The Watergate Era
When I first met Richard Nixon at the 1952 Republican National Convention he did not seem destined for high political office, and his ascendancy to the national ticket came as a surprise. When I heard that Ike’s choice as a running mate was Richard Nixon, the junior senator (from California), my reaction was “Nixon who?” From that inauspicious beginning, Richard Nixon became a force in the Republican Party by dint of hard work and a keen analytical mind. Although most people, particularly the press, tend to type Richard Nixon as an arch-conservative because of his strong anti-Communist convictions, he was in fact much more of a moderate and a pragmatist. But his superb resume and formidable political mind were coupled with personality flaws that contributed to much ambivalence and even hostility toward him.
In 1968, Richard Nixon was elected president, defeating Democrat Hubert Humphrey by 110 electoral votes but only 0.7 percent of the popular vote (George Wallace made a rather strong showing in that year’s presidential election). Nixon, perhaps because he came from California, which strongly embodies both liberal and conservative traditions, was particularly positioned to bridge the gap between the liberal and conservative wings of the Republican Party and defeat the candidate of a fractionated Democratic Party.
I believe Nixon’s first term as president did great credit to himself and the country. Nixon was confronted with monumental problems in his first term: a sluggish economy, a rapid surge in inflation that sapped the confidence of investors and the public, and an unpopular and divisive war he had inherited from the two previous Democratic administrations and a hostile Congress with a huge Democratic majority. Nixon did what was necessary to bring around the economy and, despite the controversy surrounding the Vietnam War, was a very re-electable President in 1972. Nevertheless, you would never have known this from the anxiety that permeated that year’s Republican presidential campaign. Paranoia had always surrounded Richard Nixon in varying degrees, and he tended to isolate himself from people. I have always felt that he really didn’t like people very much and that this quality was his greatest vulnerability, both politically and personally.
On June 17, 1972, burglars broke into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate Building in Washington, setting in action a chain of events that became known as the Watergate scandal. I was pulled into the Watergate controversy because of my role in the Republican leadership of the House of Representatives and later as the Minority Leader during the impeachment inquiry.
At first, many of us in Congress said to ourselves, “What’s the big deal? Political candidates have done this sort of thing before and nothing was really said about it.” But as time wore on, the increasing number of high-level staffers giving evidence against each other, and subsequent indications that President Nixon was personally involved in some of these questionable activities, made the situation more and more difficult for those who supported him. What had been a minor event in the political “dirty tricks” manual became transformed by a failure of candor into a test of the honor and credibility of the President of the United States. As a moderate Republican and supporter of the President, I was a willing enlistee to defend him against what I then thought was a politically motivated lynching by partisan enemies. More importantly, after the resignation of Spiro Agnew as Vice President and the elevation of Jerry Ford to that office, I was elected Minority Leader of the House of Representatives. That required me to be a point man for the President as long as I could, and to try to keep the Republicans in the House united during these trying times.
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At the time of the impeachment inquiry (the Senate Select Committee’s hearings began on May 17, 1973), feelings in Congress were running very high in all directions. Some Republicans wanted to abandon Nixon immediately for the good of the party; others said they would never bow down to his opponents under any circumstances. My increasingly difficult job was to navigate between those two factions.
I firmly believe that one of the most crucial factors in determining the fate of President Nixon during Watergate was a rather unlikely one: Spiro Agnew. There is little doubt in my mind that the Democrats never would have impeached Richard Nixon if Spiro Agnew had remained Vice President. They would never have taken such an action against him if the result of that action had been to create a situation in which Spiro Agnew was president for two years and then the Republican nominee for president in 1976.
This is not so improbable as it might sound today. Agnew was a potent political force in 1973, propelled into national prominence by a series of hard-line speeches expressing the frustration of the middle class toward the “media and other privileged elitists.” His activities infuriated the Democrats, but enthralled Republicans and most independents. In 1976 he could have been a formidable, perhaps even a dominant, candidate for president. The smart Democrats were terrified of this prospect. Furthermore, I believe that Agnew as President would have escaped the fate of Gerald Ford because he probably would not have pardoned Richard Nixon. Although on one can ever know for sure, I believe the combination of Agnew’s political toughness and personal dislike of Nixon would have resulted in this outcome if Agnew had ever become president.
I could almost hear sighs of relief from my Democratic colleagues on the House floor when Agnew resigned as Vice President on October 10, 1973 to avoid prosecution by the Justice Department. Not only was a large obstacle to Democratic presidential success in 1976 removed, but a less obvious but welcome opportunity was about to present itself.
Two days later, Nixon picked the universally popular Gerald Ford to be his new vice president. The appointment was well received, especially by those of us who knew and respected Gerald Ford. However, it turned out to be, again in my opinion, another major strategic error for Richard Nixon. On the surface, there were good reasons to pick Ford to succeed Agnew. His performance as House Minority leader had earned him the respect of Republicans without causing Democrats to hate him. He had a collegial personality that was the foundation of his great popularity. I also believe Nixon thought Ford would help him avoid impeachment, because he thought Ford could influence members of Congress to be less harsh toward the President.
