Original publish date: January 1, 2020
It’s the Friday after Christmas. Trashcans are filled with cardboard. Garbage bags, stuffed with ripped and torn wads of wrapping paper. News channels are remembering the events of the past year and recalling the names of the dear departed. The news story recaps are sometimes painful, occasionally lamentable and often met with a wince. And the political news seems designed, and is almost always presented, in such a fashion as to widen the divide. Each side trusting that they are in the right. Each side considering themselves the guardians of the future. Each side firm in the belief that times like these have never been seen before. In times like these, it is sometimes beneficial to cast a rearward glance just to see how we compare.
Friday January 4, 1974, forty-six years ago this Saturday, is worth a backwards glance. Jim Croce’s song “Time in a Battle” was at the top of the Billboard charts, “Earthquake” was number one at the box office, “All in the Family” and “The Waltons” battled it out for top spot in the Nielsen ratings, followed closely behind by “Sanford and Son.” Gore Vidal’s “Burr” was the preferred read and “Raisin” (the musical adaptation of “A Raisin in the Sun”) was tops on Broadway. The Vietnam War, on hold since the 1973 Paris Peace Accords of 1973 intended to end the Vietnam War, was declared “back on.” President Thiệu of Democratic South Vietnam announced on January 4, 1974 that the war had restarted and that the Paris Peace Accord was no longer in effect. And here at home, President Richard Nixon had problems of his own.
That Friday, President Richard Nixon refused to honor a subpoena by the Senate Watergate Committee to hand over tape recordings and documents during the impeachment proceedings. It would prove to be the beginning of the end of his Presidency and would lead to his resignation in disgrace eight months later. In Nixon’s hometown of San Clemente, California, the newspaper proclaimed, “President Nixon declined flatly today to produce any of the more than 500 documents subpoenaed by the Senate Watergate committee, branding the request “an overt attempt to intrude into the executive office to a degree that constitutes an unconstitutional usurpation of power.”
Addressed to President Nixon, the Senate’s request read (in part): “Pursuant to lawful authority, You are hereby commanded to make available to the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities of the Senate of the United States, on Jan. 4, 1974, at 10 A.M., at Room 1418 Dirksen Senate Office Building all materials listed on attachment A, hereto… Any or all records and documentation of access to the original and copies of tape recordings of Presidential conversations, from the Installation of the taping system to December 19, 1973 . . .President Richard Nixon’s daily diary for Jan. 1, 1970, to Dec. 19, 1973…Telephone records from January, 1971, to Dec. 15, 1973, for all phones in the following locations …” The request not only covered the Oval Office, the President’s offices in the Executive Office Building and in Key Biscayne and Camp David, it also included the offices and homes of Nixon’s secretary Rosemary Woods and aides Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Haig, Colson, E. Howard Hunt. All names that by now were as familiar as those found in any boxscore or line-up of the most popular sports teams in the country.
In a letter addressed to committee chairman (North Carolina Senator Sam J. Ervin Jr. Democrat), Nixon refused to supply recordings of his Oval Office conversations or any related written materials. The letter arrived on Capitol Hill three hours past the deadline set by the committee to hand over the documents. Speaking to reporters at the Western White House, “La Casa Pacifica” in San Clemente, Deputy Presidential Press Secretary Gerald L. Warren declined to say what his boss’s next move would be, or to comment on Federal Judge John J. Sirica’s threat of contempt-of-court action against Nixon.
Nixon wrote to Ervin, “Only six months ago, your committee concluded that recordings of five conversations were necessary for your legislative determination…Now, in one subpoena alone, you list, with widely varying precision some 492 personal and telephone conversations of the president ranging in time from mid-1971 to late 1973 for which recordings and related documents are sought; and, in addition, in the same subpoena, recordings and related documents are sought for categories of presidential conversations, identified only by participants and time spans measured in months and years.”
President Nixon responded to Ervin’s request for papers (in particular that of his personal diary) that “formulation of sound public policy requires that the president and his personal staff be able to communicate among themselves in complete candor, and their tentative judgments, their exploration of alternatives, and their frank comments on issues and personalities at home and abroad, remain confidential,” and that “even limited selected disclosures of presidential confidences would inevitably result in the attrition, and the eventual destruction of the indispensable principle of confidentiality of presidential papers.”
Nixon told Ervin, that honoring any such Congressional request “would unquestionably destroy any vestige of confidentiality of Presidential communications, thereby irreparably impairing the constitutional function of the office of the Presidency. Neither the judiciary nor the Congress could survive a similar power asserted by the executive branch to rummage through their files and confidential processes.” Nixon also argued that this “could seriously impair the ability of the office of the special prosecutor to complete its investigations and successfully prosecute the criminal cases which may arise from the grand juries.” The President closed by saying, “that in the current environment, there may be some attempt to distort my position as only an effort to withhold information.” But he emphasized that he took his position today to protect the presidency “against incursions by another branch, which, I believe, as have my predecessors in office, is of utmost constitutional importance.”
