Scandal brought down a presidency

Way Back When

Resignation: President Richard M. Nixon left office in 1974.

August 07, 1999|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

All through the day on Aug. 8, 1974, and despite a continuing drizzle and leaden skies, crowds came to stand and stare at the White House through the black iron railings that encircle it. The mostly silent crowd came to keep a vigil and witness the final moments of the administration of Richard Milhous Nixon.

The impending resignation of the the president was the final act in a drama that had its origins in the 1972 burglary of Democratic Party headquarters in Washington's Watergate complex. A year later, the full depth of the scandal had exploded onto the nation's television screens in what was the longest congressional hearing ever held.

"Those who watched were a mixture of conservative middle-class Americans -- the silent majority the Nixon administration had wooed -- and those who would have qualified for its lists of political enemies," reported The Sun.

"There were middle-aged couples, tourists in paper hats who had come to tour the White House no matter who was its tenant, young girls in long cotton dresses, carrying babies and Bibles, and bearded young men in ragged jeans. They had perhaps nothing in common except that they were standing on Pennsylvania Avenue outside the White House on an August day when history was being made. The President of the United States was about to resign, and who he was had been transcended by what he was about to do," observed the newspaper.

Later that evening, Nixon, in an Oval Office address, took to the airwaves to announce his resignation without admitting any guilt or apologizing for his actions. He simply referred to the scandal that ended his presidency as "the long and difficult period of Watergate."

Claiming that he wished to fight to the end, Nixon said his decision to resign was based on the country's national and international interests, which had been somewhat ignored because of the Watergate investigation.

"I have never been a quitter. To leave my 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 the problems we face at home and abroad," he said.

Holding the white sheets of paper of his speech firmly and slightly pursing his lips, Nixon stared gravely into the television cameras and said, "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. ... To have served in this office is to have felt a very personal sense of kinship with each and every American. And leaving it I do so with this prayer: May God's grace be with you in all the days ahead."

"Despite his professions of coolness under strain, Mr. Nixon has never liked to deal with bad news. He did not like to hear it. He did not like to talk about it in public. In that sense, his address last night was true to the old Nixon tradition," observed The Sun.

"I think that this is one of the most difficult and very saddest periods and one of the very saddest incidents I have ever witnessed," said Vice President Gerald R. Ford moments after Nixon's speech.

"Let me say I think the President of the United States has made one of the greatest personal sacrifices for the country and one of the finest personal decisions on behalf of all of us Americans by his decision to resign as President of the United States."

After bidding his Cabinet and staff farewell, Nixon crossed the White House lawn one last time and boarded the helicopter that would take him to Andrews Air Force Base and Air Force One, which would take him to his home in San Clemente, Calif., and political exile. Though the stigma of Watergate and his resignation would never leave him, by the time of his death in 1994, Nixon emerged as something of an elder statesman, commenting on foreign policy, writing books and lecturing.

Mounting the steps of the helicopter that August day, Nixon stopped and turned. He waved briskly once and then flashed his trademark two-handed campaign victory wave.

Nixon ceased to be president at 11: 35 a.m. when his letter of resignation was delivered to Henry A. Kissinger, his Secretary of State. At that moment, Air Force One was just slightly east of Vincennes, Ind.

After taking the oath of office in the East Room of the White House as the 38th president of the United States, Gerald R. Ford "urged the country to move forward, away from the `long national nightmare' of the Watergate scandal," reported The Sun.

Finally in speaking of the former president, Ford's voice broke when he said, "May our former President who brought peace to millions find it for himself. May God bless and comfort his wonderful wife and daughters whose love and loyalty will forever be a shining legacy to all who bear the lonely burdens of the White House."

"Mr. Nixon's fall is not even, in the profounder sense, a tragedy," said an editorial in The Sun.

"True tragedy requires as protagonist a person not just of public size but of inner largeness. Mr. Nixon lacks it. He is, as we have learned through a long process of continued shock, a vindictive and mean-spirited man, drawing misguided loyalty from a dwindling number of people but himself loyal to none; faithful only to the furtherance of his own ambitions. ... Our difficult and special system of government, threatened briefly by Richard Nixon, continues."

Pub Date: 8/07/99

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