Early in the morning of June 17, 1972, several burglars were arrested inside the office of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), located in the Watergate building in Washington, D.C. This was no ordinary robbery: The prowlers were connected to President Richard Nixon’s reelection campaign, and they had been caught while attempting to wiretap phones and steal secret documents. While historians are not sure whether Nixon knew about the Watergate espionage operation before it happened, he took steps to cover it up afterwards, raising “hush money” for the burglars, trying to stop the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) from investigating the crime, destroying evidence and firing uncooperative staff members. In August 1974, after his role in the Watergate conspiracy had finally come to light, the president resigned. His successor, Gerald Ford, immediately pardoned Nixon for all the crimes he “committed or may have committed” while in office. Although Nixon was never prosecuted, the Watergate scandal changed American politics forever, leading many Americans to question their leadership and think more critically about the presidency (Summary taken from www.history.com/topics/watergate).
Video Nixon’s Interview with David Frost (Watergate Segment)
Transcript of Nixon’s Interview with David Frost (Watergate Segment)
Frost: Would you go further than “mistakes” – the word that seems not enough for people?
Nixon: What word would you suggest?
Frost: My goodness, that’s a … I think that there are three things, since you asked me. I would like to hear you say … I think the American people would like to hear you say … One is: there was probably more than mistakes; there was wrongdoing, whether it was a crime or not; yes it may have been a crime too. Second: I did – and I’m saying this without questioning the motives – I did abuse the power I had as president, or not fulfil the totality of the oath of office. And third: I put the American people through two years of needless agony and I apologise for that. And I say that you’ve explained your motives, I think those are the categories. And I know how difficult it is for anyone, and most of all you, but I think that people need to hear it and I think unless you say it you are going to be haunted by it for the rest of your life.
Nixon: I well remember when I let Haldeman and Erlichman know that they were to resign, that I had Ray Price [Nixon’s speechwriter] bring in the final draft of the speech that I was to make the next night and I said to him, “Ray, if you think I ought to resign, put that in too, because I feel responsible.” Even though I did not feel that I had engaged in these activities consciously in so far as the knowledge of, or participation in, the break-in, the approval of hush-money, the approval of clemency etc, there are various charges that have been made. Well, he didn’t put it in, and I must say that at that time I seriously considered whether I shouldn’t resign, but on the other hand I feel that I owe it to history, to point out that from that time on April 30, until I resigned on August 9, I did some things that were good for this country. We had the second and third summits. I think one of the major reasons I stayed in office, was my concern about keeping the China initiative, the Soviet initiative, the Vietnam fragile peace agreement and then an added dividend, the first breakthrough in moving toward – not love, but at least not war – in the Middle East. And, coming back to the whole point of whether I should have resigned then and how I feel now, let me say I didn’t make mistakes in just this period; I think some of my mistakes that I regret most deeply came with the statements that I made afterwards. Some of those statements were misleading. I noticed, for example, the managing editor of the Washington Post, Ben Bradlee, wrote, a couple, three months ago, as far as his newspaper was concerned: “We don’t print the truth; we print what we know, we print what people tell us and this means that we print lies.”
I would say that the statements that I made afterwards were, on the big issues, true – that I was not involved in the matters that I have spoken about; not involved in the break in; that I did not engage in, and participate in, or approve the payment of money, or the authorisation of clemency, which of course were the essential elements of the cover-up – that was true. But, the statements were misleading in that enormous political attack I was under: it was a five-front war with a fifth column. I had a partisan senate committee staff, we had a partisan special prosecutors staff, we had a partisan media, we had a partisan judiciary committee staff, and a fifth column. Now under these circumstances, my reactions and some of these statements, from press conferences and so forth after that, I want to say right here and now, I said things that were not true. Most of them were fundamentally true on the big issues, but without going as far as I should have gone and saying perhaps that I had considered other things, but not done them. And for all those things I have a very deep regret.
Frost: You got caught up in something and it snowballed?
Nixon: It snowballed, and it was my fault. I’m not blaming anybody else. I’m simply saying to you that as far as I’m concerned, I not only regret it. I indicated my own beliefs in this matter when I resigned. People didn’t think it was enough to admit mistakes; fine. If they want me to get down and grovel on the floor; no, never. Because I don’t believe I should. On the other hand there are some friends who say, “just face ’em down. There’s a conspiracy to get you.” There may have been. I don’t know what the CIA had to do. Some of their shenanigans have yet to be told, according to a book I read recently. I don’t know what was going on in some Republican, some Democratic circles as far as the so-called impeachment lobby was concerned. However, I don’t go with the idea that there … that what brought me down was a coup, a conspiracy etc. I brought myself down. I gave them a sword, and they stuck it in and they twisted it with relish. And I guess if I had been in their position, I’d have done the same thing.
Frost: Could you just say, with conviction, I mean not because I want you to say it, that you did do some covering up. We’re not talking legalistically now; I just want the facts. You did do some covering up. There was some time when you were overwhelmed by your loyalties or whatever else, you protected your friends, or maybe yourself. In fact you were, to put it at its most simple, part of a cover-up at times.
Nixon: No, I again respectfully will not quibble with you about the use of the terms. However, before using the term I think it’s very important for me to make clear what I did not do and what I did do and then I will answer your question quite directly. I did not in the first place commit the crime of obstruction of justice, because I did not have the motive required for the commission of that crime.
