Richard Nixon suffered the stigma of being the only U.S. president forced to resign, and hissuffered greatly under the weight of Watergate.
But the disgraced president did fire off one flare of good leadership as his administration crashed. Ironically, it ensured the end of his presidency.
Nixon’s attorneys had argued that surrendering the infamous Oval Office audiotapes was a matter of executive privilege, and that no court—not even the Supreme Court—had the power to force the president to turn over any record of conversations held within the president’s office.
Nixon argued that the privilege was constitutional, and his lawyers cited dozens of instances in which presidents had refused congressional requests for information, including President Jefferson’s refusal to comply with a subpoena in the trial of Aaron Burr.
Even if Nixon’s defense looked like self-preservation, it also served as an act of leadership because it sought to preserve the power of the office for future presidents. If his argument prevailed, Nixon would still be in peril but the presidency’s constitutional foundation would remain strong.
The U.S. Supreme Court upheld Nixon’s claim of a constitutional privilege but rejected his argument that the privilege was absolute. It ordered him to hand over the tapes.
Instead of continuing to argue his point, Nixon dutifully released the tapes, even though he knew that the conversations on them would implicate him in the scandal. Within weeks, he had resigned.
Whether Nixon’s last acts as president—his compliance with the Court and his resignation—amount to leadership remain debatable. But in his protection of executive privilege, Nixon preserved an important principle.
— Adapted from Presidential Leadership: Rating the Best and the Worst in the White House, James Taranto & Leonard Leo (editors), Wall Street Journal Books/Free Press.
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