In a letter to an archbishop, the 19th century English historian Lord Acton had written, “I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favorable presumption that they did no wrong,” before stating “absolute power corrupts absolutely” (Historical Essays and Studies 504). The story of the 37th President of the United States and the corruption in his government is one that has resonated in American politics and culture, and has had an undeniable impact on various fields of study such as ethics, journalism, law, political science, and most importantly, the media, ever since its culmination in one of the most significant events in American political history, the Watergate scandal.
Richard Milhous Nixon was born in 1913 in California, the second out of five brothers. He studied law in Duke University, and he worked as an attorney after his graduation. During World War II he was commissioned in the United States Navy, and after his service, he entered the world of politics through the Republican Party, becoming a Congressman in 1946, and a Senator in 1950. He became the Vice President of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, and would later become the 37th President of the United States in 1968. Throughout his political career, he had significant make-or-break moments such as in his campaign for the Vice Presidency for Eisenhower, when he came close to losing the ticket after a particular scandal concerning a political fund for his campaign hit the headlines (Katcher A3). He put forward a political maneuver in a thirty-minute television program where he disclosed his financial situation and his private properties that would be called the “Checkers speech,” named after a dog which was gifted to the Nixon family (“Senator Richard Nixon’s Checkers Speech”). The speech is generalized by American author William Safire as “emotionally charged” that was similar to Franklin Roosevelt’s “Fala speech,” in which Roosevelt had turned public opinion around in a similar fashion (Safire’s Political Dictionary 113-114). The broadcast was watched by an estimated 60 million Americans and it was described as such: “In one half hour Nixon converted himself from a liability, breathing his last, to one of the few people who could add to Eisenhower’s preternatural appeal – who could gild the lily” (Wills 92).
Nixon’s popularity continued to flourish up to the 1968 Presidential elections which he won against Democratic Party candidate Hubert Humphrey. In his time in Office between 1969 and 1974, his achievements included various foreign policies in Vietnam and China, along with domestic policies such as the foundation of the Environmental Protection Agency, yet his legacy also included one of the biggest political scandals in American history called “Watergate,” after the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. which housed the Democratic party headquarters. On June 17, 1972, five people were caught while breaking in to the complex, an event that triggered a chain of others spanning two years that ended in Nixon’s resignation, which is the only time a president has ever resigned from the Office in American history.
As the break-in to Watergate was determined to be an attempt to spy on and sabotage the Democratic party, carried out by Nixon’s own government and particularly the committee responsible for his re-election, the events that subsequently transpired had reflected in the news through headlines such as “Bug Suspect Got Campaign Funds,” which reported how one of the people caught in the break-in was tied to the campaign to re-elect President Nixon, “Mitchell Controlled Secret GOP Fund,” which reported how Attorney General John Mitchell had control over a fund that was used to carry out disruptive deeds against the Democratic party (Bernstein and Woodward A1). Another headline was “3 Top Nixon Aides, Kleindienst Out,” which reported how the scandal escalated into resignations from Nixon’s most trusted and long-serving aides (Stern A1). These actions taken by Nixon’s aides were relatively contemporary examples of the Machiavellian approach to politics. Niccolò Machiavelli was a 15th century Italian political theorist who stated that immoral means in acquiring and protecting power are entirely justifiable (The Prince 87). Additionally, this approach was evident in Nixon’s actions such as the “Saturday Night Massacre,” in which, after facing the investigation, he demanded the special prosecutor in charge to be fired by Attorney General Elliot Richardson, who refused to carry out his order and resigned, along with the Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus, who also resigned following Richardson, and this hit the headlines as “Nixon Discharges Cox For Defiance; Abolishes Watergate Task Force” (Kneeland A1).
As the entire scandal was initially drawn attention to by two journalists from the newspaper The Washington Post, Woodward and Bernstein, their level of journalistic inquiry is also hailed as a demonstration for the media being the “fourth power” or the “Fourth Estate,” a term used by Thomas Carlyle who was referring to an estate of “reporters” in addition to the others represented in the British Parliament, and stated that “whomever can speak, speaking now to the whole nation, becomes a power, a branch of government, with inalienable weight in law-making, in all acts of authority” (265). Furthermore, the scandal was also a constitutional demonstration of the system of checks and balances. The separation of powers was defined by French philosopher Montesquieu as the distribution between legislative, executive, and judicial powers, which was a founding principle reflected in 1787 in the Constitution of the United States through the first sections of Articles I, II and III; as the Congress, the President, and the supreme Court respectively (181). Together with the First Amendment, this system provided a constitutional defense of the freedom of press against any abuse of power, and it had resulted in Nixon’s inability to successfully cover up the scandal from the eyes of the American people. It is a denoting case in American politics, with his virtual impeachment at the end of the investigation that would turn into his resignation.
However, the loss of faith in politics was stated by Nixon himself as such: “I let down the country. I let down our system of government and the dreams of all those young people that ought to get into government, but think it’s all too corrupt and the rest” (Frost/Nixon: The Original Watergate Interviews 01:17:16).
