US News & World Report

By Nicole Hemmer

“Never forgive him.” So ends David Shribman’s invective-laden column about Richard Nixon, published to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the late president's resignation. Nixon’s crimes, Shribman argues, extended well beyond Watergate: He “poisoned our civic life” and turned the country into “a nation of cynics.” For that, “Richard Nixon deserves to live on in opprobrium.”

There has been no shortage of opprobrium for Nixon since he left office in 1974, a startling reversal of fortunes for a man who had been re-elected by overwhelming majorities two years earlier. But Watergate didn’t just turn the nation against Nixon. It triggered an enduring realignment of foes and friends. It turned widespread support into deep-rooted hatred. And it turned Nixon’s conservative critics into his fiercest and longest-lasting defenders.

For Nixon’s detractors, time did little to heal the wounds of Watergate. In the mid-1980s a journalist returning to the United States from abroad found an anger brewing against Nixon that seemed untouched by the passage of time. “I cannot explain this extraordinarily venomous sentiment, this blind rage that focused its attention entirely on one man and displayed not the faintest sign of forgiveness.

When Nixon died in 1994, Hunter S. Thompson penned a brutal obituary for Rolling Stone. The whole thing is worth reading, but here’s a taste:

He was a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president. Nixon was so crooked that he needed servants to help him screw his pants on every morning. Even his funeral was illegal. He was queer in the deepest way. His body should have been burned in a trash bin.

No love lost there.

And of course animosity toward Nixon ran deep in 1974, the year of his resignation. Just two years earlier Americans had delivered Nixon a landslide: 60.7 percent of the popular vote and 520 electoral votes. The election map looked like a love letter to the re-elected president, the country painted red from stem to stern, with two tiny dots of blue in Massachusetts and D.C. That effusive support evaporated with Watergate. Even many of those who pulled the lever for Nixon in 1972 clamored for his ouster in 1974.

Except for one group. A small band of conservatives fought tooth-and-nail against Nixon’s renomination in 1972, only to find themselves defending the disgraced leader when the public turned against him two years later.

In the run-up to the 1968 election, Nixon wooed the right, winning support from movement leaders like Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley, Jr. But three years later Nixon announced his intentions to open China and immediately lost conservatives, who believed that negotiating with a communist government was tantamount to waving the flag of surrender in the Cold War. A dozen prominent conservative leaders, known as the Manhattan Twelve, publicly suspended their support of the Nixon administration. A few of these then organized on behalf of Ohio Rep. John Ashbrook, whose No Left Turn campaign in 1972 offered a conservative alternative to Nixon until it fizzled out following a poor debut in the primaries.

That all changed with Watergate, which conservatives saw as a scandal trumped up by the liberal media to bring down a Republican president. Those who once derided Nixon now rushed to his defense; “Watergate,” Republican Sen. Jesse Helms said, “by a process of selective indignation, became the lever by which embittered liberal pundits have sought to reverse the 1972 conservative judgment of the people.”

A few months after Nixon’s resignation, publisher Henry Regnery — who had earlier said of Watergate “I can see no grounds for impeachment, or even to get worked up about” — drew this lesson from the scandal: “The most ominous thing about Watergate, in my opinion, is that it clearly demonstrates that the press and the bureaucracy, working together, can destroy the president.” True, these conservatives were less interested in exonerating the president than excoriating the press. But at a time when friends were few, these former adversaries made up the core of Nixon’s defenders.

This conception of Watergate as a liberal media witch-hunt endures in conservative circles, where Nixon remains a villain rather than a victim. In 2005 Pat Buchanan, who fought in the trenches with Nixon until the bitter end, called Watergate “a coup d'etat by an obsessed press.” Conrad Black talks about the “great Watergate fraud” and insists on Nixon’s innocence. For these Nixonites, Nixon isn’t due forgiveness — he’s due an apology. It’s a fascinating side-effect of the scandal: Watergate may have earned Nixon decades of well-deserved opprobrium, but it won him some defenders as well.

This article was originally published in the US News & World Report