On June 17, 1972, a band of bungling burglars broke into the Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate Building, but it took more than two years before the scandal forced a President from office.
In March 1974, a group known as the Watergate Seven were arraigned for their involvement in trying to undermine the Watergate Investigation. Nixon’s most senior aides, Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman, aide John Ehrlichman, and Attorney General John Mitchell, were tried, convicted, and sentenced to prison. The trials made a national hero of federal Judge John Sirica.
On August 8, 47 years ago, Richard Milhous Nixon, the USA’s 37th President, gave his 37th address to the nation. He told the country he was resigning.
“In all the decisions I have made in my public life, I have always tried to do what was best for the Nation. Throughout the long and difficult period of Watergate, I have felt it was my duty to persevere, to make every possible effort to complete the term of office to which you elected me.
In the past few days, however, it has become evident to me that I no longer have a strong enough political base in the Congress to justify continuing that effort. As long as there was such a base, I felt strongly that it was necessary to see the constitutional process through to its conclusion, that to do otherwise would be unfaithful to the spirit of that deliberately difficult process and a dangerously destabilizing precedent for the future…“
What happened during those “past few days” to change the President’s mind? A previously unknown tape recording made on June 23, 1972, became public. It turned out to be the “smoking gun” of the Nixon scandals.
Before August 3, 1974, Nixon had insisted he knew nothing about a cover-up designed to prevent anyone and everyone from learning the truth about the Watergate Break-In. The released tape of a conversation between Nixon and his adviser H.R. Haldeman proved that he had been lying. Not only did it reveal Nixon knew about the cover-up, he could be heard approving it:
“… the way to handle this now is for us to have Vernon Walters (CIA) call Pat Gray (FBI) and just say, ‘Stay the hell out of this … this is ah, business here we don’t want you to go any further on it’.“
“… All right, fine, I understand it all. We won’t second-guess John Mitchell (the Attorney General) and the rest… You call them in and tell the CIA to tell the FBI to go no further with an investigation. Good. Good deal. Play it tough. That’s the way they play it and that’s the way we are going to play it.“
Those words implicated the President, causing some in Congress who had previously stood by him to finally withdraw their support. If Nixon had not resigned, he probably would have lost an eminent impeachment trial. He claimed that he did not want to put the country, or his family, through that.
In Nixon’s speech on August 8, 1974, he stated:
“I would have preferred to carry through to the finish whatever the personal agony it would have involved, and my family unanimously urged me to do so. But the interest of the Nation must always come before any personal considerations.
From the discussions I have had with Congressional and other leaders, I have concluded that because of the Watergate matter I might not have the support of the Congress that I would consider necessary to back the very difficult decisions and carry out the duties of this office in the way the interests of the Nation would require.
I have never been a quitter. To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct in my body. But as President, I must put the interest of America first. America needs a full-time President and a full-time Congress, particularly at this time with problems we face at home and abroad. To continue to fight through the months ahead for my personal vindication would almost totally absorb the time and attention of both the President and the Congress in a period when our entire focus should be on the great issues of peace abroad and prosperity without inflation at home.
Therefore, I shall resign the Presidency effective at noon tomorrow. Vice President Ford will be sworn in as President at that hour in this office.
During his farewell speech, Nixon talked about his mother, “a saint”, he said:
“Only when you have been in the deepest valley can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain.”
The following day, August 9, Nixon submitted his resignation letter to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. On that morning, Nixon woke up with a start after a restless night. Nixon later said:
“I looked at my watch. The battery had run out, worn out, at 4 o’clock the last day I was in office. By that day, I was worn out too.”
After a tearful goodbye to his staff, he and his family left Washington D.C. and flew to California.
1983 interview, Nixon said that his wife had boarded the helicopter first and then he followed:
“I turned around, and there were all the crowd out there on the lawn. I kind of raised my hand. I didn’t know whether it was a salute or a wave, but that was it. Turned, went in and sat down in the plane, heard the engines whirl up. I closed my eyes. And as the helicopter began to rise, I heard Mrs. Nixon, who was sitting in the seat next to us, speaking to no one in particular but to everyone, and she said, ‘It’s so sad. It’s so sad.”
Nixon left behind a confused nation, all his spurned aides, and an accidental POTUS. Watergate stripped the USA of its political innocence, changed executive privilege and power, and brought many new reforms.
It was the first time that Congress had more than two Senate Presidents (the Vice President), in this case, three. After Spiro Agnew was forced to resign in his own scandal, Gerald Ford was appointed under the authority of the newly ratified 25th Amendment. Ford became President the next year and Nelson Rockefeller was appointed VEEP.
Nixon’s resignation brought a large new group of politicians to Washington. It also gave the American vocabulary many new expressions and one very annoying way of naming other scandals. In every debate about executive power or White House press management, Nixon looms glowering and sweaty in the background.
Nixon’s downfall wasn’t just about his lying. It was his paranoia and love for dirty tricks that had gotten Nixon into trouble. It was the cover-up that finally him, even if his crimes were many.
I was just 20 years-old and doing summer stock theatre on Cape Cod when this happened. I hated Nixon and I was happy to see him fall. I did think to myself:
“Well, some good as come from this. No President would ever try to pull one over on the American people again.”