At San Clemente, Warren explained that Nixon “was sticking to his long-standing principle of adhering to the tradition of the separation of power; and that when he handed over some of the Watergate tapes to Sirica last year, it was “an extraordinary step, and he was making exception.” That same day, Nixon announced a shake-up of his legal team. He elevated acting White House counsel Leonard Garment to the post of special assistant to the President while J. Fed Buzhardt Jr. moved from special Watergate counsel to the position of counsel to the President (the post formerly held by John W. Dean III; fired by Nixon) and the hiring of James D. St. Clair as Watergate counsel.
Also that day, the January 4, 1974 issue of “Christianity Today” hit the newsstands. The publication’s founder, the Reverend Billy Graham, had been under pressure from the religious community to speak publicly on Watergate and rebuke President Nixon. If not to rebuke the President, than at least to disassociate himself from identification with the White House inner circle. Graham had presided over Christmas at the White House a month before in services attended by the President and Mrs. Nixon, Vice-President and Mrs. Ford, Senator Ted Kennedy and other dignitaries including many of those implicated in the scandal. Despite the urging by the editorial staff of Christianity Today to condemn the alleged cover-up, Rev. Graham explained privately that such an act would be ethically in poor taste and would ignore the sins of many others.
Graham instead remained more general in his remarks, even eschewing humorous suggestions by his inner circle that he preach on tithing in light of recent disclosures that Nixon reported less than $14,000 in total charitable contributions while reporting nearly $1 million over the past four years. The closest the evangelist came to the alleged scandal came when he spoke out on social justice. “We must remake the unjust structures that have taken advantage of the powerless and broken the hearts of the poor and dispossessed,” he asserted. But, he cautioned, “we all admit that we need some sweeping social reforms—and in true repentance we must determine to do something about it—our greatest need is a change in the heart.”
When asked what his reaction was to the invitation to speak at the White House during such a tumultuous time in Presidential history, Rev. Graham replied, “when Mrs. Nixon called, she asked if I would come and hold a Christmas service on December 16. Naturally, I realized the delicacy of such a visit in the present “Watergate” climate. However, I recognized also the responsibility of such a service and the opportunity to present the gospel of Christ within a Christmas context to a distinguished audience. I have said for many years that I will go anywhere to preach the gospel, whether to the Vatican, the Kremlin, or the White House, if there are no strings on what I am to say. I have never had to submit the manuscript to the White House or get anybody’s approval. I have never informed any President of what I was going to say ahead of time. They all have known that when I come I intend to preach the gospel. If Senator McGovern had been elected President and had invited me to preach, I would gladly have gone. I am first and foremost a servant of Jesus Christ. My first allegiance is not to America but to “the Kingdom of God.”
For the sake of retrospective historical context, it should be noted that up until this same time, the National Rifle Association had mainly focused on sportsmen, hunters and target shooters. With the dawning of this new Watergate scandal world, the NRA switched it’s focus to politics and began to map out its lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action (NRA-ILA). The next year, its political action committee (PAC), the Political Victory Fund, was created in time for the 1976 elections.
In 1974, just months after he and his father were sued by the U.S. Department of Justice for allegedly violating the 1968 Fair Housing Act in the operation of 39 apartment buildings in New York City, Donald Trump became president of the Trump-owned corporation, which he later named the Trump Organization.. The Trumps initially counter sued the Justice Department for $100 million, alleging harm to their reputations. The suit was settled two years later under an agreement that did not require the Trumps to admit guilt.
Conversely, in 1974, Hillary Rodham (Clinton) was a member of the impeachment inquiry staff in Washington, D.C., and advised the House Committee on the Judiciary during the Watergate scandal. Her duties included helping to research the procedures of impeachment and the historical grounds and standards for it. The committee’s work culminated with the resignation of President Richard Nixon in August. All the while, boyfriend Bill Clinton had repeatedly asked Rodham to marry him, but she remained hesitant. After failing the District of Columbia bar exam and passing the Arkansas exam, Rodham followed Clinton to Fayetteville, Arkansas. Bill was then teaching law and running for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Clinton lost that Arkansas congressional race, after-which the couple bought a house in Fayetteville in the summer of 1975 and she agreed to marry him.
Ironically, 33 years later, on January 4, 2007, Speaker of the House John Boehner handed the gavel over to Nancy Pelosi, a Democratic Representative from California. With the passing of the gavel, she became the first woman to hold the Speaker of the House position, as well as the only woman to get that close the presidency. After the Vice President, she was now second in line via the presidential order of succession. That same year, Kentuckian Mitch McConnell arrived to Washington, D.C. to fill a position as Deputy Assistant Attorney General under President Gerald R. Ford, where he worked alongside Robert Bork and Antonin Scalia.
There are many out there who will recall the year 1974 just as there are an equal number who were either not around or too young to recall that seminal year. 1974 fueled the discontent that would foment the remainder of the seventies. Patty Hearst and the SLA. Huey Newton and the Black Panthers. The Weathermen Underground network. All remained active and, in their eyes, relevant. And, although tattered and bruised, the Republic remained intact and the Democratic system survives. Proving once and for all that the more things change, the more they stay the same.