Watergate and the Imperial Presidency

Term Paper 1998 12 Pages

History Europe - Germany - Postwar Period, Cold War


1 Introduction

“Each person can be summed up in one sentence,” Nixon said in an interview for Time in April 1990. Before Watergate, his summary may have been “He went to China”. But in 1990, Nixon assumed that he would always be remembered as the “Watergate man” who resigned from office. Actually, both seems to be true. When Nixon died in 1994, he was given a presidential funeral, and the public had not forgotten his whole Presidency.

In the first part of this paper, the events of the years from 1972 to 1974 are traced, regarding Bernstein and Woodward’s point of view as well as Nixon’s description of his downfall. According to the reporters from the Washington Post, all their claims had to be confirmed by at least two sources, which seems to make their books reliable. Nevertheless, Watergate has to be seen in the context of a permanent election campaign. In how far have Bernstein and Woodward’s sources been influenced by political attitudes or Watergate hysteria? On the other side of the coin, Nixon’s memoirs may be seen as his protest of innocence, but his book may also contain facts that were simply ignored by his enemies. After all, it seems to be necessary to include both views.

The second part of this paper concentrates on Schlesinger’s examination of the Imperial Presidency. According to him, Nixon tried to centralize power in the presidency. Apart from Nixon’s attacks on the authority of Congress, this paper focuses on the actions connected to Watergate.

2 Watergate

2.1 The Break-in

In the early morning of the 17th of June 1972, five men were arrested in the Democratic headquarters in the Watergate building. They had been attaching bug devices and were also carrying photographic equipment. One of the burglars was James W. McCord, who had just retired from work as a security consultant for the CIA. The other burglars were anti-Castro Cubans from Miami, who were also said to have connections with the CIA. At this point, no connection to the White House could be traced (Bernstein and Woodward President’s Men 13-20).

The following day, it turned out that McCord was a member of the CRP, the Committee for the Reelection of the President. Furthermore, two of the other burglars’ address books contained the name “Howard Hunt” and his telephone number in their address books, followed by “W.H.”, and “W. House” respectively. Howard Hunt worked as a security consultant for Charles W. Colson, who was a special counsel to the president. Hunt had not worked for the White House since March 29th 1972, but he had also worked for the CIA from 1949 to 1970 (Bernstein and Woodward President’s Men 22-25).

Naturally, the Democrats tried to use the burglary to their advantage. Lawrence F. O’Brien, the Democratic national chairman, said that he had never encountered a worse political action in his political life (Bernstein and Woodward President’s Men 20). Nixon, however, mentions several times in his memoirs that it was standard practice to bug a political enemy, and enumerates several other cases (648; 891; 1019). Furthermore, he remembers that he was not really angry that members of the CRP had undertaken this illegal action; he was rather annoyed that it was done in such a stupid way (649). Nevertheless, Nixon claims that the information he received about the break-in came from the Miami Herald on 18th June. He did not pay any particular attention to it until the next day, when his assistant Bob Haldeman told him that one of the burglars worked for the CRP (645-647).

2.2 The Cover-up

On June 20, 1972, Nixon and his campaign director, John N. Mitchell, talked about the Watergate burglary for the first time. According to Nixon, Mitchell regretted that he had not controlled his staff better; therefore, Nixon believed in his innocence (654-655). Two days later, Nixon announced that the White House was not involved in the incident (659). Nevertheless, the following day, Nixon and Haldeman created a plan of how they could use the CIA in order to prevent the FBI from investigating the Watergate burglary (660-663). On July 1, Mitchell resigned; according to Nixon, Mitchell and his wife could no longer deal with the pressure (668-669). Although Nixon did not believe that Mitchell’s resignation could solve the whole problem, he still did not attach too much importance to the incident (667). Even after Bernstein and Woodward had discovered that one of the burglars had been paid with a check that the CRP had received from a supporter, he was still reluctant to pay attention to the problem (Bernstein and Woodward President’s Men 41-46). At least, Nixon does not mention the check in his memoirs. And he does not even write a word about the “convention security money”, a fund of at least $100,000, gathered by the CRP’s financial counsel, Gordon Liddy (47). However, he denies that an even higher sum of the CRP’s fund, $700,000, was washed through a Mexican connection (Nixon 694; Bernstein and Woodward President’s Men 56-57). On 15th September, the grand jury indicted the five burglars and Hunt and Liddy (Bernstein and Woodward President’s Men 69).

