Columnist David Shribman: ‘I am not a crook’ — methinks Nixon protested too much

By their words the world knows them.

  • One word: Nuts! (Gen. Anthony McAuliffe’s written response to the German ultimatum that he surrender American troops during the Battle of the Bulge, 1944)
  • Two words: Not guilty. (Former President Donald Trump’s repeated pleas in response to legal charges against him, 2023)
  • Three words: Date of infamy (President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s description before a joint session of Congress after the Japanese attack a day earlier on Pearl Harbor, 1941)
  • Four words: I have a dream (Martin Luther King Jr. at the March on Washington, 1963)
  • Five words: I am not a crook (President Richard M. Nixon, speaking as the Watergate crisis unfolded, 1973)

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the time a president of the United States assured the public that he was not a criminal.

The occasion was the annual meeting of newspaper editors, occurring a half-century ago at Disney World, a venue suffused with an irony that was not missed at the time and is irresistible today.

The context was clear: Nixon, just a year after a landslide 49-state reelection victory, was facing questions about taxpayer-financed improvements at his homes in San Clemente, California, and Key Biscayne, Florida, and was on the defensive over the administration’s ties to the ITT powerhouse and the dairy industry. All those contretemps would be united under the rubric “Watergate,” which in the public mind, and in historical memory, became a term that expanded well beyond the 1972 burglary of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex in northwest Washington, D.C.

The Nixon avowal came in the wake of a controversy over a $576,000 tax write-off growing out of his donation of his vice-presidential papers to the National Archives — a move made just as the provision for deducting most of the value of printed documents was about to expire as a result of the Tax Reform Act of 1969, which stipulated that deductions for such items had to be limited to the cost of the paper on which they were produced.

“It’s Little League stuff by today’s standards,” John Dean, the White House counsel who seven months earlier warned Nixon of “a cancer ... within — close to the presidency,” said in an interview.

It also came four weeks after the Saturday Night Massacre, the dramatic firing of Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox and the resignations of Attorney General Elliot Richardson and his deputy, William Ruckelshaus, both of whom refused to push Cox from office. The task was left to the third in command in the Justice Department, Robert Bork, who would return to prominence 14 years later when his nomination to the Supreme Court was defeated in a bitter confirmation fight.

This set of events — which combined several elements, including debates over whether the president is above the law or can be subject to prosecution, and the disrespect of court orders, that are prominent parts of our own political culture — occurred long before half the current American population was born. For the other, older half, today’s debates are a reprise, a kind of Watergate on steroids that renders the Nixon controversies almost benign in comparison.

Even so, the text of the Nixon remarks is bracing: “People have got to know whether or not their president is a crook. Well, I’m not a crook.”

Those words did not go gentle into that good night in Orlando, and in fact before long, the 37th president would rage, rage against the dying light of his presidency.

For this much is largely forgotten. Nixon was the bete noire of liberals and Democrats at a time when all liberals were not Democrats and all Democrats were not liberals. Reviled for his enthusiasm for the Cold War and his ardent red-baiting, he was a punching bag for the press, with whom he had a lifelong relationship that was not love-hate (like Donald Trump’s) but instead hate-hate.

But after his defeat in the 1960 presidential election at the hands of Sen. John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts and his California gubernatorial loss to Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Sr., he went into retreat, emerging as the “New Nixon,” eventually winning the 1968 presidential race and giving an elegiac inaugural address. He told the country, “Those who have been left out, we will try to bring in. Those left behind, we will help to catch up,” and added, “We have endured a long night of the American spirit. But as our eyes catch the dimness of the first rays of dawn, let us not curse the remaining dark. Let us gather the light.”

This was Nixon in a different light. The light endured for a year or two. He enlisted Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a Harvard professor, to draft a universal basic income plan — what John Roy Price, involved as a young White House staffer in the effort, called “Nixon at his best, open and idealistic, at a time before things turned dark.” The proposal passed the House but not the Senate. Even the most progressive figure on Capitol Hill does not dream of passing such legislation today, surely not in the House, which is controlled by a new brand of Republicanism that Nixon would not recognize, though he might smile privately in appreciation of their tactics.

Things did turn dark, with an astonishing quickness. Nixon hounded his critics; they hounded him in return. Some of the tactics and rhetoric would be repeated at swifter speed and higher decibels 50 years later; Washington scandals and power struggles may differ, but there is an immutable rhythm and an unchanging pattern to them.

Nixon was both subject and practitioner of his era’s controversies. Trump, though in many ways not a lineal Nixon descendant — one respected established institutions and the conventional byways of American politics, the other does not — is the same. If Trump, currently the leader for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, is sent back to office, the pattern will repeat itself. It always does, and of course Trump does everything with a special brio, one that delights his supporters and terrifies his opponents. But all that is now, and the question of whether Nixon indeed was a crook was then.

“Of course he was a crook,” Jill Wine-Banks, a Watergate prosecutor, said. “His guilt was proven by all the evidence at all the trials, by his acceptance of a pardon, and by the public record. He was a crook.”