Frost: We disagree on that.
Nixon: I did not commit, in my view, an impeachable offense. Now, the House has ruled overwhelmingly that I did. Of course, that was only an indictment, and it would have to be tried in the Senate. I might have won, I might have lost. But even if I had won in the Senate by a vote or two, I would have been crippled. And in any event, for six months the country couldn’t afford having the president in the dock in the United States Senate. And there can never be an impeachment in the future in this country without a president voluntarily impeaching himself. I have impeached myself. That speaks for itself.
Frost: How do you mean “I have impeached myself”?
Nixon: By resigning. That was a voluntary impeachment. Now, what does that mean in terms of whether I … you’re wanting me to say that I participated in an illegal cover-up. No. Now when you come to the period, and this is the critical period, when you come to the period of March 21 on, when Dean gave his legal opinion, that certain things, actions taken by, Haldeman, Erlichman, [attorney general John] Mitchell et cetera, and even by himself amounted to illegal coverups and so forth, then I was in a very different position. And during that period, I will admit, that I started acting as lawyer for their defence. I will admit, that acting as lawyer for their defense, I was not prosecuting the case. I will admit that during that period, rather than acting primarily in my role as the chief law enforcement officer of the United States of America, or at least with the responsibility of law enforcement, because the attorney general is the chief law enforcement officer, but as the one with the chief responsibility for seeing that the laws of the United States are enforced, that I did not meet that responsibility. And to the extent that I did not meet that responsibility, to the extent that within the law, and in some cases going right to the edge of the law in trying to advise Erlichman and Haldeman and all the rest in how best to present their cases, because I thought that they were legally innocent, that I came to the edge. And under the circumstances I would have to say that a reasonable person could call that a cover-up. I didn’t think of it as a cover-up. I didn’t intend it to cover-up.
Let me say, if I intended to cover-up, believe me, I’d have done it. You know how I could have done it so easy? I could have done it immediately after the election simply by giving clemency to everybody. And the whole thing would have gone away. I couldn’t do that because I said clemency was wrong. But now we come down to the key point and let me answer it in my own way about how I feel about the American people. I mean about whether I should have resigned earlier or what I should say to them now. Well, that forces me to rationalise now and give you a carefully prepared and cropped statement. I didn’t expect this question, frankly though, so I’m not going to give you that. But I can tell you this …
Frost: Nor did I.
Nixon: I can tell you this. I think I said it all in one of those moments that you’re not thinking sometimes you say the things that are really in your heart. When you’re thinking in advance and you say things that are, you know, tailored to the audience. I had a lot of difficult meetings in those last days and the most difficult one, the only one where I broke into tears, frankly except for that very brief session with Erlichman up at Camp David, that was the first time I cried since Eisenhower died. I met with all of my key supporters just the halfhour before going on television. For 25 minutes we all sat around the Oval Office, men that I had come to Congress with, Democrats and Republicans, about half and half. Wonderful men. And at the very end, after saying thank you for all your support during these tough years, thank you particularly for what you have done to help us end the draft, bring home the POWs, have a chance for building a generation of peace, which I could see the dream I had possibly being shattered, and thank you for your friendship, little acts of friendship over the years, you sort of remember with a birthday card and all the rest. Then suddenly you haven’t got much more to say and half the people around the table were crying. And I just can’t stand seeing somebody else cry. And that ended it for me. And I just, well, I must say I sort of cracked up. Started to cry, pushed my chair back.
And then I blurted it out. And I said, “I’m sorry. I just hope I haven’t let you down.” Well, when I said: “I just hope I haven’t let you down,” that said it all. I had: I let down my friends, I let down the country, I let down our system of government and the dreams of all those young people that ought to get into government but will think it is all too corrupt and the rest. Most of all I let down an opportunity I would have had for two and a half more years to proceed on great projects and programmes for building a lasting peace. Which has been my dream, as you know since our first interview in 1968 before I had any, when I thought I might win that year. I didn’t tell you I thought I might not win that year, but I wasn’t sure. Yep, I let the American people down. And I have to carry that burden with me for the rest of my life. My political life is over. I will never yet, and never again, have an opportunity to serve in any official position. Maybe I can give a little advice from time to time. And so I can only say that in answer to your question that while technically I did not commit a crime, an impeachable offence – these are legalisms. As far as the handling of this matter is concerned, it was so botched up, I made so many bad judgments. The worst ones mistakes of the heart rather than mistakes of the head, as I pointed out, but let me say a man in that top judge job, he’s got to have a heart, but his head must always rule his heart.
Benoit, W. L (1982). Richard M. Nixon’s rhetorical strategies in his public statements on Watergate. Southern Speech Communication Journal, 47, 192-211.
‘I have impeached myself’: Edited transcript of David Frost’s interview with Richard Nixon Broadcast in May 1977 (2007, September). The Guardian. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2007/sep/07/greatinterviews1
Karimi, F. (2017, May 17). Watergate scandal: A look back at crisis that changed US Politics. CNN. Retrieved from: http://www.cnn.com/2017/05/17/politics/watergate-scandal-look-back/index.html
Steele, J. (2015, May 6). From the archive, 6 May 1977: Yours regretfull, R. Nixon. The Guardian. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/may/06/david-frost-richard-nixon-interview-1977-archive
Watergate scandal (n.d.). History Channel. Retrieved from: http://www.history.com/topics/watergate