There was one attempt to impeach a president during the first 185 years of the Republic — and three attempts in the last 46. Clearly, we are gaining experience.

Although Richard Nixon resigned in 1974, rather than face certain impeachment and conviction, it’s his case that most closely resembles the one now being assembled against Donald Trump. In both instances, an incumbent Republican president, desperate to win re-election, sought to sabotage the campaign of his chief Democratic rival.

That’s not the way we remember the Watergate scandal, of course. By most accounts, “Watergate” began when burglars, hired by Nixon’s campaign, were arrested after breaking into Democratic National Committee headquarters on June 17, 1972.

By that time, however, the main object of Nixon’s re-election campaign had already been achieved: the destruction of the candidacy of Maine’s Ed Muskie, the opponent he feared most, who had already bested him in political combat.

That was in 1970, when both Nixon and Muskie — perhaps the most admired U.S. senator of his day — faced off in separate addresses on national television the night before the mid-term elections. Nixon rolled out a “law and order” theme amid riots and student protests, while Muskie made a resonant appeal to reason.

Today, it’s difficult to imagine any senator going toe-to-toe with a president, but Muskie prevailed. Nixon wanted control of at least the Senate, but Republicans gained only two seats and didn’t defeat vulnerable incumbents; Democrats actually increased their House majority.


The results redoubled Nixon’s drive to win re-election by a big margin, unlike his narrow 1968 victory. As his aide, conservative firebrand Patrick Buchanan, wrote to him on March 24, 1971, “If Mr. Muskie is not cut and bleeding before he goes into New Hampshire, he will very likely do massively well there . . . Muskie today is a figure ideally situated to unite the warring factions of his party, and if they are united, that is bad news for us.”

Buchanan, and others, made sure that didn’t happen. In an effort involving both “dirty tricks” and criminal activity, Nixon operatives infiltrated the Muskie campaign from the outset. The first Watergate-style break-in occurred at campaign manager Berl Bernhard’s law office, with hundreds of pages of documents photocopied then replaced.

A courier between Bernhard and Muskie, the memorably named “Fat Jack” Buckley, was on Nixon’s payroll, and delivered Muskie campaign strategy memos to Nixon’s team, who leaked them to newspaper columnists. The resulting demoralization of the Muskie campaign, resulting in a futile effort to control information to stem leaks, was crippling.

There were other campaign problems, including poor fundraising, but the disinformation and the forged “Canuck letter” that preceded the 1972 New Hampshire primary unquestionably affected ethnic voting in Manchester. This led to the disappointing margin, less than 50%, that the press said Muskie must win over George McGovern — who turned out to be a far less capable nominee.

Watergate may have felled a president, but also helped him win re-election, leading to consequences we still live with. One is the diminution of Congress as a counterweight to the awesome power of the contemporary presidency; Nixon’s “imperial presidency” has only grown.

If Congress is now to go about impeachment successfully, it will need help from the courts in enforcing its legal prerogatives, given the White House’s predictable stonewalling. That’s something Congress did not get post-Watergate, when the Supreme Court gutted the campaign financing system it had installed to replace the one Nixon abused — the first of many bad high court decisions, culminating in Citizen’s United.


The big difference between Nixon and Trump’s efforts is that Nixon’s proceeded secretly until the Watergate break-in. Muskie’s campaign team suspected a primary opponent might be behind the sabotage, but never imagined an incumbent president would stoop to it.

By contrast, Donald Trump announced his intention to take out Joe Biden, then the front-runner, in a call to Ukraine’s leader with at least a dozen people listening. Doubling down by inviting China to do the same only increases the absurdity — as Vladimir Putin, saboteur of the 2016 election, waits in the wings.

Trump may match Nixon’s political malevolence, but he lacks his predecessor’s Machiavellian skills. As a result, his misconduct is right there in front of us, awaiting the verdict the citizenry will ultimately provide.

The other difference is that we have more experience — we know more about what presidents will do when they campaign solely as power-seekers, and not to govern.

It’s not too early to predict that our democracy will soon face its biggest test — at least since Watergate, and possibly long before that.

Douglas Rooks, a Maine editor, opinion writer and author for 34 years, has published books about George Mitchell, and the Maine Democratic Party. He welcomes comment at [email protected] 

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: