David Greenberg

DavidGreenbergProfessor at Rutger’s University 

“I guess the way I would put it is there’s a certain grandiosity to Nixon.  He always had this enormous ego that was paired with enormous insecurity—which is often in the case with people in great power.

This irony with Nixon is that as much thought and energy he puts into the performance, he’s actually pretty bad at it and people can seethrough it. He comes across as transparent and phony. He’s trying to be so smart with these prosecutors. Who’s he fooling really?”  (International Business Times)

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Stanley Kutler

31kutler2-190Watergate Historian, author of “The Wars of Watergate,” and guest lecturer at our Watergate class

“If you know the voice of Richard Nixon, it’s a virtuoso performance—from the awkward attempts at humor to the moments of self-pity.  It’s just terrific stuff.” (New York Times)

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“Judge Lamberth is a very conservative man; he’s a Republican but you won’t know what he’s going to do … He points out grand jury minutes are secret, but there are exceptions and he discusses them in terms of the law … It turns out he’s a Watergate buff.”  (International Business Times)

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“This doesn’t reverse or change or undermine anything that we’ve already known about Richard Nixon.  This was a blow against official secrecy.”  (International Business Times)

Tim Naftali

 220px-Timothy_Naftali_2012_04Director of the Nixon Library from 2007-2011

“The grand jury testimony sheds more light on President Nixon’s personality and character than it does on the remaining puzzles of Watergate.  Even under the protections of grand jury secrecy, which was inviolate at that point, the president, it appears, was unwilling to be more forthright about his role in what the House Judiciary Committee determined were abuses of government power.”  (New York Times)

Associated Press

“(Historians) were determined to bring to light all facets of that extraordinary episode of presidential disgrace. The fact that the testimony was released counted for more than its contents, they said, because it helps establish a precedent for lifting the veil of secrecy over grand jury proceedings when matters of great historical significance are involved.”

Pat Sloyan

Washington correspondent for United Press International, Hearst News Service and Newsday

Nixon’s grand jury testimony, including what he didn’t or won’t say after learning of the Watergate burglars arrest, reminds me to fall on my knees and thank God I was a White House reporter in times of Richard Milhous. The missing 18.5 minutes was just part of a really wonderful show that made you want to get to work early and stay late.

Every dawn brought developments beyond the imagination of establishment journalists. From the refurbished Press Room (it reeked of Disneyland) at the White House, the yellow East Room of Press Conferences, the mahogany and marble of the Senate Caucus Room, to the chambers of Judge John Sirica and the cavernous halls of the Justice Department where the Special Prosecutor was put to political death–it was all Nixon, all Watergate, all the time.

Standing on the White House lawn with a red-eyed President Gerald Ford, I watched the two-armed wave goodbye to Dick Nixon as he boarded Marine One one last time. But he sucked into that green and white Sikorsky all the excitement and anticipation and sheer joy of the two years of Watergate. He stuffed it aboard Air Force One and the air went out of White House journalism forever. Bill Clinton’s intern? Turned reporters into gents room journalists hunting semen on a blue dress. Disgusting. Ronald Reagan? Fading before your eyes. The rest are pimples on the ass of history.

But Nixon. There was a president of endless stimulation, challenge and stupefying revelations. Just to peruse his dubious tax returns with a Vienna accountant who assured you that EVERYTHING was deductible. Or the Attorney General’s part in the parrot-smuggling scam. And a record number of his closest advisers doing hard time in federal incarceration. Wallowing in boatloads of illegal millions. Come on. Now there was an administration worth your time and attention.

It’s true. I did petition for his return to serve out the last year of his second term. It was ignored. But sometimes I dream I’m at Andrews Air Force Base and coming down the gangway, tanned and ready from La Casa Pacifica, is Dick Nixon. What did we know? When did we know it?

Warren Corbett

Capitol Hill reporter for D.C.’s Channel Seven

It is, of course, vintage Nixon. Sounds just like him:

Paranoid—“Have my lawyers seen this?”

Combative—“You’re trying to put words in my mouth.”

Blustering—“I had a great many important things on my mind.”

Self-pitying—“I have to take this anticoagulant.”

I would note the difference between his testimony on the 18 ½ minute gap and the other matters—ambassadors, wiretaps and so forth. In the tape testimony he is very focused, not as rambling and incoherent. On the other matters, he wandered and filibustered all over the map.

