of Nixon from the press would later contribute greatly to his downfall. Hiss was found guilty, and Nixon was responsible for this.
...few fair-minded persons who have read the record have any doubt that Hiss was guilty. And there is equally little serious doubt that Nixon, on the whole, behaved intelligently and responsibly, and that if it had not been for his stubborn efforts, Hiss in all likelihood would not have been brought to justice.7
Despite the bad press Nixon has received for this event, it is evident that it ought to be considered a victory for him, not a scandal.
Nixon's campaign to run for the office of Senator from California is often disparaged by people who complain that Nixon won by making implications that his opponent, Jerry Voorhis, was a communist. It is rumored that Nixon hired people to make anonymous phone calls to people, calling Voorhis a communist. However, "...even Nixon's most hostile biographers have failed to verify a single instance of the purported surreptitious telephone calls describing Voorhis as a Communist."8 "No real evidence to support it [the anonymous calls] has ever been produced."9 Despite the lack of evidence, people still berate Nixon for committing those acts. People act outraged at the thought of Nixon implying that his opponent was a communist.
...the public red-baiting of the Nixon campaign...was standard fare in California, where both Republicans and Democrats were long accustomed to campaigning against the menace of Communism.10
Despite the fact that Nixon's actions at the time were a common practice in California, the press widely publicized them and criticized Nixon. Again, the press opposed Nixon. This pattern of bad publicity would hound Nixon until the end of his political career and beyond. This is summed up well by the comment, "He [Nixon] is one of the few politicians...whose motives are always questioned."11
Nixon's first four years in the White House were uneventful, as far as scandals are concerned. He was not incredibly popular, but neither was he unpopular. "He always commanded respect. Rarely did he inspire the human affection that Americans often associate with their Presidents."12 It has also been said that "...he [Nixon] lacked the gift to say on the stage what he saw in his heart."13 What this amounts to is that Nixon's first term was not a great success, but nor was it a terrible failure.
Nixon's campaign for the 1972 election has also been under attack. His campaign finance committee was found guilty of using illegal contributions. Maurice Stans, finance chairman of the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP), denies that this was indicative of shoddy practice by CREEP in general. "I was determined," said Stands, "from the start to see that the finances of the campaign would be conducted strictly according to law."14 Stans was an experienced campaigner and wasn't about to fool around. As Stans says about the finance committee of CREEP, "Our entire organization was geared to recognize and return illegal or unethical money."15 Some of the accusations brought against CREEP involved accepting contributions in return for government positions. Stans denied this. "Contrary to political folklore, these contributors were not promised government jobs in return. People of such large wealth do not need such inducements..."16 Stans recalled one particular contributor, W. Clement Stone. Stone had donated a great deal of money to the campaign.
Nixon hesitated to give Stone the ambassadorship which by all precedent he deserved, for fear it would look as though it had been sold. Stone never received any political reward for his astounding help and he never asked for any.17
By saying that Stone deserved the ambassadorship by precedent, that represents the practice of many prior presidents, who would appoint friends and contributors to ambassadorial positions. Previous presidents had not gotten undue attention for doing so, but had Nixon followed tradition and done so himself, the press would have dogged him relentlessly. It seems that as far as his campaign finances are concerned, Nixon left matters up to Stans. Stans said he was innocent, and he may have been. That is not within the scope of this argument. What is clear, however, is that Nixon did not appear to be involved in acquiring campaign contributions, and it may be the case that Stans was running a clean outfit anyway.
Watergate was just beginning to emerge at the close of Nixon's first term. When asked to comment about the break-in two days after it occurred, the press received "...a mocking refusal...of the presidential press secretary to comment on a 'third-rate burglary attempt.'"18 As time went on, the burglary progressed from a "third-rate burglary" to a scandal that had far-reaching implications. Luckily for Nixon, even as more evidence was uncovered, "...the Gallup poll found that 48 percent of the American people had never heard of the Watergate break-in."19 At this point, Nixon made a mistake which probably caused him to lose the presidency. As Stephen E. Ambrose, author of the book Nixon, asks,
Why did not Nixon just admit that his people had attempted to bug the [Democratic National Committee] and got caught? Could he not have accepted the responsibility, defended himself by pointing out that Kennedy and Johnson regularly bugged their political opponents, apologized, and with that be done with Watergate?20
The fact is, the Watergate burglary, in and of itself, was a trivial event. The factor that made it so infamous was the involvement of the president.
To an extent, the president's involvement in the crime itself was never proven. "No evidence has been presented to show the President had prior knowledge of the plans to burglarize the Democratic National Committee."21 It is evident that Nixon did not plan the burglary. Ambrose states in Nixon "It is this author's opinion that [Attorney General] John Mitchell ordered the break-in..."22 Maurice Stans affirms that Nixon was innocent of the break-in; "Nixon was not a party to the Watergate break-in. That has been established..."23 Nixon's initial reaction to hearing about the burglary reveals his ignorance of it:
...I will never forget when I heard about this (adjective deleted) forced entry and bugging. I thought, What in the hell is this? What is the matter with these people? Are they crazy? I thought they were nuts! A prank! But it wasn't! It wasn't very funny.24
In a later interview, Nixon was asked about Watergate.
