Welcome to a special edition of How We Got Here! This is a significantly expanded version of an article originally posted on my blog in November 2016.
On April 4th, 1974, Indiana Congressman Earl Landgrebe delivered a defiant speech to the House of Representatives. “In good conscience, I can remain silent no longer,” he intoned, taking a bold stance on the issue most troubling the nation. “I must speak out against these brutalizing attacks on our President. From this hour on, I take my stand beside our beleaguered President, and against his reckless, ruthless and insidious adversaries.”
His President, of course, was Richard Nixon, mired in the prolonged death throes of Watergate. He still refused to release the White House tapes (he would release edited transcripts later that month), clinging to “executive privilege” in hopes of prolonging his doomed presidency. The American public had overwhelmingly turned on Nixon, his approval rating a catastrophic 26 percent. As Landgrebe spoke, other Congressmen prepared impeachment hearings against the President, with even Republicans reluctant to support him before the 1974 midterm elections.
Not Landgrebe. An arch-conservative from Valparaiso, Indiana, Landgrebe was best-known for his persistent calls for spending cuts, earning notoriety for smuggling Bibles into the Soviet Union. Back in October 1972, he played a major role in blocking Wright Patman’s efforts to initiate a House investigation of Watergate and constantly needled Nixon’s critics in House speeches, editorials and interviews. Even now, he insisted that “our national security made the Watergate break-in a necessity,” couching it as a reasonable reaction to radical terrorism and liberal intransigence.
Even then, Landgrebe struck many as a crank; today, he seems laughable. After the sordid actions of CRP and the Plumbers, the high drama of the Ervin Committee’s Senate hearings, the battle over the White House tapes, the Saturday Night Massacre, Vice President Spiro Agnew’s resignation over bribery and tax fraud, how could anyone be so blind? Yet Landgrebe represented millions of Americans – conservatives and congressmen, hardhats, hucksters and holy men – who defended Nixon long after his guilt became undeniable.
Nixon’s electoral strategy envisioned a “New Majority” blending Republicans with disaffected Democrats: Southerners resenting Civil Rights, Northern ethnics angry with hippies and antiwar protesters, organized labor and shell-shocked suburbanites. Nixon’s rhetoric of “positive polarization” blamed America’s ills on Democrats, academics, the media, angry blacks and unruly protesters. In 1972 it paid colossal dividends, elevating Nixon to a 49 state landslide over George McGovern.
Millions of indignant Americans embraced Nixon’s angry rhetoric and easy explanations for America’s woes, countenancing all Presidential actions as necessary to save the nation from apocalypse. Even as Watergate devoured his presidency, a stubborn residue of his beloved “Silent Majority” remained steadfast. It did, however, force Nixon to make some strange bedfellows, including someone he’d previously considered his arch-rival.
Throughout early 1974, with impeachment looming and his lawyers stonewalling Congress, Nixon barnstormed the South. In February he joined George Wallace, the segregationist icon, in Huntsville, Alabama. Nixon had long despised Wallace, less for his reactionary views than his appeal to Nixon’s beloved conservatives. Thus Nixon had the IRS audit Wallace’s brother Gerald and funneled campaign money to his 1970 primary opponent, Albert Brewer. Until assassin Arthur Bremer crippled Wallace in 1972, Nixon feared the Governor’s presidential prospects more than McGovern’s. Now, all seemed forgiven.
“I submit that you are among friends!” Wallace assured Nixon before an enthusiastic Alabama crowd, who oddly waved signs favorably comparing Nixon to Abraham Lincoln. Odder still was Wallace’s insistence that “We in Alabama have always honored the office of the Presidency of the United States,” forgetting his schoolhouse defiance of John F. Kennedy, confrontations with Lyndon Johnson and attacks on Nixon over school busing. Wallace supported Nixon to the bitter end; when the Governor declined to push Congressman Walter Flowers to vote against impeachment, Nixon knew he was doomed.
