A defining moment in American history, the Watergate scandal, dramatically transformed the way Americans view politicians and government. In the eyes of most Americans, trust, honor and integrity, vanished from the political landscape.
For almost 200 years the American public viewed their government and its chief executive with virtual reverence. Presidents like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy were the embodiment of every principle and value set forth in the Constitution and Bill of Rights. The events that occurred in Vietnam coupled with the Watergate scandal shocked the nation and irreparably damaged the publics’ view of politics and government activities. The release of the Pentagon papers along with President Nixon’s sanctioning of illegal activities and his belief that it was “executive privilege” only fueled the outrage and betrayal felt by most people. The nation learned that ego and power can win over even the most venerable of men.
Prior to winning the presidential election in 1968, Richard Nixon was a Congressman and then vice president to President Dwight Eisenhower. He normalized relations with China, eased tensions with Russia, negotiated peace with the North Vietnamese and brokered a non-aggression pact between Israel, Syria and Egypt. Despite these accomplishments, his attitude about Presidential power led to a string of illegal actions and a cover up that not only rocked a nation but ultimately led to his resignation of the Presidency. "When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal" is a quote that Nixon is most remembered by and summed up his attitude regarding his actions and his belief in executive privilege. The transgressions uncovered during the Watergate break-in investigation discouraged Americans by shattering their belief in Presidential infallibility. As Richard Nixon’s chief-of-staff, H.R. Haldeman, said, “…comes a very clear thing: you can’t trust the government; you can’t believe what they say; and you can’t rely on their judgment; and the – the implicit infallibility of presidents, which has been an accepted thing in America, is badly hurt by this, because it shows that people do things the President wants to do even though it’s wrong, and the President can be wrong.” These words expressed the sentiment of most Americans following Watergate and the publicity surrounding the investigation and President Nixon’s subsequent resignation.