What follows is a lightly edited transcript of Episode 8.
Richard Nixon liked Spiro Agnew because he presented himself as an uncompromising champion of law and order. In 1968, Agnew was the governor of Maryland. When riots broke out that year in Baltimore after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Agnew put them down by bringing in thousands of National Guardsmen and U.S. Army soldiers.
Spiro Agnew: We have local police, state police, and federalized troops on the scene. In control. We know now as never before that the mob is no ally of civil rights.
Nearly 6,000 people were arrested over the course of four days. Six were killed. When it was all over, Agnew invited a group of civil rights leaders to the state office building in Baltimore. He proceeded to give a speech in which he chastised them for being anti-white radicals. “It is not evil conditions that cause riots, but evil men,” he said. “I cannot believe that the only alternative to white racism is black racism.”
Reporter: Richard Nixon chose Gov. Spiro Agnew of Maryland for his vice president.
As Nixon’s running mate in 1968, one of Agnew’s primary missions was to lure in white Southern Democrats.
Reporter: And the leaders of the Southern delegation said they were absolutely delighted to have won this victory.
The recruitment of these disaffected voters was known as the Southern Strategy. In pursuing that strategy during the ’68 election, Nixon took full advantage of his future vice president’s knack for stirring racial resentment. It was the perfect division of labor: Nixon kept his hands clean, while Agnew said everything Nixon’s “silent majority” wanted to hear.
When Watergate hit, Spiro Agnew applied his over-the-top rhetorical style to defending Richard Nixon.
Agnew: Sometimes the presidency is like being a jackass caught in a hailstorm. You’ve got to just stand there and take it. Well, President Nixon has been standing there and taking it ever since Sen. Ervin has been doing his rain dance in that Washington committee room.
In July of 1973, Spiro Agnew, that pillar of law and order, found out that he was under criminal investigation.
Reporter: Involved are possible charges of bribery, extortion, and tax evasion. He and some of his closest political associates are under scrutiny in an investigation of an alleged kickback scheme involving building contracts.
Federal prosecutors said Agnew had started taking bribes in 1962 and that he continued to do so as vice president.
Here is journalist Elizabeth Drew, who covered Watergate for the New Yorker.
Drew: So here you had the vice president sitting in his office—at that point in the Executive Office Building next to the White House—with people turning up with these envelopes full of cash.
Agnew: I want to say at this point, clearly and unequivocally: I am innocent of the charges against me.
After weeks of negotiating with prosecutors as well as White House lawyers, Agnew pleaded no contest. Under the terms of his deal, he would serve no prison time. But he would have to resign the vice presidency.
In her book Washington Journal, Elizabeth Drew writes that the vice president’s ouster caused a frenzy in the nation’s capital—that the restaurants were louder than usual, that the city felt drunk.
Drew: We were kind of on a high. We’d never been through anything like this before, and we didn’t know where it was going.
Until I started doing research for this show, I had no idea that Nixon’s vice president was forced out of office during the climax of Watergate—in a bribery scandal that was totally unrelated to Watergate. It was just this separate controversy that happened to unfold at the exact same time as this other, even more consequential controversy.
But how separate could it be, really? Think about the past year, when we’ve had to process four or five major news stories every day. Those stories don’t feel separate. They feel like overlapping subplots in the same chaotic narrative.
Agnew’s resignation, which came 10 days before the Saturday Night Massacre, is part of the Watergate story. If nothing else, it served as an accelerant, helping to ignite the firestorm that ultimately pushed Richard Nixon towards his downfall.
This worked in two ways. The first was practical and political: While Agnew was vice president, Nixon regarded him as his “impeachment insurance.” The idea was that Democrats wouldn’t dare try to remove Nixon, because if they did, they’d get Agnew, who they hated even more.
When Agnew was replaced with the relatively inoffensive Gerald Ford, that bit of game theory no longer applied.
Agnew’s forced resignation did something else too: It made the possibility of Nixon himself being removed from office seem much less far-fetched.
Here is Nicole Hemmer, a historian at the University of Virginia who studies conservative politics:
Hemmer: It still probably seemed crazy to think about a president resigning, but you just had this incident where a vice president had been forced to resign. And once you’re on an unprecedented path, suddenly it becomes easier to imagine other unprecedented things happening.
