On July 24, 1974 — 40 years ago this week — the Supreme Court issued a ruling that brought down a president. The court, affirming a lower court’s rule, decided unanimously that President Richard Nixon did not have executive privilege to withhold evidence — tape-recorded conversations from the Oval Office — in a criminal case.
Eight hours later, the House Judiciary committee resumed impeachment proceedings and on July 27 issued the first of three articles of impeachment. Within two weeks, on Aug. 9, 1974, Nixon walked away from the White House, the first American president to resign.
The issue, of course, involved that cultural milestone known simply as Watergate — the burglary, in 1972, at the offices of the Democratic National Committee — and what Nixon knew, when he knew it, and how he tried to protect himself and his presidency from the schemers who worked for him and the hound dogs of the law, the Congress and the “Eastern liberal” press.
Among the many accounts of the period, and one recognized as perhaps the best, is Theodore H. White’s “Breach of Faith: The Fall of Richard Nixon,” first published in 1975. Reviewing the book for Commentary magazine in 1975, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, the future U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, took issue with some of White’s points but declared: “despite the familiarity of the events being narrated, and despite the absence of surprises, one reads this book with rapt attention, and even in a state of suspense.”
Given the toxic political climate today — the debate over executive power, the right-wing howls for impeachment — White’s book resonates.
Here are a some key passages, which capture not only White’s analysis of the case, but his Pulitzer Prize-winning style:
“The true crime of Richard Nixon was simple: he destroyed the myth that binds America together, and for this he was driven from power.
“The myth he broke was critical — that somewhere in American life there is at least one man who stands for law, the President. That faith surmounts all daily cynicism, all evidence or suspicion of wrongdoing by lesser leaders, all corruptions, all vulgarities, all the ugly compromises of daily striving and ambition. That faith holds that all men are equal before the law and protected by it; and that no matter how the faith may be betrayed elsewhere, at one particular point — the Presidency — justice will be done beyond prejudice, beyond rancor, beyond the possibility of a fix. It was that faith that Richard Nixon broke, betraying those who voted for him even more than those who voted against him.”
“From mid-April of 1973 to his end in 1974, the President lied; lied again; continued to lie; and his lying not only fueled the anger of those who were on his trail, but slowly, irreversibly, corroded the faith of Americans in that Preisident’s honor. He knew what he was doing, for he consciously relied on the mystique of the Presidency to carry him through what lay ahead.”