- Nixon Loyalists, Barry Goldwater, and Republican Support for President Nixon during Watergate
On August 9, 1974, the day President Richard Nixon resigned as a result of his involvement in the assorted crimes and other misconduct known as Watergate, Francis Avery of Troy, Pennsylvania, wrote a letter to Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater. In it, he told Goldwater, "I have nothing this morning but the deepest contempt" for you and other congressional Republicans. Two days earlier Goldwater and other GOP leaders on Capitol Hill met with Nixon and made it clear to him that if he did not resign he would be impeached. "President Nixon should have had the support of all Republicans," continued Avery. "It is you who should have resigned, not him." Although Avery had voted for Goldwater for president in 1964, he now regretted the decision and hoped "none of you [congressional Republicans] are ever reelected."1 Avery was not alone in supporting Nixon. While a large majority of Americans came to believe he was guilty and should not continue in office, millions of Americans, roughly a quarter of the population, steadfastly defended the president throughout Watergate.2 In the end, Nixon loyalists could not save the president, but this article argues that their strident defense of Nixon influenced the way in which congressional Republicans responded to Watergate and thus helped to shape its trajectory and outcome. [End Page 403]
Despite eighteen months of investigations, disclosures, and polls showing that Watergate was having a devastating effect on GOP prospects, most congressional Republicans supported Nixon until August 1974.3 Although many privately expressed doubts about Nixon's innocence and criticized his handling of Watergate, congressional Republicans, with surprisingly few exceptions, publicly proclaimed Nixon's innocence and opposed either his resignation or impeachment until nearly the end. Many congressional Republicans viewed Watergate as a political attack against Nixon and defended the president out of partisan considerations. In addition, some felt a sense of personal loyalty to Nixon and did not want to add to his and his family's suffering by deserting him. Many congressional Republicans, however, also supported Nixon because they feared alienating Nixon loyalists. Nixon loyalists fiercely defended the president and expected congressional Republicans to do the same. To make their voices heard, Nixon loyalists founded the National Citizens' Committee for Fairness to the Presidency (NCCFP) and other anti-impeachment groups. They wrote letters, attended rallies, and lobbied Congress against impeachment. Nixon loyalists viewed Watergate as a litmus test for congressional Republicans and threatened to punish any Republican who broke with the president.
Although Nixon loyalists comprised a relatively small number of GOP voters, their support was crucial to congressional Republicans in the early 1970s. At the time, Republicans were a distinct minority party. Democrats had won seven of the last eleven presidential elections and had controlled both houses of Congress for much of the last four decades. Although Nixon won the White House in 1968 and 1972, Republicans never commanded a majority in either the House or the Senate during his presidency. At the time of Watergate, Republicans were also internally divided. Conservatives captured the GOP in 1964, and played a decisive role in Nixon's nomination in 1968, but their hold on the party remained tenuous. Throughout Nixon's presidency, conservatives continued to battle moderates, liberals, and themselves for control of the party. Nixon's pragmatic approach to policymaking and Watergate only exacerbated these tensions within the GOP. For a party struggling to overcome years of political failure and its own divisions to expand its electoral base, the prospect of losing a quarter of Republican voters was overwhelming. To make matters worse, congressional Republicans viewed Nixon loyalists as party stalwarts whose votes, time, and financial support were vital to their success, especially at a moment when party affiliation was on the decline and fewer Americans were willing to knock on doors or vote in primaries.4 [End Page 404]
By examining the hold Nixon's hard-core supporters had over congressional Republicans, this article sheds new light on the power of party loyalists over national politics and offers a valuable new perspective on Watergate. For all of the complaints about partisanship today, political historians...