Beleaguered Nixon Bowed to History 25 Years Ago
Time stopped for Richard Nixon 25 years ago.
On Friday, Aug. 9, 1974, the day he would go down in history as the only president to resign, Nixon awoke about 6 a.m. But he thought it was 4 a.m. because his watch had quit and heavy curtains blacked out the dawn.
He threw on a bathrobe and padded off to the White House kitchen to fix breakfast. Surprised to see the cook so early, he ordered corned beef hash and poached eggs, comfort food more substantial than his usual wheat germ and milk.
Alexander Haig, his chief of staff, arrived and handed him a sheet of paper prepared for his signature. “I hereby resign the Office of President of the United States,” it said. He signed. It was as if the clock had started ticking again.
A maudlin speech to staff--"My mother was a saint,” he said--and soon he was gone. Just after noon, Gerald R. Ford was sworn in as president as Nixon flew to his California sanctuary.
It is hard to imagine how Nixon could get out of bed in those last days of his presidency. Each day was grimmer than the day before, each event a tumble off yet another precipice.
“He was a man awake during his own nightmare,” Henry Kissinger said.
In the quarter-century since that bad dream for the nation and Nixon, two things have been said about Watergate that together sound like a paradox.
One is that “the system worked,” that in the cauldron of corruption stirred at the highest level of power, a democracy’s resilience, its ability to use law and process to right itself, won out.
The other is that faith in government has never been the same.
“We were awakened and became watchful and cynical,” says Sam Dash, chief counsel of the Senate Watergate Committee. “We suddenly saw what a president can do.”
Watergate ushered in a powerful urge to do things clean and right. Ethics were in. The “imperial presidency” was out.
Some of the reforms have held up better than others.
A new openness came to campaigns and government, with agencies forced to live by new rules overseen by ethics officials. The flow of campaign money was made more transparent. Those steps and others survive.
But the independent counsel statute, designed to insulate official investigations from politics, recently died, judged after President Clinton’s long and lurid impeachment ordeal to be too loose a cannon.
And the effort to keep campaign financing honest has grown rickety at best. Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor martyred when Nixon fired him, says today’s “money-mad politics” may be an evil worse than Watergate.
The scandal, at the outset, was about the break-in on June 17, 1972, at national Democratic headquarters by burglars working for the Committee to Re-elect the President and efforts to conceal White House involvement.
Investigations, official and by the press, uncovered a rash of political espionage operations and dirty tricks against Nixon’s opponents and--ultimately and most damning--the president’s role in trying to cover them up.
The final weeks were tumultuous in Washington. The impossible became the seemingly inevitable--the first and only presidency ending under threat of impeachment.
Crowds gathered outside the iron bars of the White House to jeer, “Jail to the chief.”
Worries about Nixon’s stability prompted private assurances from aides that if “the president picks up a red phone, nobody will answer it,” Philip Lacovara, then deputy solicitor general, said. Haig, however, insists Nixon, although distraught, was in firm control of his senses and responsibilities.
Nixon spent part of that time in California, swimming in the Pacific, tinkering with an anti-inflation plan and continually reviewing the arithmetic of his political fortunes.
It was an exercise in subtraction, as more and more loyalists in Congress turned against him. On July 21, he learned that three previously sympathetic Southern Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee were deserting him. He wrote in his diary: “12:01 a.m.: Lowest point in Presidency and SC to come.”
“SC” was the Supreme Court. Three days later it ruled unanimously that he had to surrender tapes subpoenaed by Watergate investigators, tapes he realized would likely doom him. Nixon’s presidency sank lower.
Three days after that, on July 27, it went lower still, as the Judiciary Committee passed the first article of impeachment.
After three more days, when the third impeachment article had passed the committee, Nixon got up in the middle of the night and began listing the pros and cons of resigning. Near dawn, he concluded: “End career as a fighter.” He would continue to show flashes of defiance.
Nixon had taken to musing to associates that the “best political writing in this century has been done from jail.” He mentioned Lenin and Gandhi.
It got worse.
On Monday, Aug. 5, his hand forced, he released a transcript of one of the surrendered tapes. Therein lay the “smoking gun,” proof that six days after the Watergate break-in, he had tried to get the CIA to stop the FBI investigation.
Nixon took his family for an evening dinner cruise on the Potomac on the presidential yacht, Sequoia. He didn’t want them watching the news. Reporters and photographers hung over bridges for a look or picture.
His remaining support melted. Longtime ally Rep. Charles Wiggins (R-Calif.), dismay written across his face, declared: “The magnificent career of public service of Richard Nixon must be terminated involuntarily.”
A delegation of GOP Sens. Barry Goldwater of Arizona and Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania and House Republican leader John Rhodes of Arizona met him that Wednesday, two days before the end. They told him it was grim--if the full House impeached Nixon, the Senate would vote to convict him, removing him from office.
Nixon told his family he was quitting. The Nixons mopped up tears to pose and force a smile for the official White House photographer, himself crying.
Later that night, Nixon and Kissinger, his secretary of state, broke out brandy they had opened three years earlier to toast the president’s invitation to visit China. They talked. Nixon had Kissinger kneel with him in the Lincoln Bedroom and pray.
“A President’s power begins slipping away the moment it is known that he is going to leave,” Nixon wrote in the memoirs where he also recalled his last White House breakfast. “My telephone calls and meetings and decisions were now parts of a prescribed ritual aimed at making peace with the past.”
On Thursday, Aug. 8, Nixon met with Ford, then congressional leaders, then several dozen loyalists, many sobbing. He was in tears too. Then he faced the nation.
“To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct in my body,” he said in his TV address. “But as president, I must put the interests of America first. . . . Therefore, I shall resign the presidency effective at noon tomorrow.”
He said: “I regret deeply any injuries that may have been done in the course of the events that led to this decision.”
“He never admitted a damn thing,” said John Dean, former Nixon counsel and one of 25 men who went to prison for Watergate.
“Our long national nightmare is over,” asserted Ford upon becoming president the next day.
In all American history, eight presidents had died in office. None had quit.
Ford later pardoned Nixon, who went on to write memoirs and respected foreign policy books. Future presidents, including Clinton, came to value his counsel.
He died April 22, 1994, at age 81.
“Power to Nixon was manipulation, inside information, polls, favors, tradeoffs, bribes, public relations, smears and intimidation,” historian Stephen E. Ambrose wrote at the end of his Nixon biography.
Yet Ambrose said that because Nixon quit, his proposal to ensure everyone had health insurance died. Tensions with the Soviet Union that he had eased dragged on. An opening to China was left unexploited. Massive deficits followed.
“When Nixon resigned,” he argued, “we lost more than we gained.”
The aura of the presidency and perhaps some of its power were diminished. Congress and the Supreme Court weakened a president’s ability to stonewall and claim executive privilege.
“Watergate taught the American people they can’t sit on their hands and trust the government,” Sam Dash says. The way he sees it now, everyone wised up.