Was the Ending Inevitable?
In retrospect, the denouement appeared inevitable—but it certainly didn’t feel like that at the time. Not until quite close to the very end, once the “smoking gun” was discovered and Republican leaders, in an act more of self-preservation than courage, went to the White House and told Nixon he had to go. If Nixon didn’t accommodate them, they would have had to stage a trial in the Senate and cast some—even at that point— difficult votes. Nixon, it must be remembered, still had a base. It was a foregone conclusion that the House would adopt the Judiciary Committee’s Articles of Impeachment: they had been arrived at through a process that—as envisioned by chairman Peter Rodino, his young strategist Francis O’Brien, and the calm, methodical, un-partisan counsel, John Doar—ended in three articles that were adopted by bipartisan votes and that the country overwhelmingly deemed fair. But even then Nixon’s departure wasn’t a sure thing. With his presidency hanging in the balance, Nixon alarmed to the end—there simply was no telling what this desperate, out-of-control (and, we now know, heavily drinking) man would do. It’s to be recalled that the Secretary of Defense, James Schlesinger, felt constrained to tell Pentagon military officials not to take any orders from the White House that hadn’t gone through him.
It wasn’t Nixon’s intent, of course, but the Watergate period ushered in an era of government reforms. Nixon had greatly expanded the president’s powers, and his downfall caused the congress to try to curb them or to take many of them back, as well as to reform some of its own procedures. In the 1974 midterm landslide for the Democrats, a reaction to Watergate, the Democrats picked up forty-nine House seats—the “Watergate Babies”— and gained five seats in the Senate. A flood of reform legislation ensued; among these were: campaign finance reform; the Freedom of Information Act, which gave citizens greater access to government records; more congressional committee deliberations were opened to the public; ethics rules for members the adminstration and congress, including a requirement to file financial disclosures; a Congressional Budget Office to prevent a president from refusing to spend funds authorized by congress (as Nixon had in his “impoundments”); authorization for special prosecutors to investigate alleged crimes in the Executive Branch; the War Powers Act, intended to limit the president’s power to wage war without the approval of congress (though this didn’t actually work as intended).
Some of these reforms had a more lasting impact than others; campaign finance reform remained the subject of an unending struggle, and the law’s impact was severely diminished by the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts once Samuel Alito replaced Sandra Day O’Connor, in 2006; some decisions upholding the campaign finance law were overturned two years later, and the Citizens United case reversed a century of limits on con- tributions by corporations. Justices who didn’t understand politics or had a conservative agenda gradually opened up our political system to great floods of private money aimed at fixing nominations and turning elections at several levels—and also at affecting federal and state policies. There weren’t great grounds for optimism about returning to the post-Watergate campaign finance reforms, in fact or in spirit.