In the 1970s, America underwent a period of political turmoil. After the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964, our military had become embroiled in an open-ended conflict on Vietnamese soil that was heavily protested at home and abroad, leading to civil unrest and anti-American sentiment. Bridges were being built across the racial divide between black and white Americans, but the wounds felt by the black community were slow to mend. The country was still healing in the aftermath of the Civil Rights movement and the Civil Rights Act of 1968. The controversy over Watergate and President Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974 further exacerbated the distrust Americans felt toward their government. Representative Alan Steelman, the Congressman from Texas’s Fifth Congressional District, came into office in the midst of this upheaval. His correspondence with his constituents paints a picture of a first-term Congressman grappling with widespread anger towards the political machine.
Many of Steelman’s constituents saw the Watergate scandal as an affront to their personal ethics. As a member of Nixon’s party, the freshman Representative was forced to decide between his loyalty to the Constitution, to his constituents, and to his party in regards to impeachment proceedings. In a letter to one of these constituents, Steelman makes this conflict clear:
I have supported the President during this, my first term in Congress on most of his foreign and domestic goals … Therefore, I find it regrettable that the Watergate affair has obscured some of the accomplishments of this Administration.
The Watergate matter must be cleared up because the credibility of our government and the strength of our democracy have been seriously questioned by too many citizens as evidence in my mail and conversations with the people of Dallas, including many who have been Republicans all their lives.
This case must be judged objectively and strictly on its merits. It is not a political football but a matter of justice.
Representative Steelman fielded questions on President Nixon’s personal and public documents, including his tax returns and the White House recordings, while trying to govern a nation who had lost faith in governance.
Nixon’s resignation prolonged this period of faithlessness, as evidenced when his Vice President, Gerald Ford, assumed the duties of the presidency. Ford had famously been appointed Vice President after Spiro Agnew resigned due to criminal tax evasion charges. Succeeding Nixon meant that he was the first President to never be elected to the highest office in the executive branch. Understandably, many Americans saw this as a breach of their rights as citizens to vote for their leaders. When Nelson Rockefeller, the former Governor of New York, was nominated to be Gerald Ford’s Vice President, Steelman assured his constituents Ford was a credible Commander in Chief and that he would hold the potential Vice President to a high standard:
I have the highest personal regard for Gerald Ford. He’s a man of great integrity and ability, and I look forward to working with him to meet the many challenges ahead. This has been a difficult time for the nation, but I think we can look to the future with renewed hope and optimism.
Even though my personal preference for the position [of Vice President] was George [H.W.] Bush, I know President Ford put much time and thought into his decision. I can assure you that if there are any revelations that convince me that Governor Rockefeller is not qualified or fit to be Vice President, I will, of course, vote against his confirmation.
Though Gerald Ford would go on to be challenged within his own party by Ronald Reagan and later defeated by Democratic nominee Jimmy Carter, his presidency is now mostly remembered for his pardon of Nixon. Like Steelman, Ford believed the country needed to move on and heal after nearly a decade of tumultuous political activity. Both men believed in an optimistic vision for the country’s future, one that would repair the rifts between the American people and their government.