What had to happen for Nixon’s removal from office to go from unthinkable, to possible, to certain?
What prompted Nixon’s enablers and protectors to abandon him once and for all?
And despite everything he’d done, is there any scenario in which Richard Nixon could have survived Watergate?
This is Slow Burn. I’m your host, Leon Neyfakh.
Reporter 1: A committee of the House of Representatives begins debate on impeachment of the president.
Elizabeth Drew: This was the huge challenge that faced the Congress.
Elizabeth Holtzman: Well, what’s a high crime and misdemeanor?
Reporter 2: The way ahead shapes up as fierce and bloody, Democrats versus Republicans.
Episode 8: Going South
Elizabeth Holtzman really didn’t want to be on the House Judiciary Committee. In 1972, the 31-year-old Democrat from Brooklyn had just unseated a guy who had been the chair of the committee for almost 20 years. Holtzman thought her constituents would prefer to have their new congresswoman focus on other things.
Elizabeth Holtzman: I went to see all the people who were responsible for the selection process, and I got nowhere. And when they put me on the House Judiciary Committee, my heart sank, and I said, “This is not an auspicious beginning. Here I am, my first legislative effort, and I lose.”
Holtzman would go on to serve four terms in Congress, and later she would become Brooklyn district attorney.
But first, she had to do something else.
Holtzman: You can be sure that I would have scratched and clawed to get on that committee if I had had an inkling of impeachment. But I had no inkling. And the powers that be had no inkling. And I’m sure the president had no inkling either that impeachment was going to happen.
Remember, in 1972, when Nixon was reelected, very few people cared about Watergate.
Holtzman: The cover-up had been so successful that nobody understood that the president of the United States could be involved.
Five months after the burglary at the Watergate, Nixon was reelected by a landslide. At the time of his second inauguration, his approval rating stood at 68 percent.
The Senate hearings were broadcast in the spring and summer of 1973. By August, Nixon’s approval rating had plummeted to 31 percent.
Two months later, Nixon fired the special prosecutor investigating Watergate and forced out the attorney general and his deputy. After that, Nixon’s approval rating was down to about 25 percent.
So, it didn’t come out of nowhere when, on Nov. 15, 1973, Congress voted to allocate $1 million to staff a formal impeachment inquiry.
Reporter: The House had a tough floor fight on money, requested by the committee for a study of impeaching the president.
The reporter Jimmy Breslin described this as a deceptively bureaucratic procedure—one that earned only three paragraphs in the papers. In fact, Breslin pointed out, it was hugely significant—one of the first concrete steps the government had taken toward impeachment. What had been an unimaginable fantasy scenario was now an official government operation, with a significant government budget.
The money would be spent on lawyers and researchers. Just like the Senate Watergate Committee, the members of this House committee would have a professional staff that worked behind the scenes. But whereas the Senate hearings had been a televised spectacle, the House would mostly conduct its business in private.
Reporter: So, for the second time in our history, a committee of the House of Representatives begins debate on articles which may result in the impeachment of a president. Not since the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson in the last century have we been faced with a situation like this.
There were 38 House members overseeing the impeachment inquiry—21 Democrats and 17 Republicans. Together, they would pore over the evidence against Nixon, talk about how it should be interpreted, and finally, at the very end, hold a public hearing to present their conclusions to the American people.
After that, the 38 members would vote on whether to recommend Nixon’s impeachment to the full House of Representatives. And while the House could carry out the impeachment with a simple majority vote, actually removing Nixon from office would then require the Senate to conduct a trial and vote to convict with a two-thirds majority.
That was the basic road map. Beyond that though, the protocol for impeachment was fuzzy. Congress hadn’t impeached a president in more than a hundred years. So, no one really knew how the process was supposed to work. Here again is Elizabeth Drew:
Drew: There was a book by a man named Raoul Berger on impeachment—a very obscure book up until then. Everybody ran to the bookstore to get it because nobody knew what to do, or how to do it, or what it would be. And so this was the huge challenge that faced the Congress.
Raoul Berger’s book was a highly technical legal treatise that happened to be published just a few months before the Watergate break-in. By the second week of November in 1973, a bookstore in Georgetown had sold out of it three times. And it was described in one newspaper editorial as sitting on “some of the most fashionable coffee tables” in Washington.