A month later, Nixon journeyed to Nashville, Tennessee for the opening of the new Grand Ole Opry. Thousands of cheering Southerners greeted Nixon, including a coterie of country music stars: Johnny Cash, Roy Acuff and Minnie Pearl among them. (Even here, the President wasn’t immune from heckling: one protester waved a sign reading “Nixon ain’t country, he’s crooked!”) Nixon remarked that “Country music radiates a love of this nation…Country music is America,” then played piano for his wife Pat, with backing from the Opry orchestra. Borrowing Acuff’s signature trick, he awkwardly dangled a yoyo that refused to bounce.
Northern conservatives also defended Nixon as a bulwark against amorality. “Watergate is bullshit!” shouted an Italian-American from Brooklyn’s Canarsie neighborhood. “I don’t care what he did. It’s disgraceful what they did to the country – the press and Congress and the protesters!” A Richmond Hills Republican neatly packaged numerous conservative fears, commenting that liberals were “encouraging poor Negros to come up here and endorsing fornication and supporting illegitimate children.” Even John Dean couldn’t escape these attitudes. Just before his Senate testimony in June 1973, the former White House counsel received a haircut from a barber who, not recognizing his customer, commented that “I want to see this guy Dean get his butt kicked.”
That same month, Gail Sheehy of New York Magazine published a column entitled “Watching Watergate in Archie Bunker Country.” It profiled Nixon supporters at Terry’s Bar in Astoria, Queens, who heckled Sam Ervin’s Senate hearings on television. Besides grousing that Watergate preempted baseball and cartoons, they offered defenses of Nixon ranging from oblivious to disturbing. “I’d take a police state over an anarchistic state,” one proclaimed. “I’m not sure sure a police state wouldn’t be so bad in this country.” Another urged Nixon to “shoot every one of them,” presumably meaning liberals everywhere.
These arguments, and the people making them, were easy to mock. Humorist Art Buchwald ran a column in July 1973 listing “handy excuses for Nixon backers,” summarizing the most common complaints. Buchwald included such standbys as “Everybody does it,” “the only thing wrong with Watergate is that they got caught,” and “What about Chappaquiddick?” (repeated five times). Even so, Nixon’s defenders remained loud, angry and numerous, wielding enough political power to make continued investigation a dicey proposition.
More surprising, perhaps, was the far right’s response. Movement conservatives who loved Nixon the Red-baiting Congressman, Senator and Vice President found his presidency disappointing at best, a betrayal at worst. M. Stanton Evans, journalist and co-founder of Young Americans for Freedom, argued that Nixon’s economic reforms “made impressive strides toward the political liquidation of American conservatism.” William F. Buckley complained that with Nixon’s visit to China, “we have lost…any remaining sense of moral mission in the world.” Many rightists even supported Ohio Congressman John Ashbrook’s primary challenge against Nixon 1972.
That all changed with Watergate. William Loeb of the Manchester Union Leader, who’d endorsed reactionary Democrat Sam Yorty over Nixon in 1972, dropped his attacks on the President to assail the media’s “small group of arrogant self-appointed rulers.” Pat Buchanan, a Nixon speechwriter who once complained that “conservatives are the (n-word)s of the Nixon Administration,” now wrote that “the President’s traditional adversaries were happily drawing up surrender terms.” Even Stan Evans suspended his criticisms, quipping that “I never liked Nixon until Watergate.”
William F. Buckley recognized one cause of this turnabout. Conservatives supported Nixon “because the alternative was to wake up and find that they are in agreement with…the New York Times.” Indeed, the “liberal media” meme already thrived, stoked by Buckley’s National Review, radio hosts like Clarence Manion, who warned against “a gullible public…caught in the talons of a power that ironically disguises itself as freedom,” authors like Stan Evans (The Liberal Establishment) and Edith Efron (The News Twisters), and Nixon and Spiro Agnew’s own imprecations against the press’s “nattering nabobs of negativism.” Conservatives found it easy, then as now, to blame a Republican President’s travails on lying liberals and a malicious media.
Even Nixon’s release of the White House tapes in April 1974, revealing both foul language and political chicanery, didn’t daunt his supporters. Ronald Reagan, eyeing a 1976 presidential run, insisted that nobody “can make any judgment until they have read the entire 1,200 pages” of transcripts. John McLaughlin, former Jesuit priest and future TV host, called Nixon the “greatest moral leader of the last third of this century” and defended Nixon’s Jew-baiting rants as “good, valid…therapy.” Even Charles Colson, the born again ex-White House Counsel, dismissed the President’s conspiracy theorizing as “typical locker room talk.”
