The Unmaking of a President: Rethinking Watergate at Forty

AHA Session 46
Thursday, January 2, 2014: 3:30 PM-5:30 PM
Palladian Ballroom (Omni Shoreham)
David Greenberg, Rutgers University–New Brunswick
Beverly F. Gage, Yale University
David Greenberg, Rutgers University–New Brunswick
Kenneth J. Hughes, University of Virginia
Mark David Nevin, Ohio University at Lancaster
Katherine A. Scott, U.S. Senate Historical Office

Session Abstract

The Unmaking of a President: Rethinking Watergate at Forty

Roundtable Proposal

2014 American Historical Association Annual Meeting

Washington, D.C.

In 1974 President Richard Nixon, facing certain impeachment for his role in the crimes and scandals know collectively as Watergate, resigned his office, the only American president to ever do so. On the fortieth anniversary of Nixon’s resignation, our roundtable will reconsider this historic event in the light of four decades of scholarship. Individual participants will offer fresh interpretations of the existing literature, present new research findings, and suggest fruitful avenues for future scholarship. We will show that after forty years Watergate still demands the attention of scholars and still remains central to our understanding of the Nixon presidency. In addition to Nixon scholars, our roundtable should appeal to historians interested in the Sixties, the presidency, and post-1945 America.

Mark Nevin will discuss the ways in which public opinion polls shaped the outcome of Watergate. While scholars have tended to focus on either the role of the media or the role of legal authorities in Nixon’s downfall, he suggests polls strongly influenced both groups and, in the end, eroded Nixon’s support among another key group, congressional Republicans, who ultimately brought down the President.

Ken Hughes will discuss why he's concluded that Watergate was a cover-up of a cover-up. Most historians agree that Nixon obstructed the investigation of the Watergate break-in to conceal crimes committed the previous year by the Special Investigations Unit, the illegal, unconstitutional secret police unit (better known as "The Plumbers") that Nixon created in the aftermath of the leak of the Pentagon Papers, but Hughes contends that Nixon created the Plumbers to retrieve Top Secret documents on the Chennault Affair--Nixon's illegal interference with the Vietnam bombing halt negotiations prior to the 1968 presidential election.

While, forty years on, the history of Watergate is still written largely from the perspective of the White House, Kate Scott will discuss recent scholarship that places Watergate within the long trajectory of American political development. She will focus, in particular, on how that event changed the relationship between Congress and the executive branch.

Beverly Gage will situate Watergate within a longer history of power struggles between the FBI and the Nixon administration. She will discuss the peculiar and longstanding relationship between Nixon, the “imperial president,” and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, the nation’s pre-eminent “imperial bureaucrat,” and consider the relationship’s influence on the actions of former FBI associate director W. Mark Felt, Watergate’s elusive “Deep Throat.”

David Greenberg will address the return of Watergate in the last fifteen years as the defining aspect of Richard Nixon’s public career. In the 1980s and 1990s, historians began to ask whether Nixon’s achievements in foreign policy or even domestic policy might supersede Watergate, but since then, in popular culture, political commentary, and historical scholarship itself, such predictions have been confounded, as Nixon’s traits and behaviors associated with Watergate have regained their former prominence.

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