Four Years at a Time
August 8, 2004 11:25 AM   Subscribe

"The President wants me to argue that he is as powerful a monarch as Louis XIV, only four years at a time, and is not subject to the processes of any court in the land except the court of impeachment." - James D. St. Clair, arguing before the Supreme Court in 1974.

The court didn't agree, returning an 8-0 decision and as a result, thirty years ago today Richard Nixon announced his resignation. The next day at 11:35AM it became official and Gerald Ford, the first unelected Vice-President in history was sworn in under the provisions of the 25th Amendment to the Constitution as the 38th President of the United States.

But what if Nixon had chosen to respond differently? What if he had vowed not to resign? Article II of the Constitution makes the President the Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy. Could the Supreme Court really have forced Nixon to comply with their order? What if the President had viewed the Court's order as an attempted coup d'etat?
posted by snarfodox (16 comments total)
I was under the impression that right before he resigned, the military said that they wouldn't accept any orders from him. Once the military disowns you, you're up a creek without a paddle.
posted by Stynxno at 11:48 AM on August 8, 2004

Too bad our current president isn't undergoing the same treatment.

Nixon wouldn't have dared not resign, i don't think--his party, and the country, wanted him gone--he had no support (he never really had much to begin with). I remember seeing his speech on tv, and him walking to the helicopter at the White House.

The Washington Post has a great multimedia section on Watergate.
posted by amberglow at 12:03 PM on August 8, 2004

If he'd vowed not to resign, then he would have just been impeached, wouldn't he? Or am I missing something here?
posted by reklaw at 12:15 PM on August 8, 2004

I'm with reklaw. The Supreme Court wasn't ordering Nixon to was ordering him to release the tapes. If Nixon hadn't resigned, it's almost certain that he would have been impeached and convicted, thus removed from office.
posted by Vidiot at 12:59 PM on August 8, 2004

Well, technically the court rejected his claim of Executive Privilege, which he might have taken as an attempt, by the Justices, to limit the powers of the President in favour of themselves. Given that he was elected by popular vote and they were appointed, and given that Article two gave him the status of CIC... it would have been a serious crisis if he had refused to hand over those tapes. Gerald Ford's inauguration address makes some references to that fact: “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over. Our Constitution works. Our great Republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here, the people rule.”
posted by snarfodox at 1:13 PM on August 8, 2004

Soldiers swear to uphold the Constitution. Even the C-in-C doesn't have the authority to make them do something unconstitutional.

But, of course, he or she could give such an order, and if some substantial plurality of the military opted to obey it, it'd be messy.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 1:22 PM on August 8, 2004

That reminds me of a question I'd like ask a Judge Advocate or an expert on military law. Soldiers swear to defentd the nation from all enemies foreign and domestic. Who determines what that means? If the brass decide that some Clintonian president is a disgrace to the nation, who could stop them?
posted by Octaviuz at 3:57 PM on August 8, 2004

It should also be pointed out that when Andrew Johnson was impeached, and then tried by the senate, much wrangling decided the following: it is a bad precedent to remove a president from office; therefore we will let him retain the title if the functions of his cabinet are effectively turned over to congress. So he was saved by 1 vote.
From that point on, Andrew Johnson was neutralized and his cabinet were subservient to congress, even though, for a time, he was in denial about the whole thing.

Nixon, most likely, could have fought it out with much the same result as did Clinton, though perhaps with a closer vote in the senate. However, procedurally, the senate is astoundingly conservative, so it is unlikely they would have convicted.

Perhaps it would be best to compare how the power of the executive branch would have been diminished in exchange for retaining Nixon vs. how it was diminished after Nixon resigned, anyway.

At almost any given time in US history, an argument can be made for reducing the power of the president, and a strong argument can be made that the executive branch needs to be severely limited in favor of congress. And this most definitely means right now.
posted by kablam at 4:48 PM on August 8, 2004

Kablam, I think the impeachment would have been upheld by the Senate. My understanding was that Nixon resigned because he was informed that if impeached, he would have been removed from office. I believe the leaders of his own party informed him that they would be voting to remove him from office, and he decided that resignation would be better than being forcibly removed.
posted by HiddenInput at 5:42 PM on August 8, 2004

It's interesting that given all the precedent, the current administration still thought that the SCOTUS might accept the argument that the executive branch is essentially sovereign.

As many have said, you can expect the Rehnquist court to be conservative in many areas except with regard to its own power. There, it is expansive.

Anyway, I strongly suspect that almost everyone realizes that the US Constitution's longevity, the health of the US, and "the system of checks and balances" requires the maintainance of a "noble lie" that avoids any constitutional crisis that could call the whole thing into question. Nixon's increasing authoritarianism as he lost support was, I think, deeply disturbing even to his most ardent supporters for this reason. A successful President avoiding legistlative and judicial scrutiny will do so with subterfuge and not outright defiance. A lot more like how this one has.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 4:59 AM on August 9, 2004

I think we'll probably find out the answer to a lot of these questions in November.
posted by bshort at 5:59 AM on August 9, 2004

While we're looking at these, can I just point out there there are few humans more embarrasing than Pat Buchanan? Goddamn media and Washington elites...

posted by vaca at 7:45 AM on August 9, 2004

homunculus, your link was insanely interesting, I'm very interested in the nexus between humanitarian aid and military intervention at the moment - thank you.
posted by dmt at 7:57 AM on August 9, 2004

It's interesting that given all the precedent, the current administration still thought that the SCOTUS might accept the argument that the executive branch is essentially sovereign.

EB, that was a public line of thought that Cheney floated a while back -- while being grilled for the energy record meetings, he made a not-so-veiled reference to Nixon turning over the tapes, and stated that executive privilege took a wrong hit back in the day. Why pretend Watergate and all its attendant issues happened when you can simply bully your way through it?
posted by solistrato at 11:00 AM on August 9, 2004

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