On June 17, 1972 a small group was arrested in the Watergate Office Building in Washington D.C. Twenty six months later, President Nixon became the first American President to resign from office. He knew he would otherwise be impeached and removed from office.
It was worldwide headlines at the time but you really have to be either 60 years old or a political junkie (guilty on both counts) to remember this. Here is the elevator pitch on what happened:
In 1972 President Nixon ran for reelection against Senator George McGovern. It was a runaway from the beginning and McGovern won only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. But the Nixon administration formed a committee called “The Committee to Reelect the President” in the hopes of not only winning, but winning big. A few members of the campaign decided to find out what the McGovern campaign was doing and broke into Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate building to wiretap their phones. On the second try they were caught and arrested. President Nixon knew nothing about this until reading it in the newspaper but ordered his aides to pay money to the defendants to plead guilty and say nothing about the break in. In return their families would be taken care of. Obviously it didn’t work and by the end almost everyone involved went to prison.
I find Watergate particularly topical today. President Nixon served our nation well in many areas but not here. He believed he was above the law and bribing people to remain silent was justified. He didn’t see himself as subject to the law.
During this time many Americans were frightened that getting away with this would embolden him to continue to consolidate his power and violate the balance of power that our Constitution demands. We may have come closer than we ever knew. President Nixon continued to insist that he did nothing wrong and there was a “silent majority” who would support him.
Perhaps the greatest indication of our democracy happened on August 7th and 8th, 1974. A President resigned and a new President took office. We showed that nobody is above the law.
I write this at a time when the most recent former President believes his reelection was stolen from him and expects to return to office in a few months. He won’t.
We are still a strong democracy that believes nobody is above the law.