Thursday, October 10, 2013

October 10, 1973

Elizabeth Drew:


The phone call that comes in the early afternoon saying that the Vice-President has resigned is astonishing. I had thought about the event, even anticipated it. Now reality, as it has done in other instances, other contexts, has betrayed anticipation. We had been getting ready for this, and we hadn't.


The twenty-fifth amendment was only ratified in 1967. Up until that point, a vacancy in the vice-presidency would just remain empty until the next election; LBJ had no VP until Hubert Humphrey took office after the 1964 elections. So for the first time, a sitting president would choose a new VP, to be confirmed by a majority of both Houses of Congress. No one knew how long that would take; there were no precedents to consult.

In the meantime, Democratic Speaker Carl Albert was next in line to the presidency. That, too, was a relatively recent development. From 1886 to 1947, Congress was excluded from the line of succession, with the Secretary of State next in line. New legislation in 1947 put the Speaker back in, followed by the president pro tem of the Senate. So suddenly a president defending himself against a massive scandal also had a designated successor from the other party (and one who few would ever have thought of as presidential, for that matter).

Drew reports the list the Great Mentioner was churning out for the VP vacancy, or at least those who Walter Cronkite mentioned that evening: Nelson Rockefeller, Ronald Reagan, John Connally, Gerald Ford, Hugh Scott, William Rogers, Elliot Richardson, Melvin Laird, George Bush, William Scranton, and Howard Baker.

Nixon still wanted Connally; he had wanted Connally in 1972, but had believed party regulars would resist him -- after all, Connally only finally formally switched parties during the 1972 campaign. Now, it was Democrats on the Hill who told Nixon they would not abide the party traitor.

Meanwhile, back on October 9, Peter Rodino's House Judiciary Committee staff had concluded their lengthy study of the topic of impeachment. Nixon's approval rating was down to 30% in the latest (October 5-6) Gallup reading, and fully immersed in Watergate. Still, impeachment remained to most people at this point a theoretical possibility. It wasn't yet something that was actually happening. But Richard Nixon knew what was in the tapes, and the special prosecutor and the courts were moving rapidly.


  1. One of the more interesting aspects of Watergate is that, even as his administration went down in flames, Nixon still retained the support of roughly one in four Americans. Presumably, they represent the same 25 percent who still approved of George W Bush even after the wars and financial collapse, or the 25 percent who approve of Congressional Republicans in the most recent polls.

    Here's a question: do those 25 percent dead-enders represent something unique about the conservative mindset - obedience to authority, or whatever - or are there just as many Democrats who would never turn on their leaders, no matter how badly they mess up?

    1. I'm hesitant to say that there is something unique in the conservative mindset, as it's tough to find a similar situation on the Democratic side. Even Carter, history's greatest monster, was never as unpopular as Nixon or Bush.

      On the other hand, maybe the only real datapoint we have is Bush's 90% approval rating right after 9/11 (Or Bush 41's approval rating during the Gulf War). There are circumstances under which most Democrats will support a Republican President. I'm less sure the reverse is true. I have serious doubts that Al Gore would have had a 90% approval rating on 9/12.

  2. Perhaps an ultimate irony is that Carl Albert showed himself to be quite a Presidential figure (in the best sense) by working with Nixon to have Ford nominated and confirmed fairly quickly.

  3. It's no great work of history, but Jimmy Breslin's Watergate book, "How the Good Guys Finally Won" is a lot of fun for those who enjoy politics. Here's his description of what happened when Rodino's report on impeachment was published and a copy placed on the desk of each member of Congress:

    "When Tip O'Neill came in, he picked up his copy, thumbed it, turned to the last page, saw to his surprise that it was 718 pages long, and announced, "Peter did a hell of a job."
    He walked out onto the floor of the House. "Did you see the book Peter put together...What a job he did." [-snip-]
    Nobody read a line of the book, but everybody held it and looked at the last page to see it was 718 pages long."

  4. Isn't it amazing that the writer with cred on this topic today and the one I read assiduously at the time for her work on Watergate--Elizabeth Drew--is still providing substantive reporting and cogent analysis of Washington?

    I'll also never forget the way she looked at the very young and almost incandescent Cokie Roberts on the PBS coverage of the hearings. One got the feeling that she was as dazzling in person as she came across on TV. That this coverage was conducted by two women showed how fast women came to prominence in TV news. A decade or less earlier and there were hardly any reporting news on the air, nationally or in big market local stations.


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