Impeachment: An Historical Overview (Part 2)

Michael Christensen 01

Editor’s Note: This is the second of a four-part series by renowned public policy scholar Michael Christensen placing the impeachment of Donald Trump into historical context. Part 1 provides an introduction and an overview of the Andrew Johnson impeachment. Part 2 focuses on the impeachment of Richard Nixon; Part 3 will focus on the impeachment of Bill Clinton. Part 4 will provide observations and describe what history teaches about the Trump impeachment. (See parts one, three and four.)

Richard Nixon Impeachment: 1968-1974

Richard Nixon was born January 9, 1913 to Quaker Parents in Orange County, California. Though accepted to Harvard, he instead chose to stay home to help his parents with their family business and play basketball at Whittier College. In 1937 he graduated from Duke University Law School. While at Duke, his fellow students elected him president of the Duke Bar Association. He served in active duty in the Navy Reserve during and after World War II reaching the rank of commander before retiring. He started his law practice back home in southern California. A staunch Republican, he began his political career by winning a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1946 where he served two terms. Politically ambitious, he ran for and won a U.S. Senate seat in 1950. Just two years later, Dwight D. Eisenhower chose him to be his running-mate on the Republican ticket. The Eisenhower-Nixon ticket won. With the election, Nixon, age 40, became the second youngest vice president in history.  He served with Eisenhower for his two terms. In 1960 he received the Republican Party nomination for president, but lost to Democrat John F. Kennedy in one of the nation’s closest elections (Nixon lost the popular vote by 0.17%). In 1962 he lost to Democrat Pat Brown in the California governor’s race. Disconsolate, he told the media that they would no longer have the name of Richard Nixon to “kick around anymore.” Most believed he meant it.

Nixon’s Presidency

Despite Nixon’s comments about not running for office again, his political ambitions could not be quenched. In the years between his loss in the governor’s race and the 1968 Republican national convention, he lobbied state and national Republicans for one more shot at the presidency. In 1968 he received the Republican nomination again. In another very close election, Nixon beat Democrat Vice President Hubert Humphrey and American Independent candidate Alabama Governor George Wallace in November. It was a popular vote squeaker: Nixon 31,783,783 (43.4%), Humphrey 31,271839 (42.7%), and Wallace 9,901,118 (13.5%). The electoral vote, as is often the case, was wider: Nixon 301, Humphrey 191, and George Wallace 46.

During the campaign, Nixon publicly called for the end of the Vietnam War. However, he increased bombing in Vietnam in hopes of bringing about victory. Instead, he only brought about increased criticism at home. Nixon’s domestic agenda received strong support, however, and he proved to be a very effective president. He bolstered the conservation movement by signing the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. He declared War on Drugs and created affirmative action programs for minorities. His greatest achievements were in improving foreign relations, particularly with China and Russia. With a strong economy as well, Nixon swept the election of 1972 by defeating South Dakota Democratic Senator George McGovern. The popular vote victory was massive: 47,168,710 (60.7%) to 29,173,222 (37.5%), the electoral college even more so 520 –17. 

Impeachment Origins: The Watergate Breach

On June 17, 1972, a group of men with ties to the president’s national re-election campaign committee were arrested at the Watergate building complex in Washing D. C. as they broke into the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters. The FBI immediately began investigating the break-in. The president’s press secretary stated that the president had no comment on this “third-rate burglary attempt.” However, Nixon aides began immediately destroying evidence and planted alibis around Washington while the Nixon administration attempted to distance itself from the crime. Then two young reporters from the Washington Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, began publishing several accounts of the administration’s misdeeds relative to the presidential election.

Impeachment Origins: Cover-ups and Indictments

The arrested burglars were indicted September 15, 1972 by a federal grand jury. The same month Nixon began his second term, the Watergate burglars either pled guilty or were convicted. Federal Judge John Sirica presided over the court where the burglars were charged. The judge received a letter from one of the burglars naming other White House officials involved in the crimes. A month later, L. Patrick Gray, Nixon’s nominee for director of the FBI, revealed in his Senate confirmation hearing that White House Counsel Aide John Dean had personal access to the FBI’s Watergate investigation indicating that Nixon had been receiving regular updates on the FBI’s findings. To keep his aides from testifying, Nixon invoked executive privilege and ordered his aides not to testify before congress.

