In conventional histories, Richard Nixon’s impeachment is remembered as a triumph of good government. Nixon is viewed as a corrupt politician whose unconstitutional schemes threatened the republic, while his opponents are seen as defenders of the Constitution. This narrative, written by journalists, has persisted for nearly five decades—despite the slow accumulation of evidence that tells a very different tale.
In the early 1980s, Harper’s editor Jim Hougan obtained 30,000 documents through Freedom of Information Act requests. The result was Secret Agenda, one of the most important yet curiously neglected books of the late 20th century. While some of its conclusions are incorrect—Hougan didn’t believe that FBI Associate Director Mark Felt was Deep Throat—his factual claims have been vindicated as more and more Watergate-related documents have been released.
Since the publication of Secret Agenda, books such as Len Colodny’s and Robert Gettlin’s Silent Coup (1991), James Rosen’s The Strong Man (2008), and Geoff Shepard’s The Real Watergate Scandal (2015) and The Nixon Conspiracy (2021) have drawn on declassified documents and unsealed judicial and congressional hearings to help us better understand what really happened. Although these authors disagree about many details, they agree that Nixon was removed from office not because he endangered the constitutional order, but because his bureaucratic and political enemies plotted successfully against him. And while scholars shy away from endorsing some of the more dramatic claims that have been made over the years, the best of them understand Watergate not in terms of the conventional narrative, but as an institutional “conflict” in which Nixon was the most important casualty. Nixon had to go—not because of a bungled break-in, but because he challenged the national-security state.