October Surprise: Vietnam, Watergate and the Right to Vote

I heard people rush up behind me, “Come on, we have to go now.” I was a little confused and Bernie repeated again with urgency and excitement, “Now, we have to go now!” They took me to register to vote. We were all freshmen at the University of Tennessee and I’d recently turned 18. A few weeks later, I was able to vote in my first presidential election in Knoxville Tennessee.

I am from Hampton Virginia weaned on the Vietnam war. Hampton Roads is home to 16 naval bases, an air force base and at the time, two army bases. The death count and footage of combat was a staple on the nightly news in stark contrast to previous wars confined to radio and newsprint. Opposition to the war was fierce. Should the US be there? Was the war morally justified? Even in an enclave of military affiliations, something seemed not right. The death toll increased to over 200,000. The was during the time of the televised draft, if your birthdate was pulled, you had to serve.

The Selective Service Act of 1948:. All men 18 years and older are required to register with Selective Service. All men between the ages of 18 to 26 were eligible to be drafted for a service requirement of 21 months.

This was a problem; the voting age was 21. Old enough to serve, old enough to die and but not old enough to vote? Congress, with the Voting Rights Act of 1970 lowered the voting age to 18. However, Oregon v. Mitchell, challenged that and  a divided U.S. Supreme Court with a 5-4 vote ruled that Congress had the right to regulate the minimum age in federal elections, but not at the state and local level. The 26th amendment to the constitution lowered the voting age to 18 for all elections was passed in congress in March of 1971, quickly ratified by required number of states and certified by Richard Nixon in July of 1971. 

What was Nixon’s motive for supporting this? Equality, peace from protests or winning an election? Nixon, if nothing was a brilliant political strategist committed to the long game and power. Nixon’s 1968 campaign was antiwar. Yet, once in office, Nixon escalated the Vietnam war.  Prior to the election, Nixon actually derailed the Paris Peace talks. He sent an aid to the South Vietnamese Embassy with the message not to negotiate with Johnson; wait for Nixon to become president and get a better deal.

Nixon feared a breakthrough at the Paris Peace talks designed to find a negotiated settlement to the Vietnam war, and he knew this would derail his campaign.…

In late October 1968 there were major concessions from Hanoi which promised to allow meaningful talks to get underway in Paris – concessions that would justify Johnson calling for a complete bombing halt of North Vietnam. This was exactly what Nixon feared. 1

Nixon choice of Spiro Agnew as a VP was to ensure his presidency would not be eclipsed. Nixon was to be all powerful. The Nixon/Agnew ticket of 1968 won narrowly. Nixon had 43.4% of the popular vote to Hubert Humphry’s 42.7% with the remaining 13.5% of the votes going to segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever – Alabama Governor George Wallace. Nixon and his administration saw Agnew as a non-team player and not easy to control. Agnew in turn felt useless. He went on to criticize Nixon’s China policy and even floated an idea about resigning to take a role in the private sector. However, in a move more political than ideological, Nixon kept Agnew as his running mate for 1972.

That year, 1972, was a watershed moment, Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm became the first woman and the first African American to run in a presidential primary. This was the first year of a lowered voting age to 18. Ultimately, the Nixon/Agnew ticket of 1972 won by landslide; with 60% of the popular vote. Nixon, still hostile towards the idea of Agnew being positioned for a run for the presidency, consulted with his cabinet on how to move Agnew out. So, it was no surprise that in 1973, Nixon was near giddy about the bribery and corruption charges that started to swirl around the vice president. Finally, this would be an opportunity to replace the albatross with a more fitting Vice President. 

Then the story of Watergate broke. In political chess, Nixon asked Haldeman and Ehrlichman to resign in April 1973 because of their role in the Watergate coverup. He viewed Agnew as his best chance to stay in office since no one wanted Agnew to ascend to the highest office.  At the same time, Agnew believed as a sitting vice president, criminal charges could not be brought against him. Agnew claimed this precedent was set in 1826 with the investigation of John C Calhoun and asked for a motion to block any indictments because the Justice department was leaking information against him.

Checkmate, 1973 was a year of political whiplash. On October 10th, Agnew, pressured to resigned, took a plea deal. Nixon named Gerald Ford under the more recent 25th amendment ratified after the assassination of John F Kennedy. The Saturday Night Massacre occurred October 20th. Nixon ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox; Richardson refused and resigned effective immediately. Nixon then ordered Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus to fire Cox; Ruckelshaus refused, and also resigned. Nixon then ordered the third-most-senior official at the Justice Department, Solicitor General Robert Bork, to fire Cox. Bork fired Cox. Bork later reported that Nixon promised him the the next vacant seat on the supreme court. A seat later offered to Bork by President Ronald Reagan.

The night he was fired, Cox issued a written statement “Whether ours shall continue to be a government of laws and not of men is now for Congress and ultimately the American people [to decide].” On November 14, 1973, federal district judge Gerhard Gesell ruled firing Cox was illegal absent a finding of extraordinary impropriety as specified in the regulation establishing the special prosecutor’s office. This abuse of power set off more alarms for congress who’d started impeachment proceedings. Gerald Ford was confirmed by the senate as Vice President on December 6, 1973. The following year, the house passes articles of impeachment for obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and contempt of Congress in July of 1974 and Nixon resigns on August 9, 1974. In September of 1974, President Gerald Ford granted former President Richard Nixon for a full and unconditional pardon for any crimes that he might have committed against the United States as president.

Many may not realize that more than 50 years ago, the voting age was 21, or be aware of the wrangling behind the Nixon administration or the promise of a Supreme Court justice seat to Robert Bork for firing Archibald Cox. This week, consider We are the future’s history. If you think your vote doesn’t count, then why are people trying to suppress it? 2 The last day to register online for the presidential election is October 19. Your vote counts! Just do it.

1 https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/nixon-prolonged-vietnam-war-for-political-gainand-johnson-knew-about-it-newly-unclassified-tapes-suggest-3595441/

2 https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/11/07/think-your-vote-doesnt-count-then-why-are-people-trying-to-suppress-it/

One comment

  1. You definitely asked the question everyone should be asking, especially the “I don’t bother voting” crowd. I vote because I’m an introvert and scared of screwing up and haven’t figured out other ways to perform my civic duty and crawl out of my shell. looking for work with nonprofit groups right now and seeing what I can do. In the meantime, I can do the bare minimum and VOTE!!!

    Liked by 1 person

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