25 years later, a presidency never the same
Richard nixon's watch stopped on the last night he slept in the White House. At 6:00 a.m., thinking it was still the wee hours, he awoke and padded to the kitchen for a snack. Surprised to find cooks on the job, he ordered up a hearty breakfast of hash and eggs to fortify himself for the day to come.Skip to next paragraph
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Hours later - on Aug. 9, 1974, 25 years ago today - Nixon resigned the office of President of the United States, and the clock stopped on a whole political era. Never again would the people's and press's faith in government be quite the same.
Watergate and its aftermath remain arguably the most important domestic political event of the post-war period. The attitudes and institutions spawned in the crucial time of the mid-1970s have affected every US chief executive since - none more so than the current occupant of the office.
Bill Clinton's impeachment travails can be seen, in a way, as Watergate's second act. In the Lewinsky matter, post-Nixon politics collided with presidential misdeeds which were serious, yet different from those of Watergate. Twenty-five years from now the nation may still argue about whether Clinton got what he deserved.
"What has lingered on [from the Nixon experience] is the suspicion of government," says George McGovern, Nixon's 1972 election opponent. "We won't get over it in the foreseeable future."
Nixon himself remains one of the most fascinating characters in US politics. With former Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, he transformed the Republican party from a club of eastern establishment figures to a conservative movement centered in the south and west. Yet he was far from an ideologue. He opened relations with China, approved environmental laws, and even opted for wage and price controls to try to strangle inflation.
At a time when politicians were already rising or falling on their television appearance, he was gratingly uncharismatic. Yet the force of his will and intellect won him two presidential elections. With his great promise and dark paranoia he was Shakespearean. Today's politicians can appear Seinfeldian by comparison.
"There was great resistance to him no matter what he did ... I think ultimately he'll be viewed substantially less harshly than he was at the time," says his last chief of staff, Gen. Alexander Haig.
Perhaps. Yet it's hard to remember today how quickly support for Nixon collapsed. On Aug. 5, the White House released the transcript of a tape which proved that six days after the Watergate break-in the president himself had tried to get the CIA to stop the FBI from investigating the matter. It was a clear example of obstruction of justice.
On Aug. 7, Senator Goldwater and other senior Republican leaders went to the Oval Office and told the embattled Nixon that the Senate would vote to remove him from office, if it came to that.
On Aug. 9, after speaking to his staff, he was gone. He ceased to be president at 11:35 a.m, when Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was handed his resignation letter. At the time, Nixon was airborne, on his way to his San Clemente, Calif., home.
One of the legacies of this whole experience may be a reassertion of congressional authority. Nixon's handling of the Vietnam War was already causing lawmakers to complain about what was then called the Imperial Presidency.