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Richard Nixon and the Watergate Scandal

50 min

To what extent was Nixon’s use of executive privilege consistent with precedent and with the Constitution?

Students will:

  • Understand the events of the Watergate scandal.
  • Analyze several Presidents’ use of executive privilege.
  • Evaluate President Richard Nixon’s assertion of executive privilege.

  • Handout A: Richard Nixon and the Watergate Scandal
  • Handout B: A Brief History of Executive Privilege in the United States
  • Handout C: Herblock Watergate Cartoons
  • Web Resource: Barbara Jordan’s July 25, 1974 Speech to the House Judiciary Committee Background

To create a context for this lesson, have students complete Constitutional Connection: Impeachment and the Constitution.

Have students read Handout A: Richard Nixon and the Watergate Scandal and answer the questions.

Divide the class into pairs or trios and give each student Handout B: A Brief History of Executive Privilege in the United States. Have each group discuss the attempts of each President listed to keep certain information secret in light of the Constitution’s requirement that the President “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” (Article II, Section 3)

Ask each group to report its results and reasoning for situations two through four, leaving aside discussion of Nixon for the moment.

Finally, have each group write on the board its “rule for executive privilege.” Compare and summarize the rules. Have the class vote on the best one, and write it on the board.

Have students summarize the facts of the Watergate Scandal and Nixon’s claim of executive privilege on Handout B. Go over responses and clarify any questions.

Ask students to debate whether Nixon’s claim was consistent with the class rule. (If needed, divide the class in half.)

After a few moments, ask students to recall the 1974 US Supreme Court case US v. Nixon from Handout A. The Court ruled that while executive privilege was an important and legitimate principle, it “must yield to the demonstrated, specific need for evidence in a pending criminal trial.” Do students agree with the Court? Why or why not?

Distribute Handout C: Herblock Watergate Cartoons. For each cartoon, discuss the following questions:

  1. What is the date of the cartoon and why is that significant?
  2. What symbolism do you note in the cartoon?
  3. Do you think this cartoon helped people in 1974 to understand the Watergate scandal and its constitutional issues?
  4. To what extent does the cartoon help you understand the scandal and its constitutional issues?

Play for students a recording of Representative Barbara Jordan’s speech available at Have students make a list of the quotations Jordan sites from the Constitutional Convention and Ratifying Conventions of various states, as well as from later individuals. They should summarize each quotation and explain how it applies or does not apply to the accusations against Nixon.

One month after Nixon’s resignation, President Ford issued a complete pardon for any crimes that Nixon may have committed as President. Have students complete the lesson on Nixon and Ford in this volume’s Transfer of Power unit to learn more about that episode in our nation’s history.

Have students prepare five or six questions to interview a parent, other family member, or friend who recalls the events of the Watergate Scandal. Students should record their interviews and share what they learned.

Student Handouts

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