‘When the President Does It That Means It Is Not Illegal.’ Where in Article II Is That Line?

June 11, 2012

by John Schachter

Let me make one thing perfectly clear, Richard Nixon was worse than we ever knew or imagined. That’s the key takeaway from Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s latest work in The Washington Post, some 36 years after their last joint byline. And as more and more tapes get released from Nixon’s time in office, we continue to see the pettiness, meanness, and darkness that consumed him.

The intrepid reporting duo detail Nixon’s wars on many fronts – against the Democrats, the anti-war movement, the media, and history itself. But it’s Nixon’s war against the Constitution and the entire American system of justice that dominates his record.

As we approach the 40th anniversary of Nixon’s astounding re-election in 1972 (and the 38th anniversary of his resignation), the enormity of his crimes and heinous actions have only become clearer over time.

Former Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sam Ervin (D-N.C.) said Watergate was Nixon’s attempt to “destroy, insofar as the presidential election of 1972 was concerned, the integrity of the process by which the President of the United States is nominated and elected.” But Woodward and Bernstein say that “Watergate was far more than that. At its most virulent, Watergate was a brazen and daring assault, led by Nixon himself, against the heart of American democracy: the Constitution, our system of free elections, the rule of law.”

For those of us who hold the Constitution dear, Nixon’s actions were obviously horrendous. But even more appalling have been the apologists who insist that the cover up was worse than the crime, the defenders whining that Nixon didn’t do anything that other presidents didn’t do, and Nixon’s own protestations until his death in 1994 (in his many books and public interviews) that he never did anything really that bad and certainly not criminal or impeachable.

Nixon might even have believed his lies. After all, this is the man who famously told interviewer David Frost, “When the president does it that means it is not illegal.” To Nixon, he was beyond the law and above the Constitution. Fortunately, members of both chambers of Congress – Republicans and Democrats alike – knew that wasn’t the case. And most Americans rejected Nixon’s claims of an imperial presidency ruled by a despot unaccountable to the law.

Woodward and Bernstein relate some of the excerpts from the Nixon tapes. There’s his obsession with Daniel Ellsberg, in particular (“You can’t let the Jew steal that stuff and get away with it. You understand?”), and Jews, in general (“The Jewish cabal is out to get me,” “The government is full of Jews,” and “Most Jews are disloyal … generally speaking, you can’t trust the bastards. They turn on you.”) There’s his disdain for the free press (“The press is your enemy,” Nixon told the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), which fortunately ignored his contempt and dug deep and aired his hateful views and criminal secrets.

To be fair, not everything Nixon did or said went against the letter or spirit of the Constitution. On August 8, 1974, Nixon uttered the following 10 words that certainly did their part to uphold all that our Constitution holds true: “Therefore, I shall resign the presidency effective at noon tomorrow.”

[image via Wikimedia Commons]