Nixon took a statesmanlike approach, claiming that Watergate distracted from the business of government. “Let others wallow in Watergate,” he insisted, staging foreign pageants (Leonid Brezhnev’s June 1973 visit to Washington, Nixon’s tour of the Middle East in June 1974) to distract from his domestic travails. George H.W. Bush, Chairman of the Republican National Committee, urged Congress and the media to “Let [Nixon] do the job he was elected to do!” Nixon also encouraged aides to “be on the attack for diversion,” spreading stories about administration enemies (DNC chairman Larry O’Brien, tabloid journalist Jack Anderson) in a failed effort at misdirection.
Where rhetoric and distraction failed, the President’s men acted. Congressmen received phone calls denouncing “the lynch mob atmosphere created in [Washington] by the Washington Post and other parts of the Nixon-hating media.” These were the brainchild of Bruce Herschensohn, who created “Americans for the Presidency” as a White House propaganda front. (Among Herschensohn’s assistants was a young George Mason graduate named Karl Rove.) Pepsi CEO Don Kendall chaired the organization, represented publicly by such Republican luminaries as Mamie Eisenhower, George Romney and Bob Hope. Herschensohn recalled that “towards the last year, I’d say 85 percent of my time…was either spent with them in one fashion or another.”
This Astroturf campaign intertwined with genuine grassroots action, making it hard to separate honest supporters from presidential flacks. Twenty thousand supporters cheered a Nixon rally in Macon, Georgia; hundreds more visited the White House. Country musicians crafted pro-Nixon ballads, including Fred Boyd’s “Stand Up and Cheer for Richard Nixon,” borrowing the tune from Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee.” Supporters sported “Get Off the President’s Back” buttons and “Nobody Died at Watergate” bumper stickers (a slam at Ted Kennedy and Chappaquiddick). Young Americans for Freedom organized the Citizens Opposed to Impeachment, sending mailings and organizing rallies for young Nixon backers.
Both strands connected in the bizarre figure of Baruch Korff. A Ukrainian-born rabbi from Taunton, Massachusetts, Korff led an eventful life advocating Zionism. As a young man, he helped rescue Jews from Nazi-occupied Europe, bribing German officials and smuggling Jews to neutral countries. In 1947 he joined with the Stern Gang in a plot to hijack British military aircraft and firebomb London. Relocating to the United States, he advocated for Jewish causes and wrote speeches for pro-Israeli Congressmen, along with organizing Civil Rights marches. A liberal Democrat, he became a Nixon fan through the President’s support for Soviet Jews (despite Nixon’s vile anti-Semitism). Watching the Ervin hearings on television, Korff told his wife “I’ve got to do something or I’ll explode.”
So Korff purchased a New York Times ad in July 1973, entitled “An Appeal for Fairness.” It was an angry, semi-coherent diatribe attacking the Senate hearings as “a perfect amalgam of circus performance and popularity contest” and comparing Watergate to the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror. “Christians have their Pilate,” he raged, “Jews have their Haman, and Nixon has the media.” Within days, Korff’s missive generated 3,000 letters, hundreds of phone calls and $30,000 in donations from across the country.
Thus emboldened, Korff created the National Citizens’ Committee for Fairness to the Presidency. Claiming 2.5 million members for his group (the actual number was much lower), Korff became a minor celebrity, appearing on The Dick Cavett Show, hosting rallies and vigils across the country and publishing luridly-titled editorials (“The Rape of America”). Korff’s language, never temperate, often bordered on hysteria, once positing Nixon as someone whose “blood has been sapped by vampires.” He encouraged his followers to harass Nixon critics, whether reporters, politicians or personal friends, commenting that “One does not reason with lynch mobs.”
The Committee became one of Nixon’s most persistent champions. Korff’s rallies attracted thousands, who chanted Nixon’s name while threatening reporters and menacing hecklers. His followers regularly converged on the Capitol, one pigeonholing Illinois Republican Tom Railsback in an elevator, urging him not to indict the President on “circumstantial evidence.” Another chased Barbara Jordan, Texas Democrat and one of Nixon’s most eloquent critics, through the halls shouting “I’m for the President!” “A lot of people are!” Jordan snapped, ducking into her office.
