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.
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.