But it turned out exactly opposite. Ford’s position and worthy personal characteristics worked to neutralize his political effectiveness with the Democrats. No one was afraid of Jerry Ford. Democrats regarded him as a non-polarizing figure who wouldn’t go on the offensive against them. With Gerald Ford as president, the Democrats did not fear the results of the 1976 presidential election with Ford as the probable Republican candidate. From then on, many Congressional Democrats were in full pursuit of the goal of disgrace and removal of the rival they hated: Richard Nixon.
During much of 1973, I felt comfortable in defending the President because I believed that, as problematical as all the revelations about Watergate were, there was as yet no evidence that the President had committed an impeachable offense. However, on July 16, 1973, Alexander Butterfield dropped a bombshell during the Senate Select Committee hearings, revealing that conversations in the Oval Office had been automatically taped and that the tapes were obviously available. Nixon apparently received a legal opinion advising him that he did not need to release the tapes because they were his personal property. Thus he felt he was on solid enough legal ground to refuse to comply with a subpoena. The decision was challenged in the courts and eventually the Supreme Court ordered that the tapes be made available to the special prosecutor, the Senate Select Committee, and the House Judiciary Committee.
On July 25, 1973, Nixon refused to turn over the tapes, citing executive privilege. On February 11, 1974, by a vote of 33–3, Richard Nixon became the first President in U.S. history to be subpoenaed by a committee of the House due to his refusal to turn over the tapes. He did, however, release edited transcripts of the tapes on April 30, 1974, “placing his trust in the basic fairness of the American people". The Supreme Court’s 8–0 ruling did not come until July 24, 1974.
From that moment on, the political fortunes of the President declined dramatically.
I became even more deeply involved in Watergate when the House Judiciary Committee began to hold hearings (on May 9, 1974) on whether or not to send an impeachment resolution to the full House for a vote. I was well aware that if a resolution of impeachment were to be sent to the floor of the House I, as Republican leader, would be put in the position of leading the defense of the Republican President of the United States. I wanted to be certain that there was no “smoking gun” that would definitively point to obstruction of justice or some other impeachable conduct on his part.
As Minority Leader, I believed it was necessary for me to make a statement and to take a position on impeachment before the Judiciary Committee voted on the impeachment resolution. (On July 27–30, 1974, the Judiciary Committee passed three articles of impeachment.) So I scheduled a press conference to announce my decision. The Sunday morning before my press conference, however, I received a call from Al Haig, White House chief of staff. He strongly suggested that I call off my press conference until he was able to talk to me.
Thinking that Haig was worried that I was going to come out against his boss, I tried to reassure him. “Al, there’s something you should know,” I said. “My intention is to announce that I will not be voting for the articles of impeachment.”
There was a pause on the other end of the line. Finally, General Haig said, “Nevertheless, John, I advise you to postpone your press conference. There is going to be a development tomorrow that you need to know about first.” He then promised that I would be briefed the next day. My press secretary, Jay Smith, and I decided to cancel the press conference. We both thought Haig’s call may have meant that President Nixon was going to announce his resignation.
On Monday morning I received a call from my old friend Dean Burch, who was on the White House staff. Dean asked if he could come out to see me and bring some material for me to read. What happened at the meeting confirmed a disturbing dream I had had months ago in which I rode down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House with Barry Goldwater and told President Nixon he had to resign.
When Dean Burch arrived around 10 o’clock, he was accompanied by Fred Buzhardt, the president’s counsel, and George Bush, then chairman of the Republican National Committee. Buzhardt had brought a small but highly explosive bomb. He put before me a previously unreleased transcript of a June 23, 1973 Oval Office conversation. What I read was a transcript of a conversation between President Nixon and Bob Haldeman, in which the president instructed Haldeman to order the Central Intelligence Agency to stop the Federal Bureau of Investigation from investigation the Watergate burglary on the basis of “national security.” This was obstruction of justice—the “smoking gun” I had been dreading. President Nixon had committed at least one impeachable offense—he had implicated himself with his own words, recorded on his own tapes.
Jay Smith recalls that, after reading the transcript, Rhodes said, “This means that there’s just no chance in the world that he’s not going to be impeached. In fact, there’s no chance in the world that I won’t vote to impeach him.”
In the early afternoon of August 6, I returned to Capitol Hill. News of the June 23 “smoking gun” tape had found its way into the press, so it was the talk of the town. On the way to my office in the Capitol, a gaggle of reporters shouted questions. Someone asked when I was going to reschedule my press conference. Someone else suggested that today would be a good time. I had already decided to do it that afternoon, knowing, as the press did not, that I would have to rewrite my statement.
