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Richard Milhous Nixon

Second Term: The Watergate Affair

Soon after his reelection Nixon's popularity plummeted as the growing revelations of the Watergate affair indicated pervasive corruption in his administration, and there was widespread criticism of the amount of government money spent on his private residences. Further problems ensued when the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) found that Nixon's donation of papers to the federal government, which had been taken as a deduction on his federal income tax returns, had been made after a law went into effect disallowing such deductions. The IRS assessed (1974) Nixon for the back taxes plus interest.

Many public officials and private citizens questioned Nixon's fitness to remain in office, and in 1974 the House of Representatives initiated impeachment proceedings. The House Committee on the Judiciary, which conducted the impeachment inquiry, subpoenaed Nixon's tape-recorded conversations relating to the Watergate affair and finally received (Apr. 30) transcripts of most, but not all, of the tapes. Nixon also released transcripts of these conversations to the public, continuing to profess noninvolvement in the Watergate coverup despite growing evidence to the contrary. Meanwhile, Watergate special prosecutor Leon Jaworski subpoenaed tapes that had been previously requested but that were not among those included in the transcripts. Nixon refused to relinquish these, basing his refusal on claims of "executive privilege," i.e., the confidentiality of executive communications whose release might endanger national security. On July 24, 1974, the Supreme Court ruled that President Nixon must surrender these tapes to Jaworski.

The House Judiciary Committee had already completed its investigations and subsequently recommended (July 27–30) three articles of impeachment against the President. These charged him with obstruction of justice in the investigation of the break-in at the Democratic national headquarters in the Watergate apartment complex; abuse of power through misuse of the Internal Revenue Service for political purposes, illegal wiretapping, establishment of a private investigative unit that engaged in unlawful activities, and interference with the lawful activities of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Central Intelligence Agency, the Dept. of Justice, and other government bodies; and failure to comply with subpoenas issued by the House Judiciary Committee.

On Aug. 5, Nixon made public the transcripts of three conversations covered by the Supreme Court ruling, and the tapes indicated that he had, six days after the Watergate break-in, ordered the FBI to halt its investigation of the burglary. Nixon's revelation provoked widespread calls for his resignation; finally, responding to pressure from his closest advisers, he resigned on Aug. 9, the first U.S. President ever to do so. He left the White House immediately and returned to his estate in San Clemente, Calif. His successor, Gerald Ford, granted him a full pardon for any illegal acts that he might have committed while President, thus quashing the possibility of criminal proceedings against the former President. Subsequently, four of his close associates, including John Mitchell, H. R. Haldeman, and John Ehrlichman, were convicted (Jan. 1, 1975) on charges arising from the affair. In retirement Nixon continued to comment, often influentially, on foreign affairs, writing several books on the topic, as well as his memoirs.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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