Nixon's final days

Legacy: History books are likely to give the 37th president credit for his China visit and other initiatives. But each account is sure to begin with his resignation Aug. 9, 1974.

August 08, 1999|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Twenty-five years ago tonight, a small army of reporters was camped on the front lawn of the home of Vice President Gerald R. Ford Jr. in Alexandria, Va., where he was secluded with his wife, Betty, glued to a television set. On the lawn, the reporters stood around another television set, watching Ford's personal history, and the history of the nation, being made.

Onto the screen came the weary image of Richard Milhous Nixon, the 37th president of the United States, seated at his desk in the Oval Office. In somber tones, he told the American people that the next morning, for the first time in the history of the republic, a president was going to resign his office.

He cast his decision, as was characteristic of him, in the noblest of terms. "All the decisions I have made in my public life," said the man who was being driven out in the face of five articles of impeachment against him, "I have always tried to do what was best for the nation."

He made only a glancing reference to the scandal that had brought him down -- the break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee by burglars in the hire of his presidential re-election committee in the summer of 1972, and the subsequent cover-up of blame within his White House. "Throughout the long and difficult period of Watergate," he said, "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."

Nixon went on: "In the past few days, however, it has become evident to me that I no longer have a strong enough 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. But with the disappearance of that base, I now believe that the constitutional purpose has been served. And there is no longer a need for the process to be prolonged."

Nixon had, indeed, lost his base in Congress. On the previous day, Senate Republican leader Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania, Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, still known as "Mr. Republican," and House Republican leader John Rhodes had gone to the president and informed him that he could count on no more than 15 senators of the 34 required to avert conviction on the impeachment charges against him.

"I would have preferred to carry through to the finish whatever the personal agony it would have involved," Nixon continued, "and my family unanimously urged me to do so. But the interests of the nation must always come before any personal considerations." He said again that the congressional leaders had told him "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" he would face. But "might not" was a gross understatement. He was finished, and he knew it.

Nixon pressed on: "I have never been a quitter. To leave office before my term is completed is opposed to every instinct in my body. But as president I must put the interests of America first."

The country needed a full-time president and Congress, he said, and "to continue to fight through the months ahead for my personal vindication would almost totally absorb the time and the attention of both the president and the Congress," when "our entire focus should be on the great issues of peace abroad and prosperity without inflation at home."

Notably, the president continued to talk in terms of vindication, as if it were only a matter of time for him to achieve it. There was no confession of guilt or even of error, and no expression of apology. He allowed himself only an admission of "a great sadness that I will not be here in this office working on your behalf" and deep regret for "any injuries that may have been done in the course of the events that led to this decision."

Of Ford, who would succeed him the next day, the first unelected vice president to become the first unelected president under the 25th Amendment, Nixon said he knew "that the leadership of America will be in good hands."

He then proceeded to chronicle at great length his achievements in office -- ending "America's longest war" (Vietnam, where the war continued without U.S. troops); his historic opening to China; "critical breakthroughs" with the Soviet Union in nuclear arms control; the quest for "prosperity without inflation" at home. Most of all, he said, he had labored so that "all of our children have a better chance than before of living in peace rather than dying in war. This, more than anything, is what I hope will be my legacy."

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