Robert Zelnick on the 40th anniversary of the Watergate scandal

June 13th, 2012

The Watergate scandal, which led to the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon, occurred 40 years ago this month. Guest blogger, Robert Zelnick, is a professor at BU’s College of Communication and a former news correspondent with ABC News. He also served as the executive editor of the historic Nixon-Frost interviews in 1977. He offers the following reflection on Watergate:

As one who covered a good deal of Watergate for NPR and the Christian Science Monitor and, of course, as David Frost’s executive editor, I have had many occasions to ponder Nixon’s inexplicable failure to protect himself against the gathering Watergate storm. It would have been so easy.

So let me try to compartmentalize several of the factors that combined to destroy the Nixon presidency.

First, installing a taping system in the White House was as American as apple pie, or perhaps FDR, JFK, and LBJ. Presidents like precise recall of two-way conversations and Nixon was, in this respect, no different from many others.

Second, Nixon, as have many others, believed that it was both useful and helpful to have the freedom to tape or authorize various types of surveillance for national security purposes. Again, a long line of presidents have taken the same position as Nixon – “If the President does it, that means it’s not legal.” Nixon made that point to Frost with regards to national security operations, not Watergate crimes. The more damning statement was the result of poetic license, not Nixon’s position.

Nixon’s biggest mistake was in failing to burn or otherwise gain control of the incriminating tapes and documents. Had he presided over a big bonfire on the front lawn of the White House the day the taping system was revealed claiming he was doing so in the cause of the Executive Branch sovereignty, his presidency probably would have survived. My belief is that he failed to do so first, because surrounded by a mediocre team, he never received advice to get rid of the tapes. Second, because he thought that if presented in the right way, they might be exculpatory. And third, because he felt that right to the midnight hour he might strike a deal which would prevent full disclosure of the tapes. And in fact he got two of the old Senate establishment – Sam Ervin and John Stennis – to go along. But when the top guys at Justice – led by Attorney General Elliot Richardson – turned their thumbs down – he couldn’t survive more stonewalling, nor could he survive revelation of the contents of the documents.

A year after Nixon’s resignation, suggesting that Watergate had shown that while Americans may be vulnerable to the huckster and the political fraud, we remain tough prey for the would-be dictator. Little has happened since to cause me to alter that view.

Contact Zelnick at 617-353-5007; bzelnick@bu.edu

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