The biggest obstacle to Mr. Nixon’s resignation may be his fear of going to jail. So long as he stays in the White House, he is safe. As President, he has the power to hamper investigation, drag out litigation, and block his own prosecution.
He has yet to be proven guilty, but he seems in no hurry to prove himself innocent either. If—as seems clear—he wants at any cost to avoid trial of the issue, his best barricade is the White House fence. Once he is put out of office, his position is not much better than that of Mitchell or Stans, Haldeman or Ehrlichman, or any other citizen.
While others talk of capacity to govern, Mr. Nixon’s first concern may be to avoid conviction. From that point of view, much that has happened and much that will happen may still seem desperate but will no longer seem foolish or irrational. When Senator Jackson (echoing Goldwater) asked Mr. Nixon to go before the Ervin committee and “lay his cards on the table,”1 he was asking the President to lay his head on the chopping block. If “the cards” could prove his innocence, he would have laid them on the table long ago. Not to see this is no longer naïveté. It is self-deception.
There is a parallel between the Nixon and Agnew cases. Agnew, too, clung to the Executive office, and tried to dig himself in with the claim that he could not be prosecuted until he was first convicted on impeachment. He was forced out by carrot and stick. The stick lay in the leaks from the grand jury proceedings (quite possibly another in the long list of White House “dirty tricks”), in the mounting evidence against him, and in the Nixon Administration’s formal denial in court that the Vice President had any constitutional immunity.2 The carrot was the Administration’s willingness to let Agnew “cop a plea” and avoid going to jail.
Agnew must nurse a rankling bitterness that he only did on a small scale what Nixon did on a large, though there is no proof that Nixon diverted some campaign funds to personal use as Agnew did. Aside from the milk producers’ $2 million contribution two days after Nixon reversed the decision of his Department of Agriculture and gave them a price boost, and aside from the $400,000 offer from ITT in its successful campaign to keep the rich cash reserves of Hartford Fire Insurance, there must be countless other cases where threats or promises, explicit or implicit, were made in raising that $60 million campaign kitty. It would shake investor faith in American capitalism if it turned out that so many of our biggest corporations indulgently gave away all that quid without some quo. Extortion and bribery are the plain names of the game.
But the parallel between Nixon and Agnew breaks down…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.