The only new fact that caught my eye was his discussion of the June 20 tape. He pointed out that it was not the first time he and Haldeman talked about the break-in. They had been together in Florida and on the plane coming back. I don’t recall seeing anybody make that point before. Meaning that the tape with the gap was not as important as everyone assumed because it was not their first opportunity to plan a strategy.

His defense of Hoover is interesting. By 1975 Hoover had been discredited in the eyes of a great many people, but Nixon goes out of his way to praise him as a patriot. Says Hoover never would have turned on the president and spilled his private files, even if Nixon had fired him. Which, of course, he says he never seriously considered doing.

I was struck by how well prepared he was. And how lawyer-like. Nixon was a smart guy.

A Constitutional Crisis

Chris Edelson

Assistant Professor in the Department of Government

American University

The Watergate break-in and the Nixon administration’s actions after the break-in[1] presented a challenge to the basic structure of constitutional democracy in the United States.  Most centrally, these events raised questions about the rule of law itself.  Could President Nixon define the limits of executive power himself, as he argued in U.S. v. Nixon, or did the system of checks and balances created by the Framers set effective and enforceable limits on presidential power?

In refusing to produce tape recordings and other documents in response to a subpoena issued by the Watergate special prosecutor, President Nixon advanced a theory of executive power that threatened to subvert the constitutional structure of checks and balances.  Nixon’s lawyers argued before the Supreme Court that the principle of separation of powers meant that the President could independently define the scope of executive privilege under the Constitution.[2]  If the Court has accepted this argument, it would mean that the President would effectively have the ability to define the limits of presidential power when it comes to protecting presidential communications from review by a court: if the President independently concluded communications were confidential, for any reason, this decision could not be reviewed by a court.  The Supreme Court rejected this argument, citing Marbury v. Madison, and concluding that the President’s position “would upset the constitutional balance of a workable government” and gravely impair the role of the courts under Article III.”  Nixon’s position would prevent the courts from performing their constitutional function because he would be able to withhold, without sufficient justification, evidence relevant to criminal prosecutions.

President Nixon also argued that he could not be required to testify before the grand jury investigating the Watergate burglary. Nixon ultimately testified before the grand jury, but only after he resigned from office.  If Nixon had remained in office, deciding whether he could be required to testify before the grand jury would proceed along lines similar to those outlined in U.S. v. Nixon.  Nixon argued that requiring him to testify would undermine the independence of the executive branch, giving the courts impermissible power to control his actions.  However, in U.S. v. Nixon, the Court had made clear that Nixon’s view of the separation of powers was flawed.  The principle of separation of powers cannot “insulate” the President from interaction with the other branches of government.  In fact, the Framers’ notion of the separation of powers depended on the different branches of government having overlapping functions, rather than operating in hermetically sealed spheres.  In U.S. v. Nixon, the Court recognized that there are times when the President’s actions must be protected from review by the other branches of government[3]; however, this principle is not absolute.  In another case decided years after Nixon left office, the Court drew a line between official and unofficial conduct as president: the President is immune from legal process associated with official conduct in office only.[4]  Applying this standard to testimony sought by the Watergate grand jury, President Nixon’s testimony could have been required even while he was still in office.  This would not have been the first time that a sitting President testified in an ongoing case: President Grant provided testimony (though voluntarily) through a deposition in a criminal case (the prosecution of an official in his administration).

With the benefit of hindsight, I can also observe that several presidents have testified since Nixon left office: President Carter provided testimony in two criminal prosecutions and also gave depositions in two cases; President Ford gave a deposition while in office and, probably most prominently, President Clinton gave a deposition in the Paula Jones case after the Supreme Court ruled he was not immune from judicial process while in office.  The Court, in Clinton v. Jones, ruled that litigation involving “questions that relate entirely to the unofficial conduct” of the President may proceed while the President is in office.  This case was, of course, decided more than 20 years after Nixon left office, but helps provide support for the conclusion that Nixon could have been compelled to testify before the Watergate grand jury even if he had remained in office.

 

 


[1] Other actions taken by President Nixon and his administration presented similar constitutional challenges, but this discussion focuses on the Watergate break-in.

[2] Executive privilege is not expressly described in the Constitution, but has been recognized by the Supreme Court as an implicit constitutional principle.

[3] For instance, the Court suggested, when the President makes decisions involving matters of national security.  Critics, however, might view even this concession as opening a dangerous area of unilateral presidential authority.

[4] Nixon v. Fitzgerald (1982).