"My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over." Gerald Ford delivered the famous line upon taking the oath of office after the resignation of President Richard Nixon. The "internal wounds of Watergate" were "more painful and more poisonous than those of foreign wars," Ford said. Now was a time to heal.
Whether or not the "nightmare" itself was over, the end of the Nixon presidency was only the beginning of the long-term effects of the scandal, which would change the institution of the presidency itself and intrude on nearly every successor. Fifty years later, the ghost of Watergate appears to be the White House's one permanent resident.
June 17 marks 50 years since the break-in at the Democratic headquarters at the Watergate complex. Although this operation by Nixon's "Plumbers" was initially dismissed by spokesman Ron Ziegler as a "two-bit burglary," it would eventually lead to the end of an administration. Five decades later, it is clear the consequences continue to be felt.
The origin of the scandal itself is awash in irony. Nixon hated leaks, and like many presidents before and after, he took whatever steps he could to keep them under control. In fact, the very name of his operatives, "the Plumbers," derived from Nixon's desire that they plug leaks. Yet the revelations stemming from whatever minor leaks the Plumbers ever discovered paled before the full-on revelations of all of Nixon's operations. The investigations into the break-in led to the discovery of the tapes of Nixon's conversations. As the Princeton scholar Gary J. Bass observed, "Because of the tapes, the fiercely secretive Nixon has wound up running the most open White House in history."
This irony extended to other presidencies as well. Following Watergate, journalists and congressional investigators alike applied far more scrutiny to potential administration misdeeds, leaving all subsequent presidents vulnerable to falling victim to "-gates" of their own. The Presidential Records Act was passed in 1978, during one of the post-Watergate Congresses dominated by the so-called Watergate babies — young, reform-minded Democrats elected in the aftermath of Nixon's resignation. This group included Max Baucus, Chris Dodd, Tom Harkin, Paul Simon, Paul Tsongas, and Patrick Leahy, who is still serving today as senator from Vermont.
The PRA was a direct rebuke to the Nixon presidency and the Nixon defense during Watergate. Before the law, presidential records were the president's private property. The PRA changed that and made all presidential records, for the Nixon administration and for all subsequent administrations, the property of the government.
The first president to have to deal with a post-Watergate presidency was, of course, Ford, who took over for Nixon in August 1974. Watergate was at the heart of Ford's best-remembered action as president. Within a few weeks of Nixon's resignation, Ford decided to pardon Nixon. It was a controversial move, both inside and outside of the administration. Ford adviser and speechwriter Robert Hartmann knew the pardon would hurt Ford politically, and he strongly argued against it. When Hartmann learned that could not stop the pardon, he tried to delay it, asking Ford, "What's the rush? Why must it be tomorrow? Why not Christmas Eve, or a year from now...?"
Watergate's implications for the presidency continued. Ford lost a close election to Jimmy Carter in 1976, in part because of the decision to pardon Nixon. The first movie Carter watched as president, two days after his inauguration, was All the President's Men, the movie about Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward's investigative efforts into Watergate.
From a more substantive perspective, Watergate and the memories of the Nixon administration helped shape how Carter structured his presidency. Nixon's chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, who served 18 months in prison, was an unpopular figure among Democrats. Carter was determined to show his administration to be different from Nixon's, and one of the ways in which he planned to do so was by not having a chief of staff.
The result was disastrous. From the outset, the Carter administration was disorganized and chaotic. Eventually, Carter backtracked and made political strategist Hamilton Jordan his chief of staff, but Jordan was a bad fit for the job. Carter finally gave the position to Jack Watson, his transition head who should have been the chief to begin with. But the shadow of Watergate had colored Carter's thinking, and his bad initial choice contributed to a failed, one-term presidency. As Carter's domestic policy adviser Stuart Eizenstat would later conclude, "Frankly, the president would have been far better off with a chief of staff from the start."
The first Republican president elected after Nixon was Ronald Reagan. Reagan was a fellow Californian who was supportive of Nixon during Watergate, to a point. On April 30, 1973, Reagan called Nixon, telling him, "For what it's worth, I'm still beh-..." before stopping himself short and concluding, "You can count on us, we're still behind you out here, and I want you to know you are in our prayers." So, although Reagan recognized that he should not go too far in backing the embattled Nixon, he did not share Carter's disdain for all things Nixon. Reagan also recognized that he became president in part because of Carter's refusal to pick a chief of staff and countered by picking James Baker, who became perhaps the most effective chief in presidential history. Furthermore, every president since has had a chief of staff, making a Nixon-like chief of staff a permanent part of the establishment.
