38 years ago, on May 9, 1974, at approximately 1: 10 p.m. (EST), impeachment hearings against Richard Nixon began before the 93rd Congress of the House Judiciary Committee, chaired by New Jersey Democrat Peter J. Rodino in room 2141 of the Rayburn House Office Building.
Specifically, the committee began considering evidence related to the President’s possible involvement in the Watergate break-in and cover-up.
Prior to this, on March 18, 1974, Federal District Judge John J. Sirica ordered that the grand jury report of their 21 month investigation related to Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate scandal be turned over to the House impeachment inquiry.
Over the next 11 weeks, the committee heard testimony (behind closed doors) which revealed a pattern of misuse of presidential power.
A Footnote: According to the New York Times, only 11 citizens were able to squeeze into the packed committee room on May 9, 1974 with most of the space occupied by 90 news reporters, 43 aides or guests of the members, 10 committee staff assistants as well as three live television cameras.
The Watergate investigation officially kicked off on February 7, 1973, when the Senate created the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities (chaired by Senator Sam Ervin, Jr., a former North Carolina Supreme Court justice) to investigate campaign activities related to the presidential election of 1972. The White House, meanwhile, launched the Watergate Special Prosecution Force under Archibald Cox in May, 1973.
During the investigations, Nixon refused to turn over 64 tapes to special Watergate prosecutor, Leon Jaworski on grounds of executive privilege. On July 24, 1974 in United States vs. Nixon , the U.S. Supreme Court in a unanimous decision ruled executive power was something to be determined by the courts, not the president; and furthermore in an absence of a legitimate claim of national security, executive privilege could not be used to withhold evidence from a grand jury about possible criminal actions. Nixon, the court ruled, will be required to turn over the tapes.
A Footnote: According to Ruth P. Morgan, writing in the Presidential Studies Quarterly (Winter, 1996), ``Another immediate impact [of Watergate] was the rush to judgments by the other institutions of government. Howard Ball has effectively argued that the Supreme Court, in choosing to fulfill their "duty" to end the Watergate crisis, rushed to judgment too quickly and should have spent a great deal more reflection and analysis on ruling a constitutional privilege of executive privilege before creating it by precedent.’’
On July 27, the Judiciary Committee adopted the first article of Impeachment by a vote of 27-11, charging Nixon with obstructing the investigation of the Watergate break-in; two days later, the committee adopted the second Article of Impeachment with misuse of power and violation of the oath of office; and by July 30th, the House Judiciary Committee adopted the third Article of Impeachment, charging Nixon with failure to comply with the House subpoenas.
On August 5th, in compliance with the Supreme Court order, Nixon released conversation transcripts and three tapes in what became known as the ``Smoking Gun’’ so named because of its incriminating conversations, revealing Nixon not only knew of the break-in, but ordered the cover up and directed the FBI to abandon its investigation of the burglary. The transcripts of the tapes showed three conversations between Nixon and his White House Chief of Staff, H.R. Haldeman six days after the break-in. The most damaging of the tapes released was the one from June 23, 1972 in which Nixon discussed using the CIA to block the FBI’s investigation of the burglary, which clearly demonstrated the burglary had become linked to the White House and Nixon had attempted to use federal agencies to obstruct justice.
When this new damaging evidence surfaced, 11 Republicans on the Judiciary who previously voted against Impeachment announced they would change their votes, giving Nixon little choice but to resign the office, which he did on August 9, 1974, becoming the first U.S. president to do so.
Prior to his resignation, Richard Milhous Nixon served in the office of the presidency for five years and 201 days. His successor, Gerald R. Ford, pardoned him on September 8, 1974 for ``all offenses against the United States’’ during his presidency. Nixon died on April 22, 1994, four days after suffering a debilitating stroke at his Park Ridge New Jersey home. He was 81. (See The New York Times Obituary ).
The Watergate break-in first became public when The Washington Post reported (June 18, 1972) the arrest of five men (one a former employee of the Central Intelligence Agency) on charges of second-degree burglary in the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the sixth floor of the plush Watergate complex in Washington, D.C.
May 9, 2012
Web Sites to Keep in Mind:
Watergate Timeline, May 9, 1974-September 8, 1974 (Gerald R. Ford Library & Museum)
Opening Statements and Supporting Evidence Presented to the House Judiciary Committee related to the Watergate Scandal
Richard M. Nixon: The Watergate Tapes (University of California, Berkeley)
The Woodward and Bernstein Watergate Papers (The University of Texas at Austin)
The Watergate Files-Film Reels (Gerald R. Ford Library & Museum)