Geoff Shephard, writing at The American Spectator (“Troubling Watergate Revelations, Too Late to Matter“), argues in the affirmative:
August 9 is the 45th anniversary of the resignation of Richard Nixon [on this date in 1974], the only president in American history to resign or be removed from office. We know what triggered his resignation. He was already on the ropes after two and a half years of Watergate revelations, but what ended any and all defense was the release of the “smoking gun” transcript on August 5 . It showed that Nixon had concurred with his staff’s suggestion that they get the CIA to tell the FBI not to interview two Watergate witnesses.
As astonishing as it may be to Americans, who have been assured that the smoking gun tape is proof positive of Nixon’s early cover-up involvement, every person connected to that particular conversation now agrees that the CIA gambit was an effort to prevent disclosure of prominent Democrats who had made substantial contributions to Nixon’s re-election campaign under assurances of absolute secrecy.
I should know. I was there: a member of Nixon’s Watergate defense team, the third person to hear the smoking gun tape, the one who first transcribed it, and the one who termed it “the smoking gun.” Here is a much fuller explanation of what actually happened. But the bottom line remains unchanged. Nixon’s Watergate defense lawyers completely misinterpreted the tape, and their mistake ended his presidency….
But Nixon did resign — in the aftermath of the release of the smoking gun transcript. Three months later, when prosecutors sought to prove their allegation of Nixon’s personal approval during the course of the Watergate cover-up trial — with their witnesses having to testify under oath and subject to cross-examination — they were totally unable to do so….
By this time, however, the total refutation of their secret allegation concerning Nixon’s payoff instructions had become irrelevant. Nixon had resigned the previous August, and the smoking gun tape seemed to prove his early cover-up involvement in any event. Since no one knew of their allegation of Nixon’s personal wrongdoing, it was as though it had never happened, and no one could claim that Nixon had been unfairly hounded from office. The underlying facts — and their significance — have only emerged in recent years.
I will leave it to the reader to parse Mr. Shepard’s full argument, which includes portions of the transcript of the “smoking gun” conversation, which occurred on June 23, 1972. (There is a more complete version here.) I will say only this: If the “smoking gun” was not really a “smoking gun”, as Mr. Shepard argues, then Mr. Nixon probably got a bum rap.
Why? Because The New York Times published, in May 1974, The White House Transcripts, a compendium of the transcripts of Oval Office conversations pertaining to Watergate that had been released before the so-called smoking gun tape emerged. In those days, when the Times was still relatively fair and balanced — and dealt mainly in news rather than opinion — R.W. Apple concluded the book’s introduction with this:
Throughout the period of the Watergate affair the raw material of these recorded confidential conversations establishes that the President had no prior knowledge of the break-in and that he had no knowledge of any cover-up prior to March 21, 1973. In all of the thousands of words spoken, even though they often are undlear and ambiguous, not once does it appear that the President of the United States was engaged in a criminal plot to obstruct justice.
On March 21, 1973, when the President learned for the first time of allegations of such a plot and an alleged attempt to blackmail the White House, he sought to find out the facts first from John Dean and then others. When it appeared as a result of these investigations that there was reason to believe that there may have been some wrongdoing he conferred with the Attorney General and with the Assistant in charge of the criminal division of the Department of Justice and cooperated fully to bring the matter expeditiously before the grand jury.
Ultimately Dean has pled guilty to a felony and seven former White House officials stand indicted. their innocence or guilt will be determined in a court of law.
This is as it should be.
The recent acquittals of former Secretary Stans and former Attorney General Mitchell in the Vesco case demonstrate the wisdom of the President’s actions in insisting that the orderly process of the judicial system be utilized to determine the guilt or innocence of individuals charged with crime, rather than participating in trials in the public media [emphasis added].
In any event, the “smoking gun” tape proved to be Nixon’s undoing:
Once the “smoking gun” transcript was made public, Nixon’s political support practically vanished. The ten Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee who had voted against impeachment in committee announced that they would now vote for impeachment once the matter reached the House floor. He lacked substantial support in the Senate as well; Barry Goldwater and Hugh Scott estimated no more than 15 Senators were willing to even consider acquittal. Facing certain impeachment in the House of Representatives and equally certain conviction in the Senate, Nixon announced his resignation on the evening of Thursday, August 8, 1974, effective as of noon the next day.
A gross miscarriage of justice? I report, you decide.