When you get in these people when you…get these people in, say: “Look, the problem is that this will open the whole, the whole Bay of Pigs thing, and the President just feels that” ah, without going into the details… don’t, don’t lie to them to the extent to say there is no involvement, but just say this is sort of a comedy of errors, bizarre, without getting into it, “the President believes that it is going to open the whole Bay of Pigs thing up again. And, ah because these people are plugging for, for keeps and that they should call the FBI in and say that we wish for the country, don’t go any further into this case”, period!

–Richard Nixon

to H.R. Haldeman

June 23, 1972

By that order, on this day thirty seven years ago, Richard Nixon destroyed his Presidency, and set into motion the events that would lead to his resignation less than twenty-two months later.  Still, it is way past the time for supporters and critics of Richard Nixon to put the “Smoking Gun” and indeed all of Watergate into proper perspective.  While the events and implications of June 23, 1972 are important, they cannot overshadow everything else.

Under federal law, obstruction of justice is defined as: “[t]he criminal offense, under common law and according to the statutes of many jurisdictions, of obstructing the administration and due process of law.  It is “[a] criminal offense that involves interference, through words or actions, with the proper operations of a court or officers of the court.”  (West’s Encyclopedia of American Law, published by Thomson Gale.)  Specifically in Watergate, President Nixon could have been held accountable for violating the Omnibus Clause {18 U.S.C.A. § 1503}.  The relevant portion of this statute covers “endeavors to influence, obstruct, or impede, the due administration of justice.”   (West’s Encyclopedia of American Law, published by Thomson Gale.) Unlike many of the other charges that others in Watergate were tried and some convicted for: obstruction of justice is uniquely President Nixon’s.  The June 23rd tape ties Nixon to Watergate, directly and forever.  It is only within the power of the executive to order to use one executive agency to stop a criminal investigation by another.

Many believe that the President wanted to stop the investigation out of a legitimate national security concern.  After all, some of the burglars were involved in the Bay of Pigs attempted invasion of Cuba.  However, this reason is a red-herring.  An invasion eleven years ago has no relevance to a political break-in.  Bringing up the Bay of Pigs fiasco was just a way to remind Democrats and the current CIA apparatus of the potential reopening of a politically embarrassing event of a Democratic administration.

When one consults the Haldeman Diaries, things don’t seem clear cut.  On the editor’s note on page 475, CIA Deputy Director Vernon Walters was to call the FBI Director Gray to tell him to stop his investigation.  However, on July 6th, the editor’s note on page 481 states that Walters told Gray that CIA had no interest in Watergate.  RN then told him to continue the investigation.  (See Haldeman, H.R. “The Haldeman Diaries”, 1994.)

Of course the original intent wasn’t to find out if the CIA had interest; it was to stop the investigation entirely.  In addition, the Omnibus Clause covers “endeavors” as well as successful attempts to obstruct justice.

Much later, Richard Nixon discussed the “Smoking Gun” tape in both the Memoirs and in a later book, “In the Arena”. In the Memoirs, he said that Haldeman informed him that the CIA and FBI had a long-standing agreement not to interfere in each other’s secret operations.”  (See Nixon, Richard; Memoirs, 1978, p. 640.)   In his book, “In the Arena”, RN stated that one of the myths of Watergate was that he committed obstruction of justice.  He received bad advice from aides (Dean) who themselves had something to hide.  And besides, the officials at the CIA, Director Helms and Deputy Director Walters ignored the White House request and the investigation continued.  (See Nixon, Richard; In the Arena, 1990, pp. 34-35.)

There is still no evidence that the break in was a secret operation.  The Plumbers who participated worked for the White House or the Committee to Reelect.  Even if there was no actual obstruction, the Omnibus Clause clearly concerns endeavors to obstruct.  And while advisors advise, it is the President of the United States who is responsible for the decisions made. And this decision cost Richard Nixon the presidency.

After the disclosure of the tape in the first days of August, it was felt to be an impeachable offense by both sides of the aisle.  After the June 23rd tape was disclosed by order of the Supreme Court; the President’s support among Republicans evaporated.  Years later, Barry Goldwater recalled the last meeting…

I said, I took a nose count in the Senate today.  You have fourteen votes.  The others are really undecided.  I’m one of them.

(See Goldwater, Barry, “With No Apologies”, 1979, p 279.)

It was clear that he would be the second President to be impeached in the House, and the first President in history to be convicted and removed from office by the Senate.

The action on the tape was quintessence Nixon.  Richard Nixon always thought in political terms — in political right and wrong.  His instinct was to limit the political damage for his reelection — in which he reasoned wasn’t a sure thing.  The action also showed his character.  The President wanted to protect the people who worked hard for him and the country.  Richard Nixon’s loyalty to his friends and allies has always been without question.

Of course, one must factor the era of Watergate to be taken seriously in historical circles.  It is the elephant in the room.  However, it must not cancel all of the achievements of the Nixon years.  Remember it was President Bill Clinton who said, “may the day of judging President Nixon on anything less than his entire life and career come to a close.”  (See Remarks by President Bill Clinton, Funeral for President Richard Nixon, April 22, 1994.)

After all, Richard Nixon was an “American Pioneer” in many ways.  As Vice-President, he traveled the world more than any previous Vice President.  He was the first Vice President of consequence in the modern era, rather than being a figurehead waiting for tragedy to step in.  As President, his vision and actions unlocked the doors to mainland China.  His different strategy of Vietnamization ended American involvement in the Vietnam War; and serve as instruction for modern conflicts like Iraq.  President Nixon was the first president to make an arms control agreement with the Soviet Union.

Domestically, Richard Nixon was a pioneer too.  Revenue sharing through programs like the Philadelphia plan was without precedent.  His administration spearheaded clear air legislation, creating the Environmental Protection Agency.  The Nixon Administration also federally funded cancer research, and proposed the first comprehensive health care system.

And finally, Richard Nixon will also be appreciated for how he handled the end of his Presidency.  His resignation set the precedent for transition of power.  Unlike many other countries, no military coups, or violence and revolution in America’s streets.  Just an orderly, if not emotional transfer of power.  It showed that Richard Nixon valued the institution of the Presidency, and indeed the country above all else.

So, even if Richard Nixon’s presidency was ruined thirty-seven years ago today; his example as a statesman and his achievements as president are with all of us even today.  Take it all as Richard Nixon’s to his country and the world.

(I welcome your comments.)