On April 29, 1974, President Richard Nixon addressed the nation to explain the edited transcripts he was releasing of the White House tapes in response to the House Judiciary Committee’s subpoena for the actual tapes. The president continued to refuse to release the actual tapes, claiming that the Constitutional principle of executive privilege applied to them and claiming that they were vital to national security. The tapes contained conversations that would reveal what Nixon knew about the break-in two years prior at the Watergate complex, the subsequent cover up and what he did about it. The House Judiciary Committee rejected the edited transcripts, arguing they did not comply with the subpoena for the actual tapes. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court. In July 1974, the Court ruled in United States v. Nixon that Nixon must turn over the tapes.
Former Miller Center Fellow and Yale History Professor Beverly Gage reviews Robert Redford’s new documentary, which aired on the Discovery Channel last night, All the President’s Men Revisited, for Slate.com. The documentary was created to coincide with the 40th anniversary of Watergate. Gage argues that the film is “a reasonably adequate primer on Watergate mythology, and it’s certainly fun to watch. But it is also a missed opportunity for historical reflection—and one that, given the age of most Watergate participants, is unlikely to come around again.” For example, Redford fails to explore the implications of whether Mark Felt leaked information to Bob Woodward for his own purposes. As journalist Max Holland argues in his 2012 book, The Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat, Felt did so in his own interests to win a “war of succession” then underway at the FBI following J. Edgar Hoover’s death.
Gage also notes that forty years later, there still big political questions left unresolved:
How did a Republican Party on the verge of collapse in 1974 surge back six years later to launch the Age of Reagan? How much of the scandal was really about Nixon and his paranoia, and how much was about a broader set of institutional and political rivalries? Did the reforms put in place after the scandal—on presidential power, on intelligence prerogatives—effectively constrain the executive branch? To what degree did Watergate, once seen as a great Democratic triumph, help to fuel a conservative anti-government backlash?
Redford’s film, according to Gage, does offer a few tantalizing thoughts about today’s fractious political scene. According to Gage:
Rachel Maddow argues, for instance, that Obama’s fondness for drones and secret intelligence operations owes much to Nixon’s “imperial presidency.” Bernstein himself suggests that the Watergate era may look shockingly good when compared to today’s bitter partisan politics. In 1974, he notes, Republicans and Democrats finally joined together to serve the public interest by ousting the president.
As Congress debates passing new gun control measures, it’s worth looking back in recent history at the relationship between a Republican President and Democratic Congress on this issue. As taped conversations from our presidential recordings archives reveal, President Richard Nixon expressed private support for banning handguns altogether and publically proposed banning “Saturday night specials” in response to gun violence against politicians in 1972 and 1973. Yet, he deferred to Congress to hammer out a legislative deal, which never fully materialized.
Taped conversations with aides on May 16, 1972, the day following an attempted assassination that paralyzed presidential candidate George Wallace, reveal Nixon’s personal position on hand guns:
I don’t know why any individual should have a right to have a revolver in his house…The kids usually kill themselves with it and so forth…can’t we go after handguns, period?
I know the rifle association will be against it, the gun makers will be against it. [But] people should not have handguns.
But, a few days later, Nixon expressed opposition to measures that would go beyond banning handguns. He asked rhetorically:
What do they want to do, just disarm the populace? Disarm the good folks and leave the arms in the hands of criminals?
In another taped conversation, Nixon told his assistant for domestic affairs, John Ehrlichman, “We’ve got to be for gun control, John. I mean for hand gun control.” In response to a memo he was reading at the time, Nixon told Ehrlichman that state and local controls on guns have never worked and therefore it was a matter of federal concern. The conversation continues:
Nixon: We just ought to say that the bill is a matter for concern and we I feel we ought to outlaw them …
Ehrlichman: You can say you wholeheartedly support Congressional action on that front.
Last week, the media reported that President Barack Obama is likely to nominate Caroline Kennedy as the Ambassador to Japan. Kennedy was an early supporter of the Obama’s 2008 presidential bid and she served as a co-chairwoman of his 2012 re-election campaign. The appointment would continue a tradition since the 1970s of appointing well-known American political figures to the post, including former Vice President Walter F. Mondale, former Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield and former Speaker of the House Thomas S. Foley. If confirmed by the Senate, Kennedy would also leave her own mark as the first woman to represent the United States in Japan.
Recruiting members of former first families to serve in diplomatic posts is nothing new. As a telephone conversation from the Miller Center’s presidential recording archives reveals, President Richard Nixon attempted to recruit two of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s sons for ambassadorships in 1972. Although he didn’t recommend it because it was “probably a pain in the neck,” Nixon asked James and John Roosevelt whether they would like to undertake an ambassadorship:
But there are areas of the world where having somebody who has, frankly, prestige, so forth, could mean a great deal to us. And I have found in my own travels around that, while we have some good State Department bureaucrats who are ambassadors, that there are many places, and I think John agrees after his travels abroad, where having somebody who's directly responsible to the President and holds his allegiance to the President, as well as to the State Department, is very important. Now, I just throw that out as something to think about. What do you think?
Forty years ago today, White House Counsel John Dean told President Richard Nixon, “We have a cancer within-close to the presidency, that's growing.” During a taped conversation, Dean recapped the history of the bungled bugging and burglary of the Democratic National Committee headquarters and the subsequent cover-up for the President. Dean advised Nixon to remove the cancer by coming clean to the public on the Watergate scandals, otherwise his presidency would be in danger. Instead, Nixon continued the cover-up and doled out hush money in attempts at damage control, and Dean’s warning proved painfully correct.
Listen to the “Cancer Close to the Presidency” conversation in the Miller Center's Presidential Recordings Program archives here.
Forty years ago today, President Richard Nixon announced to the nation that the United States and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam had finally concluded an agreement to end the war in Vietnam. Nixon had promised to end the Vietnam War in his campaign for the presidency in 1968. In his reelection campaign in 1972, he once again promised to end the war in Vietnam in such a way as to ensure a "a full generation of peace."
In his address on January 23, 1973, Nixon told the nation:
We must recognize that ending the war is only the first step toward building the peace. All parties must now see to it that this is a peace that lasts, and also a peace that heals—and a peace that not only ends the war in Southeast Asia but contributes to the prospects of peace in the whole world.
The official cease-fire, along with the release of all American prisoners of war, went into effect on January 28, though troops remained in Vietnam until the fall of Saigon in 1975.
A president rubs elbows with dignitaries, world leaders, and politicians, yes, but a president often also sometimes comes in contact with celebrities who function far outside the traditional political sphere.
This photo of President Richard Nixon meeting Elvis Presley is the #1 most requested image from the National Archive and Records Administration (surpassing even the Bill of Rights and the U.S. Constitution). The meeting took place in December, 1970, after Nixon received a letter from Presley wherein Presley expressed interest in being named "Federal Agent-at-Large" for the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, wishing to do his part to fight the war on illegal drugs. The five-page letter is hand-written on American Airlines stationary.
Interestingly, the meeting between Presley and Nixon was kept secret for two full years until the Washington Post broke the story in January 1972. 1972 was, of course, a big year for Nixon for other reasons…
Stay tuned! Every Friday we'll highlight an interesting item from presidential history.