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Cleaning House: Watergate and the Limits of Reform

On the morning of August 9, 1974, Richard Nixon signed a statement that no American leader had ever before written: “I hereby resign the Office of President of the United States.” Nixon then walked out to the South Lawn of the White House, boarded the presidential helicopter, and flashed an incongruous victory sign with both hands, bidding farewell to his staff and to the American people. 

As his helicopter floated into the sky, Nixon seemed to be fleeing a United States that had hit rock bottom. The post–World War II economic boom had run its course, and unemployment was rising. Arab oil exporters had enacted a humiliating embargo, and the price of oil had nearly quadrupled. Although the last U.S. troops had left Vietnam, the unpopular war had eroded Americans’ trust in government. So had scandal in the White House. In the fall of 1973, Vice President Spiro Agnew had resigned over bribery charges. In the spring of 1974, nearly two years after Nixon’s operatives had been caught breaking into the Watergate office building, the House Judiciary Committee had held the first impeachment hearings of a sitting president in over a century. A month after Nixon’s resignation, President Gerald Ford would pardon his disgraced predecessor, fueling speculation of some sort of quid pro quo. From a high of 77 percent in 1964, Americans’ confidence in their elected leaders, as measured by the Pew Research Center, plunged to 36 percent by the end of 1974. 

Yet from these pessimistic depths emerged a powerful wave of government reform. The movement had been gaining steam during Nixon’s presidency, but it took off with the midterm elections in November 1974, which put in power 92 new members of the House of Representatives, 80 percent of them Democrats. The class of 1974 was a diverse group. It included veteran politicians, businesspeople, a consumer activist, a housepainter, a steelworker, and a urologist. But what unified this group was its members’ commitment to restoring public faith in government. The “Watergate babies,” as they were derisively called, had campaigned on a promise to shake up Capitol Hill and had little investment in its traditional protocols. When they were sworn in, in 1975, they joined forces with veteran advocates of reform who had long wanted to modernize the way Congress worked. Only once they had succeeded at that, the veterans lectured them, could they achieve the policy goals they cared about: a complete extrication from Vietnam, civil rights for African Americans, expanded opportunities for women, energy independence, and environmental preservation.

Over the course of the 1970s, these youthful idealists ushered in a series of far-reaching reforms. They democratized the operation of the House and the Senate to loosen senior members’ hold over the young bucks. They expanded transparency and accountability to counter unethical behavior. And they tried to make Congress a coequal branch of government to rein in a powerful executive. These reforms marked an important step forward in terms of democratic representation, ethics, and openness. But in many respects, they also backfired, leaving Congress more vulnerable to partisanship and special interests. For would-be reformers hoping to fight corruption and executive overreach today, the lesson is clear: proceed with caution.

Read entire article at Foreign Affairs