Impeachment Origins: Congressional Hearings

The Senate became sufficiently concerned about the Watergate scandal that they created the Senate Watergate Committee. This soon-to-be historic committee began nationally televised hearings May 17, 1973. During those hearings, John Dean revealed he had spoken about the Watergate cover-up with Nixon over 35 times. Adding insult to injury for Nixon, presidential secretary Alexander Butterfield revealed the existence of oval office tapes dating back to 1971. Gaining access to the White House tapes became the great battle of the year. That same month, Attorney General Elliott Richardson appointed law professor Archibald Cox as Special Prosecutor of the Watergate scandal. As Cox’s investigation moved forward, he asked a federal court to require Nixon to provide the tapes. Nixon refused. Adding further pressure on Nixon, the Senate Committee also filed suit to get the recordings. In mid-October a federal appeals court upheld Judge Sirica’s subpoena requiring Nixon to hand over the tapes. Cox held a press conference stating he would continue to press the courts for the tapes. Nixon had had enough of Cox and on October 20th, ordered the Attorney General to fire him. Richardson refused to follow this order and instead immediately resigned. Richardson’s deputy, William Ruckelshaus also refused the president’s order and resigned. Next in line, Solicitor General Robert Bork carried out the order that night, completing what has come to be called the “Saturday Night Massacre.” Importantly, Robert Bork later appointed Leon Jaworski as Cox’s replacement who proved to be just as dogged as Cox.

The Beginnings of Impeachment

On March 1, 1974, a federal district court grand jury handed down seven indictments against Nixon’s closest aides and though Nixon was not charged, the grand jury named him an “unindicted co-conspirator.” The final blow to Nixon came when the Supreme Court handed down its decision in United States v. Nixon on July 24th. In a unanimous decision, the court ordered the president to hand over the subpoenaed tapes to the House Judiciary Committee. It went rapidly went downhill for Nixon after that. Three days later the committee began discussion of articles of impeachment and on July 30th, adopted three articles to be sent to the House of Representatives for a vote. The three articles were as follows: 1) Obstruction of Justice. The vote: 27-11, Democrats 21-0, Republicans 6-11. 2) Abuse of Powers. The vote: 28-10, Democrats 21-0, Republicans 7-10. 3) Contempt of Congress. The vote: 21-17, Democrats 19-2, Republicans 2-15.


Nixon begrudgingly handed over transcripts of three tapes August 5th, 1974. These tapes clearly implicated him in the Watergate scandal. After reviewing the tapes, Republican congressional leadership met with the president and informed him that he would be impeached and very likely removed from office by the Senate. Nixon realized the end had come and on August 9th, before the official impeachment proceedings began in the House, he resigned as President of the United States, an unprecedented and unique occurrence in United States history. That same day, Gerald Ford was sworn in as President and one month later, he pardoned Richard Nixon for any crimes he may have committed. The American people did not receive that decision well and it dogged him his entire presidency. Voters made their frustrations known in the 1976 presidential election which he lost to Jimmy Carter.

Where was the Public on Impeachment?

The month Nixon became president, his approval rating stood at 68 percent. Unfortunately for him, this would be his high. Public approval began dropping steadily as more and more information about the Watergate scandal came forward. By August of that year, his approval ratings had fallen to 31 percent. By November, they had dropped to 25 percent where they stayed for the remainder of his presidency. Over that time, the following newspapers urged the president to resign: The Atlantic Journal, The Denver Post, The Detroit News, and The New York Times. By July 1974, support for impeachment reached 48%. When he resigned August 5th, support for removal stood at 57%.

20200127 Impeachment chart

Dr. Michael Christensen is the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute Scholar in Residence. Dr. Christensen has spent over 35 years in the public policy arena. He served as Governor Norm Bangerter’s deputy director of the Office of Planning and Budget and State Planning Coordinator. He then directed the Utah Foundation, a private-public policy think tank, for nine years authoring over 100 papers. He was an editor and/or co-author of two books: “State and Local Government in Utah” and “Financing Government in Utah.” From 2000 until his retirement in 2017, he worked for the Utah Legislature as director of the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel. He holds bachelors and masters degrees from Utah State University and a Ph.D. in history from the University of Utah.