Nixon embraced this unlikely champion. A brief meeting in December 1973 snowballed to regular contacts, including a 90 minute interview in May 1974 (later published as a book, The Personal Nixon, which was edited by Bruce Herschensohn). At a rally in July, the embattled President praised Korff’s “eloquence, his intelligence, his dedication” as “a great source of strength to me.” Korff defended Nixon to the last, imploring him as late as August 6th not to let the “jackals of the media” drive him from office. He was also present for Nixon’s final speech on August 9th, television cameras capturing his tearful reaction.
“I must have been asked 100 times, Rabbi, what is your angle? You must have an angle,'” he mused to a reporter. “And frankly speaking, I wish I had one. It would make these discourses easier. But I am an enigma.” Korff’s affection for the President, however bizarre or misguided, was undeniably sincere. Even after his resignation, Korff raised funds for Nixon’s legal defense; during the 1976 Republican convention, he lobbied for convention speakers to recognize Nixon’s diplomatic achievements. Korff remained steadfast until his death in 1995, his long, multitudinous life overshadowed by his loyalty to a disgraced President.
Reverend Sun Myung Moon, head of the Unification Church, wasn’t so idealistic. The Korean cult leader was struggling to court American clergymen who viewed his personalized Christianity as a joke at best and as evil at worse. Moon treated Watergate as an opportunity to boost his profile, ingratiate himself with the Republican Party… and to posit himself as the spiritual leader fated to heal a divided America. “If this dying person, Nixon, is revived,” Moon mused, “then Reverend Moon’s name will be more popular and famous.”
“God has chosen Nixon through the will of the people,” proclaimed Moon, who actually preferred a celestial theocracy to democracy. “It is the people’s duty to support him.” His followers treated Nixon himself as a deity, referring to him as an “archangel” and kneeling during Nixon’s public appearances. At a Christmas event in December 1973, hundreds of Moonies attempted to rush the President, shrieking like bobbysoxers. A bemused Garry Wills wrote “When a man has sacrificed all honor, he must settle for adoration.”
Through his Freedom Leadership Foundation, Moon published ads, gave speeches and organized demonstrations across the world, from the United States to Seoul and even Tokyo, where 25,000 Moonies carted a giant papier-mâché Nixon through the streets. Moon sent buses full of supporters to New York and Washington, wearing placards urging onlookers to “Forgive, Love and Unite” or announcing their prayers for a Congressman’s soul. They held huge prayer rallies throughout the nation; on several occasions they collaborated with Rabbi Korff, who considered Moon an embarrassing lunatic.
After a lengthy correspondence through Herschensohn, President and Messiah finally met in February 1974, an awkward conference where Moon urged Nixon to fast for his sins and led him in a Korean-language prayer. Unlike Korff, Nixon afterwards kept Moon at arm’s length, but his supporters organized fasts and prayer vigils over the coming months. Moon leveraged his actions into an international business and political empire, including the Washington Times newspaper, which endured legal challenges, press scrutiny and public ridicule, lasting until his death in 2012.
More earthly men and women than Moon or Korff entertained less celestial concerns. Republican politicians considered Nixon an insoluble problem: their party’s leader, but a liability for the 1974 elections. Brave Republicans, mostly liberals like Massachusetts Senator Edward Brooke and Illinois Congressman John Anderson, broke with Nixon early on. Others, like Earl Landgrebe, attacked the investigation as a partisan witch hunt. Most, like Hugh Scott, Senate Minority Leader, and Barry Goldwater, doyen of Senate conservatives, criticized Nixon’s words and actions while insisting he remain in office.
It was odd, considering Nixon’s strained relationship with Congress, whom he disparaged as “a bunch of jackasses.” Scott in particular, a pipe-puffing, art-loving Pennsylvania moderate, held no great affection for Nixon: he’d sparred repeatedly with the President over his Supreme Court appointments and lassitude on Civil Rights. In retaliation, Nixon backed a failed attempt in 1970 to oust Scott as Minority Leader. Scott later said that Nixon had “a disrespect for Congress” which handicapped his presidency.