The role of the media extended beyond journalism and national broadcasts and had a major impact on American culture with the entertainment industry, particularly in the form of films. In 1976, Robert Redford, collaborating with Bernstein and Woodward, produced and starred in a film called All the President’s Men, that would dramatize the scandal and emphasize the importance of journalism though the experiences of Bernstein and Woodward by basing the film on their best-selling book with the same title. As there had been other productions following the film with more revelations following the period of the scandal, a notable production in 2008 by director Ron Howard also detailed the aftermath of the scandal, choosing to dramatize the interviews between the British television host David Frost and Nixon himself (Frost/Nixon). Originally a play by Peter Morgan, the film adaptation was critically acclaimed even after more than 30 years had passed since the actual interviews, and introduced the major political corruption to younger audiences who had not grown up with the scandal during the 1970s. The interviews that both the film and the play were based on were conducted in 1977, after Nixon’s resignation, and the first program that aired in May 1977 is described to hold the record for the largest audience for a political interview in history (Frost/Nixon: The Original Watergate Interviews; “Profile: Sir David Frost”). Overall, the film portrays the characters similarly in terms of dramatizing their exchanges, building up expository backgrounds, and puts them up against each other in a series of verbal “boxing matches,” which the winner of will be hailed as champions in their respective societies, and the loser will be left alone with their dead careers and no hope to return. Both in the interview and the film, Frost directs an unpublished quote to an off guarded Nixon, concerning a particular conversation Nixon had with one of his aides in which he had said “this tremendous investigation rests unless one of the seven begins to talk. That’s the problem” (00:26:23).
Although factually lacking, the quote is used as a rhetorical device in the film to break into Nixon’s defense, who is played by actor Frank Langella, in Frost’s aggressive line of inquiry, who is played by Michael Sheen, and it elicits an aggressively defensive attitude from both the real Nixon in the actual interview, and from the actor performing him (Frost/Nixon 01:34:54). As Frost puts the pressure on Nixon in getting him to disclose his wrongdoings, Nixon declares his belief that “when the president does it, it is not illegal,” in parallel with what he said in the actual interview (01:37:50).
In conclusion, the newspaper articles, the television broadcasts, the interviews, and the film productions kept the Watergate scandal as the legacy that Nixon’s presidency is undeniably most remembered with. The scandal was not only major national political and cultural event that spanned several years of the lives of the American public, but it also had a major impact on how American investigative journalism was conducted, how laws and the constitution would be challenged on unprecedented cases, and how the media could play a major role not only as an additional measure against the abuse of power of the Oval Office, but also as a powerful tool in dispersing significant political information to the general public, regardless of any publication bias. This point is evident in the practice of attaching the suffix “-gate” to any major political scandal as “it became a reference to a new consensus on the uses and abuses of power in the American political system, and continues to be invoked as a precedent in connection with contemporary issues” (Brunner 54). The major mistrust of the office of the presidency and the government, stemming from Watergate, had sown the seeds of public dissidence that would resonate for years to come.
All the President’s Men. Dir. Alan J. Pakula. Perf. Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. Warner Bros., 1976. Film.
Bernstein, Carl, and Bob Woodward. “Bug Suspect Got Campaign Funds.” Washington Post 1 Aug. 1972: A1. Print.
Bernstein, Carl, and Bob Woodward. “Mitchell Controlled Secret GOP Fund.” Washington Post 29 Sept. 1972: A1. Print.
Brunner, Ronald D. ” Key Political Symbols: The Dissociation Process.” Policy Sciences 20.1 (1987): 53-76. JSTOR. Web. 20 Jan. 2019.
Carlyle, Thomas. On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History. London: James Fraser, 1841. Print.
Dalberg-Acton, John Emerich Edward. Historical Essays and Studies. Ed. John Neville Figgis and Reginald Vere Laurence. London: Macmillan, 1907. Print.
Frost/Nixon: The Original Watergate Interviews. Prod. David Frost and John Birt. Dir. Jørn Winther. Perf. Richard Nixon and David Frost. PBS, 1977. Film.
Katcher, Leo. “Secret Rich Men’s Trust Fund Keeps Nixon In Style Far Beyond His Salary.” New York Post, 18 Sept. 1952: A3, A26. Print.
Kneeland, Douglas. “Nixon Discharges Cox For Defiance; Abolishes Watergate Task Force; Richardson And Ruckelshaus Out.” The New York Times 20 Oct. 1973: A1. Print.
Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Prince. Trans. Rufus Goodwin. Boston: Dante UP, 2003. Print.
Montesquieu, Charles Louis De Secondat. The Spirit of Laws. Glasgow: David Niven, 1793. Print.
“Profile: Sir David Frost.” BBC News. BBC, 24 Nov. 2009. Web. 20 Jan. 2019. Safire, William. Safire’s Political Dictionary. New York: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.
“Senator Richard Nixon’s Checkers Speech.” Watergateinfo. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Jan. 2019.
Stern, Laurence, and Haynes Johnson. “3 Top Nixon Aides, Kleindienst Out.” Washington Post 1 May 1973: A1. Print.
Wills, Garry. Nixon Agonistes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970. Print.