Elizabeth Holtzman and a number of her colleagues read the book, too. They really were starting from scratch.
Holtzman: We had to learn about the constitutional requirements for impeachment. The Constitution says president can be impeached for treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors. I mean, I went to Harvard Law School, and no one ever taught us what a high crime and misdemeanor was.
So, what was a high crime, exactly? Were the Framers of the Constitution referring to a specific category of criminal offenses, or was a high crime just a really bad thing that a president shouldn’t do, even though it’s not necessarily illegal?
Holtzman thought the answer was clear: The Framers obviously couldn’t have been making reference to the U.S. criminal code because there was no U.S. criminal code when they wrote the Constitution.
Holtzman: A high crime and misdemeanor was really a political crime—it’s not a normal crime. It’s not like shooting your wife or your husband or running somebody over because you’re drunk. But it’s an abuse of power.
After acquainting themselves with the legal theory behind impeachment, the committee members set about evaluating the evidence. There was quite a lot of material to cover—including everything the Senate Watergate hearings had generated, testimony from grand jury proceedings, and the White House tapes that had been subpoenaed by the special prosecutor’s office. According to Jimmy Breslin’s book How the Good Guys Finally Won, there was so much paper in the House Judiciary Committee’s headquarters that the official architect for the Capitol had to call in workers to reinforce the floor.
The lawyers on the committee staff spent months organizing all this paper into big black binders. These binders contained “statements of information,” which the committee members would read through and discuss. The statements of information were written in a deliberately straightforward style, with zero analysis. The first one literally just said that “On Jan. 20, 1969, Richard Nixon was inaugurated as the 37th President of the United States.” Later, there was juicier stuff—including details about how a Nixon foot soldier had delivered thousands of dollars in hush money to one of the Watergate burglars by leaving “unmarked envelopes” full of cash inside airport lockers.
Even Elizabeth Holtzman, who had never thought highly of Nixon in the first place, was floored by the amoral behavior described in the statements of information.
Holtzman: As we heard more and more of the statements of fact that the staff presented to us, all of a sudden I felt as though I were sinking into quicksand: that there was no bottom to this, that the number of instances of criminality, of misconduct, of abuse of power were just endless—and we were just sinking, sinking, sinking in this mud. It was a really kind of awful feeling.
Holtzman was part of the committee’s liberal wing. On the opposite side were 10 or so hardcore Nixon loyalists. In an interview conducted before the impeachment inquiry had properly gotten started, the senior Republican member of the committee said, “There is no evidence to justify impeachment. But there is no doubt that the Democrats will do their best to find some.” The Nixon loyalists had their own way of looking at the evidence. One of them, Charles Wiggins from California, said, after listening to the tapes, that “there wasn’t even anything implicating the president in spitting on the street.”
Reporter: This committee is going to have rough going. Any illusions about bipartisanship have already gone. The way ahead shapes up as fierce and bloody, Democrats versus Republicans.
All this partisan rancor created a problem for the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, a New Jersey Democrat named Peter Rodino. Rodino believed that this impeachment inquiry had to be a bipartisan endeavor. If the committee was going to recommend impeachment, there had to be Democrats and Republicans on board with the decision.
Drew: Rodino’s sense was that if you run a partisan action here, the country will never accept it. And so it can’t be just the liberals or just the Democrats versus the Republicans—you don’t want to start a civil war.
The notion that members of a political party would ever support their own guy’s impeachment sounds like a naïve dream. But the House Judiciary Committee circa 1974 could not be easily divided into two opposing sides. Yes, there were liberals on the committee, like Elizabeth Holtzman, who opposed Nixon and wanted him gone. And there were also conservatives, like Charles Wiggins, who appeared to be dead-set on defending him no matter what the evidence said.
But the Judiciary Committee also included some members whose politics were harder to pin down. By today’s standards, these were political misfits: Some were conservative Democrats who represented districts in the South, where Nixon was popular. Others were moderate Republicans who didn’t always vote with Nixon and didn’t particularly have any loyalty to him. Where these guys were going to come down on impeachment was not at all obvious—including to them.
Just to give you an example of the kind of person we’re talking about: Walt Flowers, a Democrat from Alabama, represented a district that went 66 percent in favor of Nixon in 1972. Flowers was also a supporter of the notorious segregationist Gov. George Wallace. He was genuinely undecided on the question of impeachment. At one point, Flowers went down to his home district in Alabama and talked to constituents about what they thought should happen to the president.
Reporter: After three terms in Congress, he knows a great number of these people by name and has respect for their opinions about impeachment.
Constituent 1: Watergate don’t worry us, Congressman.
Constituent 2: I say impeach him or get off his back and let him go to work and do something.
Another ambivalent congressman was Hamilton Fish Jr., a Republican from New York. Nixon had won his district by a large margin in 1972. But Fish frequently broke with the president, and his constituents were polling 50–50 on impeachment. Fish didn’t make up his mind about Nixon’s guilt until just before the committee’s work wrapped up.
For months, in the meantime, Fish, Flowers, and the other “undecided” members didn’t really know about each other. That’s the nature of ambivalence: People who feel it aren’t usually very good at banding together for their cause. As late as mid-July, Fish believed—incorrectly, as it turned out—that he was one of just two Republicans seriously considering voting for impeachment. “It was a very queasy feeling,” Fish said later. “I would have questioned my judgment if everybody else had decided against impeachment.”
Committee members like Fish were in a tougher spot than someone like Elizabeth Holtzman.
Holtzman: In my district, it was a Democratic district, so I wasn’t going to pay a price for voting for impeachment. Their districts had voted for Richard Nixon. And they were going to vote to impeach him? To overturn what their constituents had voted for? That was going to be a hard vote.
The undecided congressmen were wild cards. Precisely because they were unsure of how they’d vote, they held the power to determine whether the committee would move to impeach Nixon or choose to let him slide.
For a brief period in 1974, that made them the most important politicians in America.
While the House Judiciary Committee weighed the evidence, Richard Nixon was thinking about how to save his presidency. He decided that his best chance at political survival lay in the South, with the conservative white Democrats who lived there and still kind of liked him.
The calculus was this: If Nixon could keep all 17 Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee behind him, he would need to pick off just two of the Southern Democrats. That would make the impeachment vote a tie, and the inquiry would be dead. And even if the matter did come to a full House vote, Nixon’s only hope of prevailing there was winning over Southern Democrats.
Reporter: The president’s standing in the polls is slightly higher in the South than in the rest of the country.
And so, six years after recruiting Spiro Agnew as part of the Southern Strategy to help woo segregationists, Richard Nixon set off on his final campaign.
Reporter: Good evening. President Nixon was on the road today…
With his approval rating near record lows—not just for him, but for any president in history—Nixon traveled to Nashville, Tennessee; Huntsville, Alabama; and Houston, Texas.
In Nashville, he appeared at the Grand Ole Opry, and he played “God Bless America” on a piano. Here’s Elizabeth Drew, who was there:
Drew: And he did the strangest thing. He approached the piano,with his hands out in front of him, as if they were paws, clawing the air like he was some sort of lion or something. It was really weird. Here was this president in deep trouble, and he was clowning around, and it was kind of an out-of-body experience.
In Alabama, Nixon appeared in front of some 40,000 supporters alongside the state’s governor, George Wallace. Here’s Nixon addressing the crowd:
Nixon: Here in the heart of Dixie, we find that the heart of America is good, the character of America is strong, and we are going to continue to be a great nation.
Back in Washington, the vise around the White House was tightening. Remember, the House Judiciary Committee was just one of the government bodies that had Nixon in its sights.
The other one you’ll remember from our previous episode: the Watergate special prosecutor’s office. Having survived the Saturday Night Massacre, the team of young lawyers assembled by Archibald Cox was now working for a new boss. His name was Leon Jaworski, and he ended up surprising the members of Cox’s army who had initially doubted him. When Jaworski was confronted with evidence that the president had engaged in criminal activity, he was aggressive and mostly unflinching in his pursuit of the case. After listening to the tapes Nixon had handed over in response to the Cox subpoena, Jaworski went back to the White House in mid-April of ’74 and subpoenaed 64 more.
Reporter: The White House has until Monday to answer Jaworski’s subpoena.
Jaworski’s 1974 subpoena kicked off another legal battle over the Oval Office tapes. Once again, the Nixon White House refused to obey the special prosecutor’s subpoena, and once again, Nixon tried to sell the courts and the public on a compromise. On April 29, 1974, Nixon announced in a televised address that he would be releasing not the tapes themselves, but 1,200 pages of transcripts.
Nixon: They include all the relevant portions of all of the subpoenaed conversations that were recorded. That is, all portions that relate to the question of what I knew about Watergate, or the cover-up, and what I did about it.
Now, these transcripts would be edited, but on the other hand, there would be a whole lot of them. Nixon underscored this point by making his announcement alongside an imposing stack of 50 green binders.
When the transcripts were published by the Government Printing Office the next day, they were an immediate sensation.
Reporter: A transcript shows that on and off for almost two hours, the president debated the wisdom of hush-money payments for Howard Hunt, and in the end, his answer was yes.
First, the newspapers and news networks highlighted the most salacious bits.
Reporter: Dean then responded, “I’m not talking about documents, you see. I’m talking about something we could spread as facts, you see.”
Reporter: At a March 27 [meeting] he said, “I sometime feel I’d like to resign. Let Agnew be president for a while—he’d love it.”
The administration made some desperate attempts at spin: White House speechwriter John McLaughlin, a Jesuit priest who would go on to host The McLaughlin Group, said that the relentless vulgarity in the transcripts was a form of “emotional drainage.” Nixon was clearly suffering, and that suffering was “beautiful” McLaughlin said. “[T]he more he suffers, the more believable he becomes to me.”
This line of reasoning did not catch on. Most of the reaction was more in line with that of Senate Republican leader Hugh Scott, who said the Watergate transcripts revealed “a shabby, disgusting, immoral performance” by all involved.
Holtzman: And you never heard him—him meaning the president—say, “What’s the right thing to do for the country? What’s the right thing to do under the law?” It was always, kind of, “How do you get away with this?” and “How can we stonewall here?” And it was just, you know, like thieves conspiring and plotting and scheming.
Newspapers started printing the transcripts in their entirety, in huge inserts and special sections.
Reporter: The president’s tape transcriptions have become an instant bestseller. The Chicago Tribune came out with a special 44-page section today, with all of the quarter-of-a-million words in the transcripts. The Tribune had that on the street, less than one day after the transcripts were released.
The Times and the Post both packaged the transcripts as paperbacks that became instant bestsellers, with 3 million copies in print just one week after the transcripts were released. NPR staged a marathon reading. Before long, everyone was making jokes about “expletive deleted”—the prudish phrase the Nixon administration had used to make the transcripts seem a little less horrible.
Unidentified: In a hundred years, historians may look at it and ask, “Back in 1974, what in ‘expletive deleted’ was going on?”
Expletives were not the only thing the Nixon team had deleted. The president had also omitted or altered a number of incriminating exchanges. Remarkably, he even did this with transcripts of tapes that he had already provided to the special prosecutor’s office—and which the House Judiciary Committee members had already heard. In one of the transcripts prepared by the White House, Nixon was quoted as saying that he had been advised to “use flexibility in order to get off the cover-up line.” On the tape, members of the committee could hear him saying that the administration should “use flexibility in order to get on with the cover-up.”
Holtzman: It was almost laughable that the president released these transcripts which were so crude, in the sense that they were not sophisticated efforts to protect him. I mean, yeah, they changed the words, they deleted words, they tried to create transcripts that would exonerate him, but we had the tapes and those tapes could be public, so what were they thinking? You know, it was crazy.
Several members of the committee took such offense at this third-rate act of deception that they shared the discrepancies with the press.
Reporter: There have been news leaks recently that parts of the committee version differ widely from the transcripts released by President Nixon. There is a report of an omission in the presidential transcript concerning the payment of hush money to Watergate conspirators…
Wasting no time, a White House spokesman pointed to the leaks as evidence that the committee was running a partisan witch hunt. Pat Buchanan, an adviser to the president, suggested that journalists ought to look into who was doing the leaking.
Pat Buchanan: Who did that leaking and why is a news story. It’s news and information the American people have a right to know. And I think the obligation is on the part of the national press to run down the source of those leaks.
One of the White House’s hopes in releasing the transcripts had been to get the special prosecutor’s office off the president’s back and to avoid a Supreme Court showdown over the tapes. But Leon Jaworski was not satisfied. Edited transcripts did not count as evidence, and furthermore, only 20 of the 64 conversations that had been subpoenaed were reflected in the transcripts. Nixon was still refusing to hand over the rest.
