How Nixon Won Watergate

220px-Richard_NixonPresObamaBelow is today’s column in USA Today. It is a follow up to my speech at the National Press Club on the 4oth anniversary of Watergate. The event included a number of Watergate figures from Daniel Ellsberg to Liz Holtzman to Alexander Butterfield and others. It was an extraordinary event organized by Common Cause.

This month, I spoke at an event commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Watergate scandal with some of its survivors at the National Press Club. While much of the discussion looked back at the historic clash with President Nixon, I was struck by a different question: Who actually won? From unilateral military actions to warrantless surveillance that were key parts of the basis for Nixon’s impending impeachment, the painful fact is that Barack Obama is the president that Nixon always wanted to be.

Four decades ago, Nixon was halted in his determined effort to create an “imperial presidency” with unilateral powers and privileges. In 2013, Obama wields those very same powers openly and without serious opposition. The success of Obama in acquiring the long-denied powers of Nixon is one of his most remarkable, if ignoble, accomplishments. Consider a few examples:

Warrantless surveillance

Nixon’s use of warrantless surveillance led to the creation of a special court called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA). But the reform turned out to be more form than substance. The secret court turned “probable cause” into a meaningless standard, virtually guaranteeing any surveillance the government wanted. After hundreds of thousands of applications over decades, only a couple have ever been denied.

Last month, the Supreme Court crushed any remaining illusions regarding FISA when it sided with the Obama administration in ruling that potential targets of such spying had to have proof they were spied upon before filing lawsuits, even if the government has declared such evidence to be secret. That’s only the latest among dozens of lawsuits the administration has blocked while surveillance expands exponentially.

Unilateral military action

Nixon’s impeachment included the charge that he evaded Congress’ sole authority to declare war by invading Cambodia. In the Libyan “mission,” Obama announced that only he had the inherent authority to decide what is a “war” and that so long as he called it something different, no congressional approval or even consultation was necessary. He proceeded to bomb a nation’s capital, destroy military units and spend more than a billion dollars in support of one side in a civil war.

Kill lists

Nixon ordered a burglary to find evidence to use against Daniel Ellsberg, who gave the famed Pentagon Papers to the press, and later tried to imprison him. Ellsberg was later told of a secret plot by the White House “plumbers” to “incapacitate” him in a physical attack. It was a shocking revelation. That’s nothing compared with Obama’s assertion of the right to kill any U.S. citizen without a charge, let alone conviction, based on his sole authority. A recently leaked memo argues that the president has a right to kill a citizen even when he lacks “clear evidence (of) a specific attack” being planned.

Attacking whistle-blowers and Journalists

Nixon was known for his attacks on whistle-blowers. He used the Espionage Act of 1917 to bring a rare criminal case against Ellsberg. Nixon was vilified for the abuse of the law. Obama has brought twice as many such prosecutions as all prior presidents combined. While refusing to prosecute anyone for actual torture, the Obama administration has prosecuted former CIA employee John Kiriakou for disclosing the torture program. The Obama Administration has also threatened action against journalists in receiving precisely the same type of information published in the Pentagon Papers during Nixon’s administration.

Other Nixonesque areas include Obama’s overuse of classification laws and withholding material from Congress. There are even missing tapes. In the torture scandal, CIA officials admitted to destroying tapes that they feared could be used against them in criminal cases. Of course, Nixon had missing tapes, but Rose Mary Woods claimed to have erased them by mistake, as opposed to current officials who openly admit to intentional destruction.

Obama has not only openly asserted powers that were the grounds for Nixon’s impeachment, but he has made many love him for it. More than any figure in history, Obama has been a disaster for the U.S. civil liberties movement. By coming out of the Democratic Party and assuming an iconic position, Obama has ripped the movement in half. Many Democrats and progressive activists find themselves unable to oppose Obama for the authoritarian powers he has assumed. It is not simply a case of personality trumping principle; it is a cult of personality.

Long after Watergate, not only has the presidency changed. We have changed. We have become accustomed to elements of a security state such as massive surveillance and executive authority without judicial oversight. We have finally answered a question left by Benjamin Franklin in 1787, when a Mrs. Powel confronted him after the Constitutional Convention and asked, “Well, Doctor, what have we got — a republic or a monarchy?” His chilling response: “A republic, if you can keep it.”

We appear to have grown weary of the republic and traded it for promises of security from a shining political personality. Somewhere, Nixon must be wondering how it could have been this easy.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University.

USA Today March 26, 2013

79 thoughts on “How Nixon Won Watergate”

  1. After reading Elaine’s links i wonder if treason was not met with treason. What a da*n trashy place the White House is.

  2. Gene,

    Let’s remember that Cheney and Rumsfeld were influential in Ford’s administration … they were his guys … especially Cheney who was Ford’s special assistant, then Chief of Staff and finally, campaign manager for Ford’s 1976 presidential campaign. Anyone that closely aligned with Cheney has got to have serious character flaws of his own … serious ones. One being a desire to usurp the Constitution and Majestify the office of President. They did it and Cheney reaped the rewards in 2000.

    Yes, Nixon did cave too easily and pardoning him without a trial kept him buried.

  3. Here’s more from Charlie Pierce:

    Mar 18,2013
    History’s Yard Waste Explored, Continued
    By Charles P. Pierce

    The biggest story in American political history that has broken in many years pretty much died of loneliness over the weekend. As near as I can tell, nobody in the elite political media picked it up, and it certainly didn’t hit any of The Sunday Showz. And these, of course, are the mightly gatekeepers of the First Amendment who, when Richard Nixon shuffled off his plague-ish coil and climbed up on his personalized spit in Hell back in 1994, went wall-to-wall with coverage of his funeral. People like Tom Wicker and — alas — the great Murray Kempton insisted that there was something worthwhile to be found in this wandering heap of vicious neuroses, that there was something of legitimate value at the bottom of this vast bag of rancid old sins. Bill Clinton delivered the eulogy.

    Oh, yes, he knew great controversy amid defeat as well as victory. He made mistakes, and they, like his accomplishments, are a part of his life and record. But the enduring lesson of Richard Nixon is that he never gave up being part of the action and passion of his times. He said many times that unless a person has a goal, a new mountain to climb, his spirit will die. Well, based on our last phone conversation and the letter he wrote me just a month ago, I can say that his spirit was very much alive to the very end.

    Clinton should be ashamed today for having said that. We should be ashamed as a nation that we didn’t just drop the corpse unceremoniously into the sea. The elite political media, past and present, living and dead, should atone in Purgatory for centuries over trying to redeem this vat of squalid poison. Because, over this weekend, we discovered, once again, that the irredeemable barrel that was Richard Nixon had no bottom to scrape.

    It begins in the summer of 1968. Nixon feared a breakthrough at the Paris Peace talks designed to find a negotiated settlement to the Vietnam war, and he knew this would derail his campaign. He therefore set up a clandestine back-channel involving Anna Chennault, a senior campaign adviser. At a July meeting in Nixon’s New York apartment, the South Vietnamese ambassador was told Chennault represented Nixon and spoke for the campaign. If any message needed to be passed to the South Vietnamese president, Nguyen Van Thieu, it would come via Chennault. In late October 1968 there were major concessions from Hanoi which promised to allow meaningful talks to get underway in Paris – concessions that would justify Johnson calling for a complete bombing halt of North Vietnam. This was exactly what Nixon feared. The Paris peace talks may have ended years earlier, if it had not been for Nixon’s subterfuge.

    Chennault was despatched to the South Vietnamese embassy with a clear message: the South Vietnamese government should withdraw from the talks, refuse to deal with Johnson, and if Nixon was elected, they would get a much better deal. So on the eve of his planned announcement of a halt to the bombing, Johnson learned the South Vietnamese were pulling out. He was also told why. The FBI had bugged the ambassador’s phone and a transcripts of Anna Chennault’s calls were sent to the White House. In one conversation she tells the ambassador to “just hang on through election”. Johnson was told by Defence Secretary Clifford that the interference was illegal and threatened the chance for peace.

    There were 22,000 more Americans who died in Vietnam after Nixon sabotaged the peace talks in order to win an election. That’s 44,000 more American parents. That’s thousands and thousands more American children. That’s god alone knows how many more men, women, and children in Southeast Asia, all of whom died, very likely unnecessarily, because of Richard Nixon’s treasonous ambitions. Millions of people visit the Vietnam Memorial in Washington every year. Everyone of them who comes to commemorate a loved one lost in the war after 1968 should say a silent prayer at the wall and then turn slowly, and, with great dignity and quiet grace, spit in the direction of the White House, just because Richard Nixon once lived there.

  4. Well at least we have a president that stands up for what he believes in…. Weatherboarding and all…

  5. Elaine, Gene, AP and I guess ap,



    You’re Onto something…


    Seeing you post this is a breath of fresh air in such a partisan word…

  6. Thanks for the link, Elaine.

    And worth repeating, IMHO:

    “He was the champion of the Constitution in everyday life, because he knew that it is in everyday life that the liberties guaranteed therein are the most fragile, and that it is in everyday life where the hundred small abridgements of those liberties work to disenfranchise us from the rights that are our property to the point where the huge and egregious abridgements become possible.” -Charles Pierce about Anthony Lewis

  7. Would now be a good time, Professor Turley, to take another look at the evidence that President Obama has also been dishonest about the authenticity of his birth certificate pdf image that he “released” to the press, but not to any plaintiff in any court?

    Here is local Arizona CBS coverage of Sheriff Arpaio’s presser which has been suppressed, IMO by the cult of personality running the national media (aided by intimidation in some cases, I suspect, such as Fox News):

    Here is Arpaio’s full presser from March 1, 2012. (Reportedly Arpaio has accumulated additional federally certified forensic document laboratory confirmation of the forgery and is awaiting congressional support for a select committee investigation.):

    Note that on the White House’s own website the transcript of the BC “release” event shows Dan Pfeiffer and Bob Bauer exhibiting obvious “plausible deniability” tactics as well as “consciousness of guilt” behavior:

    Q And this is going to sound — I mean, you can just anticipate what people are going to — remain unconvinced. They’re going to say that this is just a photocopy of a piece of paper, you could have typed anything in there. Will the actual certificate be on display or viewable at any — (laughter.)

    Q Will the President be holding it?

    MR. PFEIFFER: He will not, and I will not leave it here for him to do so. But it will — the State Department of Health in Hawaii will obviously attest that that is a — what they have on file. As Bob said, it’s in a book in Hawaii.

    MR. BAUER: And you’ll see the letter from the director of the Health Department that states that she oversaw the copy and is attesting to —

    Q But do you understand that this could quiet the conspiracy theorists?

    MR. PFEIFFER: There will always be some selection of people who will believe something, and that’s not the issue.

  8. “As far as a cult of personality being a defense for him, that is absurd.”

    I don’t think anyone has used the CoP as a defense for Obama, ARE, but rather as an explanation of the deafening silence on the part of many of his supporters concerning Obama’s bad actions which are every bit as bad as the Constitutional abuses of Bush.

  9. Elaine,

    Sad to hear of Mr. Lewis passing. “Gideon’s Trumpet” is a great book.

  10. As one who has personally experienced the violations of civil liberties by Nixon and the outright illegal actions of him and the local cops acting as crooks, I have to disagree with Prof Turley that Nixon won. If Nixon and his ideas won, then we should have the FBI, unofficial Democratic Party goon squads attacking GOP events, jailing those who oppose Obama, breaking and entering GOP headquarters, planting bugging devices in GOP headquarters, getting GOP people fired from their jobs, etc.. So far I have not heard any such things going on. Maybe the GOP has fallen asleep or are too stupid to notice.

    Now I do agree that there are very real concerns about the laws which have been passed on civil liberties grounds, and I too think that they have gone too far in many instances. We can deal with that by modifying the legislation, and since they are part of law, we DO have notice of them and thus can be modified. Nixon operated wholly outside of law, and even traditional governmental practice. He went so far as to claim that it is legal if the President says it is. It is even more chilling to know that he was himself a lawyer who should have known better.

    The other points in Prof Turley’s article are not so wildly out of the usual in long standing practice and law in the US. Warrantless surveillance was in practice ever since the end of WWI. ALL telegrams from the US and incoming ones were read by US naval intelligence. This was illegal at the time, but it went on anyway. The NSA has since the end of WWII done the same for all communications for overseas traffic too. So this is an attempt to at least get some legal oversight for this longstanding practice. Given the international terrorism threat, I have no real problem with this either. Had 9/11 not happened, there might be more of an outcry about this. I think that since it is not domestic communications, it has some legal basis. Having that done in domestic matters, makes it far more problematic. But again, if Nixon had won, then the GOP campaign contributors would have their bank records openned to the FBI, and all of their communications and records would be available to the Democratic Party.

    I had to laugh at the example of unilateral military action being Tripoli since President Jefferson DID use unilateral military action against Tripoli in his term of office. In fact, he conducted an undeclared war there with actual boots on the ground, something which Obama did NOT do. Unless one counts a pilot bailing out as that. Clinton did far worse in Yugoslavia, which was illegal in every sense of the word. Also, one can use the facts of Lincoln’s Presidency to blast unchecked executive powers which violated far more civil liberties than anything we have seen since. Ranging from imprisoning his critics and pro-slavery activists, to throwing Congressmen out of the country, to censorship, to our first income tax on the wealthiest people, to the draft, to printing of greenbacks, etc.. Given all of this, we should be a dictatorship by now. So unless one thinks that we are a military dictatorship, there is good reason why there is not more outcry against these measures.

    As for kill lists. This has been a standard US practice for many years by the CIA. I can list the people who have been murdered by the CIA. There was a US journalist in Greece who reported on the horrors of our fascist allies who was disappeared in the late 40 and early 50s. Then closer to home, the CIA ordered the murder of Benjamin LInder who was working as a civil engineer in Nicaragua on a hydroelectric power project during the Contra War which was outright illegal since it had been specifically banned by US LAW. Then there was the murder of Charles Horman who was a US journalist who accidentally stumbled on the CIA role in the Chile coup. He was murdered on the orders of the US government. Then we have the US journalists who were crippled and severely injured by a CIA planted bomb in an Eden Pastora press conference in Nicaragua. ALL of these victims had NOT done or supported any illegal activity or terrorism. They were simply inconvenient politically.

    The targets of Obama are NOT in any way shape or form innocent of illegal or terrorist activity. They are more akin at the very least to Lord Haw Haw or Ezera Pound in WWII. I doubt if there would have been any outcry if the RAF and Fifteen Air Force had specifically targeted either one of them for a bombing raid. That would have been targeted killing of a British and US citizen by Presidential or PM order. Think that would have been an illegal or horrendous violation or expansion of executive power? I don’t think so.

    The the other points are not quite as Nixonesque either. Nixon did far worse in prosecutions of speech as did LBJ. I remember Dr Spock and Dr Sloan Coffin being put on trial for their speech alone. I also recall the use of force against anti-war protestors in Chicago at the DEMOCRATIC party convention. So how some get the idea that the Democratic party was or is the party of hippies is beyond me. Overclasification is a long standing problem and hiding legitimate secrets has long been a source of contention of all parties. Obama is neither better or worse on this one. As far as a cult of personality being a defense for him, that is absurd. I have lots of differences with Obama, and I can hardly be accused of “worshiping” him. In fact, I was for Hillary Clinton during the primaries. That is an unverifiable slur in making ones point against some of Obama’s measures.