Reagan also followed Nixon in that his administration got embroiled in a scandal, the biggest one since Watergate. Iran-Contra did not bring down Reagan, like Watergate did to Nixon, but it shook the administration. Even though Reagan survived it, Watergate's specter haunted the administration throughout the scandal. Don Regan, the White House chief of staff during the scandal, revealed how much the Nixon experience was on the mind in the Reagan White House, recalling, "You never used the word impeachment: It was a no-no word. ... You never used impeachment except to yourself, because that was something no one wanted to even think about."
Reagan's successor, George Bush, also had personal memories of Nixon and Watergate. He was an up-and-comer favored by Nixon, who had appointed him to head the Republican National Committee. Watergate made it so that Bush was a party spokesman at a particularly difficult time. Bush survived this politically by sending a letter to Nixon on Aug. 7, 1974, one day before Nixon stepped down, saying, "It is my considered judgment you should resign." In making the formal call for his patron to resign, Bush maintained his political viability despite his work in the Nixon administration during Watergate. Still, Bush told a friend that he considered those two years defending Nixon during the scandal to be "pure hell."
When Bill Clinton became president after Bush, he was the first post-Watergate president who did not feel a need to run away from Nixon. Clinton was inoculated in some part by his wife Hillary's work on the House Judiciary Committee's inquiry into Watergate, but also by the two decades that had gone by since Nixon's resignation. Clinton also recognized that Nixon in exile was an untapped resource and gave Nixon what he most wanted — an opening to advise on foreign policy again after years of being in the wilderness. As Clinton said in a video tribute to Nixon after his death in April 1994, "I sought guidance in the example of President Nixon, who came to the presidency at a time in our history when Americans were tempted to say, 'We've had enough of the world.'"
Clinton became the first president subjected to impeachment proceedings since Nixon. Like Nixon, Clinton was in the most trouble for the cover-up — lying under oath — not for having an inappropriate relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Unlike Clinton, however, Nixon was never impeached because he resigned first, although he would almost certainly have been convicted in the Senate. Clinton, in contrast, was impeached by the House, but was not convicted in the Senate.
With Nixon's death, Clinton became the last president to interact with Nixon while in office, but Nixon and the Watergate scandal continued to resonate in the 21st century. George W. Bush as president tried to keep a tight hold on information, leading to Watergate alum John Dean preposterously calling Bush's secrecy efforts "worse than Watergate." Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump both became embroiled in the Russia-gate scandal, with Republicans objecting to the Obama administration's monitoring efforts during Trump's 2016 campaign and Democrats accusing the Trump campaign and administration of having inappropriate ties to Russia. At one point, Trump even explicitly brought up Watergate, tweeting, "How low has President Obama gone to tapp [sic] my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate."
A post-presidency Nixon had also interacted with Trump. In 1987, Nixon sent Trump a note saying that Mrs. Nixon had seen him and thought he was "great" on The Phil Donahue Show. (This was a common Nixon tactic — he had on other occasions said a family member watched a show that he himself had watched, as he did not like to own up to watching TV.) Trump, of course, would be the next president to be impeached, twice, over his tit-for-tat call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and over his role in the Jan. 6 riots at the Capitol. He was not convicted by the Senate either time. As for Joe Biden, his Washington career goes back to the Watergate era. He was even referred to by Nixon on the White House tapes as "a damn good young candidate," and a brief call from Nixon to Biden was recorded as well. As a young senator, Biden called for "restraint" in the Nixon impeachment proceedings and said, "I have a feeling that my children and my grandchildren will be looking back on what I said or did not say in April of 1974." He probably had no idea that people would also be looking back on this in 2022, with him serving as president.
These are just a few of the unanticipated events unleashed by Watergate. That scandal touches on so many aspects of the modern presidency, in terms of how presidents manage their administrations; in the fruitless but unending search for leaks; in the fact that every scandal now ends with a "-gate"; in the fear of impeachment, which Watergate revived as a political tool; and in presidents' interest in their historical reputations. Watergate is long over, but it isn't going anywhere.