2.3 Nixon’s Landslide Victory

Despite Watergate, Nixon was reelected president on 7th November 1972 by a vast majority. One reason for this was the strategy of his opponent, George McGovern, who helped Nixon to victory by dividing his support due to his proposals (Norton et. al 568). Nixon himself believed that then it was only a question of public relations work to banish suspicion concerning Watergate from the White House (Nixon 791). Th trial against the seven Watergate men took place from 8th to 30th January 1973. The five burglars confessed their guilt, claiming that the break-in pertained “towards the Cuban situation” (Bernstein and Woodward President’s Men 234). The Jury found Liddy and Hunt guilty of all counts against them.

But then, on 7th February, Senate decided unanimously to start an investigation Committee on Watergate (250). As a result, Nixon and his counsel John Dean had several meetings in which they talked about how to hush the White House’s involvement up. The most decisive meeting took place on 21st March when Nixon and Dean talked about the possibilities of how to ensure the silence of the burglars and the other men involved. Payments were authorized in order to prevent Hunt and the others from implicating the White House (Nixon 797-816).

For Nixon, the situation became worse. On 23rd March, Judge John J. Sirica read a letter from McCord, in which he claimed that he and the others had suffered from political pressure, in order to ensure their silence and gain their confessions made. Furthermore, he maintained that perjuries were committed, and that the burglary had been supported by higher official institutions (Woodward and Bernstein President’s Men 275-276; Nixon 821). Even worse, rumors went around that Dean would confess the cover-up.

2.4 Feigning Innocence

On 17th April, Nixon declared that he himself would do everything he could in order to find the truth. This included giving his permission for his aides to testify before the Senate Watergate Committee, provided that it did not fall under the executive privilege. Nixon also emphasized that he would suspend anyone involved in Watergate (290-291). Consequently, on 30th April, Nixon announced the resignation of Haldeman, the White House chief of staff, Ehrlichman, assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs, and Kleindienst, the Attorney General of the United States; he also fired Dean (309-310). Nixon still feigned innocence.

On 17th May, the Watergate Special Committee began its hearings; a day later, Nixon appointed Archibald Cox special prosecutor. Being afraid of Dean’s confession, Nixon released a statement on 22nd May, in which he denied his knowledge of the Watergate burglary. Nevertheless, he admitted that he had limited the investigations due to reasons of national security (Nixon 888-892).

In June, Dean blamed the president for directing the cover-up before the Senate Watergate Committee. A few weeks later, Alexander Butterfield, Deputy Assistant to the President, reported about the existence of a recording system in the White House. Cox sought to subpoena a selection of the White House tapes, but Nixon refused using to his executive privilege. A court decided that the president had to surrender the tapes to Cox in August. The White House declared it would appeal.

2.5 Saturday Night Massacre

On 20th October 1973, Nixon fired Cox, obviously because Cox insisted on receiving the presidential tapes (Bernstein and Woodward President’s Men 333). Richardson, the new Attorney General, was asked to fire Cox, but Richardson and his deputy resigned on the same day that Cox was fired (Nixon 954-955). The press called it the “Saturday Night Massacre”, and due to public pressure, Nixon nominated Leon Jarkowski as Cox’ successor and surrendered a few tapes (Woodward and Bernstein Amerikanischer Alptraum 22). Despite this first sign of goodwill, 44 draft bills concerning Watergate passed Congress on the same day, 21 of them dealt with an impeachment investigation1 (Nixon 955-956).

