Friday, April 15, 2011

Nixon, Agnew, Connally, Ford & Watergate

A few years ago I read Jules Witcover's Very Strange Bedfellows: The Short and Unhappy Marriage of Richard Nixon & Spiro AgnewThe book was quite an intriguing read as it portrayed both Nixon and Agnew in a much more sympathetic light than the press ever had.  It didn't excuse them their transgressions but it did provide some insight into why they did the things they did.

I was born just a few weeks before the 1976 election in the waning months of Gerald Ford's presidency so I missed the Watergate scandal.  Witcover's book took me back to 1968 when Nixon chose Agnew as his VP and made me feel as if I'd actually been there and witnessed the political events of 1968-1974 firsthand.

Some interesting points that Witcover made:
  1. Nixon regretted choosing Agnew as his running mate early into his presidency.  As such Agnew was largely kept out of the loop.  When Agnew wanted to meet with Nixon he often ended up having to settle for meeting with Haldemen and/or Ehrlichmann instead.  Agnew knew nothing of the Watergate break-in until the Woodward & Bernstein story broke.  He found out about it at the same time as the rest of the country.
  2. Nixon wanted to drop Agnew from the ticket in 1972 and replace him with former Texas governor (and Democrat) John Connally on a cross-party ticket (the same John Connally who was injured in the Kennedy Assassination).  Incidentally Connally later switched parties and ran for president as a Republican in 1980 but was largely considered an "also-ran" candidate whose numbers didn't come close to Reagan or George H.W. Bush.
  3. While Agnew knew he was being investigated for income tax evasion he felt he was innocent and that he would beat the charges.  Initially he was concerned and approached Nixon asking if the Watergate break-in was anything he should have to worry about.  Nixon reassured him that he shouldn't concern himself with it and that everything was under control.
  4. Agnew wanted to fight the charges against him, he was willing to be impeached because he felt he'd be cleared in the impeachment hearings.  
  5. Nixon wanted to resign long before he inevitably did.  The Watergate Scandal weighed heavily on him and he just wanted to put the whole mess behind him and get on with his life.  The trouble was Agnew was still the VP and Nixon felt the charges against him would bring him down.  He felt the last thing this country needed was 2 consecutive presidents brought down by scandal-- him resigning and Agnew likely being removed from office via impeachment.  Nixon only stuck around as long as he did to ensure that Agnew would not be the next president.
  6. Nixon pressured Agnew to resign.  At first Agnew was adamantly against the idea.  He smelled blood and felt the Watergate Scandal would bring down Nixon making him the next president.  As the evidence against Agnew snowballed, Nixon was eventually able to convince Agnew to resign.  After Agnew's resignation the 2 men never spoke again.  Agnew finally forgave Nixon and attended his funeral in 1993.  As a sign of goodwill, Nixon's daughters in turn attended Agnew's funeral in 1996. 
  7. Nixon's first choice to replace Agnew was John Connally.  He knew at that point he would be resigning and that Connally would inevitably be the next president.  However Connally had made a lot of enemies in his own party when he led a group called "Democrats for Nixon" in 1972.  Nixon adviser Alexander Haig advised him against appointing Connally as he felt that the senate confirmation hearings would be a long drawn out and largely controversial affair and that Congress would likely nix the appointment forcing Nixon to appoint someone else and having to go through the whole process all over again.  Nixon wanted out and wanted out bad.  Haig recommended the far less controversial Gerald Ford with the idea the confirmation hearings would be a mere formality and that he'd be approved without much fuss.
Being a student of (not to mention having a degree in) history and also being a fan of speculative fiction I do sometimes ponder the "what ifs."  What if Nixon had been brought down before Agnew had resigned?  What if Nixon had replaced Agnew on the ticket with John Connally in '72?  Would he have resigned sooner knowing his replacement was someone he actually liked as opposed to someone he viewed as a very regrettable mistake?  With Connally in line to take over, would Nixon have resigned soon enough to prevent his legacy from being tarnished as much as it was?  While Connally would likely have pardoned Nixon just as Ford did-- would the political fall-out from a pardon have been as bad if Nixon had resigned before his involvement in Watergate had been uncovered?  Let's look at this another way:

Nixon replaces Agnew on the '72 ticket with John Connally.  Because the ticket is bipartisan Nixon wins in a landslide (He defeated McGovern in a landslide anyway, but imagine how much more of a landslide it would have been with a cross-party ticket?) CREEP is never formed, the Watergate break-in never occurs.


Connally replaces Agnew on the ticket in '72.  The Watergate break-in still occurs.  Connally is kept out of the loop (for very different reasons than Agnew was) and he finds out about it at the same time as the rest of the country.  Nixon resigns immediately saying something to the effect of "While I did not order the break-in, I was aware of it and I let it happen.  As president, that is unexcusable.  As such I will be resigning effective noon tomorrow at which point Vice President Connally will be sworn in."  I don't know a lot about John Connally-- at least not as far as his personality is concerned.  Would he have felt betrayed that Nixon kept him out of the loop?  Would he have felt relieved that in being kept out of the loop his reputation would have remained unsullied by the political fall-out associated witht he break-in?  If he had felt betrayed would he have pardoned Nixon the way Ford did or would he have let Nixon go on trial for his misdeeds?  Would the justice department even have pursued a trial if Nixon had resigned immediately or would they have considered his resignation from office in disgrace to be punishment enough and dropped the charges against him?

And here's another curveball-- If Gerry Ford had not pardoned Nixon would he have been elected in 1976 or would he still have lost to Carter?  Or if he'd pardoned Nixon but done so sooner would it have cost him the GOP nomination and put Ronald Reagan on the ticket in his place? 

There is a part of me that wishes I had been around for the spectacle of the Agnew vice presidency.  William Safire & Pat Buchanan wrote some brilliant speeches for Agnew.  All politics aside getting Agnew riled up and referring to the press as "nattering nabobs of negativity" would have been quite an amusing departure from otherwise dry political speeches.  And from what I've read Agnew was a considerably more adept public speaker than many of the subsequent vice presidents we've had.  I don't know how well or poorly he might have ended up executing the office of the presidency had a different turn of events landed him in the Oval Office. 

I think the closest we've come in recent history to an Agnewesque political figure is Rod Blagojevich.  Luckily, for our country (but unfortunately for Illinois) he was brought down before he was elevated to any political office at the federal level. 


Tender Heart Bear said...

To me in some books like that it is really hard for me to think that is really what had happened. I was about 12yrs old when that all happened. It was all over the news and my parents were really upset with all of it. They would argue about the different points on it. I think Nixon did what he felt best to happen at the time.

I am really not into the politics. Look at what some of the Presidents have promised and they never go through with any of it. That is why I really don't get into it. To me a lot of them just lie to us to get them in there.

Tender Heart Bear said...

I remember some of this. I was about 12yrs old when it happened. I can remember my parents argued about this. They both had different view points on the whole thing.

I think Nixon did what he thought was best at the time. He would have done this if it was not best for the United States. I really am not into the politics. To me they lie to us just to get in there.