But it’s also easy to understand why Republicans lashed themselves to a sinking ship. While some entertained personal loyalty to Nixon, most weighed political considerations; after all, most Nixon defenders were rock-ribbed, party line Republicans. John Rhodes, the House Minority Leader, noted that his tentative comments about resignation brought an angry deluge of pro-Nixon letters. He told Elizabeth Drew that “any Republican who thinks he can win a congressional election without that hardcore support is more optimistic than I am.”
These tensions grew more pronounced as the House Judiciary Committee’s impeachment hearings approached. Seven of the committee’s seventeen Republicans considered supporting impeachment, inviting a furious response. William Cohen of Maine received a letter labeling him a Judas, complete with thirty silver coins; Caldwell Butler fielded death threats from his Virginia constituents. Hamilton Fish of New York earned an even more daunting rebuke: his father, a longtime congressional nemesis of Franklin Roosevelt, published an open letter attacking his son and warning that “your misguided Republicans on the impeachment committee will all be defeated by the silent majority.”
As public hearings began in July 1974, ten of the committee’s Republicans remained resolutely on Nixon’s side. Most prominent was Charles Sandman of New Jersey, a snarling doctrinaire conservative who reminded Theodore White of Joe McCarthy. “Isn’t it amazing that they have so much to say but they are willing to say so little?” he asked of Nixon’s critics. He called the hearings “the joke of the century,” mocking Democratic colleagues and waving around an issue of Newsweek to rail against the “liberal media.” Elizabeth Drew observed that “Sandman…is assuming a starring role, the role of the heavy, and he seems to enjoy it.”
Sandman’s motives exasperated observers as much as his style. A World War II POW and former boxer, Sandman loved Nixon no more than did Hugh Scott. He supported Nelson Rockefeller over Nixon in the 1968 campaign, and resented Nixon’s refusal to support his failed gubernatorial run in 1973 (partly due to Sandman’s rumored mob ties). Behind closed doors he harbored few illusions, assuring a reporter that “Jerry Ford will be a great president.” “I have no reason to feel kindly towards Nixon,” Sandman insisted, claiming that he stood on constitutional principle. While the Congressman considered himself an honorable man, most Americans saw a sarcastic, brawling bully.
Others followed Sandman’s lead. Trent Lott, a young Mississippian, whined that the Committee failed to provide any “counterbalancing presentation of the other side of the story” (this after Nixon barred his staff from testifying). Wiley Mayne of Iowa complained about the investigation’s cost, then wondered why Congress wouldn’t investigate Lyndon Johnson instead (never mind that LBJ was dead). The biggest heel, however, was Delbert Latta of Ohio. He repeatedly slurred committee members, particularly a young attorney, Albert Jenner, who had defended the rights of prostitutes before the Supreme Court. Later, Latta piled binder upon binder of evidence on his desk to mock the pro-impeachment forces, brilliantly making the opposite point than he presumably intended.
Which contradicted Charles Wiggins of California, the silver-haired former attorney representing the President’s home district, who insisted that the evidence against Nixon “wouldn’t fill half a book.” Wiggins proved more effective on the specificity issue, complaining to Chairman Peter Rodino that it would be “a damning indictment…if, after all this time and all this money, we were unable to state with specificity what this was all about.” Despite his rumpled appearance and circular argumentation, Wiggins became Nixon’s most eloquent spokesman; James Fallows called him “one of the President’s men who had the other side scared.”
Such pedantry exasperated the Committee’s Democrats and anti-Nixon Republicans, who couldn’t believe that Nixon’s defenders dismissed the mountainous evidence against the President. Barbara Jordan, whose brilliant opening statement painstakingly detailed Nixon’s abuses, dismissed Sandman’s sneers and Wiggins’ quibbles as “bottomless arguments” impervious to facts. Hamilton Fish exclaimed that there was no smoking gun: “The whole room is filled with smoke!” Nonetheless, the committee voted to adopt three of five impeachment articles, prelude to an explosive debate in the full House.
