RABALAIS’ POLITICAL HISTORY: The Bossier Rep Who Stuck With Nixon Until The Bitter End

On the morning of Aug. 9, 1974, Richard Nixon climbed onto the presidential helicopter, waved goodbye and flew away from the White House after resigning in disgrace.

In the intervening 44 years, journalists and historians have written countless accounts of the Watergate break-in, the subsequent cover-up and the scandal that doomed Nixon’s presidency. Frequently overlooked is the story of Louisiana Congressman Joe Waggonner and his supporting role in the national drama.

Right as Nixon was riding his landslide victory of 1972, Waggonner was winning his seventh term in Congress. The Bossier Parish native represented the northwestern corner of the state in the House, holding the seat in the Fourth District. A staunchly conservative Democrat, Waggoner often crossed party lines on votes and had a habit of lecturing the more liberal members of his party during floor speeches.

Waggonner’s conservative streak had endeared him to Nixon and his aides. The congressman had also been their unofficial whip among his Democratic colleagues, helping line up the votes to pass some of the administration’s key legislation. But above all, Waggonner had been reliable and loyal, and those were two qualities that the president, an incredibly insecure man, valued above all others.

As the congressional investigations into Watergate started closing in on the White House, Nixon turned to Waggonner for support. The congressman publicly defended the president, calling for an end to the inquiry and chalking it up to a partisan vendetta against Nixon.

However, the House Judiciary Committee discovered evidence linking the crimes to Nixon’s henchmen and started considering charges of impeachment. When the White House refused to hand over tapes of the president’s conversations, even the most reliable allies in Congress ran for cover and stopped taking calls from the commander-in-chief.

Panicked, Nixon phoned Waggonner, one of the few members who would still take his calls and was willing to fight impeachment. The congressman assured him that he could get 70 Democrats, mostly Southerners, to vote with him and block referring the charges against Nixon to the Senate for a trial. Since Waggonner’s counts had been highly accurate in the past, the administration believed it could survive a vote in the House.

But when the tapes were finally made public, there was very little doubt about the president’s complicity in the criminal acts committed by the White House. When the staff informed Nixon that the whip count was hemorrhaging votes, he again lobbied Waggonner for support. The outlook was grim. Less than half of the congressman’s original commitments were still willing to vote against impeachment and that number was dropping rapidly.

Nixon later recalled that, as he got off of the call with Waggonner, he began to realize that he may actually have to resign or be removed from office.

Days later, Waggonner was invited to the White House for a meeting with Nixon. Also in the room was the core of dwindling supporters that the president still had in Congress.

Nixon, exhausted and distraught, entered and informed the assembled group that he would announce his resignation that evening. "I am sorry I have let you down,” he told them.

It would not be their last meeting. When the former president finally left his home after weeks of seclusion, his first stop was a party in Shreveport, hosted by his old friend, Congressman Joe Waggonner.

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