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

‘The Crucible’ versus ‘Life is Worth Living’: Cold War culture in 1950s America

Mad Men got me here. By that, I mean that it was watching the show about a 1950s New York City advertising firm that inspired me to study the culture of 1950s Cold War America. Observing Betty Draper struggle unhappily with a family and domestic life so singularly unsuited to her or Sal Romano hide his homosexuality because of societal expectations of the time raised important questions in my mind about the true nature of 1950s American society and culture. Unfortunately my research project wasn’t actually about Mad Men. Instead, it focused on what different historians have had to say about the period: a history of the histories written about it with an emphasis on their strengths and weaknesses and the similarities and differences between them. Was it a decade that should be remembered nostalgically for its safety, security and prosperity (as many ordinary people seem to do)? Or one in which the realities of the Cold War stifled dissent, creating an ugly and unprecedented culture of conformity in American society?

Bernard Levey family in front of second house

The earliest historical accounts of the decade were all reasonably consistent in their view; they perceived a striking conformity that permeated American culture and society throughout the 1950s. We can take one such book published in 1977 by historians Douglas Miller and Marion Nowak, The Fifties: The Way We Really Were, as representative of this. The authors saw the manifestation of this conformity in any number of ways, including in Americans’ re-embrace of religion and in the idolization of white, middle class family life in popular culture. Hence, there’s a chapter on ‘The Happy Home Corporation and Baby Factory’ and another titled ‘Ain’t Nobody Here but Us Protestants, Catholics and Jews’. They managed as well to label the decade in a way that has endured surprisingly well since – as ‘an Age of Conformity’.

The failing of these various early studies arguably lies in their tendency to overstate the degree to which the Cold War dominated United States culture and society. Miller and Nowak went so far as to claim that “absolute internal security and containment have remained fundamental U.S. objectives.” These books can’t just be dismissed as early studies that had it wrong because of this though. Indeed some of the arguments they made have endured and reappeared in later studies like Stephen Whitfield’s The Culture of the Cold War (1991). (In the bibliographical essay accompanying his book, Whitfield was particularly complimentary of another early study of the topic, David Caute’s 1978 book The Great Fear: The Anti-Communist Purge Under Truman and Eisenhower.) There’s undoubtedly a strand of the historiography that understands America in the 1950s to have been a time of great conformity, is able to support sufficient evidence to support such a thesis and will continue to be able to do so.


More recently, historians have begun to challenge the idea that the 1950s was a decade dominated by absolute conformity. The collection of essays Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Postwar America, 1945 – 1960, edited by Joanne Meyerowitz, is an example of this. One chapter, Recapturing Working Class Feminism, explores the role that the Union movement played in the 1950s in furthering female worker’s rights as well as the feminist movement overall. Other essays discuss an impressive array of groups – lesbians, female abortionists, hangers-on to the Beats and even women Chinese immigrants in New York City – and their efforts to advance their respective causes.

Conservative cultural historian Irving Louis Horowitz’s 1996 journal article, ‘Culture, Politics and McCarthyism’, was similarly contentious. He presents a quite contradictory view of 1950s American society and culture. To Horowitz the impact of the Cold War was largely restricted to the elites of society (the media and academia). Most ordinary Americans didn’t experience its affects in their day to day lives. In fact, in his view even in the realm of elites the 1950s was a decade of cultural production unsurpassed by any other decade in the twentieth century. It included Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams in the theatre, Miles Davis in Jazz, John Updike in fiction and Edward R. Murrow in the media. The point? That there were individuals and groups who didn’t conform to the culture of 1950s America and who sometimes even challenged it.

For the historiography of the topic to offer a comprehensive picture of Cold War culture in the 1950s, historians need to undertake further historical studies in a vein more similar to Horowitz’s ‘Culture, Politics and McCarthyism’ than Whitfield’s The Culture of the Cold War. The ways in which the Cold War permeated American society and produced a culture of conformity in the 1950s has been well documented. What has yet to be fully understood is the extent to which this culture was also ignored and challenged by various individuals, groups and institutions.

Select Further Reading

Caute, David. The Great Fear. New York: Touchstone Books, 1979.

Cobble, Dorothy Sue. “Recapturing Working-Class Feminism: Union Women in the Postwar Era.” In Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Postwar America, 1945 – 1960 edited by Joanne Meyerowitz. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994, pp. 57 – 83.

Horowitz, Irving Louis. “Culture, Politics and McCarthyism.” The Independent Review 1 (1996): pp. 101 – 110.

May, Elaine Tyler. Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era. New York: Basic Books, 1988.

Miller, Douglas and Marion Nowak. The Fifties: The Way We Really Were. New York: Doubleday, 1977.

Whitfield, Stephen. The Culture of the Cold War. Boston: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.