On May 31, 1974, the tapes case made it to the Supreme Court. During oral arguments, a lawyer for the White House tried to make the same points about executive privilege and the separation of powers that people had been hearing for nearly a year. The justices were not buying it.
Reporter: At 11 o’clock this morning, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled unanimously against the president of the United States…
On July 24, the court ruled 8–0 that the president had to turn over every piece of evidence that Leon Jaworski had asked for.
The timing of the Supreme Court’s July 24 ruling was uncanny: It arrived on the same day the House Judiciary Committee was scheduled to begin its public hearings.
Reporter: …debating a resolution recommending, quote, “that the House of Representatives does impeach Richard M. Nixon, President of the United States, for high crimes and misdemeanors.” So it’s not exactly your average Wednesday.
By this point, the committee had been examining evidence behind closed doors for about three months. There had been complaints in the media about how long the deliberations were taking. But these were real deliberations—those undecided wild cards really did struggle to make up their minds.
Drew: And it was an agonizing decision, particularly for Republicans because Nixon had a base—it was rapidly deteriorating, but he still had one. And they had to convince themselves that these were high crimes and misdemeanors, and what would be the precedent if he weren’t held accountable? And what would be the political consequences for them if they voted to impeach the man?
It was only about a week before the hearings started that the ambivalent members found each other and started talking amongst themselves about the case for impeachment. There were seven of them, it turned out. Three conservative Democrats, including Walt Flowers, and four moderate Republicans, including Hamilton Fish. This group of seven would be referred to as the “Fragile Coalition”—though some called it the “Unholy Alliance.”
When the public hearings began, all seven revealed to their colleagues and to the 40 million people watching at home how they were planning to vote. Each one had come to the conclusion, individually, and then together, that Richard Nixon had to be impeached. Here is Walt Flowers delivering his opening statement:
Walt Flowers: What if we fail to impeach? Do we ingrain forever in the very fabric of our Constitution a standard of conduct in our highest office that in the least is deplorable, and at worst is impeachable?
The most celebrated speech of the impeachment hearings came not from anyone in the Fragile Coalition, but from a little-known Democrat from Texas named Barbara Jordan.
In her 13-minute statement, Jordan spoke in mournful tones about the stain that Richard Nixon had left on the presidency, and she described him as a man “swollen with power and grown tyrannical.” But what made Jordan’s speech stand out was the way she framed it. As an African American, Jordan said, she understood that when the Constitution was written, she was not considered a full human being.
Barbara Jordan: I felt somehow for many years that George Washington and Alexander Hamilton just left me out by mistake. But through the process of amendment, interpretation, and court decision, I have finally been included in “We, the people.”
Jordan’s point was that, despite this history, she still believed in the Constitution and felt sorrow at seeing it subverted by Richard Nixon.
Jordan: Today, I am an inquisitor. A hyperbole would not be fictional and would not overstate the solemnness that I feel right now. My faith in the Constitution is whole; it is complete; it is total. And I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction, of the Constitution.
On the night of Saturday, July 27, committee chairman Peter Rodino called for a vote on whether the president had obstructed justice as part of the Watergate cover-up and whether the Constitution required that he be impeached for it.
Unidentified: Mr. Mayne?
Wiley Mayne: No.
Unidentified: Mr. Hogan?
Lawrence Hogan: Aye.
If a majority of the committee voted for impeachment, the process would continue with a full vote in the House.
Unidentified: Mr. Cohen?
William Cohen: Aye.
Drew: When it came to calling the roll for the vote, you could hear a piece of dust drop—it was so quiet and so. … Everyone had a sense of the occasion—that here they were, voting to hold the president in contempt of the Constitution.
Unidentified: Mr. Rodino?
Peter Rodino: Aye.
The final tally was 27 in favor and 11 against. The aye votes included the four Republicans and three Democrats in the Fragile Coalition—plus two more Republicans on top of that.
The unthinkable had arrived: With bipartisan support, the committee would be recommending impeachment.
Holtzman: Ah, I just remember, just, feeling very uncomfortable and sad. I don’t think anybody relished it. I don’t think anybody took any pleasure in it. I don’t think one single Democrat danced up and down with joy. It didn’t happen that way. It was just a very sober moment.
