A History of Our Time: Readings on Postwar America

By William H. Chafe; Harvard Sitkoff et al. | Go to book overview

Watergate

Kim McQuaid

The sixties, the era we remember for heroic struggles for civil rights and the polarization of the nation over the war in Vietnam, came to a kind of symbolic end in 1974, with the resignation of President Richard Nixon over his betrayal of the trust of the American people. Through a bizarre series of events, the Nixon administration found itself in a situation where, in order to cover up high-level White House involvement in a burglary, it created a set of circumstances that brought down the entire administration. The ironies of the situation were endless. Nixon had such a commanding lead over his opponents in the 1974 presidential election that no one could really challenge him, yet in order to gain a still greater edge, Nixon’s political associates authorized a break-in at Democratic national headquarters in the Watergate Hotel. Even with the evidence turned up by journalists and congressional hearings, Nixon would probably have remained in office, yet the taping system he himself had installed in order to document his role in the nation’s history tripped him up. Perhaps appropriately, the man who sought office in order to “bring us together again” accomplished his purpose by uniting most of the country in revulsion against his unconstitutional actions.

In the following excerpts from his much longer discussion in The Anxious Years, historian Kim McQuaid speculates on the significance of Watergate. Focusing on the tapes, the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings, and finally Nixon’s resignation (to avoid impeachment), McQuaid raises questions about what Americans expect of their president. Was Watergate, as he argues, a “watershed in American innocence”? How does the effort to impeach President Nixon compare to the impeachment trial of President Clinton (Part 7)?

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