On May 18, 1973, the United States Senate began nationally televised hearings on Watergate. Incoming Attorney General-designate Elliot Richardson, recently appointed by Republican President Richard Nixon, assigned former solicitor general Archibald Cox to serve as the Justice Department’s special prosecutor for the investigation. The rest, as they say, is history. 478 days later, amidst mounting evidence that he himself broke the law by authorizing illegal activities against the Democratic National Committee, Richard Milhous Nixon became the only man to resign the office of President of the United States of America.
At the time that the Senate Committee launched their hearings and Cox began his investigation, there was no public evidence that implicated President Nixon in those illegal activities. The election, held the previous November, was won by Nixon in one of the great landslides in presidential election history. He took just under two-thirds of the popular vote, a tally impossible to explain by any illegal activities. But he broke the law. And then he tried to cover it up. So he had to go. By all other respects, Nixon was at a minimum, a serviceable executive.
Lost in the scandal of it all and Nixon’s personal disgrace is the first world governance triumph that was Watergate. The most powerful man in the world broke a law that actually had no measurable impact on his claim to office or the effectiveness of his administration. But he lost power. Not because of his own personal honor. But because the institutions that firmly stood in place to limit his power insisted that he lose it. There was a legislative branch that acted independently of political goal. There was a judiciary and law enforcement entities that insisted on seeing it through. There was a free press that spoke truth to power. And there were Americans of character and principle in positions of authority.
On October 20th, 1973, it all came to a head on what’s since been called, the “Saturday Night Massacre”. With mounting pressure and evidence piling up against him, Nixon ordered Attorney General Richardson to fire the special prosecutor Cox. Richardson refused. He was fired. His immediate replacement William Ruckleshaus also refused and resigned. Eventually, a third man, Robert Bork carried out Nixon’s order. But the damage had been done. Within a year, Congress passed the articles of impeachment. And Nixon was gone.
There have been and always will be inappropriate men who inappropriately seek power. There will always be outside powers looking to interfere in our wellbeing as a nation. But what has made us uniquely great, what has delivered 55 peaceful transfers of power and 2 percent per capita growth for 240 years, is the institutions and mechanisms that respond to them. The great risk of our times, is that perhaps now, they can’t. Or they won’t.
We’re about to inaugurate a man who has held no position of government in his life, a man who can scarcely point to a single aspect of service in seventy years, a man who capitalized on an ugly message of exclusion to mobilize a frustrated base of voters. But he’s not the real risk. It’s the Americans standing next to him and the institutions charged to check him that scare me the most.
We’re no doubt in for a very different experience. And perhaps the only person who could drive the needed change is someone like Donald J. Trump. But I’ll ask the question to his supporters. When am I allowed to be concerned? What does he say and what does he do that alarms you? Because you’ve shrugged off quite a bit already. And when the people who supported a man’s rise to power can’t be counted on to eventually tell him he’s gone too far, we’re left with the institutions to do it. When I think of those institutions today, it gives me grave concern. Who in Trump’s inner circle blows the whistle? Who on his cabinet resigns over principle? What Republican stands for no more in Congress. Who in the press will we believe? Who are today’s Elliot Richardson and Archibald Cox?
Our most serious problem probably isn’t Donald J. Trump. It’s that the answers to those questions feel like the same ones that failed to check the truly dangerous leaders in history that hurt so many. And that’s new in America.