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‘A Script For A Political Movie’: The Class of 1974 Looks Back on Watergate

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{shortcode-a0fafb3727a5405eac46bd1741f1eafab86bbf7e}enry S. Richardson ’77 was spending his weekend rock climbing in New York when his father, the United States Attorney General, quit his job.

It was Oct. 20, 1973, and Richard Nixon had just asked Richardson’s father, Attorney General Elliot L. Richardson ’41, to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox ’34. Richardson had refused and resigned, setting off the chain of events known as the “Saturday Night Massacre.”

“I was rock climbing in New York State for the holiday weekend, and didn’t learn of the event until I returned to campus on Monday,” Richardson wrote in an emailed statement. “By that point, the nation’s eyes were on DC.”

The “Massacre” would be a pivotal point in the Watergate saga. As the Class of 1974 began their senior year at Harvard, the scandal that would culminate in Nixon’s August 1974 resignation reached a fever pitch.

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“If you were writing a script for a political movie, you couldn’t have done a better job than the reality of what was going on,” said Dan A. Swanson ’74, a former Crimson president. “The timing, the characters, it was just perfect really.”

While the Watergate break-in happened in the late summer of 1972, as the Class of 1974 finished their sophomore year, the scandal’s most dramatic moments would come during their final year in Cambridge — at a campus that had deep ties to, and was often the scorn of, the embattled administration.

‘Zero Trust or Respect’

When the Class of 1974 stepped on campus in the fall of 1970, the University was one year past the peak of Harvard’s Vietnam protest, the 1969 occupation of University Hall. The violent response ultimately contributed to the resignation of Harvard’s president Nathan M. Pusey, Class of 1928, who would be succeeded by Derek C. Bok.

“When I arrived at Harvard in 1970, I mean the campus in Cambridge were, I don’t want to say on fire, but on fire in so many respects,” said Philip N. Angelides ’74.

While the war was firmly winding down by the time news of Watergate broke — and American involvement had ended by January of 1973 — Vietnam was still on the mind of Harvard students.

Lawrence F. O’Donnell Jr. ’74 said that even after the Watergate story broke, it was the “second most important thing happening at that time,” since male students were still facing the possibility of the draft.

“It’s an indescribably large concern that I think would be virtually unimaginable to students today,” O’Donnell said. “Imagine that every male student at Harvard in those days — if it were now, it would be all students — have a draft card in their pockets, a little card the size of a driver’s license that can end their life or not.”

“That renders every other thing in the news to a lesser urgency level than the Vietnam War,” he added.

But despite the war entering its twilight years, Nixon remained deeply unpopular at Harvard.

“Nixon was widely reviled. He was really hated by the student population,” said Peter Shapiro ’74, a former Crimson managing editor. “I’m sure there were some students at that time who liked Nixon, but they shut up because they wanted to stay safe.”

The president, O’Donnell said, “had certainly zero trust or respect from any Harvard student who I knew.”

The animosity was mutual.

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The Nixon administration, for its part, focused its ire on the University’s faculty and administration. Several top Harvard professors and administrators were on the President’s list of opponents, an expansion of his initial 20-person “Enemies List.” The list included Bok — who was still dean of Harvard Law School — along with former Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean McGeorge Bundy and the presidents of Yale University and MIT.

“Harvard as a news reporting subject was very much involved in the Nixon administration,” Steven M. Luxenberg ’74, a former Crimson associate managing editor, said. “So we saw those Harvard ties as reporting opportunities.”

Still, Nixon had some Harvard allies. Along with Richardson, Nixon appointed several other Harvard alumni to his Cabinet, and appointed FAS Dean John T. Dunlop to serve as the director of the Cost of Living Council. He also deeply relied on the counsel of Harvard professor Daniel Patrick Moynihan as well as Henry A. Kissinger ’50, a Government professor who would serve as his national security adviser and secretary of state.

‘A Spectator Sport’

Though burglars broke into the Watergate Complex on June 17, 1972, the brewing scandal took time to engross the general public.

“It just wasn’t much of a story,” Angelides said. “As Nixon said: ‘If it’s not on TV, it doesn’t matter.’”

But, as the scandal began to rapidly unfold, the major news stations started airing the Senate’s hearings on Watergate each night to a rapt national audience. The hearings were filled with made-for-TV-moments and put witnesses and senators, like the committee’s chairman Sen. Sam J. Ervin (D-N.C.), in the limelight.

In one particular landmark moment, Nixon’s special assistant Alexander Butterfield revealed that the White House was bugged — a moment O’Donnell said he’ll “never forget.”

“Every minute of the Watergate hearings, we were watching on TV,” O’Donnell said.

It would be a chaotic autumn. Angelides distinctly recalled one night in October of 1973, when “they were covering what happened in Watergate, the Israeli-Egyptian war that had broken out — the ’73 Yom Kippur War — and thirdly, Spiro Agnew resigned as vice president,” he said. Agnew had resigned as Nixon’s Vice President on Oct. 10 over allegations of tax crimes came to light.

Angelides said that “every night” he would go from the Dunster House dining hall to catch the hearings.

“Every night we would rush out of the dining hall to make sure we caught the CBS Evening News to find out the next thing that had happened with Watergate,” Angelides said.

Along with Butterfield, the Senate’s hearings featured other high-profile witnesses from the Nixon administration, many of whom — like Butterfield — provided landmark testimony. Some of the most memorable testimony came from John Dean, who served as the White House Counsel, when he directly implicated Nixon in the scandal.

“When John Dean gave his bombshell testimony, I think the general feeling was that this was sort of the beginning of the end for Nixon,” said Peter M. Shane ’74, a former Crimson editor. “Not that anybody had a crystal ball.”

“Was Watergate a huge part of our lives? It was huge,” Angelides said. “Everyday we consumed the papers. We watched it on TV. And it propelled a lot of us to be in public service.”

Swanson said that as the Watergate saga unfolded, protests over Nixon’s policies dissipated as well.

“This didn’t happen overnight, but it went from a protest in the street to a spectator sport,” he said. “People were cheering on Ervin.”

‘Nixon Will Have to be Impeached’

The drama would reach a head when the “Saturday Night Massacre” unfolded on Oct. 20, 1973, just 10 days after Agnew resigned.

It was dramatic. After Cox — the Harvard Law School professor-turned-Watergate special prosecutor — refused Nixon’s request to drop his subpoena of the White House tapes, Nixon asked Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Cox.

Richardson refused and resigned. His second-in-command, deputy attorney general William D. Ruckelshaus, also refused — and while Ruckelshaus said he resigned, Nixon’s press secretary Ronald L. Ziegler said he was fired. The third in line, Solicitor General Robert Bork, would ultimately comply, and Cox was fired.

The event was so massive — and would turn out to be so damaging — that The Crimson published an extra edition that Sunday.

“Because the two main people fired had Harvard ties — one was a Harvard professor — it felt like we were delivering news to the campus that was wanted and needed and delivered in a way that was different than the New York Times or the Washington Post,” Luxenberg said.

It was a devastating moment for the administration, which was rapidly losing support. John Kenneth Galbraith, the famed economist and Harvard professor, told The Crimson at the time that “Nixon will have to be impeached. I was reluctant to say it until now, but this is it.”

The Harvard connection, too, was not lost on members of the faculty. All three casualties of the Saturday Night Massacre had Harvard ties: Cox was a College alum and a longtime HLS professor, Richardson was also a College alum, and Ruckelshaus was a graduate of the Law School.

“We’re very proud of them all, proud of the role of Harvard men in government,” then-FAS Dean Henry Rosovsky told The Crimson. The Class of 1974 would invite Richardson to give their Class Day address, which he did just months before Nixon ultimately resigned.

