Forty years ago this week Richard Milhous Nixon became the first President of the United States to resign while in office. The events that led to his resignation are now the stuff of legend, predicated by the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover-up.
We now know that Richard Nixon had a paranoid personality. He had engaged in dirty tricks at various points in his political career, to the point that some now say there is evidence that he interfered with and sabotaged the 1968 Paris peace talks in Vietnam in order to win the election. After winning by a narrow margin against Hubert Humphrey, his Democratic challenger, Nixon established a “plumbers’ unit” within his Administration. The goal of the “plumbers” was to plug all leaks in the Administration, especially those concerning behind-the-scenes activity about the Vietnam war.
And so it was that on September 3, 1971, the “plumbers” broke into the offices of military analyst Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist in the hope of finding anything the Nixon Administration could use to stop Ellsberg from releasing the Pentagon Papers. As we know, they failed on both accounts.
Three years later and facing reelection, Nixon had been certain that his Democratic challenger, George McGovern, was more of a threat than he turned out to be. As a result, his “plumbers” took it upon themselves to try and bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate hotel and office complex. On June 17, 1972, five men were arrested, including one who claimed to be an ex-CIA employee. Nixon claimed no knowledge of the actions, and said he would fully cooperate with Congressional investigators.
Five months later Nixon won a landslide victory at the polls, taking more than 60 percent of the vote. The Senate Watergate hearings were continuing, and were now televised. With each passing week, as more and more testimony was revealed, things were pointing to some involvement by the Nixon Administration, if not Nixon himself. That led committee vice chairman Howard Baker, a Republican senator from Tennessee, to ask the famous question: “What did the president know, and when did he know it?”
In January of 1973, Nixon announced the end of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. His “Peace with Honor” campaign had fizzled, and the U.S. military unceremoniously left the country. As the final helicopters departed from the grounds of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, they took as many South Vietnamese loyalists with them as the helicopters could carry.
When it was revealed that Nixon had recorded all conversations in the Oval Office, the Congressional Committee demanded access to the tapes. Nixon claimed executive privilege, saying the tapes belonged to the president and Congress and anyone else had no right to listen to them.
At around the same time, Vice President Spiro Agnew was charged with conspiracy, bribery and tax fraud based on his time as governor of the state of Maryland. Agnew decided to take a plea deal rather than go through an extended trial. The deal required him to plead guilty to failure to report income to the IRS, and to resign as vice president. Nixon nominated Gerald Ford, a congressman from Michigan, to replace Agnew. He was quickly sworn in as Nixon’s Vice President.
In early 1973, Nixon’s popularity in Gallup polls soared to around the 60 percent mark, but as new revelations continued to come forth from the Senate Watergate Committee, his popularity sank to below 30 percent by the end of the year. In November of 1973, Nixon went on TV to tell the American people, “I am not a crook.” On December 7, as Nixon had released a small number of recordings, an 18 1/2 minute gap was discovered on a tape, for which there was no logical explanation. Nixon’s secretary, Rose Mary Woods, told the Committee she must have accidentally recorded over that portion.
As 1974 arrived, Nixon continued to proclaim no prior knowledge of the break-in and no involvement in the cover-up that followed. He also continued his defiance to turn over all the tape recordings. By summer, the floodgates were about to open. On July 24, 1974, the Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, ruled that Nixon must turn over all the tape recordings to the Committee. There had been talk of impeachment in Congress, and the talk was growing louder. The House Judiciary Committee had recommended impeachment on three general charges. Nixon vowed to fight any impeachment proceedings.
As pressure began to mount for Nixon to either resign or be impeached, he gave the Committee three recordings. It was August 5, 1974. One of the recordings was later referred to as “the smoking gun,” since it directly implicated the President in the Watergate cover-up. On it, Nixon is heard ordering a stop to the investigation of the break-in, just six days after the event. He also admitted to suppressing evidence from both his attorney and the House Judiciary Committee. That sealed the deal.
Republican Senator Barry Goldwater was asked to deliver the news to the President that there were enough votes in both the House and Senate to impeach him. He made his decision to resign on August 6 and announced his decision on TV on August 7, 1974. When his resignation became active at noon on August 8, Gerald Ford was sworn in as the 38th President of the United States.
Where were you when Nixon gave his resignation speech? Baby boomers remember several milestone events in our lives, all brought to our attention through television: The assassination of John F. Kennedy, Neil Armstrong taking his first step on the moon chiefly among them. Now the first president to resign in office would join the list.
Mister Boomer was on a vacation. He had taken a summer course at his university, and as soon as it ended, he bought a two-week Greyhound bus pass. He headed for Glacier National Park and stopped in Missoula, Montana to visit some college friends who had married and moved there. It was in their living room that Mister B and his friends watched Nixon deliver his resignation speech.
Mister B couldn’t help but recall the buttons worn around campus prior to the election in 1972: “Dick Nixon before he dicks you.” He had been called “tricky Dick” since his early days in politics, sporting a dark five o’clock shadow, sweating upper lip and what some people described as “shifty eyes.” Now he was an ex-President.
Did you watch Nixon deliver his resignation speech live on TV on August 7, 1974, boomers?