A few minutes after the committee’s vote, the sergeant-at-arms for the House of Representatives rushed over to Peter Rodino. Someone had called the Capitol Police, he said, and told them that there was a plane heading straight for the building where the vote had just taken place. The plane had supposedly just taken off from National Airport and was being flown by a kamikaze pilot.
Rodino hurried to clear the hearing room, then retreated to his office and looked out his window. The plane never came. The New York Times reported that as Rodino left the committee’s headquarters that night, he broke down in tears.
Under different circumstances, Richard Nixon might have still had a sliver of a chance.
It was possible, if unlikely, that the full House of Representatives could reject the recommendation of the Judiciary Committee. The Senate, too, could decline to convict Nixon—getting a two-thirds majority is never easy.
But Nixon’s defeat at the Supreme Court had made all those scenarios irrelevant. As the president knew, the 64 tapes that he now had to provide to the special prosecutor’s office contained definitive proof that he had participated in the Watergate cover-up from the very beginning.
That proof was on a tape from June 23, 1972, less than a week after the Watergate break-in. It captured a conversation between Nixon and his chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman.
Nixon: And they should call the FBI in and say that we wish for the good of the country, don’t go any further into this case, period. That’s the way to put it. Do it straight.
On what became known as the “smoking gun tape,” Nixon could be heard instructing Haldeman to enlist the director of the CIA in convincing the FBI to stop investigating the break-in. “They should call the FBI in and say … don’t go any further into this case, period,” Nixon said. “That’s the way to put it. Do it straight.”
Nixon had listened to this tape, and he had kept its contents secret from his lawyer and his closest aides. When he finally told them what was on it, in the wake of the Supreme Court decision, he did so knowing that the game was almost certainly over.
On Friday, Aug. 2, the president’s men began the excruciating process of telling the White House’s most loyal defenders about the newly discovered evidence. When they told Charles Wiggins, the Republican who had insisted the president wasn’t even guilty of spitting on the street, Wiggins said the June 23 tape had to be made public immediately. If the White House didn’t do it, he would.
Reporter: President Nixon stunned the country today by admitting that he held back evidence from the House Judiciary Committee. The president issued a statement about the evidence he kept secret, saying, “This was a serious act of omission, for which I take full responsibility and which I deeply regret.”
The following Monday, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein reported in the Washington Post that the White House was preparing to release some new and damning piece of evidence in response to the Supreme Court ruling. Charles Wiggins went on television and announced, through tears, that he could no longer stand with the president.
Wiggins: I am prepared to conclude that the magnificent public career of Richard Nixon must be terminated involuntarily. And I shall support those portions of Article 1 of the Bill of Impeachment … adopted by the Judiciary Committee which are sustained by the evidence.
On Aug. 8, 1974, facing certain impeachment and removal from office, Richard Nixon informed the country that he was quitting.
Nixon: I would have preferred to carry through to the finish, whatever the personal agony it would have involved. I have never been a quitter. To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct in my body. But as president, I must put the interests of America first. Therefore, I shall resign the presidency, effective at noon tomorrow.
And then, just like that, he was gone.
So, a happy ending, right? The system worked. The government investigated itself. Politicians chose truth over party affiliation. The president’s misdeeds were exposed, and he was forced out of office.
As we’ve heard, none of this happened instantly. But what I’ve been wondering since I started working on this show is: Could it have ended some other way? Was Nixon’s ouster the inevitable result of checks and balances working as intended, or did the country just get lucky?
When I look back at the timeline of Watergate—when I take stock of everything that happened in between the break-in on June 17, 1972, and Nixon’s resignation two years and two months later—all I see are moments when things could have gone in a different direction.
• The Washington Post could have assigned the story of the break-in to reporters who were less aggressive than Woodward and Bernstein.
• James McCord could have chosen not to write a letter blowing the whistle on the cover-up.
• John Dean could have decided not to turn on his boss, or he could have had a worse memory.
• Nixon could have decided not to install tape recorders in the Oval Office. Or the Senate Watergate investigators could have not found out about them. Or Nixon could have destroyed those tapes, as several people advised him to do.
