Here's how history hangs on a thread. Frank Wills, a sharp-eyed night watchman at the Watergate Hotel in June 1972, discovered the break-in at Democratic headquarters by chance. A less vigilant watchman may not have done so, meaning Richard Nixon's cover-up would probably not have been discovered before he left office; and he may not have been forced to resign on threat of impeachment two years later. Though despised by liberals, Nixon may have gone down in history as the last of the liberal presidents -- his chief legacies could have been creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, a national health care initiative quite similar to Obamacare (proposed but not passed), ending the Vietnam War, showing America not to be a "pitiful, helpless giant" but achieving "peace with honor," and opening diplomatic relations with the People'e Republic of China.
But Frank Willis unwittingly destroyed Nixon's chances at greatness. The New York Times obituary of Willis in 2000 described what he did:
He was working the midnight shift on June 17, 1972. He discovered tape over a lock on a basement door, and thinking some worker had left it to make it easier to get in and out, he removed it. On another inspection round, he found the lock taped over again, and called the police. They locked the doors, turned off the elevators, and started checking darkened offices. About 2 a.m., at the sixth-floor headquarters of the Democratic National Committee, they found five men: Bernard L. Barker, Virgilio Gonzales, Eugenio Martinez, James W. McCord Jr. and Frank Sturgis.
If, before the election, Nixon was fully exposed to be the criminal that he turned out to be, could Democrat George McGovern have won the presidency? Probably not. Nixon's forces would have retorted with an "everybody does it" and a "It Didn't Start With Watergate" defense. The American people did not turn against Nixon until two years later, when the steady "drip drip drip" of disclosures from the Watergate cover-up made it clear he was "twisting slowly in the wind" and could no longer govern effectively.
The suspicious outlines of the Watergate break-in and Nixon's dirty tricks were known before the election, and did not prevent Nixon from winning a landslide.
Even with the discovery of the Watergate break-in, it's hard to imagine how the Democrats, deeply divided over the Vietnam War, civil rights, and women's rights, could have won the presidency in 1972. To garner favor with his young supporters, McGovern in the primaries came out in favor of decriminalization of marijuana, amnesty for Vietnam draft dodgers, and legalized abortion. This was the first year 18-21 year-olds were allowed to vote, and McGovern's hope was their participation would lead to a far more pro gressive electorate. In reality, young people that year voted in smaller percentages than other groups, and the ones who voted proved no more liberal than other segments of the population. But the positions McGovern staked out in the primaries led opponents to portray him as a radical left-wing extremist in the general election. One Democratic leader referred to McGovern as the candidate of "acid, amnesty and abortion," and that became a refrain among "Democrats for Nixon" in the fall campaign.
The biggest "what if's" of the 1972 election, aside from the discovery of the Watergate break-in, involved McGovern's sloppy selection of Senator Thomas Eagleton of Missouri as his vice presidential candidate -- weeks later, Eagleton had to resign when it was revealed he had undergone shock treatment for depression -- the toppling of the Democrats' best hope, moderate frontrunner Edmund Muskie of Maine in the primaries, and the shooting of Alabama Governor George Wallace just as he was racking up primary victories.
The Eagleton resignation mortally wounded McGovern. He wouldn't have won the election without that mistake, but he might not have lost by historic proportions. He was also damaged by a Democratic convention that seemed to embrace counter-culture elements and was starkly out of control. McGovern's 3AM acceptance speech, which few swing voters saw on television, meant he never had a chance to make his case to the American people.
The Democrats would have fared far better if they nominated Muskie. Well before the primary season began, journalists constantly predicted that Muskie would sweep all the primaries and was a "shoe-in" for nomination. Muskie's forces did nothing to dampen expectations. As a senator from Maine, Muskie was projected early on to win the neighboring New Hampshire primary handily. But before the primary, it was reported that a letter on Muskie campaign stationary used an ethnic slur (calling the French-Canadians population of New Hampshire "Cannucks"). This was actually a dirty trick by the Nixon campaign. It was also reported that Muskie burst into tears at criticism of his wife Jane by The Manchester (NH) Union-Leader. This also turned out to be untrue. Muskie was the victim of media hype and dirty tricks by the Nixon forces. But voters, or at least journalists, began to wonder if Muskie had the toughness and stamina to be president. Though he did achieve more than 50 percent of the vote in New Hampshire, the news coming out of the state was that Senator George McGovern did far better than expected. McGovern had passionate anti-war activists behind him and a better ground organization than Muskie. After losing the Florida primary, Muskie withdrew his candidacy for the Democratic nomination, and his party's chances for the presidency that year faded. To this day, one wonders if media hype and Nixon's dirty tricks killed his promising candidacy.
As for Wallace, as a Southerner, he led a backlash campaign against the national Democratic Party positions on integration and the war in Vietnam. Surprisingly, he won every county in the Florida primary, as well as primaries in North Carolina (against favorite son Terry Sanford), outside the South -- in Maryland and Michigan. Most Wallace supporters voted for Nixon in the fall. If he had not been disabled by an assassin's bullet, one wonders what additional mischief he may have caused for the national Democratic Party. But by 1976, he was back in the fold, endorsing Jimmy Carter for President and attending the Carter inaugural.
Nixon went on to win the 1972 election with a whopping 60.7% of the vote, one of the largest in presidential election history. Democratic nominee McGovern won only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.
- Dominic Sandbrook in The New Statesman speculated on what would have happened if that night watchman at the Watergate hotel in 1972 hadn't been so alert to discover the Watergate break-in. Might Nixon have gone down in history as a great president?