Just 10 days later, members of the House would introduce impeachment proceedings. The Crimson, though, had reported that the proceedings were viewed as “inevitable” by the Speaker of the House himself a week earlier: “Speaker of the House of Representatives Carl Albert sees impeachment proceedings against President Nixon as ‘inevitable,’ his son David E. Albert ’77 said yesterday,” the article read.

The first half of 1974 brought perilous legal developments for Nixon and his inner circle. In March, a grand jury indicted Nixon’s closest associates, including his chief of staff H. R. Haldeman and former Attorney General John N. Mitchell. Just over a week later, Gerald Ford, Agnew’s successor as vice president, was protested arriving at the Harvard Club of Boston where he would receive the Harvard Republican Club’s “Man of the Year” award.

“As a drama, there was an inevitable flow to it,” O’Donnell said. “It was only flowing in one direction. It was never heading into a spot where it looked like Nixon was going to survive.”

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The climax of the saga would come very soon after the Class of 1974 graduated. After the Supreme Court unanimously ordered the White House to turn over its tapes in July, the “smoking gun” tape — in which Nixon’s knowledge of the Watergate cover-up became public — was released on August 5. He resigned just three days later.

“My college roommate was in France for the summer. And I wrote to her and said I just feel that our system of government is working exactly the way it’s supposed to and it’s just a thrill,” said Dale S. Russakoff ’74, a former Crimson editor. “I felt thrilled.”

50 Years Later

Fifty years later, Watergate has cemented a position in the American political consciousness. Members of the Class of 1974 said that looking back, the moment had a profound impact on their career trajectories — and their views on today’s fractured politics.

For some members of the Class of 1974, the era spurred careers in politics and activism.

“I could probably count on one hand the number of my classmates who wanted to go work on Wall Street,” said Angelides, who would later become California’s state treasurer. “It was part of the ethos of the era that public service and political engagement was held in very high esteem, and viewed as a very worthy goal for young people.”

“The Nixon era and the Watergate era is really what propelled me into a lifetime of activism,” he added.

Others drew inspiration from the journalists at the heart of the Watergate story.

Luxenberg, who was on The Crimson, said he took particular inspiration from Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward — who would later become Luxenberg’s boss — and Carl Bernstein, whose reporting on Watergate played a crucial role in the downfall of the Nixon administration.

“As a young reporter — someone who hoped to be a reporter — I thought, ‘Wow, I better pay attention here,’” Luxenberg said.

“Watergate’s very much been a part of my experience, but really from a journalist point of view, not from an advocacy point of view,” he added.

A’Lelia Bundles ’74, who also became a journalist after graduating, said that Watergate helped shape her career path.

“There was just such an excitement about being a journalist at that time that you really could change the world, that journalists had toppled a president,” Bundles said.

“It was at that moment, right after Watergate, that that was the kind of journalist that I wanted to become,” she added.

O’Donnell, who would later become an MSNBC anchor and producer of the hit TV show The West Wing, said that the Watergate era was an influence on the show.

“I think it’s one of the reasons why Aaron Sorkin, who created the show by writing the first episode, wanted to see the kind of president he wishes were actually president,” he said.

But for some, the drama of Watergate — and the Nixon administration’s actions — still pale to today’s political landscape.

“What looked like a crisis 50 years ago is really tame compared to where we are now,” Bundles said.

Angelides agreed, saying that America’s present-day political situation is different from the volatile political situation in the 1970s.

“At the time I thought America was on the precipice of danger,” he said. “I never could have imagined when I was that Harvard junior, Harvard senior, that we would face the kind of threat to our democracy and our nation that we’re facing today.”

—Staff writer S. Mac Healey can be reached at mac.healey@thecrimson.com. Follow him on X @MacHealey.

—Staff writer Jo B. Lemann can be reached at jo.lemann@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @Jo_Lemann.

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