2.6 The 18 1/2 Minute Gap

The White House tapes became more and more important. However, the White House declared that some of these tapes could not be found; for example, a telephone conversation between Nixon and Mitchell after the break-in had supposedly not been recorded. A recording of the conversation between Nixon and his assistant Haldeman of 20th June 1972 had a gap of 18 1/2 minutes. In his memoirs, Nixon claims that the secret service had worked carelessly. Tapes had been labeled with wrong stickers; other tapes could not be found at all (965). Concerning the 18 1/2 minutes gap, Nixon blames, above all, the UHER recorder. A group of experts did find out that the gap was the result of deletion, but Nixon argues that this group included no experts in tape recorders. In addition, the experiments were carried out with a SONY recorder and not with the UHER device used by Nixon’s secretary. Finally, UHER confirmed that some of their recorders had a defect (971-973).

On 1st March 1974, the Grand Jury brought charges against Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Mitchell, Robert Mardian, Charles W. Colson, Gordon Strachan and Kenneth W. Parkinson charging them with a cover-up. Richard Nixon was named as an unindicted co-conspirator. In order to find out the truth, the House Judiciary Committee demanded 42 tapes “sub poena”. A week later, Jaworski sought to obtain additional 64 recordings of the president. Nixon still refused to surrender the tapes but announced that he would release edited transcripts of the tapes. In his memoirs, Nixon claims that the tapes could have proved his innocence. But he refused to deliver the tapes since their content could have threatened national security. Therefore, Nixon maintains, he insisted on his executive privilege (Nixon 919-925).

2.7 “The United States vs. Richard M. Nixon, President, et al.”

The White House’s objection to the demanded delivering of the tapes was overruled. Jaworski went even further and directly asked the Supreme Court to decide about the delivery of the tapes. Exactly two months later, the Supreme Court decided unanimously that the president had to deliver the tapes. A few days later on 27th, 29th and 30th of June, the House Judiciary Committee voted for impeachment on three of five counts:

- obstruction of justice through the payment of hush money to witnesses, lying, and withholding of evidence
- defiance of a congressional subpoena of the tapes
- the abuse of the CIA, the FBI, and the Internal Revenue Service

On 5th August 1974, transcripts of the three conversations from the 23rd June 1972 were handed over. On 8th August 1974, Nixon announced his resignation on television; one day later, Gerald L. Ford became president. His first act was to pardon Nixon, which might have felt like a hit in the face to those who hoped that a new era had begun (Norton et al. 573).

3 The Imperial Presidency

3.1 Reasons for the Imperial Presidency

According to Schlesinger, the development of the imperial presidency was favored by three factors:

- foreign problems, namely World War II and Vietnam
- domestic problems, namely the decay of the traditional party system and the economic changes of the twentieth century
- the personality of a president

International problems had motivated presidents to increase their power in domestic affairs before Nixon (Schlesinger 208). The thirty-seventh president, however, went to extremes pursuing his ambitions and meeting his psychological need (216). He attacked the authority of Congress in various ways, making use of the pocket veto (242), impoundment (235-240), selective enforcement (241), and debatable interpretations of the executive privilege (246-252) and appointing power (245). On the other side of the coin, he lived in his own reality, shielding himself from the press and any other challenges (218), even shielding himself from his own cabinet (220).

3.2 Nixon’s “Battlefield”

Schlesinger uses the term “a sense of life as a battlefield” for Nixon’s personality and his dreams (216); Hacke goes even further and describes these dreams as “delusions” and “apocalyptic visions” including “conspiracy theories” (268). Nixon did not only combat his political enemies with the help of debatable rhetorical techniques (Schlesinger 217). Even worse, he undertook lawless actions in order to meet his psychological need (218).

Nixon, actually, believed in the existence of threats, in particular in the threat of communism. Nixon himself claims that he did not believe in the danger of communism until Churchill’s speech in May 1946 (53). After a visit to Europe in 1947, where he recognized the connection of communist leaders in each country to the USSR, this belief was intensified (Nixon 57-59). As the leader of investigation of the House Un-American Activities Committee in the Hiss case in 1950, he was moreover convinced of the infiltration of America’s administration (79-80). Hacke believes that, apart from this Hiss-Syndrome (271), the incidents in Caracas in 1958, when Nixon was almost killed by communists, had amplified his vision (270).

As Schlesinger points out, Nixon and his assistants did everything they could in order to prove the existence of threats. Although all of these attempts revealed the contrary, Nixon still believed in them (257-259). What is more, he was the first president who used the FBI, the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency for his search for evidence, and even recommended lawless actions (260). Besides this, he set up additional groups, the Intelligence Evaluation Committee and the “plumbers”, which were unknown to Congress, but financed by the taxpayer (261).

3.3 Nixon’s Justification

Schlesinger quotes Nixon’s excuse: “the emergency required it” (263). Even four years after his resignation, Nixon still believed in this necessity. In his memoirs,he warrants his actions considering national security (890; 913; 962) and foreign politics (954; 957; 999). The same justification is in his resignation speech, too:

And all the decisions I have made in my public life I have always tried to do what was best for the nation. (…) I would say only that if some of my judgements were wrong - and some were wrong - they were made in what I believed at the time to be the best interests of the nation. (Time August 19, 1974)

Hacke points out that incidents abroad were often enough of an excuse in order to make the public forget about Nixon’s problems at home (258-259). This was also the press’ assumption on 25th October 1973, when Kissinger gave a press conference during the 1973 War in the Middle East (Nixon 961). Nixon even justifies Cox’ dismissal in connection with foreign politics:

Ich war absolut überzeugt davon, daß ich es nicht hinnehmen konnte, daß Cox sich offen einer präsidentiellen Direktive widersetzte. Ich dachte daran, wie es auf Breschnew und die Sowjets wirken würde, wenn ich mitten in einer diplomatischen Konfrontation mit ihnen mich einer Forderung eines meiner eigenen Angestellten beugen müßte. Zudem glaubte ich, daß Cox seine Kompetenz bewußt überschritten hatte; ich war überzeugt davon, daß er es auf mich persönlich abgesehen hatte, und ich wollte ihn raushaben. (954)

Concerning his lawless actions, Nixon refers to other cases, in which similar actions were undertaken by other presidents, be it rhetorical techniques (47-48; 85), or the bugging of political enemies as mentioned above. Nixon uses the same justification sixteen years after his resignation when he states:

I should have established a moral tone that would have made such actions unthinkable. I did not. I played by the rules of politics as I found them. Not taking a higher road than my predecessors and my adversaries was my central mistake. For that reason, I long ago accepted overall responsibility for the Watergate affair. What’s more, I have paid, and am still paying, the price for it. (Time April 2, 1990, my underlining) To sum up, Nixon seemed to be convinced that he did nothing else than that which had been done to him before; he saw himself as the victim.

3.4 Nixon’s Isolation from Reality

In order to maintain his strength in his “battle”, Nixon withdrew from any opportunity that could involve his person in an argument (Schlesinger 218). In contrast to other presidents, Nixon did not rely on the advice of strong-minded men. Rather, he “kept his [first] cabinet at arm’s length” (220), and chose faceless men for his second. And unlike other presidents, Nixon did the contrary to what all his predecessors had done before: he shielded himself from reality, relying only on the information of his trained assistants. The personal staff was no longer “the eyes and the ears “ of the president. Nixon’s assistants had the right to make decisions, and their number went beyond those of other presidents. Obviously, they built the backbone of an unprecedented centralization of power in the White House (221). Nixon even felt the desire to celebrate his monarchial concentration, demanding ceremonial trumpets and special costumes for the White House security force (218).2

What might have called him back to reality seldom took place during Nixon’s presidency: press conferences. Other presidents regarded press conferences as a means to influence the country and to be influenced by the country (224). If possible, he sent his assistants when he was supposed to appear. Nixon preferred the most controlled circumstances when he had to appear in public, one example being his preference for television appearances (226).

3.5 Nixon’s Dislike of the Press

The most important reason for Nixon’s shielding himself from the press was his dislike of the media. Although Nixon was one of the first politicians who understood how to use radio and television to his advantage, he suspected the press of favoring his political enemies (Nixon 732; 875). Again, reality was different. Schlesinger lays emphasis on the fact that Nixon had the support of the press during three presidential elections (230). What is more, all of his predecessors valued the importance of the freedom of the press (227-229).

Nixon, however, flounted this “constitutive element of liberty”. He tried to prevent the Pentagon Papers from being published, ordered newspapermen to be wiretapped, and threatened press networks whenever possible (230-231). Of course, Nixon gives a justification in his memoirs:

Ich hatte in meinen ersten vier Amtsjahren zugesehen, wie diese Krankheit [der Negativismus der Medien] sich verschlimmerte und ausbreitete. Ich beobachtete, wie die Medien rebellische Studenten zu Helden hochstilisierten und gleichzeitig die anderen ignorierten oder als uninformiert und unaufgeklärt hinstellten, weil sie traditionellen Wertvorstellungen anhingen. (779-780)

Nixon even went further after the Watergate Break-in. Then, he suggested a speech awarding the Watergate burglars the Pulitzer Price, since the New York Times was awarded the price for the publication of the Pentagon Papers (650-651).

3.6 The Executive Privilege

No other term was used more often than the executive privilege in the context of Watergate. Nixon’s extension of the executive privilege began with the restriction of legislative privilege (Schlesinger 246-247). In order to reduce the power of Congress, Nixon needed to control the use of information by Congress as well as the information flow to Congress. Only Nixon’s influence on the legal system made it possible that senators were no longer immune from proceedings in which they were not directly involved.

After this restriction, Nixon’s administration succeeded in making it more difficult for Congress to access presidential information. By means of delay and evasion, Nixon’s assistants managed to make use of executive privilege without invoking it (248). Previously, executive privilege had protected conversations of the president with his most important assistants. In Nixon’s administration, it meant the withdrawal of Congress from important information for the sake of power.

Watergate became the climax of this abuse. Schlesinger quotes Nixon’s lawyers, “if the courts could command the disclosure of presidential conversations, the damage to the Presidency would be severe and irreparable” (271). According to Schlesinger, Nixon saw himself above the law, again believing in a monarchial status (272). On the contrary, Nixon claims that he made use of the executive privilege because he believed that the presidency itself was threatened (Nixon 932).

4 Summary

There is no evidence that Nixon had ordered the Watergate break-in (Time April 2, 1990). But there is, nonetheless, enough evidence to prove that Nixon had abused his power in order to cover-up Watergate. However, Schlesinger emphasizes that “Watergate was a symptom, not a cause” (275). As pointed out above, Nixon had violated the constitutional separation of power and the freedom of press and speech even before his second term. Therefore, it is comprehensible that Schlesinger called Watergate a “retribution” (266), although he could not be sure of Nixon’s resignation when he wrote “The Imperial Presidency “ in 1973.

There had been other national scandals before Watergate, but no scandal was as traumatic. America was still involved in the longest war of this century on the one hand; and, on the other, America’s dominance in the world was shaken due to a recession and the Arab oil embargo. The economic boom was over, and so was the belief in America’s supremacy.

In 1991, Margaret Carlson wrote an article entitled “Watergate Revisited” (Time June 17, 1991). In this article, she reminds a “forgiving and forgetful America” of Nixon’s violations. Apart from her transcription of recently released tapes, she quotes Dean, who gives another summary of Nixon: “He’s running for the office of ex-President, and he’s won”.

Works Cited

Bernstein, Carl and Bob Woodward. All the President’s Man. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994.

Hacke, Christian. Die Ära Nixon-Kissinger 1969-1974. Konservative Reform der Weltpolitik. Forschungen und Quellen zur Zeitgeschichte 5. Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1983.

Nixon, Richard. Memoiren. Frankfurt am Main; Berlin; Wien: Ullstein, 1981.

Norton, Mary B., David M. Katzman, et al. A People and a Nation: A History of the United States. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.

Schlesinger, Arthur Meier. The Imperial Presidency. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1973.

The Time Almanac of the Twentieth Century. CD-ROM. New York: Time Magazine Inc., 1994.

Woodward, Bob and Carl Bernstein. Amerikanischer Alptraum. Das unrühmliche Ende der Ära Nixon. Europäische Verlagsanstalt, 1976.


1 Woodward and Bernstein mention 22 drafts (Amerikanischer Alptraum 455)

2 Referring to Schlesinger’s accusation that Nixon even used federal money to brighten up his private estates, Nixon explains that it was the CIA’s decision to spend more money on the protection of the president (975-976).


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Title: Watergate and the Imperial Presidency