Who Shot the Sheriff? The Demise of the office of Presidency from 1950 to Watergate

Three Days of the Condor, All The Presidents Men, Enemy of the State, and State of Play. These four Hollywood blockbusters are just a few films in the ever-growing list of popular cultural stabs at the American political system and the office of the President.

Corrupt Senator: Ben Affleck in 'State of Play'

Corrupt Senator: Ben Affleck in ‘State of Play’

These stories of corruption and abuse of power would have once been considered blasphemous in the eyes of the American public, yet now they almost fail to raise a disinterested brow. Why?
Society and popular culture now regularly discredit the President and his constituents and the practice has become common place.
Yet what is more alarming? The fact that the President is almost expected to behave in a base and illegal manner at some point throughout his tenure? Or that no one is really surprised or truly cares that he does?
How did this once lordly office, a position of insurmountable prestige and power, become so dismantled, degenerate, so dubious?
The answer is as obvious as it is oppressing; the men who are responsible for the public cynicism are the men who suffer its consequences. And none are more guilty than Richard ‘Tricky Dick’ Nixon and his government’s involvement and cover-up of the Watergate Scandal.

Liberty Lost: Nixon Resigns amid 3 charges of Impeachment

Liberty Lost: Nixon Resigns amid 3 charges of Impeachment

In 1972, under the order of the Republican Party, the Democratic headquarters at Watergate suffered a series of break-ins and wire-taps. The burglars were caught and sentenced but the following two years saw the biggest cover-up scandal by high office in American history. The end result was the fitting, and first ever, resignation of the American President on August 7, 1974. To this day the two year debacle is widely considered the most catastrophic and damaging event the proud political system has suffered, and the ever-present legacies are firm reason for this.
Watergate not only changed the political statistics and the record books, but it changed forever the shape of American government and most devastating of all, the way the people of the United States perceived their President. Among the most dramatic changes to government were the developments of legislature;
The Sunshine Act passed in 1976 required government agencies to conduct all meetings open to the public; The Ethics in Government Act passed in 1978 required public officials to disclose their financial and employment history and it created tight restrictions on lobbying; The Presidential Records Act also passed in 1978 ordered the preservation of all presidential records and documents. These bills were most emphatic because whilst they provided a safety net for the voting public, they issued a backhanded warning of distrust to all future governments.
The most damaging consequence, however, whilst rather intangible, was the instant and infinite reaction of the public to turn their back a system that was forged and implemented by men of legend. Poor Presidents Ford and Carter felt the immediate backlash. In 1979 President Carter pleaded for a progression from Watergate and stated that the incessant problem was a “fundamental threat to American democracy…a crisis of confidence…that strikes at the heart…of our national will…a growing disrespect for government. ” Carter was right – the threat to democracy was real and active. The 1976 election polls tallied only 54.8percent of eligible voters, a number that was the lowest since the end of the Second World War .

Despite his profound and popularised claims to the contrary, Nixon was a ‘crook’ . And despite his responsibility for Watergate, the event was not the only to tarnish the Oval Office.
Previous governments and presidents had been more than compliant in their efforts to chip away at the golden armour of the most powerful man in the world and, beginning with Eisenhower, they paved the way for the capitulation of public approval for nigh on twenty years. Incidents and events including McCarthyism, the Assassination of JFK, the violent Civil Rights movements and most importantly the catastrophe of the Vietnam War, dominated a period renowned American historian, James T. Patterson identifies as, “so crowded with contradictions and complexities, so befogged with myths to glorify successes and expectations, as well as myths to justify failures and disgraces. ” The demise and distrust began here, with Vietnam the most comparable disaster to Watergate.
These events began the decline in public support and presidential infallibility, combining to combust with the crescendo of Nixon’s catastrophe.

Just as there is no clearing Nixon’s government of wrong-doing, there is no striking Watergate from History. The event altered the course of American politics forever but was not without a solid launching pad. The American Presidency has fallen from grace and those responsible, through action or inaction, are indisputably the American presidents.

Further Reading:

Ackerman, B. “The Decline and Fall of the American Republic” Harvard University Press, 2010

Finney, D. “Watergate Scandal Changed Political Landscape Forever” USA Today Newspaper, Published 16 June 2012

Frost, D. “Frost V Nixon” Television Interviews available online at Nixon Library, http://www.nixonlibrary.gov/

Jeffrey, H.P., Maxwell-Long, T. “Watergate and the Resignation of Richard Nixon: Impact of a Constitutional Crisis” CQ Press, 2004

Patterson, J. T. “Grand Expectations: The United States 1945-1974” Oxford University Press, 1996

Woodward, B. “Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate”  Simon and Schuster, 1999

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6 comments on “Who Shot the Sheriff? The Demise of the office of Presidency from 1950 to Watergate

  1. I thought this was brilliant to read. It had me captivated from start to finish and wanting to read your entire paper. I 100% agree with your points on the American presidency being tainted by the likes of Nixon which obviously has destroyed the superior reputation that the president used to hold. Im wondering, were many of your sources actually presidential and parliamentary documents or more based on how media and alike has perceived and have been willing to portray the presidency since the presidencies fall from grace?

    • edmorgo12 says:

      Thanks Scotty 😉 Yes the majority of the sources tended to be secondary as this was the greatest way to grasp public opinions and views. In terms of parliamentary documentation these are limited for various reasons; Nixon never actually faced Congress so he dodged a documented bullet there, and the records from the Oval office are recordings and tapes (available on the Nixon Library Link above). Otherwise the most primary way to unlock the tangible views of the public was through the polls and censuses and where that’s concerned, this guy is your man: Yankelovich, D. in Lipset, S. M. “The Decline in Confidence in Political Institutions” Political Science Quarterly, Fall Edition 1983 (also available online)

  2. emmabigham says:

    I love the title for this post! I enjoyed this post a lot, especially since I have not studied much American history. It is not surprising after Watergate, coupled with the agitation surrounding the Vietnam War, that the American public lost confidence in their government. I would have. It is surprising though, if only because it was America which is one of the most patriotic and nations most proud of ‘being American’. With something like Watergate having occurred however, it is no wonder that this crisis of confidence happened and shook the American public’s pride in its government. Great choice of topics- I would like to have read a little more about the events themselves though.

  3. carolynewmq says:

    This post was so interesting. It was something that I had never really thought of before. I realise the demise of the Presidency during the mid to late 20th Century but I had never really thought about what it was that actually caused it. I completely agree with the points you make about Watergate as well as controversies from JFK, McCarthy etc all playing a part in the ‘disillusionment’ with the office of Presidency. Do you think that without the Watergate scandal, there would be so much discreditation or distrust? What that the final ‘nail in the coffin’ if you like or would the build up of distrust over time be enough?

  4. jacquelinebrennan2013 says:

    What a wonderful and interesting read! I was captured from the first sentence, as I have a great interest in political conspiracy films such as those that you mentioned. However, I never thought too much before about the demise of the presidency and the lack of pride the public now often has for it’s government and president. This post has really got me thinking, and I have already had a gander at a few of the suggested readings you posted. Like another post asked, do you think that Watergate was the straw that broke the camels back, or the distrust had already been culminating and would have been inevitable with Tricky Dicky and Watergate?

  5. jesseclark9 says:

    Such an interesting project Ed. I know you have suggested that these events have resulted in a distrust of the office of president, but do you think this extends to a distrust of government on the whole? Your topic makes me think differently about contemporary US political issues, such as Obamacare. Do you think these two things could be related?

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