Resignation of the nation's 37th President

Geraniums bloomed in LaFayette Park. People grasped the iron rails of the White House fence on Pennsylvania Avenue and stared in at the reassuring tranquillity of the scene.

It was 10 years ago - July 10, 1974:

At 20 minutes after 11 in the US Supreme Court chamber black-robed Chief Justice Warren E. Burger lifts his gavel and sums up, ''Accordingly, the judgment under review is affirmed!''

Crash comes the gavel. The audience stands. The justices file out. By unanimous decision the court has ordered the President to give up the confidential tapes that disclose the facts of the Watergate break-in.

It all began with an obscure notice about a weekend break-in, June 12, 1972, at the Democratic Party headquarters in the fashionable apartment complex called Watergate. Involved were four Cuban-Americans and James McCord, security coordinator for ''CREEP'' - the Committee for the Reelection of the President. Attorney General John Mitchell said that ''this man and the other people involved were not operating either in our behalf or with our consent.'' Press secretary Ron Ziegler dismissed it as a ''third-rate burglary attempt.''

In 1968 Richard Nixon won the presidency by a hairline and four years later by a landslide (although in both cases Democrats got a majority in Congress). So now, in 1974, things should be settling down. Were they? Hardly.

Judge John J. Sirica of the District Court in Washington, presiding over the original Watergate break-in case, made public a letter from one of the defendants charging that there was political pressure on him ''to plead guilty and remain silent.'' Sen. Sam J. Ervin Jr. (D) of North Carolina, chairman of a special Senate committee that came to be called ''the Watergate committee,'' pushed an inquiry.

There was an enigma in Washington - an odd mood. People looked at the White House through the White House fence, and it seemed so cool and calm. Yet what were these reports?

Surreptitious wiretaps had been ordered. The White House had set up its own agency in 1971 called ''the plumbers.'' The government admitted to 17 taps without court orders. Demands grew for an independent inquiry outside the Justice Department, and Boston lawyer Archibald Cox was named as special prosecutor.

President Nixon denied that he had known anything about the Watergate break-in. He fired Archibald Cox and then declined to release tapes of White House conversations subpoenaed by the new special Watergate prosecutor, Leon Jaworski. The crisis grew like a snowball rolling downhill. Then came the rap of the Burger gavel.

The tapes: a stunned nation read the exchanges filled with interjections - ''expletives deleted.'' How could the 38 members of the House Judiciary Committee vote on the now-pending demand for impeachment?

This reporter, on July 10, 10 years ago, tried to capture the mood. ... Turmoil. On one day the stock market dropped 21 points. Political signals meant more. The nation ''was numbed by incredulity,'' I wrote. ''There was a sense of helplessness, accompanied by a feeling that this very helplessness was demeaning to the nation.

'' 'Disenchantment with the state of the country,' a Louis Harris poll reported, 'has now reached such massive proportions among the American people that a record of 59 percent now feel disaffected.'

''The President's popularity rating has dropped from a high of 60 after the election to around 26 percent.''

So much for that. Now it was up to the 38 members of the House Judiciary Committee, voting on impeachment resolutions.

''It was an awful moment,'' said Rep. Barbara Jordan (D) of Texas. ''I was unprepared for how I felt. I thought, 'We have gone through all this material and now we vote,' and it hit me so hard that I could barely get 'aye' out of my mouth. ... We went back behind the main committee hearing room, to the offices, and several of us cried. Absolutely shed tears. For Richard Nixon? No. But that the country had come to this. And that we were participants in what was sure to be a wrenching experience for the people of America.''

Being in Washington in 1973 and 1974 was like being on a battlefront. In May 1973 the President issued a 4,000-word statement confirming that there had been a wiretapping program, a domestic intelligence-gathering plan, and the ''plumbers'' operation intended to ''stop security leaks and to investigate other security matters.'' Nixon asserted, ''I took no part in nor was I aware of any subsequent efforts that may have been to cover up Watergate.''

These were, said one observer, ''the most extraordinary political events in our history. ... The drama kept mounting, the story kept gathering momentum.''

Here is a condensation of events in August 1974, when the drama came to a climax:

Thursday, Aug. 1: The leadership of the House agrees to start debate Aug. 19 on three articles of impeachment.

Friday, Aug. 2: Nixon's former legal counsel, John W. Dean III, who became his chief accuser, is sentenced to one to four years in prison.

Saturday, Aug. 3: The lonely President spends the day listening to tapes that he must shortly submit to special prosecutor Jaworski.

Sunday, Aug. 4: Nixon spends the day in the Cactoctin Mountains with his lawyer and aides.

Monday, Aug. 5: Amid wild scenes in the White House press room press secretary Warren, at 4 p.m., gives out a presidential statement and three transcripts of Nixon-Haldeman conversations of June 23, 1972. These show finally that Nixon was aware of the Watergate coverup six days after it occurred.

Tuesday, Aug. 6: Firestorm hits capital. Nixon tells a hastily summoned Cabinet meeting that he will stay in office. A silent crowd gathers before the White House fence.

Wednesday, Aug. 7: Three top Republican leaders pay a gloomy visit. The crowd before the White House continues.

Thursday, Aug. 8: Nixon asks air time on all networks. At 9 p.m., EDT, appearing calm and controlled to the greatest TV-radio audience in history, the President says he will resign at noon next day. He is followed shortly by Vice-President Ford, who speaks in homespun simplicity.

Friday, Aug. 9: Gerald R. Ford becomes the 38th man in history to take from the chief justice the tremendous oath written by the fathers of America to ''preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.'' President Ford tells the nation that ''God helping me, I will not let you down.''

In the East Room Richard Nixon says an emotional farewell to his staff, many weeping, and leaves by waiting helicopter on the White House lawn for the airport and California.

Saturday, Aug. 10: President Ford begins his full-time job.

Ten years later the nation still seeks in vain for an explanation of Richard Nixon. Many Nixon actions on the world stage were valuable - trips to China, to Russia. What complex reasons motivated him to his own destruction?

After his huge victory in 1972 Mr. Nixon said in a newspaper interview that the nation had been going through ''a very great spiritual crisis,'' due to ''a breakdown in frankly what I would call the leadership class in this country.''

Observers wondered at this complex personality that would speak in this way while his personal staff resorted to dubious - in some cases illegal - tactics to raise millions to pin down an election which seemed to many won from the start.

President Ford granted Nixon ''a full, free, and absolute pardon'' on Sept. 8 , for all federal crimes he ''committed or may have committed or taken part in.'' In response Nixon said that his perspective had changed and ''one thing I can see clearly now is that I was wrong in not acting more decisively and more forthrightly in dealing with Watergate....''

So the strange story was left 10 years ago. Nixon's status has seemed uncertain since then.

Still, the nation wonders over the downfall of a president.

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