But not this president’s or the last president’s…it is President Richard Nixon’s fault. According to Gallup, confidence in key institutions is at all time low levels, especially for Congress. I believe that much of the mistrust we harbor for our institutions stems from the actions that Nixon took when he held the nation’s highest executive office and in the government responses that followed. Let’s take a look back at what was going on in the early 1970’s and how some of those things are still affecting us.
In the summer of 1972, five men broke into the Democratic National Committee’s office in the Watergate Complex. They were caught and arrested. Later, the FBI linked payments to those men to a fund used by the Committee to Re-elect the President. In the spring of 1973, Nixon appointed special prosecutor Archibald Cox to investigate the break-in. When Cox and others discovered a secret taping system installed in the White House, they believed that the tapes (the infamous Watergate Tapes) could shed light on the break-in and a possible cover up, so they subpoenaed them. Nixon refused to hand the tapes over and ordered his Attorney General to dismiss Cox. Rather than do this, Attorney General Elliot Richardson resigned; his deputy, William Ruckelshaus followed suit. This left Solicitor General Robert Bork as the highest ranking member of the Justice Department. He dismissed Cox; though he believed this was not the right thing to do (someone had to follow the president’s orders). To the public, this looked like what it was, a president trying to hide wrongdoing by sacking the person doing the digging. There was an outcry for a new special prosecutor and Leon Jaworski was appointed. He also subpoenaed the tapes. The case went to the Supreme Court in United States v. Nixon.
At the heart of the case were issues that involved executive privilege and our constitutional system of checks and balances. President Nixon’s lawyers argued that the dispute over the tapes was a matter that should be handled entirely within the executive branch; that the tapes were protected by an absolute executive privilege; and that the special prosecutor had not made the case that the tapes were even needed, so they were “presumptively privileged.” These arguments failed; the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the tapes must be turned over (the court did affirm the principle of executive privilege, but not that it was absolute). The conversations revealed on the tapes were condemning. Facing impeachment in the House and likely conviction in the Senate, President Nixon resigned the office on August 9, 1974, becoming the only president to do so.
The Nixon presidency has been described as an aberration. During the “long national nightmare”, as President Ford described it, Nixon’s own lawyers argued that “if a President abuses the privileges and powers of his office, the proper remedy is not to reduce the office, but to deal with the offense, and to do so in accordance with the Constitution.” Congress began to do this when the House began impeachment proceedings. When Nixon resigned, the episode should have ended; the bad apple was out of the barrel. Instead, Congress moved to pass laws that would constrain the power of the executive branch which had already been weakened by other Supreme Court rulings during Nixon’s term in office (interestingly, Nixon had more legal confrontations with the Court about presidential power than any other president. He had also appointed four of the nine justices who sat on the Court then). It’s hard to blame them for this; the country had just endured egregious abuses, but power doesn’t just go away, it only shifts hands. With a weakened executive branch guess who strengthens…the legislative branch. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the percentage of Americans expressing “a great deal/quite a lot of confidence” in Congress has trended downward from around 44% in the early 70’s to a measly 11% this summer. There are just some things that are better handled by one executive than by 535 legislators. Congress did not show confidence in the office of the presidency because of the actions of Nixon and now the American people don’t have confidence in Congress. Join the Discourse!
On a more trivial note: because of Nixon and Watergate, every scandal, no matter how trivial has the suffix “-gate” added to it. That’s kind of annoying…thanks, President Nixon…thanks.