Happy Nixon Resignation Day
On this day, (August 9th, 1974), Richard Nixon resigned the American presidency. He did so in the full knowledge that he was certain to be impeached, that he could not possibly claim the loyalty of a majority of the senate and that it was therefore constitutionally impossible for him to cling to office any longer. Not even the president was above the law.
Now it’s easy to be cynical and note that other presidents have done far worse things than cover up the Watergate burglary, that other presidents have broken the law and served their full term(s) without undergoing anything like Nixon’s ordeal.
But such cynicism misses the essential point. Nixon’s resignation illustrates the fact that the United States possesses the legal machinery to hold their head of state to full account. And other countries (like Britain) do not. Of course, this machinery will only work if there is the political will to use it, but Watergate illustrated that at least in the USA, the people of a free republic can demand clear and transparent standards of conduct from their leadership, should they wish to make such a demand. The demand may be checked, confused, frustrated or otherwise thwarted in any number of detailed procedural and practical ways, but the machinery remains, rusty but ultimately undeniable.
For sure, politicians evade the legal consequences of their actions for much of the time. Watergate pales in comparison with misdeeds of presidents who have not only gone unimpeached, but who have had airports named after them. However, recognition of all the times when the system doesn’t work should not deter people from cheering when it does. We should cheer louder, in fact, and more urgently. Today, in short, is a good day and Watergate, far from being an “ordeal” was an inspirational civics lesson. The disgrace of a chief executive was the simultaneous proud vindication of a constitution.
Accordingly, Nixon’s resignation was a great day for American democracy and a chastening example for Britain – with no elected head of state, no procedures for impeachment, and no clear and absolute commitment to the ultimate rule of law, “rule of law” being a concept which if unrealizable in the near future, deserves to be preserved as an inspirational dream for some future generation.