"One thing that has always puzzled me about it," Nixon replied, "is why anybody would have tried to get anything out of the Watergate." He said that the decision to break in was made at "lower levels, with which I had no knowledge."25
It can be safely assumed that Nixon was not involved with the break-in itself. However, Nixon did order the cover-up. This much is clear. What is not clear to everyone is that Nixon's aides are the people who caused Nixon to order the cover-up. As Nixon said long after Watergate,
I made the inexcusable error of following the recommendation from some members of my staff -- some of whom, I later learned, had a personal stake in covering up the facts -- and requesting that the CIA intervene.26
Had Nixon not ordered the cover-up, Watergate would have ended as soon as it began. "What made Watergate what it became was not the break-in, but the cover-up."27 Nixon would not have ordered the cover-up, except that he was misled by his aides.
John Dean was counsel to Nixon. Nixon trusted Dean very much, and this is what caused the entire Watergate tragedy to occur. Dean was the first of Nixon's aides to betray him.
Dean's activity in the cover-up also made him, perhaps unwittingly, the principal author of the...crisis that Watergate now epitomizes. It would have been embarrassing for the President if the true facts had become known shortly after June 17th, but it is the kind of embarrassment that an immensely popular President could easily have weathered. The political problem has been magnified one thousand-fold because the truth is coming to light so belatedly...28
It is true that Nixon did not have to order the cover-up. However, as many of his acquaintances have said, he is loyal and trusting to his friends. He mistakenly assumed Dean to be honest with him. What finally did Nixon in, his remarks on the so-called "Smoking Gun tape", were "...the products of John Dean's deceptions that tricked Haldeman [Harry R. Haldeman, Nixon's White House Chief of Staff] and Nixon into joining a conspiracy to obstruct justice."29 (Italics in original) Dean was playing a tricky game. He was lying to Nixon, in order to prevent his own crimes from coming to light. When he finally testified, "...he threw over Richard Nixon to prevent his own deep criminality from becoming known."30 Dean's betrayal of Nixon was only possible because Nixon trusted what Dean said. But Nixon did not learn his lesson with Dean.
Alexander Haig was Nixon's Chief of Staff in 1973. Nixon also made the mistake of putting his faith in Haig. Haig turned out to be instrumental in the downfall of Nixon's presidency. On many occasions Haig neglected to tell Nixon things, and on some occasions outright lied to him.
...on several...occasions during Nixon's final year in office, similar patterns of seemingly inadvertent failures to correctly inform the President can be discerned and again it was Chief of Staff Haig who failed to inform the president.31
A specific incident of this failure to inform Nixon is documented, which clearly shows Haig's guilt in the matter.
If Haig had informed the president that Richardson [Elliot L. Richardson, Attorney General at the time] would quit if Cox [Archibald Cox, Special Prosecutor for the Watergate investigation] was barred from later being able to seek additional tapes or documents, Haig would have run the risk of Nixon's leaving Cox in place, rather than facing the political consequences of Richardson's resignation. With Cox in place, the Special Prosecutor would have been free to pursue the leads that pointed to Haig's role in the NDC wiretapping...Here was Nixon, once again about to enter on a disastrous course of action on the basis of an aide telling him that the attorney general...had recommended that very course. And once again, it wasn't true.32
Again, one of Nixon's aides harms Nixon by trying to shield themselves from being indicted. Haig was lying to everyone in order to save himself. "He [Haig] had used the name of Richardson to sell his own bad idea to Nixon, and then used the name of Nixon to sell it back to Richardson."33 Nixon trusted Haig, and made many political blunders because of it. Unknowingly Nixon followed Haig to his destruction. Later, Haig may even have committed the final act that ruined Nixon's chances for recovery. The prosecutors were demanding the so-called "tape of tapes", which was a recording of Nixon listening to other tapes that had been made of him. Nixon knew that if this tape reached the prosecution, it would be all over.
There is a possibility that Haig himself made the decision to release the tape without asking Nixon for permission...Jaworski [Leon Jaworski, the new Special Prosecutor after Cox was fired] wrote that when he asked Haig for the June 4 'tape of tapes,' Haig responded that 'there would be no problem.' Jaworski did report a subsequent problem with Buzhardt [Fred Buzhardt, another counsel of Nixon's], but said this problem was resolved a short time later when Buzhardt phoned Haig.34
Apparently Haig wanted the tapes to be released, presumably so that the attention would be focused on Nixon instead of himself. Haig was trying to save himself by sacrificing Nixon.
From this point on Nixon became a desperate man, and his actions are not excusable. Nixon tried to use executive privilege to escape his fate. He was like a drowning man. He tried everything in his power before finally succumbing. On August 9, 1974, Richard M. Nixon resigned from the office of the presidency.
It has been shown that prior to the burglary that started Watergate, Nixon was not involved. It has further been demonstrated that Nixon's aides convinced him to start the cover-up, and to commit many other unwise acts, all of which eventually led to his resignation. It is important to show also, however, that the bugging of the Watergate, as well as many other acts Nixon was accused of, are not at all uncommon events in politics.
One thing Nixon was accused of that I have already discussed was supposed illegal campaign contributions in the 1972 election. Maurice Stans explains that the charges against Nixon's financial campaign were overblown, and that many others were guilty of them. "It seems strange in retrospect that so many 1972 Democratic transgressions went unpunished, especially those that were identified as significant violations."35 Stans dedicates an entire chapter of his book to the illegal campaign finances of other candidates that went unpunished. He concludes that the Nixon campaign was singled out among all of the others.
As far as the Watergate bugging is concerned, Maurice Stans sums it up nicely, "Evidence is lacking that until Watergate reached its explosive stages, Nixon was in any important way un-normal in his presidential actions."36 It is clear that most of the White House staff felt as though they had done no wrong to begin with, in regards to the Watergate affair. Stephen Ambrose describes a taped incident in the Oval Office that transpired shortly after Nixon was informed about Watergate.
"Yeah," the President added, "for Christ's sake...Goldwater [Senator Barry M. Goldwater], put it in context [when] he said, 'Well, for Christ's sake, everybody bugs everybody else.' We know that."37
Representative David W. Dennis of Indiana was quoted shortly after Watergate as saying "The Nixon Administration is not the first to be guilty of shoddy practices."38
It seems that Nixon was just a scapegoat. I contend that the public had been displeased with the corruption in politics that had been going on for some time, and they chose to make an example of Nixon. "It seems true now that Nixon did no worse than two or three of his predecessors in using power in his own way...however, precedent does not justify wrongdoing."39 Stans sums it up well when he says:
The only plausible conclusion is that after the 1972 presidential race the Nixon committees and their officers were singled out for prosecutorial attention, while serious violations by the Democratic candidates were tolerated and candidates for seats in the Congress by and large got full clearance by prosecutorial inattention.40
People were correctly assuming that "both parties do it but only one got caught."41 An article at that time explained the effects of Watergate on the public, "...[Watergate could] only confirm what too many Americans already believe: that there is one set of laws for the rich and powerful and another for everyone else."42
In the spring of 1974 polls showed that a majority of Americans believed that Nixon was lying about his complicity, but that four out of five judged him as no more guilty of wrongdoing than his presidential predecessors.43
Watergate was the public's reaction to all of the political corruption that had been going on in the White House for a long time. Richard Nixon was caught in the middle of it. Nixon denied his guilt to the end, "People have a right to know whether or not their president is a crook. Well, I am not a crook."44
In summary, I think it is important to make the point once again that Nixon is not the corrupt politician that he is depicted as. To quote Shakespeare:
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones.45
This is especially true of Nixon. All he is remembered for is Watergate. And, ironically, he was innocent of many things he is remembered to be guilty of. Perhaps only history can exonerate him.
- George Brown Tindall and David E. Shi, America, A Narrative History, vol. 2 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1992) 1409.
- The Staff of the Washington Post, The Fall of a President (New York: Dell, 1974) 41.
- Ibid., 41-42.
- Ibid., 150.
- Ibid., 41.
- Herbert G. Klein, Making It Perfectly Clear (Garden City: Doubleday, 1980) 78.
- Stewart Alsop, Nixon and Rockefeller, A Double Portrait (Garden City: Doubleday, 1960) 150.
- Washington Post, The Fall of a President, 51.
- Alsop, Double Portrait, 143.
- Washington Post, The Fall of a President, 51.
- Ibid., 46.
- Ibid., 42.
- Ibid., 57.
- Maurice H. Stans, The Terrors of Justice (New York: Regnery Books, 1984) 138.
- Ibid., 160.
- Ibid., 125.
- Ibid., 122.
- Washington Post, The Fall of a President, 66.
- Stephen E. Ambrose, Nixon (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989) 607.
- Ibid., 563.
- James D. St. Clair, "The Case Against Impeachment", U.S. News and World Report, August 5, 1974: 15.
- Ambrose, Nixon, 562.
- Stans, Terrors of Justice, 354.
- Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin, Silent Coup, The Removal of a President (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991) 245.
- Ambrose, Nixon, 622.
- Colodny, Silent Coup, 439.
- Ambrose, Nixon, 571.
- Colodny, Silent Coup, 320.
- Ibid., 196.
- Ibid., 272.
- Ibid., 336.
- Ibid., 350.
- Ibid., 352.
- Ibid., 387.
- Stans, Terrors of Justice, 54.
- Ibid., 345.
- Ambrose, Nixon, 608.
- David P. Doane, "Nixon: The Case For and Against", U.S. News and World Report, August 5, 1974: 13.
- Stans, Terrors of Justice, 358.
- Ibid., 54.
- Washington Post, Fall of a President, 108.
- Larry Martz, "Was Justice Done?", Newsweek, September 16, 1974: 20.
- Shi, America, 1408.
- Colodny, Silent Coup, 371.
- Stans, Terrors of Justice, 343.