Decade of Disillusionment: 1972–1980

Richard Nixon's Second Term and the Watergate Scandal

1972 Presidential Election

Republican nominee Richard Nixon easily defeated Democrat George McGovern in the 1972 presidential election.

The 1972 presidential election campaigns ended in one of the largest landslide victories in the history of the United States. Republican nominee Richard Nixon received 520 electoral votes. His opponent, Democrat George McGovern, received only 17—the electoral votes from Massachusetts and Washington, D.C.

Nixon entered the race as a popular candidate. He had two challengers in the primary elections—Rep. Paul McCloskey from California and Rep. John Ashbrook from Ohio. Nixon's visit to China in February 1972, the first by a U.S. president since the establishment of the People's Republic of China, was well received by Americans and seen as a positive step toward dismantling communism in Asia. Most Americans approved of Nixon's handling of the Vietnam War. He suspended the draft in 1972, and Americans were confident he was working to end U.S. involvement in the conflict. Nixon managed to avoid any direct conflict with his Republican challengers under the guise he was too busy governing to get involved in politics. Nixon and his running mate, Vice President Spiro Agnew, were nominated at the 1972 Republican National Convention in Miami, Florida.

There were 11 candidates in the Democratic primary field. Senator Edmund Muskie from Maine was expected to be an early front-runner. An emotional outburst while responding to personal attacks on his wife to the press ended his chances of being nominated. Another candidate for the Democratic nomination was Rep. Shirley Chisholm from New York. Representative Chisholm was the first African American to run for the nomination of a major political party. The large number of candidates diluted support for any single Democratic candidate.

McGovern was seen as a liberal candidate who opposed war and favored the legalization of marijuana. New rules for delegates at the Democratic National Conventions meant that the composition of each state's delegation to the convention had to reflect the makeup of the population in that state. Thus, young people, women, and minorities were better represented than in the past, and many in these groups tend to be more liberal than other Americans. Moreover, convention voting was now proportional—based on the popular vote in primaries—rather than the winner-take-all system that had characterized past conventions. By convention time the liberal McGovern was the clear nomineee, but the selection of a running mate for vice president proved problematic for his campaign. The popular Ted Kennedy from Massachusetts turned down his offer, as did Edmund Muskie and several others. McGovern finally offered the position to Senator Thomas Eagleton from Missouri. After learning Eagleton had been hospitalized and received care for psychiatric issues numerous times, McGovern at first said he supported Eagleton. Eventually, though, he asked Eagleton to step down. This negatively affected the public's view of McGovern's trustworthiness. Finally, Sargent Shriver was chosen as the vice-presidential candidate.

In the general election campaign, Nixon portrayed McGovern as a radical, far-left candidate. In the end, Nixon received more than 60 percent of the popular vote, while McGovern received 37.5 percent.

Watergate Scandal

President Nixon became embroiled in the Watergate scandal, a national issue that would lead to his downfall and eventual resignation.

Early in the morning of June 17, 1972, police were called to the Watergate Complex in Washington, DC, after a security guard noticed a door had been repeatedly tampered with to prevent it from locking. Five men were arrested for burglary, and the next day a short article about the break-in appeared in The Washington Post. Two of the journalists who wrote the article, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, would go on to uncover a conspiracy, known as the Watergate scandal, that would lead to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

The five men who broke into the Watergate Complex were there to burglarize the offices of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). Their goal was to find out what information the DNC had about Nixon that might be used against him in the upcoming election, especially any information about Nixon's financial dealings with millionaire Howard Hughes. Four of the burglars had experience working for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and one was involved with Nixon's reelection committee. Although the story was reported in the media, Nixon denied involvement, and voters did not care whether other high-level Republicans were involved. Woodward and Bernstein worked with an anonymous source nicknamed "Deep Throat"—decades later revealed to be the deputy director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)—to provide coverage of the story in the Washington Post.

The five burglars were tried in early 1973, and Nixon maintained he was not involved. To cover up his involvement in the affair, the president spread alibis around Washington and ordered the FBI to tamp down its investigation. The Senate voted unanimously to open an investigation into possible misconduct during the 1972 presidential campaign. The hearings were televised, and for over a year Americans watched as corruption and misconduct at the highest level of government were revealed. At the same time, investigations of Vice President Spiro Agnew's financial dealings led to his indictment on tax evasion and accepting bribes. Agnew resigned in October 1973 and pled guilty to a charge of tax evasion. Still, Nixon maintained his innocence.

However, Nixon secretly recorded many of his phone calls and conversations that took place in the White House. The tapes were subpoenaed. At first Nixon claimed executive privilege—the privilege of the president and other executive branch officials to refuse to disclose executive branch communications to the legislative or judicial branch if doing so would threaten national security or the workings of the executive branch. However, in United States v. Nixon, the Supreme Court ruled executive privilege does not outweigh the "due process of law in the fair administration of justice." The president surrendered the tapes, but they were found to have been tampered with. Nixon was then compelled to provide transcripts of the tapes, which became known as the Watergate tapes. These transcripts revealed his involvement in the cover-up. To avoid being impeached, President Nixon announced his resignation on August 8, 1974.

President Richard Nixon's Letter of Resignation

Published on August 9, 1974, President Nixon's letter of resignation from the executive office was only 11 words long.
Credit: Courtesy National Archives, photo no. 302035 (Nixon, Richard M. (Richard Milhous), 1913-1994, Correspondent)