• Oh, and the Democrats could have not had a majority in both the Senate and the House. That’s a big one.
Going through that list, it makes me think that it wasn’t some law of nature or even some law of politics that prevented Nixon from getting away with Watergate. It makes me think that if a few things had broken a little differently, he could have served out his second term and put the whole ordeal behind him.
On the other hand, even if nothing about Nixon’s downfall was preordained, that doesn’t mean it was just a random outcome either. The system really did work. Or, more accurately, there were people, who worked inside the system, who did what they could. As a result, a bunch of interconnected institutions—the press, the courts, the Department of Justice, Congress—all of them did their part to bring about the ending that we now take for granted. Even if we did just get lucky, isn’t that still an argument for hope?
Gerald Ford: I, Gerald R. Ford, do solemnly swear…
Chief Justice Warren Burger: …that I will faithfully execute…
Ford: …that I will faithfully execute…
Burger: …the office of President of the United States.
Ford: …the office of President of the United States.
The day Richard Nixon resigned, Gerald Ford was sworn in as his replacement. Ford, who had become Nixon’s vice president after Spiro Agnew’s resignation about six months earlier, had long been an unabashed defender of the president, and he had continued vouching for him unequivocally until the bitter end.
You may remember that back in 1972, when Ford was House Minority Leader, he made himself very useful to the president by helping to squelch Congressman Wright Patman’s early investigation into Watergate.
On Sept. 8, 1974, Ford did Nixon one more good turn.
Ford: I, Gerald R. Ford, have granted and by these presents do grant a full, free, and absolute pardon unto Richard Nixon …
The pardon extended to any and all crimes Nixon might have committed during his time in the White House. Ford justified it by saying the country couldn’t afford to go through any more years of scandal. It was bad enough that seven of Nixon’s top aides had been indicted back in March. If prosecutors went after Nixon himself, the nightmare would just never end.
When Nixon got his pardon, he told his wife Pat that it was the most humiliating day of his life. Three weeks later, the former president sold the rights to a memoir for $2.5 million.
That’s it for the first season of Slow Burn. Thanks for listening, and stick around for some news about what’s coming next.
Slow Burn has been a production of Slate Plus, Slate’s membership program. I’ve shared some of the amazing stuff I’ve found out while researching the series, as well as seven bonus interviews with people who watched it all go down.
This week, I’ve got an interview with a family from New Jersey: two brothers who were kids during Watergate and their sister, who was in her early 20s. These three were so obsessed with the Senate Watergate hearings that they made an entire scrapbook about it, and they made their parents drive them to Washington, so they could see the hearings in person. Now they’re grown-ups, and the conversation I had with them shows just how personally people took this story, and how profoundly it shaped their conception of the world.
If you’re not a member yet, you can find out more at slate.com/slowburn.
Slow Burn is produced by me and Andrew Parsons. Our script editor is Josh Levin. Gabriel Roth is the editorial director of Slate Plus. The artwork for Slow Burn is by Teddy Blanks from Chips. Our theme music is “Back to the Old House,” by Niklas Ahlström. Thanks to the NBC News archive; the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum; and MARMIA, the Mid-Atlantic Regional Moving Image Archive for the audio you heard in this episode. You can find a full list of books, articles, and documentaries used to research this episode on our show page.
As usual, we’re grateful to Slate’s Chau Tu, Rachel Withers, June Thomas, and Steve Lickteig. We also want to thank some other people who have been instrumental in making this show what it is: Julia Turner and Jacob Weisberg, for believing in the project. Jeff Friedrich for producing the Slate Plus episodes. Jeff Bloomer for co-hosting them with me. Teddy Blanks for designing the perfect artwork. Evan Viola, Jason Gambrell, and Lindsey Kratochwill for all their help in the studio. Andrea Silenzi and Jayson De Leon for advice on how to write scripts.
Thanks also to Erica Miranda from the NBC Archives, Ryan Pettigrew from the Nixon Library, Andrew Maben, Mike Pesca, Mary Wilson, Andrew Newman, Henry Grabar, Katy Waldman, Mark Feeney, Veralyn Williams, and Daniel Schroeder. Special thanks to Ava Lubell for naming the show and to Forrest Wickman for coming up with the idea. Extra special thanks to my wife, Alice Gregory, for putting up with me for the past five months.