From the Archives: Flyer News’ Coverage of Nixon Impeachment Proceedings

A cartoon in Flyer News during the 70s depicting Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal, which led to his resignation from the presidency

Garrett Reese
Archives Columnist

Impeachment has been on the mind of America these past few weeks and months, including at the University of Dayton. The impeachment of President Donald Trump has dominated the news cycle and sparked debate across the country. Many have turned to impeachments of yesteryear to see how we as a people once handled the potential removal from office of a president.

With Trump being acquitted in the Senate, let’s take a step into the University of Dayton Archives to see how Flyers were reacting to an impeachment from almost fifty years ago: the near impeachment and eventual resignation of President Richard Nixon.

To many, the key moment that led to the downfall of President Richard Nixon was the Watergate scandal. On the night of June 17, 1972, five men were arrested for breaking into the Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters at the Watergate Complex and Hotel in Washington, D.C. The group was caught carrying several suspicious items, including a couple thousand dollars in one-hundred-dollar bills and wiretapping devices. It was presumed that these men were attempting to bug the DNC headquarters to gather information on Democrats in order to benefit the re-election of Nixon, a Republican, but the president declared that the White House was not involved in the break-in. The Watergate break-in was over summer break, so there wasn’t any direct coverage from Flyer News relating to Watergate.

Much like today, Flyer News primarily covered campus news. There was active coverage of what was going on in the student government, a section dedicated to what campus police were up to and alerts and notifications for students across campus. Occasionally, someone from outside campus would come for a speaker series and discuss national or international events. However, most mentions of what was going on outside of campus could be found in editorials and letters to the editor. Once students returned to campus for the 1972-73 academic year, there were plenty of responses to Watergate and Richard Nixon to be found in these sections.

In the Sept. 26, 1972, issue of Flyer News, an editorial titled “Dirty Water” dominated the editorial section. It was written as a classic fairy tale in which “King Richard the Chickenhearted ruled the mighty Kingdom of American States.” King Richard the Chickenhearted was afraid of a potential challenger, “Sir George of Dakota,” or George McGovern, the Democratic candidate against Nixon in the 1972 presidential election. King Richard the Chickenhearted summoned his “most trusted con men” to “invade Sir George’s fortress at Watergate and bring back secrets and plots and maps.” Nixon’s con men were brave, the story claims, but “weren’t too bright.” The con men were caught, and Richard the Chickenhearted now “cries in his sleep, and as well aloud, for his country and gold throne.”

Looking back at Flyer News around this time, however, shows most people were not thinking about Watergate. In a letter published as an editorial in the Nov. 7 issue of Flyer News, Edward C. Rafferty, Jr. declared that the first reason he had for not voting for Nixon was his “contempt for life” in escalating the war in Vietnam, invading Cambodia and the death of “20,000 young American men and about 2 million Vietnamese people.” Americans, college students especially, were distraught by what was going on in Southeast Asia. Thousands of Americans were dying, and many Americans wanted this to end. This anguish and angst were the main criticisms leveled at the Nixon administration, and, as shocking as it may be, Watergate was an afterthought.

Despite the controversies of his first term, President Nixon was re-elected on the same day the letter decrying him was published in the Flyer News, and on Jan. 20, 1973, he was inaugurated. Peering back through the decades, it is hard to imagine that Nixon could win re-election, much less by the landslide that he did (Nixon sweeping an enormous 520 electoral votes to George McGovern’s measly 17). Before his inauguration, however, the University of Dayton student government took a firm stance. On Jan. 16, 1973, the bottom of page seven of the Flyer News was taken up by a statement from the student government. They “emphatically and unequivocally [denounced] the unrestricted, indiscriminate and inhumane bombing policy [in Southeast Asia] of the Nixon Administration” that took place from Dec. 17, 1972, to Jan. 1, 1973. The student government encouraged students to take action and voice their opposition to the president on Inauguration Day.

On Jan. 23, 1973, Nixon announced “peace with honor” in Vietnam and the withdrawal of U.S. soldiers from Vietnam. By March of that year, American troops would be out of Vietnam. Flyers News writers then shifted their attention from Vietnam to Watergate. By the beginning of the 1973-74 academic year, editorials and letters to the editor were consumed with the coverage of Watergate. One anonymous writer vented his frustration with those “higher-ups who say ‘America is tired of Watergate’ and ‘Let’s get back down to the business of running America,’” a criticism and complaint that eerily echoes what many could find in 2020 on Twitter.

On Oct. 10, 1973, Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned from his position after an investigation by federal prosecutors into several corrupt actions he had taken throughout his political career that were separate from the Watergate scandal. UD students were “mostly surprised” about Agnew’s resignation according to an article written by Barb Sudhoff, a staff writer for the Flyer News. “I wouldn’t want to be mixed up in Watergate and have to share Nixon’s guild either,” Lisa DeLeo, a freshman at the time, said. “Hopefully, this will be the downfall of Nixon.”

Flyer News covered Nixon’s impeachment proceedings as well as Vice President Spiro Agnew’s resignation for corruption that was separate from Watergate

Agnew would not be the last person to leave the White House, however. Ten days later, on Oct. 20, Nixon ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Archibald Cox, who was serving as the special counsel of the investigation into Watergate. Richardson refused to fire Cox and resigned. Nixon then attempted to order the deputy attorney general, William Ruckelshaus, to fire Cox. Ruckelshaus refused and immediately resigned as well. Nixon finally turned to Solicitor General Robert Bork, who fired Cox.

An editorial cartoon that ran in Flyer News after the Saturday Night Massacre

This event, known as the Saturday Night Massacre, sparked outrage across the country. Tim Langley, a junior at the time, wrote in his column Reflections: “And Richard Nixon, for all his vaunted patriotism and respect for the rule of law, is, in the final analysis, one of those who neither understands nor sympathizes with the spirit in which the United States of America was conceived.” “Irrationality Reigns” declared the title of one editorial which gave a recap of the events of Oct. 20. Even the political science department issued a letter, which would be published as a guest column, titled “Constitutional Crisis.” The department declared that Nixon had “substituted his will for that of the people, his insights for our concerns, his ambitions for our priorities” and determined that this constitutional crisis was “more serious than we have ever encountered in our republic’s brief history.”

In response, UD’s student government hosted an impeachment rally. The front page of the Nov. 2, 1973 issue of the Flyer News shows an effigy of Richard Nixon being beaten by students before being tossed to a dog to be used as a chew toy. “Has Nixon gone to the dogs?” the caption below the picture wonders.

UD’s student government hosted an impeachment rally where an effigy of Nixon was beaten by students and chewed on by a dog

With all this anger and buildup, I figured Flyer News would have had at least an entire page dedicated to Nixon’s resignation, which occurred on Aug. 9, 1974. Of course, this probably was over the summer break, but flipping through the old, yellowed papers, I was shocked to see no fanfare at all. As quickly and quietly as the Watergate scandal happened upon America, so too did the resignation of Richard Nixon upon the Flyer News. There were a few criticisms leveled at President Gerald Ford, Nixon’s successor, for his pardoning of Nixon, but after that? Nothing. Watergate and Nixon faded into the background as life returned to normality on campus.

Reading through editorials and letters, I was struck by how similar the language was to what I have been hearing for years surrounding criticisms of President Donald Trump, especially in recent months as his impeachment has been occurring. As the famous quote goes, “History does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes,” and boy, can I hear similarities between 1970s America and the America of today.

Correction: An edit was made to the second paragraph after the article was posted to clarify that Nixon wasn’t impeached but resigned due to the likelihood of him getting impeached. The headline also has been edited to reflect this clarification. 

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