Sunday, 15 July 2012

What if? Richard Nixon Resigned in November 1973

In my mind, he is easily the most fascinating of all American Presidents. His personal demons, his paranoid character and his machiavellian willingness to do whatever was required to maintain his position undermined his role as one of the most powerful men in the world.

The inevitability of his position with Watergate was for many, apparent long before his eventual resignation in August 1974. But as a historian, I find the counterfactual 'What If' question of an earlier resignation one that just can not be ignored.

President Nixon (1969-1973?)
One that I have only recently considered is that of an earlier Nixon resignation - some 9 months previously to be precise. My scenario of a resignation in early November 1973 rests on a visit by Nixon's lawyers J. Fred Buzhardt and Leonard Garment to the President whilst he was on a break from Washington in Miami, Florida as explained by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in their coverage of Nixon's 'Final Days'. They flew to meet him on November 3rd 1973 with the express intention of advising him to resign as President due to the growing evidence against him.

But before meeting with Nixon, the two White House lawyers had to convince his new Chief of Staff General Alexander Haig Jnr and his Press Secretary Ronald L. Ziegler that their severe recommendation was necessary. As it turns out, they were refused access to the President and when Haig took their message to Nixon himself, he was unsurprisingly not receptive and unwilling to entertain his advisors or their opinions in person.

What if?
The fact that Nixon refused to countenance the idea of resignation at this period is not unexpected but, taking a leap of faith, what if he had?

Nixon was under increasing pressure with the web of deceit that he had woven slowly closing in on him. The US Court of Appeals had the previous month on October 12th upheld Judge Sirica's order that Nixon must surrender his taped recordings. Then just days later on October 20th, the 'Saturday Night Massacre' saw the firing of the Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox and the resignation of Attorney General Elliott L. Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus. Nixon was under increasing pressure and in early November had escaped the media scrutiny for some privacy in Florida and under such growing levels of anxiety, may have balked under the pressure and done what had been recommended to him by two of his closest advisors.

But in early November 1973, there was no Vice-President. Spiro Agnew had resigned due to tax evasion charges on October 10th and whilst House Minority Leader Gerald Ford had been nominated for the Vice-Presidency by Nixon on October 12th, he would not take the oath of office until December 6th having by then been confirmed by both Houses of Congress.

So when Buzhardt and Garment arrived in Florida, they knew that if Nixon were to accept their advice, it would cause a constitutional crisis. Their advice however was based on the presumption that Nixon would wait for Ford's confirmation by Congress and would then immediately step down to allow Ford to become the President as of course is precisely what happened 8 months later.

But what if Buzhardt and Garment had persuaded Haig of the need to meet with Nixon in person to give him their grim assessment of the situation and what if his temperamental nature had gotten the better of him on this occasion and led him to decide to resign with immediate effect?

Acting President Carl Albert
Any West Wing connoisseurs with a keen knowledge of the 4th series cliff-hanger would be able to tell you that the 2nd in line of succession to the American Presidency after the Vice-President is the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives.
Acting President
Carl Albert (1973-?)

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So it would be that on November 4th 1973 after the shock, sudden resignation of President Richard M. Nixon and with no Vice-President in position to take on the position of the Presidency as prescribed by Section 1 of the XXV Amendment to the Constitution, it was the 2nd in line of succession as prescribed by the 1947 Presidential Succession Act, Speaker Carl Albert, who became Acting President of the United States - the first time in the 197 year history of the Republic that the Commander-in-Chief was neither the elected or appointed President or Vice President.

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This of course was not the first time that the 2nd in line had been a heartbeat away from the Presidency. Indeed quite incredibly, there have been 40 occasions where this has been the case before and since including as recently as 2007. Indeed, under the 1792 Succession Act, on two occasions, for 21 days in 1881 on the death of President Garfield and for 12 days in 1885 after the death of Vice-President Hendricks, there was no constitutional successor to the incumbant President. So in the 236 year history of the USA, there were 33 days in which the nation was a heartbeat away from a constitutional crisis of the highest order with no designated alternative in place to take the reigns of power in the event of the death of the President. The Presidential Succession Act of 1886 at least made sure that such an anomolous event could not in any realistic likelihood ever occur again.

But going back to 1973, had Speaker Albert suddenly found himself in the position of being Acting President and in so doing, having to resign his position as Speaker of the House, he would only have been in such a position for some 4 weeks before Ford's confirmation as Vice-President would have instantly elevated him to the Presidency.

But, as a Democratic Acting President serving in the middle of a Republican term of office (in exact contrast to the portrayal given in the early episodes of series 5 of the West Wing), partisan politics could've caused another constitutional crisis had the political will been so inclined. With a Democratic governed House and Senate, the leading party could've blocked Ford's confirmation and in so-doing, extend Acting President Albert's term of office. Indeed, with a majority in both Houses of Congress, the Democrats could have put up their own alternative for Vice-President to lead the nation through to the next Presidential elections in 1976.

The Watergate prosecutions could've continued and with no certainty of a Presidential pardon for disgraced former President Nixon as was given to him by Ford in the summer of 1974, he may well have have been charged with criminal acts such as perjury, conspiracy and obstruction of justice and imprisoned as would happen to his former Chief of Staff H.R. 'Bob' Haldeman.

An Inconceivable Possibility?
A leap of faith it is of course and a rather far fetched one at that. The politics of the situation would have made any such political manouverings in a time of constitutional crisis deeply unpopular.

But, under the constitutional provisions as laid down by the XXV Amendment and by the 1947 Presidential Succession Act, such an eventuality could have occurred.

Life can hinge on such key moments or chances of fate. Whilst we have never witnessed such an event in real-life policial American history, we have at least seen what could happen in fictional programmes such as The West Wing.

It could've happened back in 1973 had Buzhardt and Garment been ever so slightly more persuasive in their argument.


  1. I love "what if" scenarios as its fairly easy to look back into history and look at it from a different point of view.

    But I can only say that we must live with the present and to the future as we cannot change what has happened. They didnt even manage to change history in the Time Tunnel TV series that I loved as a teenager in the 70's.

    So what if the world had stood up to Hitler in (say) 1936 or 1937, we could have seen say a few hundred thousand deaths and Hitler restrained or removed. But that could have saved the loss of the 60 millions lives in WW2.

    We have to accept Nixon resigned in 1974 and I remember watching his resignation speech at the time.

  2. All these fascinating 'what if' scenarios, assumes that there is no possibility of another reason for Watergate. what if it was a coup from the extreme right but executed by the right wing press?

    The recent exposures of problems with the veracity of the original story (Jeff Himmelman's book on Ben Bradlee and also the suppression of certain aspects of the Watergate arrests by the authorities.

    Was Nixon's crime any worse than those of other presidents before and after him?

    Why was the arrest at the THIRD attempt to raid Watergate?
    Why were the dollar bills on the culprits have consecutive serial numbers?
    Why was H Hunt's details in the address books of TWO of the arrested Cubans.
    Why was all the evidence pointing in the direction of the Nixon White House?

    Read my hypothesis in Watergate - The Political Assassination.