John F. Kennedy may have won the heart of mid-century America but no U.S. president of that period cast a longer shadow than his former rival, Richard Milhous Nixon. Facing impeachment and almost certain removal from office for his role in the Watergate scandal — a string of transgressions bunched under the name of the site where the infamous break-in of the Democratic Party’s national headquarters took place — Nixon became the first U.S. president to resign from office when he stepped down a quarter century ago on Aug. 9, 1974. Flying home to California, Nixon spent the next two decades scrambling to piece together his shattered reputation.
It would be difficult to overestimate the effect of the Watergate scandal on the United States With the traumatic Vietnam War just behind them, Americans were suddenly faced with a president embroiled in scandal. Few at first could believe that the president could have been directly involved in the coverup of the break-in of the Democratic National Headquarters. Using a manner that President Bill Clinton would later appropriate when he told the American people that he “never slept with that woman, Miss Lewinsky,” Nixon bluntly assured the nation that he “was not a crook.” In the end, however, Nixon sealed his own fate. Tapes that the president had made of conversations in the Oval Office provided prosecutors with incontrovertible evidence of his role in the scandal.
The political fallout from Watergate was swift. To ensure presidential abuses of power would never happen again, over the next few years a Democratic-controlled Congress passed new federal election laws and established the position of special prosecutor to fight future political wrongdoing. However, it is arguable whether these laws achieved their intended purpose. Politicians, being as they are, found ways to get around some of the campaign finance restrictions. And, ironically, it was another scandal that would bring the position of special prosecutor to an end. Independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s conduct of his investigation of Mr. Clinton helped convince Congress not to extend the law when it came up for renewal this summer.
A more active press is a longer lasting legacy of Watergate. Prior to the Watergate scandal, the media covering the president tended to “protect” the public image of the chief executive. Thus, JFK’s alleged numerous liaisons with women other than his wife remained no more than whispered rumors. But that all changed with Watergate. The investigative work of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein helped unravel the mystery surrounding Watergate and uncover the truth. Since then, investigative journalism has affected — and some might argue plagued — every president, and every other politician worth his or her salt.
Whether they admire or despise Nixon, most pundits would agree that he was the dominant American politician of his era. Subtract Watergate from the equation and Nixon’s record contains significant achievements. It is often forgotten that he pushed more liberal or progressive legislation than any of his successors, even though he was a Republican. Legislation passed under his administration included bills to establish the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. He also ended the draft with the establishment of an all-volunteer military, increased funding for the arts and created more equal educational and athletic opportunities for women.
However, it was in the foreign policy arena that Nixon had his greatest triumphs. While many disagree with the way in which he chose to end the U.S.’s involvement in Vietnam, the fact remains that he was able to end a conflict, inherited from the previous Democratic administrations, that had killed thousands of young men and nearly pushed the nation to the brink of social chaos. Nixon’s May 1972 trip to Moscow resulted in a major advance in nuclear arms limitations and put the two nations on the road to detente. Perhaps his most significant action, however, was his historic trip to China in February 1972, which reopened direct communications between Washington and Beijing after a 21-year absence, and forever changed the course of politics in Asia.
Yet when people hear the name of Richard Nixon, they will not first recall a great statesman. They will think of a man who sought to put himself above the law, and in doing so brought disgrace to the most honored office in the land. And that, perhaps, is the clearest sign that justice has been served.
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