  11. Blouise,

    Perhaps “regrets” was too strong a word. It certainly was mine and not his. However, I think over time you could see in Ford’s justifications a weakening trend. His defense became less and less vociferous. I think he knew it was an indefensible mistake after seeing some of the repercussions, but being a pol and the egotist that the job attracts, I think he came closest to expressing regret as he could when he said that he had been disappointed that despite the pardon – which he and later the SCOTUS felt were tantamount to an admission of guilt – Nixon remained unrepentant. That to me indicates that despite his trying to save face, that deep down Ford knew it was a mistake and he knew that it was an unjust act that undermined his credibility and probably cost him the election in 76. Even Ford agreed the pardon was instrumental in that loss. He may have been an idiot, but he was a pol. No pol wants to stand before the American people and say, “Sorry! I screwed the pooch for the whole lot of you by allowing one man to be above the rule of law and thus forever removing accountability from the American political landscape.” The roots of our current malaise, at the very tip of the taproot, are resting in Watergate and the pardon. This is a new column by the Prof, but this is a long held and espoused contention that I (and others) have made many times in the past here on this very blog. The only reason I’m not more hostile to Ford’s bad act in pardoning Nixon is I genuinely think he was duped by the party into a decision that he had qualms about and some of his closet advisers warned him against. He wasn’t a bright man and he was in over his head, but I don’t think Ford, unlike Nixon, Bush I & II, Clinton and Obama is intrinsically evil. He’s more like Reagan. A useful dupe, a compliant puppet, but if he’d been left to his own devices, he’d probably have been – in the words of Douglas Adams – “mostly harmless”.

  12. Off topic–but I think pertinent to this discussion:

    Anthony Lewis, 1927-2013
    By Charles P. Pierce

    One of the better things that happened to me in the job I held previous to this one was a note I received one Tuesday morning from Anthony Lewis, the longtime New York Times correspondent who’d worked the Bill Of Rights beat the way Dick Young used to cover the Brooklyn Dodgers, lived in Cambridge with his wife, Margaret Marshall, who was then the chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. (We call it that because the official name for our state legislature is the Massachusetts General Court. This is because we have been pretentious dweebs ever since John Winthrop et. al. stepped off the boat. Anyway, we want to keep confusion to a minimum so that people don’t accidentally bribe a judge when they could be paying off their state rep.) Lewis had liked a long profile I’d done on Senator Edward Kennedy and dropped me a personal note to say so. This was only fair because I’d admired almost everything Lewis had done with his career.

    He was the champion of the Constitution in everyday life, because he knew that it is in everyday life that the liberties guaranteed therein are the most fragile, and that it is in everyday life where the hundred small abridgements of those liberties work to disenfranchise us from the rights that are our property to the point where the huge and egregious abridgements become possible. Drug test everyone in the workplace every day and, pretty soon, you have a population that will tolerate — nay, applaud — wide-scale wiretapping. His great work, Gideon’s Trumpet, was a book about how an obscure case became the basis for a guaranteed right to counsel for poor and indigent defendants. It is a cliche to say that we protect the civil liberties of X because, in doing so, we protect our own, but Tony Lewis’s life’s work was based on that most simple formulation of the place of rights in the creative act of building a political commonwealth. It is said that the Bill of Rights has less of a constituency these days. In Tony Lewis, who passed away over the weekend, it had a constituency of one, and that’s really all it ought to take.

  13. Gene,

    In my opinion that was the point in time when we lost the Republic, the Rule of Law rather than the Rule of Man. That was the point in time that the Constitution was trashed and the Executive became Majesty. Ford may have been following the dictates of his party but the opposition party went right along with it and the populace bought the whole thing lock, stock, and barrel. Other Presidents before Nixon had done as badly but never before had the proof of obstruction been so evident, so easy to publicly convict. The growing dysfunctional reality that is rampant through every department of government today was inevitable once the Rule of Law was replaced by the Rule of Man. Gerald Ford was the one man who could have stopped it.

    Sometime, when you have time, send me the info on his “regrets”. I’ve never read anything from him other than justifications.

  14. G.Mason 1, March 26, 2013 at 10:54 am

    If we keep turning a blind eye to what our own political party does we will all eventually go blind. Obama should be impeached.
    What needs to be impeached is the nature of what our government has become — a tool for the epigovernment.

    They would gladly impeach Obama or any other singularity if it covered their tracks.

    No individual who does not obey them will ever become president until they are sufficiently neutralized.

    The real problem cannot be impeached, it must be continually resisted for as long as it takes.

    Every president since Nixon is impeachable because of who controls them.

  15. If we keep turning a blind eye to what our own political party does we will all eventually go blind. Obama should be impeached.

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