The 44th anniversary of Nixon’s resignation should remind us to be faithful to the Constitution
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I write today in remembrance of the long national nightmare that ended 44 years ago today when Richard Milhous Nixon addressed the nation from the Oval Office and announced that he would resign the office of the presidency. The next day, Aug. 9, he submitted his letter of resignation to Henry Kissinger and left for California.

In November 1973, long before it was clear that Richard Nixon would be driven from office, the noted historian Arthur Schlesinger explained in his essay, “The Runaway Presidency,” why Nixon’s malfeasance was unique, and why it would eventually lead to his downfall:

“The presidency has been in crisis before; but the constitutional offense that led to the impeachment of Andrew Johnson was trivial compared to the charges now accumulating around the Nixon Administration. There are, indeed, constitutional offenses here but…what is unique in the history of the presidency is the long list of potential criminal charges against the Nixon Administration.”


When the Watergate burglars were arrested in 1972 after breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C., White House press secretary Ron Ziegler dismissed the incident as a "third-rate burglary." The execution of the plot to burglarize the DNC may have been third-rate and amateurish, but that was not the essence of the vast criminal enterprise that would become known as “Watergate.”

Watergate is short-hand for the systemic, calculated effort conceived and managed from the inner circle of the Nixon White House to subvert elections, punish political enemies, undermine the media, and mislead the American people. President Nixon obstructed justice from the Oval Office, used the Internal Revenue Service to go after his political enemies, launched an illegal war in Cambodia, waged dirty tricks against his opponents, kept an "enemies list," was recorded in the Oval Office describing Jews as "aggressive, abrasive and obnoxious" and Italians as not having their "heads screwed on tight," had articles of impeachment against him approved by the House Judiciary Committee, and left a permanent stain on American democracy.

In short, President Nixon attempted to subvert our democratic institutions and flout the rule of law.

Our democratic institutions, however, are made of sterner stuff, and withstood the assault because in America, no one office or person is above the law.

That is why former FBI agent G. Gordon Liddy and former CIA employee James McCord, security director of the Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP) would be found guilty of conspiracy, burglary and bugging DNC headquarters. E. Howard Hunt, a former CIA operative and head of the White House “Plumbers” unit, and four others would plead guilty. In April, White House counsel John Dean, chief of staff H. R. Haldeman, domestic policy chief John D. Ehrlichman, and Attorney General Richard Kleindienst resigned amidst the growing scandal. On Oct. 20, 1973, President Nixon ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Special Counsel Archibald Cox, who refused, as did Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus. Solicitor General Robert Bork did not refuse and executed Nixon’s order, setting off what is now known as the “Saturday Night Massacre.” In January 1975, several high-ranking Nixon appointees—including H. R. Haldeman, John D. Ehrlichman, and John Mitchell—would be tried, convicted, and sentenced to prison. White House Counsel Charles Colson pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and served seven months. White House Counsel John Dean pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and served four months. White House Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman was convicted of conspiracy and obstruction of justice and served 18 months.

In all, more than 40 government officials were indicted or jailed.

As we look back on the Nixon resignation and his imperial presidency, it is worthwhile to reflect upon the statements of Rep. Barbara Jordan (D-Texas), who held the seat I currently hold, made during a House Judiciary Committee impeachment hearing:

“Common sense would be revolted if we engaged upon this process for petty reasons. Congress has a lot to do: Appropriations, tax reform, health insurance, campaign finance reform, housing, environmental protection, energy sufficiency, mass transportation. Pettiness cannot be allowed to stand in the face of such overwhelming problems. So today we are not being petty. We are trying to be big, because the task we have before us is a big one.”

The circumstances in which we find ourselves today do not call for pettiness. Nor do they call for twitter politics and spectacle. They call for leadership; a recognition that a respect for the rule of law and holding our leaders accountable for their misdeeds is a fundamental democratic responsibility. In August 1974, the vigilant and tireless efforts by law enforcement, journalists, and our nation’s leaders led President Nixon to ultimately yield to the rule of law. The saving grace of Richard Nixon is that at the end, he put the nation ahead of himself by resigning his office.

Arthur Schlesinger's 1973 essay appears prescient in its prediction that “corruption appears to visit the White House in fifty-year cycles.” As Schlesinger wrote, "If the trails are followed to their end, many, many years will pass before another White House staff dares take the liberties with the Constitution and the laws the Nixon White House has taken,” which “suggests that exposure and retribution inoculate the presidency against its latent criminal impulses for about half a century.”

Professor Schlesinger also offered a warning that “corruption appears to visit the White House in fifty-year cycles.”

Therefore on this historic day, let us remember that Congress is a co-equal branch of the government and has a duty to hold the executive accountable for misconduct, abuse of power, and high crimes, and misdemeanors. As Congresswoman Barbara Jordan declared: “My faith in the Constitution is whole; it is complete; it is total. And I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction, of the Constitution.” And today, let me further affirm that my faith in the Constitution is whole, complete and total.

Our nation is founded on the principle that all are equal under the law, and that one can only delay—never escape—the swift sword of justice. We must always be faithful to the duties imposed upon us by the Constitution.

Jackson Lee represents the 18th District of Texas and is a member of the Judiciary Committee.