Finally, the ball dropped on August 5th. The “smoking gun” tape of June 23rd, 1972, showing Nixon directing Bob Haldeman to have the CIA block the FBI’s Watergate investigation, removed any doubt of Presidential complicity. Charles Wiggins choked back tears as he announced that “the magnificent career of public service of Richard Nixon must be terminated involuntarily.” Even Charles Sandman, finally chastened by events, concluded that the tape “contain[s] specific, clear and convincing evidence constituting… obstruction of justice” and withdrew his support.
Certainly the GOP’s Congressional leadership had enough. Barry Goldwater, increasingly exasperated in his defenses of Nixon, raged that “there are only so many lies you can take, and now there has been one too many. Nixon should get his ass out of the White House!” He joined Hugh Scott and John Rhodes in a visit to the White House on August 7th, gingerly telling Nixon that he didn’t have the votes to survive impeachment. Scott told the President that “we are all very saddened, but we have to tell you the facts.”
This meeting didn’t stop some members of Nixon’s inner circle – his tenacious daughter Julie Eisenhower, who’d spent the past year campaigning on the President’s behalf, speechwriters Ken Clawson and Ben Stein, and, of course, Rabbi Korff – from insisting he remain in office. “Go through the fire just a little longer,” Julie urged her father. “Millions support you.” More pragmatic staffers, from Alexander Haig to cabinet members Henry Kissinger and James Schlesinger, smoothed the rails for resignation, even taking measures to ensure Nixon couldn’t undertake drastic action to retain power.
Nor did events, or reality, prevent Moonies from swarming Washington, Korff from mailing an incendiary missive to his followers (“Don’t delete your expletives!”) or a stubborn 24 percent of Americans from standing by him. Three Congressmen, even now, supported the President. Carl Curtis, a reliably conservative Nebraska Senator, argued that Nixon’s removal would reduce America to a banana republic. Otto Passman, a Louisiana Dixiecrat, offered a generous platitude: “To err is human, to forgive divine.” (Perhaps Passman pleaded for himself: in 1978, after leaving Congress, he became embroiled in a lobbying scandal dubbed “Koreagate.”) Or Earl Landgrebe, who still insisted that “I’m a Nixon man all the way, and I’m going to stand by the man.”
In an extraordinary swansong, Landgrebe appeared on NBC’s Today on August 8th. When Jim Hartz asked him about the new tapes, Landgrebe snapped: “Don’t confuse me with the facts – I’ve got a closed mind.” Later, his legal and logical defenses shattered, Landgrebe resorted to violent defiance: “I’m sticking with my president even if he and I have to be carried out of this building and shot!” It was an incredible performance, displaying blind loyalty, unyielding stubbornness and a vitriolic hatred for the “liberal media” that Nixon himself would have envied.
Landgrebe’s bluster, though earning him hundreds of appreciative letters and telegrams, availed little. Nixon spared the Hoosier from Jim Hartz’s wrath, announcing his resignation that same evening. Landgrebe would, however, lose reelection in November, along with Charles Sandman, Wiley Mayne and 46 other Republican Congressmen who gambled on Nixon and lost. These men played to a limited audience who, vociferous and angry as they were (Barry Goldwater received a letter on August 9th saying “It is you who should have resigned, not [Nixon]”), weren’t enough to win elections.
Today, Richard Nixon inspires more reasonable defenders: academics who weigh his achievements against his transgressions, conservatives who feel he was scapegoated for crooked system exploited by Democrats and Republicans alike. In his darkest hour, however, Tricky Dick could only take succor from friends, family, committed staffers and motley supporters that no evidence or argument could shake.
Sources and Acknowledgments:
Besides articles linked in text, sources include: Elizabeth Drew, Washington Journal: The Events of 1973-1974 (1975); John Gorenfeld, Bad Moon Rising: How Reverend Moon Created the Washington Times, Seduced the Religious Right and Built an American Kingdom (2008); David Greenberg, Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image (2003); Geoffrey Kabaservice, Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party (2012); J. Anthony Lukas, Nightmare: The Underside of the Nixon Years (1975); Rick Perlstein, The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan (2014); Theodore White, Breach of Faith: The Fall of Richard Nixon (1975); and Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, The Final Days (1976).
Historians David Greenberg and Rick Perlstein, besides their own cited works, provided research suggestions and guidance. I am also grateful to the Avocados who read, encouraged and offered suggestions to improve the original article.