Scott Tibbs

Mitigating the damage of the Watergate scandal

By Scott Tibbs, August 4, 2023

Looking back on President Richard M. Nixon and the Watergate scandal, the most tragic thing about this is how a popular President, on his way to a massive landslide victory, destroyed his second term with needless paranoia and led other men to commit crimes and ruin their own lives.

I have found multiple different numbers for the 1972 Presidential election, but it is safe to say that Nixon won by a very wide margin. According to 270 to win, Nixon got 46,740,323 votes, while George McGovern got 28,901,598. Nixon won 49 states! Yet even with his popularity and impending victory, Nixon was a deeply paranoid man. His paranoia infected his staff, and a foolish break-in scheme was hatched to steal campaign secrets from the Democrats. It was completely unnecessary.

It is likely that Nixon did not know about the break-in ahead of time. But once it was uncovered, he immediately went into cover-up mode. Nixon's interference with the Justice Department investigation and other things led to him resigning in disgrace to avoid impeachment.

Now imagine an alternate history: Nixon learns about the crime. He takes responsibility for the actions of his campaign staff, and apologizes on their behalf. He makes no effort to interfere in the investigation. He even cooperates. Even if he pardons the burglars, Nixon looks broad-shouldered and statesmanlike. He does not bring further recrimination on himself. He almost certainly is not impeached or forced to resign from office, and history looks back on Nixon in a much warmer light.

In this alternate history, Nixon completes a successful second term. It is very likely that Nixon's Vice President, Gerald Ford, defeats Jimmy Carter in the 1976 election - an election that was incredibly close despite the Watergate scandal roiling the country three years earlier. Carter swept the South, despite Nixon winning it in 1972. With Nixon's reputation at least partially salvaged, Ford may have held some of the Southern states that went to Carter. Reagan won most of the South against Carter in 1980, after all.

Nixon's paranoid self-sabotage is a lesson for all of us. If you do something bad, man up and own it. Take responsibility for what you did and be willing to endure the consequences of your actions. You may lessen the damage you did to yourself, and you will earn respect of both friends and adversaries. Obviously, it is better to not do anything bad at all, but taking responsibility and genuine repentance goes a long way.

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