Forty years ago last week, the president of the United States announced his resignation.
Richard M. Nixon, weakened by two years of metastasizing scandal that had begun with a moronic burglary, conceded certain impeachment and conviction. Shortly after noon the next day, Gerald Ford was sworn in as our 38th president and told us our “long national nightmare” was over.
Even Americans old enough to remember might forget just how nightmarish it had become. Nixon himself insisted, amid successive revelations about the seediness of his presidency, that “a year of Watergate is enough.” Sadly, worse revelations were yet to come.
In the four decades since Nixon’s resignation, and with increasing intensity over the last two, “impeachment” has somehow evolved from government’s unlikeliest and most profoundly regrettable corrective responsibility to an almost routine political threat. One president has actually been impeached, under circumstances history will almost surely regard as somewhere between politically frivolous and constitutionally ominous; and impeachment threats against the two succeeding presidents have been thrown around with stunning civic irresponsibility by people who know better.
Maybe, in that context, this is an anniversary of critical historical importance.
Richard Nixon was not fundamentally corrupt, politically incompetent or zealously partisan. He was a brilliant diplomat whose foreign policy triumphs have, arguably, never been eclipsed. But political vindictiveness and paranoia left him vulnerable.
As George Will recently related in a column, Nixon had already ordered a break-in at the Brookings Institution a year before the Watergate burglary. Edmund Muskie’s presidential campaign was sabotaged with a phony racist letter.
After Daniel Ellsberg helped leak the so-called Pentagon Papers – the Defense Department’s secret history of Vietnam, a war the Kennedy/Johnson brain trust had long ago concluded was unwinnable – Nixon operatives burgled Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office. And just six days after the burglary of Democratic headquarters at the Watergate Hotel, Nixon was recorded on his own Oval Office taping system crafting a massive conspiracy.
That’s the short list.
Those still tempted to think of impeachment in political terms should reflect on a couple of historical realities. The political backlash after Nixon’s downfall was not against the opposition party, but against President Ford – a good and decent man whose politically unselfish decision to pardon Nixon and thus spare the nation further turmoil probably cost him re-election in 1976. Contrast that to the Clinton impeachment, from which the president himself emerged virtually unscathed, while his political opposition suffered at the polls.
Americans are not stupid. Political hyperbole aside, we share a core value that says negating the will of the voters is not something that should ever be undertaken recklessly. Those behind the bully pulpits of both parties might want to keep that in mind.