Jay Smith recalls that Rhodes said he would tell the press that the new evidence changed his mind on Article I (obstruction of justice) and that he was still considering voting yes on Article II (abuse of power). "The hours before the press conference were ones of high drama. Two interns were driven to Rhodes’s home to pick up a dark suit and tie for him to wear at the press conference; the Congressman contacted his wife, Betty, who was golfing, and asked her to come to the Capitol. Minutes before the press conference was scheduled, Rhodes was still in the Speaker’s office conferring with other House leaders, unaware that the three major networks intended to interrupt their scheduled programming to cover Rhodes’s statement live—the only time in U.S. history that a Minority Leader’s press conference has been shown on live television. Jay Smith sent a note in that stated “Mr. Rhodes, the networks plan to go live with your press conference at 4:00. We have to walk over to Rayburn directly.” With only a few minutes to air, both trotted briskly to the Rayburn Building".
The press conference was carried live at 4 p.m. by all three major television networks. It’s not often that a Minority Leader’s statement rates such high visibility, but such was the fever of the moment.
I began by saying, “For me, this is a sad day.” Then I announced my decision to vote aye on Article I of the impeachment resolution “due to the principle that no person, whether he is black or white, rich or poor, ordinary citizen or President of the United States, is above the law.”
When I finished reading my statement, the press corps did something they had never done in my experience: they applauded.
The next day, August 7, I received a call from Al Haig saying that the President wanted to meet with Senator Hugh Scott, Senator Barry Goldwater and me in the afternoon. When we arrived at the White House, we did not meet in the Oval Office, but in the President’s “working office” next door.
Jay Smith recalls that, before the three men were ushered into the President’s office, Al Haig said, “He’s (Nixon’s) been up and down. It (resignation) is about 90% with him right now. Please don’t raise the question of resignation. He knows what you’re going to tell him about the situation. He needs to hear it from you.”
Nixon asked me if it were true that all but about twenty-five members of the House would vote for impeachment, and I answered, “Yes, that’s my assessment of the situation.”
Then he turned to Barry Goldwater and said, “And I understand that if the matter came before the Senate, there would be an overwhelming vote for conviction.”
Barry replied, “That is true.”
The President said he had called us in to verify the report his staff had given him concerning his chances of remaining in office. He said he had a terrible decision to make and wanted us to know he would make it in what he deemed to be the interests of the country. He said he was not considering the possibility of a pardon or amnesty, and was not worried about his pension. (I got the very strong impression that he had already decided to resign when he talked to us.)
The President thanked us for coming to meet with him. As we were about to leave, I said, “Mr. President, when we leave, we will be confronted by the press. They will ask us what we told you and what you told us. It would be my hope that we would say we discussed your situation, that you did not ask us for any advice, and that we did not give you any.” The President said he hoped this would be exactly what we would do, and we did.
Jay Smith recalls that, as they left the President’s office, Goldwater said to Rhodes, “Is there any doubt in your mind what he’s going to do?” Rhodes replied, “No. Any doubt in yours?” “No,” Goldwater said. “It’s sort of amazing: here’s the first time this has ever happened, and who was sitting there with the President? Two guys from one of the smallest states.” When asked, the next morning, if the meeting with Nixon was rough, Rhodes told Jay Smith, “Not really, the President made it easy. He was just great.”
The next evening, August 9, I was invited to the White House again, this time for a 6 p.m. meeting in the President’s Office in the Executive Office Building. The “Big Six” in the congressional leadership were present: Senator Eastland, Senator Scott and Senator Mansfield from the Senate leadership, and Speaker Albert, Majority Leader O’Neill, and me from the House side.
The President was in complete control of himself. His legal staff had told him they felt the Constitution required him to notify the Congress of his intention to resign. Rather than doing this at a special session, he decided to do it by informing the leadership of both houses and both parties.
He did not read a formal statement, but told us what he intended to do. Various members made sympathetic remarks. I did not. As we left the President, I hung back and was the last to leave the room. We shook hands. I put my hand on his shoulder and said, “Stay in touch.” He turned away quickly and his shoulders were shaking.
That was the last time I saw Richard Nixon one on one.
Jay Smith recalls that, following the meeting with the President, John Rhodes returned to his office where his wife waited, watching the news on television. At one point Sam Donaldson of ABC News stuck his head in the office and was invited to come in. He began a touching soliloquy about how much the press grew to respect Mr. Rhodes throughout the long ordeal. Rhodes thanked him and said “Sam, I know you can understand why I couldn’t tell you before tonight that the President is going to resign.” Donaldson smiled and said goodbye, backed out of the office with a wave, and literally raced the length of the corridor outside. Minutes later, his distinctive voice was heard on TV. He was standing in front of the Capitol, microphone in hand, saying “It’s official. ABC has learned that President Richard M. Nixon will go on television at nine o’clock to announce his resignation of the presidency. This just confirmed by House Minority Leader John Rhodes.” Rhodes was livid. In the exhausting strain of the day, he’d assumed the conversation was private. In later years, however, he said that "time heals many wounds and if Sam Donaldson were buying the drinks, well…."
In the aftermath of Watergate, Gerald Ford issued a presidential pardon of Richard Nixon on September 8, 1974 (just prior to the November elections). The House lost 48 Republican seats; John Rhodes was reelected with just 51 percent of the vote. In the next Congress, he was reelected Minority Leader, again, unanimously.