Slow Burn

Nixon’s Downfall Was Not Inevitable

The lesson of Watergate isn’t “the system worked.”

U.S. President Richard M. Nixon sits at a desk, holding papers, as he announces his resignation on television, Washington, D.C.
U.S. President Richard M. Nixon sits at a desk, holding papers, as he announces his resignation on television, Washington, D.C. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

We named our Watergate podcast “Slow Burn” because we thought people had forgotten—or never knew—that it took a very long time for the presidency to slip away from Richard Nixon. Two years and two months! Our assumption was that in unspooling the story of Watergate, bit by bit, we’d remind listeners that the gears of democracy turn gradually.

Now that the show is over—you can download all eight episodes at Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts—I’ve concluded we were wrong. The gears of democracy don’t turn gradually, and they don’t turn on their own. Someone has to actually turn them, and most of that turning happens in big, sudden bursts. For Watergate to end with Richard Nixon’s ouster, a lot of things had to happen, and a lot of people had to use their judgment, influence, and power to make those things happen.

The city editor of the Washington Post, Barry Sussman, could have decided not to send Bob Woodward to the arraignment of the five Watergate burglars in June 1972. The reason he did was that the Post happened to share a lawyer with the Democratic National Committee. That lawyer, Joseph Califano Jr., heard about the break-in at the DNC very early on for obvious reasons, and tipped off someone at the Post, who passed that tip on to Sussman, who gave Woodward the assignment. If any link in that chain gets broken, then maybe Watergate plays out very differently.

There were at least a dozen forks in the road like this one, probably more.

James McCord, one of those five burglars, could’ve not written a letter to Judge John J. Sirica in which he blew the whistle on the cover-up. Maybe if McCord’s case had gone before a different judge—one who wasn’t famous for giving out harsh sentences and who didn’t threaten McCord with decades in prison—McCord would have kept his secrets to himself.

There’s also a universe in which there was no John Dean, the White House counsel who helped orchestrate the cover-up before turning on Nixon. Dean could’ve worked literally anywhere else. Or he could’ve had a worse memory, one that didn’t allow him to remember his conversations with Nixon almost verbatim.

Maybe the biggest fork in the road has to do with the White House tapes. It sounds cynical to say, but I think it’s true: If Nixon hadn’t decided to bug the Oval Office, and thus hadn’t recorded multiple incriminating conversations with his aides, he would’ve never been forced to resign. Also, the taping system could’ve also easily stayed a secret. Also, Nixon could’ve destroyed the tapes.

Insofar as Slow Burn was “character-driven,” it’s because telling the story of Watergate required it. While the popular refrain about Watergate is that “the system worked,” my conclusion after five months of reporting and research is that the system wasn’t going to work on its own. That’s not a knock on the Constitution—it’s a very good constitution. But it didn’t make Richard Nixon’s resignation inevitable. What caused Nixon’s downfall was individual people cranking the hell out of democracy’s gears.

To start Slow Burn from the beginning, click on the player below:

To listen to the series’ final episode, click here: