Each August I relive the Watergate tragedy, in which I had a small speaking part. As a young lawyer on President Nixon’s defense team, I transcribed the smoking-gun tape that ended his presidency.
In classic Greek drama, a prominent hero (but not necessarily a virtuous one), somehow offends the moral order, and is punished way out of proportion to that offense. The hero’s fall is not due to personal vice or depravity, but to some error in judgment or frailty — a fatal flaw. The attraction for the audience is watching the hero’s valiant but ultimately unsuccessful struggle to avoid his predestined demise. In the end, however, the audience is left with an overwhelming sense of waste.
So it was with Richard Nixon. A commoner, without movie-star good looks, without help from a wealthy family, and without the advantages of an Ivy League education, Nixon had risen to the pinnacle of political power through dedication and hard work — only to fall dramatically and in public disgrace.
Having heard the smoking-gun tape the very afternoon the Supreme Court had ordered its release, I knew Nixon’s end was at hand weeks before it came to pass on Aug. 9, 1974. But it unfolded like a slow-motion train wreck and there was nothing anyone could do to prevent it.
I’m sure Nixon’s end was entertaining for his many opponents, but it was gut-wrenching for those of us who had labored long on his behalf.
The tape was to be released on Monday evening, Aug. 5. The president had decided to await reactions before deciding on his next steps. I feared the entire White House staff would feel compelled to resign. They had worked so hard, believing in him against mounting evidence to the contrary, and now they would be undercut completely. Incoming President Gerald Ford might be left with no staff at all.
At my urging, Nixon’s chief of staff called an all-hands-on-deck meeting just before the tape’s release. “Difficult news is about to come out,” they were told by Alexander Haig, “but you must not overreact. You must stay at your posts for the good of the country.”
The public’s reaction was overwhelmingly adverse, and the president lost any remaining support in the Congress. Nixon was anything but a quitter, but it was clear that his Republican Party would be devastated at the November polls if he remained in place. On the evening of Aug. 8, in an address from the Oval Office, he announced his intent to resign the following day.
His many opponents were ecstatic.
The next morning, he said goodbye to his staff in the East Room, his family at his side. He urged us not to lose faith, to continue the struggle without him — and above all, not to hate. Only if you start to hate, he warned us, do your opponents really win.
Then it was out to the South Lawn, where the presidential helicopter waited to whisk him to Andrews Air Force Base, to board Air Force One for the final flight to California. His resignation took effect at noon. Somewhere over St. Louis, Nixon was no longer president, and Air Force One became just another government-owned airplane.
It was the first and, hopefully, the only presidential resignation in our nation’s history. But it seared my soul, and I’ve spent many of the intervening years trying to understand how everything went so wrong.
Four decades later, I’ve begun to appreciate what the real tragedy was. In one of the ultimate ironies of political history, it appears that the smoking-gun tape has been totally misunderstood, that the president need not have resigned, and that he was actually driven from office — and his senior aides imprisoned — through highly improper actions of judges and Watergate prosecutors.
Documents I’ve recently uncovered in the National Archives tell a tale of secret meetings, secret memos and secret collusion that will shock many Americans and that constitute flagrant violations of our Constitution and its Bill of Rights that will shock many Americans.
The smoking-gun tape, for example, does record the president concurring in the suggestion that they ask the CIA to tell the FBI not to interview two individuals, but the goal was not to thwart the FBI’s Watergate investigation. It was to protect the identities of prominent Democrats who’d made confidential contributions to Nixon’s re-election committee.
Don’t take my word for this; take John Dean’s. In his recent book, he flatly states that, but for the misunderstanding, Nixon “might have survived to fight another day. In short, the smoking gun was shooting blanks.”
These new revelations should provide insight and entertainment for those in the audience during the Watergate tragedy. And those who were so cheerful may have cause to reconsider.
• Geoff Shepard, a member of President Nixon’s White House staff from 1969 to 1974, is the author of “The Real Watergate Scandal: Collusion, Conspiracy and the Plot That Brought Nixon Down” (Regnery, 2015).