When Richard Nixon resigned

Forty years ago this weekend, after putting the country through the proverbial wringer for two years, Richard Nixon resigned the office of the presidency.  His downfall began when a group of "third-rate burglars" were caught breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office building in 1972.  As it turns out, their mission not only was sanctioned by the Nixon White House, but many of their plans actually were hatched in the Oval Office.

As misguided as those plans were, nothing that happened that infamous night at the Watergate building compares to the cover-up and abuses of power that unfolded during the ensuing Congressional investigation -- all of which lead to the only resignation of a sitting president in our nation's history.

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I was working on Capitol Hill as a staff assistant to California Rep. Don Edwards when I read the Washington Post's initial story of the break-in.  I say "story" because, in reality, it simply was a two-inch filler in the back of the paper.  What started out as a trickle of information in '72 eventually turned into a flood of lies two years later.  I don't think I will ever forget President Nixon telling reporters in mid-November 1973, "People have got to know whether or not their President is a crook.  Well, I'm not a crook."

While Nixon's plea left many wondering how he possibly could have stumbled into Watergate, I was asking these two questions:  First, if the Fourth Amendment guarantees each of us security for our person, house, papers and effects, then upon what legal basis could the President of the United States authorize surreptitious entry -- commonly known as breaking and entering?

And second, if the law creating the Central Intelligence Agency specifically prohibited that agency from doing internal security work, upon what legal basis, further, could the President authorize CIA participation in the gathering and evaluating of domestic intelligence?

(I raised both issues in a letter to the editor signed "Alexandrian" by the Washington Star newspaper in 1973.  An editor later confirmed his concern for my safety, thus the anonymous signature.)

In the years since the Watergate scandal, terms like Irangate, Travelgate and others have become embedded in our political lexicon.  As damaging as they were to Presidents Reagan and Clinton, for example, none have come close to the constitutional crisis America faced in the early 1970s.

With all due respect, it wasn't the heroics of the Washington Post or "Deep Throat" that saved the Republic from those burglars and their White House handlers.  It was the wisdom of our Founding Fathers and the rule of law that prevailed when all seemed lost.  Thankfully good people in Congress kept asking, "What did the president know and when did he know it?"

This is why, 40 years after Richard Nixon's resignation from office, I carry a pocket-sized copy of the Constitution in my brief case.  It is my way of remembering how far we have come since Watergate ... and how much always is at stake for America.

Freidenrich writes from Laguna Beach, California.  Follow him on Twitter at freidomreport.

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